Theatre Censorship – 5: Arguments and Offence


Lord Chesterfield

The report of the Joint Committee of 1909 argued the benefits for and against four main options: to continue with the current system; to continue with compulsory pre-censorship (but not necessarily under the Lord Chamberlain); to introduce a system of voluntary pre-censorship; and the total abolition of censorship. In the end they recommended this final solution. Paragraph 39 of their report reads: “The ending of pre-censorship in its present form will not necessarily mean that henceforth there will be a complete free-for-all. Censorship in the widest sense of the word will inevitably continue and by various means control will be exercised over what appears on the stage. Managements will continue to refuse to put on plays whenever they think fit. Theatre critics will continue to describe plays as they wish. The public will be free to refuse to attend plays or to walk out if they do not like them. Finally the Courts will have the task of ensuring that those responsible for presenting plays which transgress the law of the land will receive appropriate punishment” – just like Lord Chesterfield said in 1737. It only took 231 years for the powers that be to reach the same conclusion.

My own belief is that this was a very perceptive statement. There’s no censorship as effective as commercial censorship. You can write whatever outrageous material you wish, but if you can’t get a producer to back it financially, it’s never going to see light of day. Same goes for the critics; if a play gets slated, and the people don’t come, your six month run in the West End can finish after a week – again that’s a commercial decision.

The report continued: “The effect of the recommendations of the Committee will be to allow freedom of speech in the theatre subject to the overriding requirements of the criminal law which generally speaking applies to other forms of art in this country. The anachronistic powers of the Lord Chamberlain will be abolished and will not be replaced by any other form of pre-censorship, national or local.”

However, as I mentioned earlier, the recommendation of the 1909 Committee was completely ignored by Asquith’s government, and the status quo continued until the 1960s.

Emile Littler

Emile Littler

The Members of the Committee of 1966-67, whom you’ll remember, gentle reader, also recommended the abolition of stage censorship, were unanimous in their decision, and of all the individuals and groups they interviewed, only the Society of West End Theatre Managers (SWET) defended the position of the Lord Chamberlain and wished pre-censorship to continue: “The Lord Chamberlain to us has been a sort of father confessor and we have been able to go and talk to him and substitute one word for another,” said their president, Emile Littler; “we would miss him very much.” I sense some thinly veiled toadying going on there. Mind you, Emile Littler was never the most experimental or daring theatre manager. For example, his opinion of Joe Orton’s ground-breaking Entertaining Mr Sloane was that it was “absolutely filthy”, according to John Lahr’s excellent biography of Orton, Prick up your Ears.

Joe Orton

Joe Orton

According to Littler, the greatest fear of SWET was that theatre managements could face problems with their audiences: “so long as we can warn,” he said. “Let us tell the people what they are going to see”. They feared some plays might damage the theatre as a lucrative business. Littler couldn’t have been much of an expert at the art of commercial censorship in that case.

So what kind of play did Littler and SWET fear would become the norm and would alienate their audiences? I think Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience (1966) – or “Die Publikumsbeschimpfung” in its original German, serves as a good example. Not that it would ever have hit SWET’s radar; indeed, when the play was first performed in Britain in 1970, it was produced by “The Other Company”, a group who were part of the Inter-Action network from 1968 to 1972, scarcely a well-established conventional group of performers; and it was performed at the Almost Free Theatre in Soho, scarcely the epitome of London’s glittering West End.

Peter Handke

Peter Handke

Don’t worry if you don’t know the play – I’ll tell you about it. In a nutshell, four performers on an empty stage spend the evening insulting the audience. No other plot, no other purpose. The power (if there is any) of Handke’s play is derived from the juxtaposition between, on the one hand, the refined appearance of the members of the audience (in those days you’d dress for the theatre), the unctuous service of the ushers and the enigmatic hints of scenery or prop noises on stage hidden by the tantalising, shimmering front curtain; and, on the other hand, once the play has started, the subsequent tirade of sarcasm, abuse and ridicule delivered by the four youths on stage against the misled audience.

The speeches are geared to make the audience feel very self-conscious; by referring to their seating arrangement, and to the strange, almost inhuman way they have all been herded together like cattle without any real connection with each other:

“You are sitting in a certain order. You are facing in a certain direction. You are sitting equidistant from one another.”

The audience’s self-consciousness grows more acute as they become the subject of the play. They are ridiculed by the bareness of what they have come to see: something unreal, lacking in significance:

“This stage represents nothing”.

By extension, the audience themselves become nothing; they become a mere show:

“You look charming. You look enchanting. You look dazzling. You look breathtaking. You look unique. But you don’t make an evening. You’re not a brilliant idea. You are tiresome. You are not a rewarding subject. You are a theatrical blunder.”

The escalation of this provocation is taken to enormous lengths in a description of how each member of the audience is presumed suddenly to become aware of parts of their bodies and their activities:

“You become aware of your throat. You become aware how heavy your head is. You become aware of your sex organs. You become aware of batting your eyelids. You become aware of the muscles with which you swallow…”

At the end of the play comes a series of insults, each worse than the last, to humiliate the worst aspects of the audience members’ characteristics, their worthlessness, their politics, their diseases:

“You butchers, you buggers, you bullshitters, you bullies…”; “you supernumaries, you superfluous lives, you crumbs, you cardboard figures…”; “you reactionaries, you conshies, you ivory-tower artists, you defeatists…”; “O you cancer victims, O you haemorrhoid sufferers, O you multiple sclerotics, O you syphilitics…”

And so on. I have quoted at length from the play in order to allow Handke’s own words to show how frankly tedious the piece is! As you can doubtless tell, I’m not a fan of this play but I do think it’s a fascinating work. After the insults, the stage directions insist that the curtain falls swiftly and that an audience’s taped cheering is played until all the people leave – or are driven out. The paying theatregoers have no chance to put their views across, to defend themselves against what they have seen. Handke proves one thing at least: that any word, spoken with enough venom, can become an insult. By the end of the play, mankind has been broken down into nothing but worthlessness and disease. The play’s vision of the people who have come to see it is one of fallibility and inadequacy. The audience has been duped, insulted, and packed off in silence. We’ve taken your money, thank you; now bog off.

Handke’s overriding assumption of the stupidity of his audience is basically asking for trouble. There’s nothing to stop people walking out or boycotting it if they so wish, just as the 1967 Committee Members had stated in their report. I’ve no knowledge of whether performances of Handke’s play were or were not boycotted in this way, but I’ve also no knowledge of any major attempts to restage it. This is the kind of play that SWET were concerned might become the norm. They envisaged a potential growing disenchantment between the theatregoing public and such raw entertainment, for want of a better word. But, thankfully, in retrospect, it hasn’t happened.

In my next post, I’ll look at how censorship affected a few more plays of the 1950s and 60s, and the use of theatre clubs to get around the legislation.

Leave a Reply