Theatre Censorship – 9: The 1909 Guidelines (Part Two)

Let’s look again at those 1909 guidelines, and see how they might have been applied to plays after censorship was withdrawn, as well as during the censorship years. Just to refresh your memory, here they are again.

The Lord Chamberlain should license a play unless he deemed it:

(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.

In this attempt to clarify the standards, some of the headings were phrased very loosely. For example, the definition of “offensive personalities” depends entirely on what any one person finds offensive according to his or her own standards and morals. If a dramatist could never include an offensive personality in his plays, presumably he could never effectively portray a battle between good and evil. Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, for instance, could be considered offensive; so could half the characters of Dickens, such as Magwitch, Fagin, Uriah Heep, and so on. If you’ve lived a sheltered life and you were sufficiently narrow-minded, you might be offended by the characterisation of murderers (in which case detective tales would have been badly hit), thieves, prostitutes, tramps, blasphemers, sadists and so on. Moreover, and bear with me on this one, if you’re a bigot, you’ll likely be offended by anyone who isn’t like you; Jews, gays, people of colour; really the list could be endless. Physical squeamishness or ideological difference might make one averse to lepers or communists. Alternatively, it’s perfectly possible that, as a decent balanced individual, you might not be offended by any of these. And what about the offence caused by an offensive portrayal of a Jew or a black person to other Jews or black people. The more you think about it, the messier it gets.

Paul Robeson

Paul Robeson

You can even cause offence at the other end of the spectrum. Phillip Hayes Dean’s play Paul Robeson created a lot of offence for watering down the firebrand nature of the man. As a result, roughly ten years after the ending of stage censorship, the first nights of the play in both New York (1977) and London (1978) were marred by pickets outside the theatres, who referred, in London, to the “Statement of Conscience” published in Variety on January 11th 1978 and signed by about fifty American artists, headed by Paul Robeson Jr, which stated that “we…regretfully feel compelled to take the extraordinary step of alerting all concerned citizens to what we believe to be, however unintended, a pernicious perversion of the essence of Paul Robeson.” It appeared to be pernicious even though much of the material for the play was taken from Robeson’s autobiography, Here I Stand. In short, they were offended because the characterisation of Robeson wasn’t offensive enough.

Clearly the successful application of this particular guideline, during the censorship years, would have depended on the breadth of vision of the censor at the time. Under a responsible, forward-thinking man like Lord Cobbold it could probably be followed sensibly, but under a retrogressive puritan like Smythe-Pigott, it would have been a licence to impose his own morality on the public. In his book Banned! Richard Findlater discusses a number of Mr Smythe-Pigott’s idiosyncratic misjudgments, such as his refusal to license the play God and the Man. His reason? “The play was good enough, but the title was objected to. Exhibited all through London, it would have given offence to many people.”

LootReferring back to the list, it is difficult to assess what kind of work could be judged to be conducive to ‘crime or vice’. The fact that a criminal act is presented on stage does not necessarily mean that it influences the audience to go out and do likewise. In most plays the opposite is true: the criminals are punished and the audience sympathises with the victim. There are very few plays involving wrongdoers where this does not take place, notably Joe Orton’s Loot, where the bank robbers win through scot-free, and the innocent old father is falsely convicted instead; and the anti-fascist farces of the Italian Dario Fo, where the police are Keystone Kops unwittingly encouraging anarchy, but too ridiculous to be a serious threat to our freedoms.

Can't Pay Won't PayHowever, here’s a play that you could argue was indeed conducive to crime or vice. Fo’s Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!, a play that hit London’s West End in 1981, concerned itself with the decision of Milanese housewives not to pay the full inflated price for supermarket groceries, but instead to pay what they believed the goods were worth. This influenced some London Transport users to protest against the rise in fares brought about by the Law Lords’ reversal of the Greater London Council’s “Fares Fair” scheme. They too named their system “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” Protesters still insisted on paying the old cheap fare after the increase on March 21st 1982. But the protest did not last long; protests and principles are all very well, but being late for work is another matter. The Guardian newspaper reported on March 23rd that “David Wetzel, chairman of the Greater London Transport Committee, was left on the pavement yesterday by bus passengers who had taken a vote on whether they wanted to join his protest over the doubling of their fares or be late for work. Mr Wetzel had refused to pay the new fare to get to his office at County Hall, the GLC Headquarters at the time, and offered the old one as part of his Can’t Pay Won’t Pay campaign.” Mr Wetzel was ejected and the bus went on its merry way. You could interpret these protests as being a criminal act. So, it is possible, although rare, for a play to be conducive to crime if it actively advises its audience to perform illegal acts to further a cause.

