Theatre Censorship – 23: Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s first full length play, The Birthday Party (1958), was universally disliked by all the major critics except the Sunday Times’ Sir Harold Hobson, who appreciated that the new writer’s style had a power and indeed a terror all of its own. Judging from that initial critical reaction, few would have believed that his career could have developed as successfully as it did. The world of dark confusion in The Birthday Party shares a similar sense of disenchantment to that in Look Back in Anger, and maybe that affected how the critics appraised it. An example of that shared, stifled need for creativity can be seen in Jimmy’s playing his symbolic trumpet although no one listens, whilst Stanley – the lost, terrorised central character in The Birthday Party – has his hidden piano.

For me, a major difference between the two plays is that Osborne’s is essentially extrovert, and Pinter’s is introvert. Whilst Jimmy Porter continually moans and complains about the state he is in, Stanley internalises his problems and merely thinks about them. On the other hand, the daily problems that beset Jimmy are mainly represented as words, which is why he relies so heavily on the newspapers, whereas the threats in Stanley’s existence appear before him in the much more real and immediate physical embodiment of the uninvited guests, Goldberg and McCann. However, these differences are more of tone and style rather than content. Stanley also seems to share some of his predicament with the title character in Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon; so there may be a significant influence on the early Pinter by the early Osborne.

There were just two short passages that the censor insisted on being removed from the script, both on the grounds of blasphemy, during the famous interrogation scene: Stanley’s version of the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon – and McCann’s accusations that Stanley “pierced the holes” and “hammered the nails” in a reference to the Crucifixion. However, what really interests me here is Pinter’s ability to shock or stun without having to resort to – or choose to use – language that alerted the attention of the censor. Many a dramatist writing a few years later would doubtless have phrased the two scenes where Goldberg and McCann terrorise Stanley with words that would have attracted his blue pencil. The suppressed violence – that today we appreciate for its surprising elegance and beauty – would probably have been fully verbalised.

Birthday PartyConsider, for example, the similarity in structure between the interrogation scenes with Goldberg, McCann and Stanley and the scene in Edward Bond’s Saved where a baby is stoned to death (see blog posts 13 to 16). In both cases the writer used bullet-point, one-line conversations to communicate a gradual escalation of terror and violence against a helpless and virtually speechless victim. Of course, the audience reaction to the two plays is different because of context; in Saved, one is shocked because of the defencelessness of the victim, whereas in The Birthday Party the shock is all psychological. If fear of the unknown makes us nervous, that should make the audience of The Birthday Party absolutely terrified as we haven’t a clue why Stanley deserves such treatment. Clearly, Pinter’s characters are in solitary confinement. They scarcely relate to the other people they know; and there is no obvious association between them and the events that concern them. We don’t know their background, but they don’t seem to realise that that they even have a background. They are also physically alone, and displaced; for example, Stanley, Goldberg and McCann are in someone else’s house, in a town where they do not belong. All their shared history is confused and none of them ever agree on anything that has taken place; thus we remain ignorant as to how the present relates to the past; and the future is left to look after itself. Pinter’s isolating and disturbing use of solitude in all these forms was enough to shock his audience without having to write swear words.

Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker

The other major dramatist to break through in the late 1950s was Arnold Wesker. Unlike Pinter, Wesker did cross swords with the censor, but in the long run, he did not find him an overwhelming hurdle. In a fascinating letter he wrote to me dated 15th February 1982, he stated: “I was irritated to have to change “bugger it” into “sod it” and “Jesus Christ!” into (I think) “God Almighty!” It was time consuming to have to make the changes, and it offended my sense of the veracity of verbal exchange. It also offended my sense of common sense. But for me it was much more significant that I was free to recreate what I understood to be the truthfulness of my experience. In other words, no one sought to censor a play with a communist heroine. Freedom to express beliefs were more important to me than requests to delete vulgarisms.”

RootsThe heroine to whom he refers is Beatie Bryant in Roots (1959), the country girl whose love for Ronnie Kahn, the young hero who unites the entire “Wesker Trilogy”, coupled with her close association with selfless hard work and fighting for a minimum wage, make her the representation of the socialist – if not Soviet – dream. The imagery of her political principles and the total sincerity of her feelings elevate her language to a level of crusading excitement. As she herself says: “Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what go on around you, it’s being concerned about people and the world.” Beatie is consistently positive; had she been nothing more than a dreary political commentator, or if she had been offensive to people holding other political beliefs, the censor might have looked for a way to silence her. As I hope to show later on, the censor did sometimes exercise political censorship.

