Theatre Censorship – 30: Race Relations (or not)

I think it’s fair to warn you that there’s quite a lot of offensive racist language quoted in this blog, purely for illustrative purposes.

The 1968 Theatres Act created a new category of potential problems in drama – that of racial conflict. Now it would be wrong to suggest that any of the plays I’m going to discuss here goes as far as to “stir up hatred” against any minority distinguished by colour, race or ethnic origins. What these plays mainly achieve is either siding with a minority or condemning an oppressor. Occasionally they poke fun at the minority. Over the years, poking fun at a minority has become more and more unacceptable, as audiences now recognise it as the prejudicial banter that it is. An audience is now required either to detach themselves from the play and condemn those that ridicule minorities; or they can play along with this prejudicial type of humour. No question, this is a challenge for the modern audience.

Mike Leigh

Mike Leigh

Sometimes it’s not clear what a playwright intends. A good example is Goose Pimples (1980) devised by Mike Leigh. Four English characters of varying degrees of unsavoriness are confused by an Arab’s inability to speak English and his bewildered tones feed their prejudices to make an evening of diverting comedy for them and of abused misery for him. I remember seeing the play at the time, and, despite laughing occasionally, feeling thoroughly violated by it; two hours of relentless racism. With the benefit of hindsight, and knowing that it’s Mike Leigh, I presume the audience is meant to disapprove of the four English characters. But we certainly seem to be invited to laugh along with them. No wonder audiences felt uncomfortable, even in the early 80s. The play was far from being the box office success that the critics expected of it, which says more about the decency of the audiences than the critics.

Antony Sher in the 1980s

Antony Sher, who played the Sheikh in Goose Pimples, in the 1980s

In a comparison with Edward Bond’s Grandma Faust (1976), “Goose Pimples” comes across as the more unpleasant play, as it takes the respectable mantle of West End comedy, and insinuates its sordid content where you might not expect it. “Grandma Faust” is, at least, outwardly shocking from the start and doesn’t pretend to be anything it isn’t. Set in a world where rich, white ladies and simple country folk alike enjoy the taste of “N***er Foot Pie”, Bond’s intention is to set the Faust legend in the Deep South of the United States. Faust is mingled with stereotype characters such as Uncle Sam and the well-to-do Southern Belles, and all of them are satirised by the character of Paul. He is the underdog, sold not as a slave but as pie ingredient, who tricks his captors with the strength of his soul. At the end of Grandma Faust, Paul survives, Bond leaving us with a tableau of him fishing, to create a hopeful note for the future. Nobody particularly “survives” at the end of “Goose Pimples”, where all the relationships are soured.

Michael Hastings

Michael Hastings, in the 1950s

Neither of these plays presents racial conflict in any kind of constructive or positive way. Michael Hastings’ Gloo Joo (1978), a comedy about the attempts of two immigration officers to return an illegal immigrant to Jamaica, won the Evening Standard’s Comedy of the Year award in 1979. Meadowlark – the aforementioned Jamaican – attempts to find loopholes in the law by arranging marriages and changing religion, so that he may remain in Britain; and the play deals not only with racial prejudices between the indigenous white people and the West Indians, but also between different sectors of the black community. When Meadowlark telephones Mr Brucknell to organise the wedding at the airport, he defends his “telephone voice” against the bewildered look of the immigration officers: “Haffta mekk as if yeh the telkin the Queen’s language with her Priestman, case is tinkin yeh some half bred bad ass Nigerian n***er juicing de palm wine craze an talkin red lobster sea food rubbish back the Africa roots, mon.” Meadlowlark assumes superiority over Nigerians without the slightest desire to conceal his prejudice against them, although he is very quick to hit upon racism against himself:

Gerry: “Mind your nose, son, I can put it out of joint.”
Meadowlark: “Threatening to beat me up and insult me on account racial hatred am hearin?”

Hastings gives Gerry, a keen and vindictive newcomer to the Immigration Office, a foreign surname, Radinski, so that Meadowlark, with his fine English surname Warner, can justify (as he thinks) some racial retaliation: “An what kind of name is dat? Radinski? Is Polish or am a Chinaman. Is bleddy not true blue British stake a woolly top on at”. You can see how much fun Hastings must have had creating this play.

Somewhere along the line, racism is always a consequence of ignorance, and Meadowlark gives us plenty of opportunities to recognise his own ignorance. Pretend fiancée Irene unleashes his racism when she tells him that they will be living in Dublin, where Irene was born. Meadowlark explodes: “Mon, heff yeh ev bin to Ireland? En noffin but streets full of potato eatin people wid big ears and green eyes mon, walkin along de pavemen talking dere tongues off drinkin dat warm black beer wid de white froth’n mon! Dat fockin Ireland for yeh.” Meadowlark picks on stereotypical Irish connections, like potatoes and Guinness, and exaggerates them into a nightmarish scene of zombie-like figures aimlessly walking along streets, eating and drinking. One can laugh at the picture he creates; but you are nevertheless laughing with a racist.

Elsewhere, Meadowlark shows himself to be a clever and quite well-educated person – perhaps best demonstrated when he answers all the questions put to him by Mr Brucknell about Judaism. So it is not merely his ignorance about the Irish that give him this perverse view of Ireland; it is chiefly his “gift of the gab” which lands him in so much trouble under normal circumstances, but which also enables him usually to outwit his opponents. When Irene tries to make him feel guilty about the way he has treated her – she has pleaded “I was a Catholic virgin when I first met you” which we do not really believe – he starts on a tirade against the Pakistanis from whom he says he “rescued” her: “Pakis just dog-an-cats Indian and day covered with lice heff yeh ever seen a Paki tekk a bath?”

Meadowlark uses his rhetorical gifts to heap blame and scorn on any sector of society but himself. By portraying Meadowlark as a lovable rogue – lovable chiefly because of his language – Hastings avoids falling into any didactic traps about presenting him as all good or all bad; he is as fallible a man as any, with as many foibles and prejudices as one would care to mention, making him both credible and human. His constant assertion: “am British thru an thru” makes us question our own understanding of what it is to be British, through humour and challenging stereotypes. Far from erecting racial barriers, this play broke them down.

Barrie Keeffe

Barrie Keeffe

In the 70s there were also some more serious plays which attempted to show how politics can change with a rise in racial tension and prejudice. They frequently harked back to the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s, and looked to the growth of the National Front in the 1970s as evidence of a resurgence of a similar mentality. No coincidence that the group at the other end of the political spectrum from the National Front called themselves the Anti-Nazi League. Karn, the mentally sadistic detective in Barrie Keeffe’s Sus (1979) looks forward to a Conservative victory in the General Election, hopeful for the day when he need no longer be (and I quote) “sick of civil fucking liberties, and Anti Fucking Nazi League having riots in our decent streets and thousands of honest cops having to be dragged out to stop fucking Yids and Pakis and Indians and God-Knows-Who bashing hell out of half a dozen stupid, inarticulate red-necked fascists.” His obvious racial hatred is never going to permit a fair treatment of the unfortunate Delroy, the totally innocent black suspect he is detaining. The character of Karn is a typical product of its time; he hates both socialists and fascists, both the oppressors and the oppressed. The only sector to receive his approval are his own kind, the “honest cops”, because that allows him to justify his misuse of his own power. Keeffe wrote the play partly to demonstrate the iniquity of the “sus” laws, and in 1981 they had been repealed.

In my next blog post I’ll be considering the political extremism depicted in David Edgar’s Destiny.