What the Butler Saw Original Cast

What the Butler Saw Original Cast

The difference between this and plays which are calculated to cause a breach of the peace is not immediately obvious. There were indeed some scuffles on buses when the “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” scheme started; so you could argue that this play indirectly caused a breach of the peace as well. However, it is equally likely that this latter category of plays are those that not only advocate violence, but actually perform or create it live on stage, thereby causing the breach. Perhaps the gallery-barracking at the first night of Orton’s What the Butler Saw constitutes a breach of the peace? Or the subject matter of Handke’s Offending the Audience? Even if this is so, one cannot say for certain that these plays were calculated to cause a breach of the peace. Under normal circumstances, only plays where the behaviour of the audience develops into a full-scale riot could come under this heading.

Playboy of the Western WorldThe most celebrated case of theatre rioting is that of the reaction to J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, in 1907. The play is concerned with the rise in popularity of young Christy Mahon who brags that he has killed his father with a spade. His alleged act turns him into a local celebrity until it is shown that he merely attacked his father, but not succeeded in killing him. Her illusions shattered, his young fiancé Pegeen abandons him, but too late laments the folly of her rash action. The play was highly critical of Irish morals and cast severe aspersions on the integrity of the Irish people. The Freeman’s Journal referred to its ‘unmitigated protracted libel upon Irish peasant men and, worse still, upon Irish peasant girlhood.” Sinn Fein went further: they called it “a vile and inhuman story told in the foulest language we have ever listened to from a public platform”.

J M Synge

J M Synge

It seems that Christy’s Act Three image of temptation, “a drift of chosen females, standing in their shifts”, was the last straw for the many proud Irish patrons of the Abbey Theatre. On the first night, Willie Fay, who played Christy, spoke of “Mayo Girls” instead of ‘chosen females’ and this localised reference was too much for the audience. The riots went on for days, with varying degrees of violence; a revival in 1909 also caused rioting, although without as much rancour, as did a tour of New England in 1911. When the Abbey Theatre board applied for a licence from the Lord Chamberlain to perform the play in England, Mr Redford was, not surprisingly, most unwilling to grant one. In the end, though, he was swayed by the literary merit of the piece, and a licence was given to perform the play in London and in Oxford. Much to the performers’ surprise, the more politically- and emotionally-distanced English received it very warmly.

Mike Mulloy and Steve Alder

Mike Mulloy and Steve Alder as Judas and Jesus in 1976

However, not all the categories are difficult to define. On the question of ‘violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, Richard Findlater in Banned! observes that “theatre censorship was originally imposed as part of the attempt to stamp out resistance to the Reformation and to establish a settled loyalty to the Defender of the Faith, Henry VIII, as head of both Church and State”. We’ll take a look at some of the plays that were affected by censorship because of their religious content a little later on. Not only plays, of course, but musicals too; had the Lord Chamberlain’s office still been in operation in 1972 we would not have seen Jesus Christ Superstar which not only became the longest running British musical at the time, running for over eight years, but also actually received praise from many sectors of the Church for making the story of Christ more accessible. However, another musical, Jerry Springer the Opera, which featured a rather irreverent characterisation of Christ (but to be fair, also of the Devil) became the object of vitriol for many fundamental Christian groups, and was beset by protests throughout its 2006 tour.

In fact, the ban on the presentation of the deity was lifted in 1966 after a deluge of criticism both in the press and in Parliament. Amongst this criticism was a statement issued by the Religious Drama Society, whose stature in the theatre had understandably become considerably downtrodden. They pointed out that the strict repressive legislation against the portrayal of Christ on stage gave the impression “that the belief in the incarnate Son of God, true God and true Man, is either irrelevant or a fable in need of artificial protection.” In cosseting the subject, censorship hadn’t protected it, but had actually made it appear weaker or flimsier than intended.

T S Eliot

T S Eliot

In the 1950s, religious plays were shrouded in the verse drama of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry, like The Cocktail Party and The Family Reunion, a play so intellectually confusing that almost every passage seems invested with spiritual significance. The major difference which separates this type of play from another landmark play of the time, John Osborne’s Luther (1961), is one of emphasis: Eliot takes his Christian salvation as the supreme unalterable tenet which moulds his characters, whereas in Osborne’s play the main character is too base, too human, to be able to adapt himself to the stereotyped monkish way of life. This chief difference is reflected in the styles of writing – Eliot and Fry had gone back to verse drama whereas Osborne had been a harbinger of tough, ruthless prosaic language, as we will see soon.

In my next post, I’m going to look at the whole subject of that first category in the list of 1909 guidelines, indecency, starting with nudity!

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