David Zane Mairowitz

David Zane Mairowitz

However, Wesker has hit the nail on the head in identifying the most common cause for, and indeed the essence of, censorship. Words were thought by the Lord Chamberlain to have the potential for far greater damage than ideas. The writer David Zane Mairowitz believes that it was use of language that caused the public outcries against Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts (1977) and Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain (1980), much more than anything to do with sexual promiscuity. In a letter to me dated 2nd February 1982 he stated simply: “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

Here’s a story that shows that the power of words, more than their meaning, was the most important element to the stage censor. In 1957, Roger Blin’s original French production of Samuel Beckett’s Fin de Partie opened at the Royal Court in that year as part of a French exchange programme, to benefit trade agreements between the two countries. The production went ahead without any hitches. Six months later, Beckett’s own English translation, Endgame, was due to open at the same theatre; exactly the same play, simply in a different language. The Lord Chamberlain’s office insisted on a list of small cuts and verbal changes including one which would later become celebrated in theatrical circles: when Hamm attempts to pray and finds that his prayers are not instantly answered, he says (of God) “the bastard! He doesn’t exist!” The censor considered this too insulting to the deity and refused to let it pass.

EndgameAfter another six months of debating, the censor and the Royal Court management finally agreed to compromise with the line: “the swine! He doesn’t exist!” It seemed incidental to the censor that anyone who would be offended by the sentiment of the original line would be likely to be as offended by the amended line. Of course, the change of word eliminated a possible reference to the Immaculate Conception which might have been perceived in “bastard”; an inference absent in the original French, as “salaud” does not have this double meaning. Commentators, especially those in favour of abolishing censorship, took the opportunity to ridicule the Lord Chamberlain’s office by implying that the censor thought all those people who understood French were irredeemably corrupt. Others maintained that a knowledge of French could be used as a personal barrier against corruption. Whatever interpretation was applied to the events, the Lord Chamberlain’s office did not survive the episode with all its dignity intact.

In my next blog post I’ll recap on the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act and take a look at those mischievously naughty shows like Oh! Calcutta!

Review – The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th February 2018

The Birthday PartyDo you remember doing your A-levels, gentle reader? If you had the…pleasure…of that experience, you won’t have forgotten it. Staying up half the night cramming in essays on everything left right and centre – well for me it was English, French and German, but that’s not the point. We knew that one of the A level papers in English would have a question on Harold Pinter. Our teacher took us through The Caretaker, and I voluntarily read The Homecoming – but didn’t understand it of course. We also read, in class, The Birthday Party, and our teacher suggested we should write an essay on it for homework, but he wasn’t going to insist on it. We already had enough on our plate.

Birthday PartyBut I was entranced by The Birthday Party and started an essay on it at 7pm which I finished at 1am. I had no idea where I was going with it but I just felt the need to express my reaction to it. I handed it in, hoping that the labour of love would get me some brownie points. But I got more than that. The teacher marked me a straight alpha for it, read it out to all the other classes, and told everyone “here is a man who really loves his subject.” I’ll never forget that. And I got a Grade B in English A level!

TBP Zoe WanamakerThis was Pinter’s first full-length play, originally staged in 1958 when it ran for a dynamic eight performances, no doubt curtailed because of the savaging it received from the critics. Only Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times (always the most reliable observer of drama of his age) recognised Pinter’s talent and saw in the play what others failed to see. Since then it’s had precious few revivals in the UK and I’ve been waiting for a chance to see it for over forty years. Hurrah that Ian Rickson’s production has arrived at the Comedy (I mean Harold Pinter – appropriately) Theatre, and I could not wait to book.

TBP Torturing StanleyHow the memories came flooding back. On the written page it’s very hard to get a feel for this play. Just how menacing is it? (Very.) Just how funny is it? (Surprisingly, quite a lot.) What does it mean? (Now you’re asking….) Here’s the bare bones: Stanley (morose, unkempt, petulant, seedy) has been staying at Meg and Petey’s seaside boarding house for a year now. Petey is a deck chair attendant so is out all day and in all weathers (although who sits on a deckchair in the rain?) which leaves Meg the run of the house, doing the cleaning and the cooking and generally looking after Stanley. He is their only guest. So is he really a bona fide boarding house guest, or just a figment of their imagination, a son figure to complete an otherwise empty family set-up?

