In the early years of his writing career, Fielding—who was later best known for such novels as Tom Jones (1749)— enjoyed considerable success as a dramatist. Between 1728 and 1737, he wrote twenty-seven plays that were staged at Drury Lane, the Little Haymarket, and other theaters. His first plays were traditional five-act comedies, but he soon discovered a talent for mocking English society and government, particularly the royal court and the government of Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Such works as Tom Thumb (1730) and The Welsh Opera (1731) revealed a savagely satiric tone that would surface later.
During the early 1730’s Fielding wrote plays that were primarily entertainments, but even these works—like his earlier plays—differed from the farces of his contemporaries in offering social satire along with burlesque elements. After a three-year stint of writing more traditional burlesque, Fielding return to satire with Pasquin (1736), a nonpartisan, highly political, and extremely funny portrayal of corruption in English politics and society. This play’s success led Fielding to produce The Historical Register for the Year 1736 (1737), a satirical piece whose name and structure both derived from the annual survey so titled. In a series of loosely related scenes, this play satirized a wide range of public figures and institutions. It targeted both Walpole and his opposition; however, when Fielding added an afterpiece to the play specifically depicting Walpole as a scoundrel, the government began to examine his dramas more closely.
During the 1730’s British political satire was widely popular; in early 1737 alone, for example, more than one hundred plays satirized Walpole’s government. As a result, Walpole and his allies introduced a bill in the House of Commons to censor theatrical activity. The Licensing Act became law on June 21, 1737. Fielding’s theatrical career was ended by the law’s provision subjecting all material for the stage to scrutiny by the Lord Chamberlain, who would have the power to approve it for public performance. Denied a venue for the production of his political burlesques, Fielding was forced to abandon his lucrative career as a playwright and impresario. He turned his attention to the law and to a new career as a novelist.