The term "legitimate theater" dates back to the Licensing Act of 1737, which restricted "serious" theatre performances to the two patent theatres licensed to perform "spoken drama" after the English Restoration in 1662. Other theatres were permitted to show comedy, pantomime or melodrama, but were ranked as "illegitimate theatre".
The licensing restricted performances of classical authors and plays—Shakespeare, most prominently—to the privileged houses. The logic behind the step was that the legitimate houses could be censored more easily, whilst the illegitimate houses would sell plays of a less serious, less dangerous, primarily entertaining and commercialised format. Illegitimate theatres opened in all the major English cities where they offered essentially melodramatic productions in which music had to play an important role.
The 1890s created a loophole with the founding of club theatres. Opening only to their members, these houses evaded the censorship law by turning their performances from a public enterprise into a privacy.
The separation finally ended in the aftermath of the scandal Edward Bond's Saved created in 1965–66. The play was first performed in London in late 1965 at the Royal Court Theatre. The house was licensed to perform serious plays. Saved, however, had not been licensed to be performed as Bond had written it. To get it performed as planned, the Royal Court Theatre had lent its stage to the English Stage Theatre Company and thus turned the performance into a private enterprise under the present laws. The evasion was challenged by the Magistrate's court in February 1966 and declared a violation of the Theatres Act 1843 on April 1st 1966. The suspension of the act in 1968 eventually ended the split between legitimate and illegitimate theatres.
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