Theatre Censorship 7: The Age of Aquarius

Greetings, gentle reader – I’m back with more theatre censorship blog posts after a short pause for breath! In my last post, I talked about theatre clubs and how they usually got round the law, so that eventually the whole system of censorship could more or less be avoided.

Stage censorship finally came to an end with the introduction of the Theatres Act of 1968, passed by the House of Lords and published on July 19th of that year. Its main clause was that “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.”

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

Clearly, the type of audience expected to attend any particular production would influence a decision on whether or not it might be obscene. The way in which a play is advertised to its prospective audience, or targets a section of the community, determines, to a certain extent, the type of audience one may expect to attend it. It therefore follows that the advertising and marketing also plays an important role in determining the potential obscenity of a production. For example, had posters or hand-outs advertising Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (1980) explained that the play contained male nudity and a scene of homosexual rape, its audiences would have been less likely to have been depraved and corrupted by it because they would have been prepared for it. Remember Emile Littler’s statement that the audience should be told what they are going to see?

My conclusion from that is that if the advertising is honest, or providing the performers omit any drastic “obscene” ad-libbing, there should be very few plays that could be charged with obscenity. On a side note, on 27th October 1981 the “Indecent Displays Act” came into force, and was significant in two ways. Chiefly, it demanded that the advertising of “obscenity”, “indecency” or “pornography” for the purposes of art, theatre, cinema, or clubs, etc, must be kept reasonably well hidden. However, the actual recognition of such advertising in this Act effectively legalises such displays themselves. If you can legally advertise (albeit discreetly) performances that are obscene, indecent or pornographic, then surely it must follow that those performances themselves must be legal too.

Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre

Hair at the Shaftesbury Theatre

26th September was the date on which censorship officially ceased. On the 27th, Hair opened at London’s Shaftesbury Theatre; ‘permissiveness’ had not taken long to become officially acceptable. In his book Confessions of a Counterfeit Critic, Charles Marowitz called it “the cohesion of a dozen contemporary trends” and concluded that “all drama criticism is irrelevant to such an event. The show is now rollicking its way into history.” To be accurate, Hair’s journey to the stage was not without its difficulties, and the timing of the first night was part-convenient and part-coincidental. The Lord Chamberlain had insisted on several changes, resulting in three separate versions of the script being lodged at his offices. The third version was much less hard-hitting as far as the Lord Chamberlain was concerned, but other management problems caused the production to be delayed anyway.

Hair’s chief raison d’être was to protest against American involvement in the Vietnamese war, and to advocate peace and free love. For the first time since the Restoration era, any member of the public was permitted to see potentially ‘offensive’ material without being invisibly chaperoned by the censor. The overall reaction of its audiences was one of joy – the show provided such an outright display of freedom, a total release from the infringement of liberty that had previously been endured. As Charles Marowitz further remarked, “it is alarming to see a conventional strobe-effect get a round of applause as if it were a breathtaking coup-de-theatre, and one gradually comes to realise that for many in the West End audience, the ‘underground’ is surfacing for the first time.”



Critics noted that the one scene which included full-frontal nudity was, in fact, the least successful and the most inhibited. When I saw the show in 2010, I found the scene where the Army draft card is ceremoniously burned far more intense and powerful than the nudity; but that’s with the benefit of several decades of freedom. Scott Fitzgerald, of If I Had Words and Eurovision fame, was a member of the original London cast, and he told me that the theatre management left it up to the individual performers to decide whether they would strip completely or not – whilst desperately hoping that they would, of course, so as to make as big a splash as possible.

The extent to which Hair survives as a relevant and high quality piece of dramatic art is a matter of some debate. However, from my perspective, I rate this show as possibly the healthiest and most significant event in the history of the British Theatre since Shakespeare’s Globe. “Hair” certainly introduced it to the enlightened Age of Aquarius:

“No more falsehoods or derisions,
Golden living dreams of visions,
Mystic crystal revelations,
And the mind’s true liberation”

as the song goes. You can relate “the mind’s true liberation” to being an escape from oppression of all kinds, and at the time those “golden living dreams” were largely hallucinatory or drug-induced. However, one can see in retrospect that the lifting of censorship could also be considered a ‘revelation’. The Lord Chamberlain’s Office would surely never have permitted the short song (appropriately entitled Sodomy):

“Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty,
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun,
Join our holy orgy – Khamasutra everyone.”

This association between sexual practices in the first line – including one which is illegal – and religion in the second line (it’s a holy Father, not your dad) was designed to shock and to question old values; and with the disarmingly innocent tone struck with the use of the word nasty, to amuse as well. The new generation was obviously going to prize individualism and a determination to allow each person to lead his own life according to his own integrity – a new era of social morals and accepted behaviour. The curtain on a new era in the theatre was also being raised.

In my next blog post I’m returning to the 1909 guidelines and considering them in connection with Shaw’s Shewing Up of Blanco Posnet and Garnett’s The Breaking Point.

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