Theatre Censorship – 6: Taking Sides and Going Clubbing

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

You’ll remember, gentle reader, that the Society of West End Theatres was the only voice supporting the continuation of the Lord Chamberlain’s role as censor. Opposing SWET in this argument were, amongst others, the playwright John Osborne, the critic and commentator Kenneth Tynan, the director (and not yet knighted) Peter Hall, who represented the Royal Shakespeare Company, and writer, lawyer and creator of Rumpole, John Mortimer, who spoke on behalf of the League of Dramatists. All of them called for freedom for playwrights to be able to write without fear of censorship, a freedom that had never been enjoyed in Britain before. Tynan’s opposition to the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship was already well-known. In his collected reviews and essays Tynan Right and Left, he had already referred to the censor in print as “The Royal Smut-Hound”, describing him as a “baleful deterrent lurking on the threshold of creativity”.

Lord Cobbold

Lord Cobbold

It’s also interesting and revealing that Lord Cobbold, the Lord Chamberlain himself, did not approve of the fact that his office had the responsibility of censoring plays. His argument, which was put forward in the House of Lords on 17th February 1966, was in three parts: “It now seems to me absurd,” went his statement, “with the prevalence of drama in the other media, that the censorship of stage plays should be dealt with in an entirely separate category… I do not think it makes sense that any one individual should have that responsibility without any policy directives beyond what we can get out of the last report of the last Select Committee which, of course, was never approved by Parliament and is fifty years old anyhow; and that he should bear those responsibilities without any right of appeal against his decisions… It does seem to me to be constitutionally advisable in present circumstances that somebody who holds the position which I hold in the Royal Household should not bear the responsibilities of theatre censorship.”

SavedBut there was a get-out clause for dramatists in those days. The Lord Chamberlain’s ruling could usually be avoided by staging plays at Theatre Clubs – I say “usually” advisedly, because this was not a foolproof way of avoiding his judgment. Reference is made in the Committee’s report to the legal action brought against Saved by Edward Bond in 1966, which had an eight-week run performed by the English Stage Company under its name, the English Stage Society, at the Royal Court, under “club” rules. The report confirmed that where ‘a magistrate held that under Section 15 of the Act an offence was committed by any person who presented a play for hire, whether or not the general public was admitted.’

John Van Druten

John Van Druten

Among the early clubs only the Arts Theatre near Leicester Square survives today in near enough its original form; as early as 1928, a year after its opening, the Three Hundred Club used that theatre to stage the play Young Woodley by John Van Druten, ‘perhaps the most exquisite study in existence of a boy’s awakening to love’, according to the critic in the Daily Telegraph. The play had earlier been banned by the Lord Chamberlain for the rather charming misdemeanour of depicting a school prefect who falls in love with his housemaster’s wife – a perfectly realistic scenario, I’m sure. But the Lord Chamberlain at the time, Lord Cromer, attended a club performance at the Arts Theatre, and backtracked on his original decision, deciding to give it a licence after all, subject to the removal of just one line. This was probably the first instance of the Lord Chamberlain publicly changing his mind over his decision to ban a play.

A View from the BridgeIn 1955 the Arts Theatre staged the first club performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (when it transferred to the Criterion theatre later that year the word “erection” had to be removed and the character Fartov was renamed Popov) and in 1956 of Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. Also in 1956 London’s Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter Theatre) became the headquarters of the New Watergate Theatre Club and was the home of such drama milestones as Arthur Miller’s View from the Bridge (1956), Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy (1957), and Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), all of which remained unlicensed because of their references to homosexuality. The popularity of these productions, combined with the publication of the Woolfenden report, recommending the decriminalisation of homosexual relationships, did much to persuade the Lord Chamberlain to relax his restrictions on homosexual matters on stage. In 1958 his office issued the following statement: “This subject is now so widely debated, written about and talked over, that its complete exclusion from the stage can no longer be regarded as justifiable.”

The memorandum went on to list the criteria which would influence the attitude of the censor:

“i) Every play will continue to be judged on its merits. The difference will be that plays will be passed that deal seriously with the subject.

ii) Plays violently homosexual will not be passed.

iii) Homosexual characters will not be allowed if their inclusion in the piece is unnecessary.

iv) Embraces or practical demonstrations of love between homosexuals will not be allowed.

v) Criticism of the present homosexual laws will be allowed, though plays obviously written for propaganda purposes will be judged on their merit.

vi) Embarrassing displays by male prostitutes will not be allowed.”

This list considerably helped to clarify the situation, although today they still appear far from suggesting there was an equal playing field between gay and straight characters. For example, one wonders exactly what a “violently homosexual” play would be; and with the benefit of hindsight it’s regrettable that a play couldn’t contain a gay character unless their homosexuality was a vital element of the play. Nevertheless, an unavoidable result of this more relaxed attitude was that, on the whole, theatre clubs began to die out; plays involving homosexuality had quickly become their basic fodder, and now their subscriptions were no longer a necessary part of theatre-going.

I’m going to take a short pause from the stage censorship blogs but in my next post, in a week or so, I’ll take a look at how Hair became the first show to open in London after the abolition of censorship.

2 thoughts on “Theatre Censorship – 6: Taking Sides and Going Clubbing

  1. I am really enjoying this series. Its funny how attitudes change. I saw Ivan Van Howe’s version of “View from the Bridge” at the National a couple of years ago and the age of the niece seemed closer to the knuckle than any homosexual references. Still a great play though!

    • That’s a fascinating point! You’re right, the sensibilities of shows change over the years. Rita Sue and Bob Too is another good example, today it’s simply paedophilia but in the 1980s, Bob was just a bit of a lad.

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