Theatre Censorship – 8: The 1909 Guidelines (Part One)

As already mentioned, the Committee of 1909 set down guidelines for the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to follow, if it so wished. Their report advised that “the Lord Chamberlain should license any play submitted to him unless he considered that it might reasonably be held:

(a) to be indecent;
(b) to contain offensive personalities;
(c) to represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead;
(d) to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence;
(e) to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice;
(f) to be calculated to impair friendly relationships with a foreign power; or
(g) to be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.”

At last! An unequivocal statement of detailed guidelines for everyone to follow. You would have thought that should have pleased the people most likely to be affected by stage censorship. Less confusion means fewer arguments, right? Wrong. You can’t please all the people all of the time.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

“Now it is clear,” wrote Shaw in his preface to The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet, “that there is no play yet written or possible to be written that might not be condemned under one or other of these heads. How any sane man, not being a professed enemy of public liberty, could put his hand to so monstrous a catalogue passes my understanding.” I think it’s fair to say that Shaw wasn’t impressed. And indeed, with some reason; the censor had demanded heavy cuts from Blanco Posnet on the grounds of blasphemy, cuts which in the end Shaw refused to make. Indeed, along with H G Wells and Joseph Conrad, Shaw maintained that the threat of the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship was the direct cause of the absence of notable drama during most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

the-shewing-up-of-blanco-posnetIn an infrequently performed play, the eponymous Blanco Posnet is an American Wild West reprobate accused of the theft of a horse, but it’s his defamation of God that the censor could not tolerate: “He’s a sly one. He’s a mean one. He lies low for you. He plays cat and mouse with you. He lets you run loose until you think youre shut of Him; and then, when you least expect it, He’s got you […] that’s how He caught me and put my neck into the halter. To spite me because I had no use for Him – because I lived my own life in my own way, and would have no truck with His “Dont do this, “and “you mustnt do that,” and “Youll go to Hell if you do the other.” I gave Him the go-bye and did without Him all these years. But He caught me out at last. The laugh is with Him as far as hanging me goes.”

Shaw did not meekly accept the Lord Chamberlain’s prohibition on religious grounds. He drew attention to the regular performances of the Passion Play at Oberammergau; again, taken from the preface: “The offence given by a representation of the Crucifixion on the stage is not bounded by frontiers: further, it is an offence of which the voluntary spectators are guilty no less that the actors. If it is to be tolerated at all: if we are not to make war on the German Empire for permitting it, nor punish the English people who go to Bavaria to see it and thereby endow it with English money, we may as well tolerate it in London, where nobody need go to see it except those who are not offended by it”.

Typically, Shaw overstated his argument, but his logic is clear. “Blanco Posnet” was banned because of the roughness of its language and its approach to the subject. According to Professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, the late Maurice Valency, in his assessment of Shaw’s plays The Cart and the Trumpet, “Blanco’s sermon at the end of the play is certainly not couched in terms suitable to an Anglican clergyman, but his intentions are of the purest…That the God of the Old Testament occasionally makes a mistake is indicated by the story of the Fall, and the idea that God hastens to rectify his errors is quite amply attested in the story of the Flood. The seeming blasphemy of “Blanco Posnet” is in reality a consequence of its allegory”.

Edward Garnett

Edward Garnett

Two years before the 1909 guidelines were published, there was another cause celebre in the theatrical world which really shook up the whole nature of stage censorship. The Breaking Point was a play written by Edward Garnett which was refused a licence on the grounds that it was simply too tragic for its contemporary audience. Its subject matter, a young woman torn between her domineering father and the almost equally domineering “libertine” (the father’s words) who has made her pregnant although he is still legally married to his first wife, was a serious attempt to explore the mental cruelty unwittingly caused by otherwise respectable people on a vulnerable person. There is nothing obviously “wrong” with the play at all – perhaps it’s a little stuffy and dull in its second act, but it comes to a rather exciting climax; but Mr Redford simply would not allow it, refusing to tell Garnett the reason. It was one of the most obviously subjective decisions to refuse a licence. Garnett wasn’t going to stand by and let the censor get away with this. He published the play, with a preface condemning the whole institution of stage censorship; he also published an open letter to Mr Redford:

The Breaking Point[The Breaking Point] “takes current morality as it finds it, and shows the tragic consequences of a breach of its dictates. Even from your own point of view, what is there in this that calls for censure? Do the rules of your office set it down as indecent to allude to the condition of pregnancy? Manifestly no. […] Nor can you allege that the Lord Chamberlain takes “official cognisance” only of legalised pregnancy. […] The only feature in the case set forth in “The Breaking Point” for which one could not find parallels in scores of plays licensed by you is the fact that the heroine is represented as being uncertain of her condition. Is this the stumbling-block and rock of offence? If this be indeed the ground of your action, I am sure I shall carry my readers with me in marvelling at its senseless and childish prudery. You are always ready to licence plays (with or without music) which glorify and idealise vulgar and flashy lewdness. You “decline to recommend for licence” a play which, without a word of indelicacy or crudity, alludes to the tortures of that period of agonised doubt, which is not the least among the penalties of illicit motherhood. Could there be a more cutting commentary on the futility of our office and the unintelligence with which you administer it? – I am, sir, Yours, etc, Edward Garnett.”

Whilst Garnett’s play was never granted a licence, right up until the time that censorship was fully abandoned (Garnett refused to allow it to be changed, so the application for a licence was withdrawn), his stance contributed to Parliament setting up the 1909 Committee. In fact, The Breaking Point was among the very first plays directly to lead to the ultimate withdrawal of stage censorship.

In my next post, I’ll look further at the 1909 guidelines and consider them in relation to some other notable plays of the 20th century.

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