A drag on a cigarette has been a traditional requirement in plays from Henrik Ibsen to Noel Coward, so the prospect of a smoking ban in England has raised alarm in West End theatres and beyond.

But now it appears that Jimmy may get to smoke his pipe in Look Back in Anger and Coward heroines can have an elegant puff, after the Government signalled a willingness to compromise for art. Caroline Flint, the Public Health minister, is to write to theatre groups, film directors and television producers to consult them on allowing exemptions from the proposed ban on smoking in public places, as long as lighting up is necessary to the plot.

After pleas in the House of Lords this week from Earl Howe, the Conservative health spokesman, the Government has indicated it is sympathetic to the idea. A Department of Health spokesman said yesterday: "The Government is considering providing a specific exemption from smoke-free legislation to ensure smoking can take place on stage during live theatrical performances or during film and television recording, where smoking is integral to the plot of storyline.

"Details of a possible exemption will be set out in the regulations which will be consulted on over the summer. We will be consulting with the theatre industry."

Earl Howe, the son and grandson of actors, said the Conservatives were not seeking to undermine the principle of the legislation. But he said: "I think we are capable if we're not careful of going overboard on the smoking ban. I am persuaded that there is robust scientific evidence to ban smoking in public places, but to prohibit actors on a stage or, indeed, in a film from smoking where it is integral artistically would be absurd."

He cited a long list of plays in which smoking is part of the action, including the current West End productions of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Billy Elliot. In the latter, the spending on cigarettes by men is important to the depiction of the northern mining community.

Almost every play by Ibsen, from Hedda Gabler to An Enemy of the People, includes smoking, as do works by Noel Coward and Simon Gray. And there are many plays in which smoking is implied even if not specified in the stage directions, with even modern-set productions of Shakespeare having their share of smokers.

"In every production I've ever seen of the opera Carmen the female members of the chorus troop out of the cigarette factory smoking as does Carmen herself," Earl Howe said.

He hopes the exemption will be extended to include rehearsals, although he stressed that no actor should be obliged to smoke if they object.

Richard Pulford, the chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, said the inclusion of rehearsals in the exemption would be useful. "I suspect that for actors who don't smoke themselves, rehearsal time would be quite important," he said.

But it is the right to smoke on stage the society is most keen to secure. Even this week, a new play at the Royal Court, Motortown by Simon Stephens, has a scene in which a character is covered in petrol and threatened by a lit cigarette, a scene which would have no power without the offending smoke, Mr Pulford said.

"It matters because of the integrity of the work. You just couldn't do Look Back in Anger without Jimmy smoking a pipe," Mr Pulford said. "But no one wishes to glamorise smoking on stage. I don't think it does."

If an exemption is not forthcoming, there could be legal problems as no work in copyright can be changed without the agreement of the author or his or her estate. If an author refused to withdraw a direction for a character to smoke, the work could not, legally, be presented.

"In any play that is copyright, you cannot simply cross out a line that refers to somebody smoking," Mr Pulford said.

In Scotland, the ban which came into force this month includes smoking on stage, and there is no exemption.

The only exemptions in Ireland, where a ban on smoking in the workplace was implemented first, were for prisons, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. Stage productions were expected to use fakes.