TBP Zoe Wanamaker and Toby JonesShattering the status quo, two mysterious men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive, looking for a place to stay. Meg is unsure at first, but they’re gentlemanly and flattering and win her over with ease. But what of their relationship with Stanley? It seems like he knows who they are. It seems like they know who he is. And what appears to be at first polite, distant dealings with him turn into haranguing, menacing, threatening interrogations that he cannot cope with. It’s also, apparently, Stanley’s birthday (although he denies it) and a party is scheduled for 9pm that night. What could possibly go wrong?

TBP Tom Vaughan-LawlorYou could analyse this play for a year and a day and still not come up with anything like a this is what this play is about statement. But that’s the point. Pinter delights in contradiction and obfuscation. Characters say one thing and do another. They assume several identities. Symbols like Stanley’s missing piano or his toy drum take on a force of their own and challenge you to apply reason to them. But if a clear meaning did emerge, Pinter would have had to go back to the drawing board and start again. The audience is a vital part of the production as they fill in some of the gaps in an attempt to make some sense of what’s going on. But there will always be gaps when watching this play, and my suggestion is simply to revel in them.

TBP Toby JonesThe curtain rises to the Quay Brothers’ meticulously realised set; grimy wallpaper peeling from the walls, dark brown wooden panelling that needs updating, dumpy comfortless furniture that reflects the harsh reality of the household. Their costume design is also perfect for the time, location and characters: Stanley’s soiled pyjama top; Meg’s dowdy pinny and dress; Goldberg and McCann’s formal business suits; Lulu and Meg’s glamorous party outfits. For a play and production that relies on high impact lighting cues, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design works perfectly, from the effect when Stanley strikes a match, the sunlight that comes in from the door that illuminates Stanley’s profile to the shock of the blackout and its subsequent revelations. There’s so much in the background to admire in this production.

TBP Stephen ManganThen you have six tremendous performances that really get to the heart of the text, two of which come under the “perfect casting” heading. Toby Jones is chillingly good as Stanley, a fantastic portrayal of this lethargic lump of barely concealed neuroses, pathetically pretending to a greater existence in his past whilst all too closely fearing for his own mortality. No one does “wretched” quite like Mr Jones and he was absolutely born to play this role. And Zoe Wanamaker gives a masterclass performance as the under-achieving, suggestible Meg, waxing lyrical about those lovely flakes and affecting shock but actually aroused when Stanley calls her succulent. Like Shirley Valentine, Meg has had such a little life, and Ms Wanamaker makes you feel her character long ago stopped trying to break out of it. Her “belle of the ball” moments are genuinely moving, as is Petey’s attempt to protect her from bad news at the end of the play – some great characterisation from Peter Wight there in what you might otherwise think is just a filler character. No line is wasted in a Pinter play.

TBP Peter WightStephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor are excellent as Goldberg and McCann but a complete contrast from how I would have imagined them. In my mind’s eye Goldberg is almost a stereotype east-end Jew, probably lifted from a not very PC sitcom from the 1970s – very Sydney Tafler-esque (whom I note played Goldberg in the 1968 film which I didn’t even know existed). I’ve always thought of McCann as a thuggish Irish navvy-type; the kind who’d wallop you with a spade and then ask questions afterwards. These imaginary characterisations in my head are so different from the realistic, true to life performances on offer in this production. Mr Mangan gives every one of Goldberg’s lines a weight and resonance that I hadn’t known was there before. This makes the character more sinister and threatening – even before he starts becoming sinister and threatening. You can see in Mr Mangan’s eyes how Goldberg is plotting his every move in a chess game where Stanley can never occupy a safe square.

TBP Pearl MackieMr Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann is more cerebral than thuggish, in a linguistic fencing match where he forces Stanley into a position where Goldberg can go in for the kill. His newspaper-tearing torture, which I had always felt evoked the sound of bones breaking, is actually more like an attack on the mind than the body and is carried out with such intimidating concentration that it made me feel queasy. The two actors work together so well on their combined verbal attacks on Stanley, with beautifully orchestrated and executed delivery so that the poor man is powerless to protect himself. Completing the sextet is a spirited and likeable portrayal of Lulu by Pearl Mackie, the free-thinking outsider who gets caught in Stanley and Goldberg’s cat and mouse game and pays the price.

TBP Boarding house from hellThis is a simply brilliant production that really brings Pinter’s text to life and surprises you with its humour, its anarchy and its sheer menace. You don’t need to be a Drama or English student to enjoy this one. Seriously impressive and highly recommended.

Production photos by Johan Persson