Theatre Censorship – 12: Homosexuality, Swearing and an Introduction to Violence

Separate Tables

John Mills and Jill Bennett, in the 1977 production

Another major “indecent” theme was homosexuality, which had been a prevalent topic in plays since about 1950. At first, references to it were very tentative; indeed, two of the three plays presented under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club were concerned with young men who appeared to be homosexual but were not, and with the women who loved them, and stood by them during their ordeals. Terence Rattigan’s original intention in Separate Tables (1954) was that the respectable Major Pollock should have accosted men in public lavatories, but the management insisted that this should be changed, and Major Pollock became a heterosexual menace instead.

After the restrictions on plays about homosexuality were lifted in 1958 (please see Chapter 6 if you’d forgotten about this!), there was little positive or original use made of this liberty. Homosexual characters were mainly used for stereotypical camp fun, such as the fussy antiques dealer Harold Gorringe in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy (1965). Christopher Hampton included homosexual characters in both When did you Last see my Mother? (1966) and Total Eclipse (1968), where he dramatised the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine.

A Patriot for MeThe most notable play in the 1960s involving homosexuality was John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me (1965), based on the true story of Alfred Redl, who worked for the Austro-Hungarian intelligence service in the 1890s and was blackmailed for being gay. In the months immediately preceding the 1968 Theatres Act, this play became a popular weapon in the war against censorship. John Mortimer, for example, on behalf of the League of Dramatists, submitted the following memorandum to the Joint Committee on 22nd November 1966: “We are bewildered by the total banning of “A Patriot for Me” … which dealt with homosexuality in an adult and dramatic way; we can see no valid reason for this action.” The League of Dramatists were not entirely telling the truth, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Office did not ban the play; they did, however, demand swingeing cuts, such as “Act 3, Scene 1: The two men must not be in bed together”, “Act 3 Scene 2: the line “You were born with a silver sabre up your whatnot” was disallowed, as well as the total omission of Act 1 Scene 10, Act 2 Scene 1 (the celebrated drag ball), and Act 3 Scene 5, where Redl has an argument in bed with a naked Second Lieutentant. The sexual explicitness in these scenes would not have been acceptable even in a heterosexual context. It was no surprise that the censor considered them unsuitable; the 1958 statement had plainly read: “Embraces or practical demonstrations of love between homosexuals will not be allowed”. Osborne chose not to make those cuts and the production of the play went ahead as a club performance at the Royal Court; as a result, the censor troubled it no more, but the Royal Court made a large financial loss. The rest of Mortimer’s comment is totally justified: it is a mature, responsible and yet very exciting play, which involves the audience totally in Redl’s plight and creates an extraordinary atmosphere of sympathy.

Children's Hour - Lillian Hellman

Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman

Lesbianism appears to have reached the stage much later than male homosexuality with the major exception of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, first performed in the US in 1934 and first officially performed in Britain in 1950, a painful study of the damaging repercussions of rumour in a girls’ school. The play is infused with bitterness and evil: the character of Mary Tilford, who starts spreading the malicious gossip, may be considered a fore-runner to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). Hellman’s play is most skilfully written. The scandal is, by necessity, all expressed in insinuation and innuendo, but this feels appropriate because the characters are themselves so horrified by the notion of lesbianism that they could not bring themselves to utter the word anyway.

Killing of Sister GeorgeFrank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George (1965) only just avoided being banned outright; the two reasons why this was avoided were that it was a respectable company – the Bristol Old Vic – who wanted to stage it, and because the word “lesbian” did not appear in the text. Had the word appeared, the play would surely have been rejected. I know this for a fact, as Mr Marcus told me himself during a phone conversation we had at the time. As it was, it became Marcus’ greatest success. Irving Wardle, writing in the Times newspaper on June 18th 1965, rhetorically questioned the suitability of the subject matter: “How would audiences a few years ago have responded to a lesbian marriage handled in earnest? The cheers of last night’s audience left no doubt of their response”. Times change.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

The other major lesbian affair in 1960s drama, which certainly caused offence to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, as has been mentioned, was between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in Bond’s Early Morning. The play is full of very black humour, but primarily Victoria’s attentions to her son’s fiancée and her beseeching “Call me Victor”, were considered too offensive, especially coming from a member of the Royal Family. Despite the censor’s ban, every theatre critic in London was invited to a hastily called matinee, performed in total secrecy, on the afternoon before the intended first night. Had the show gone on, in the evening, it was the intention of the police to arrest every member of the audience, as could be guessed from the number of police vans parked along King’s Road.

One form of indecent material, which is perhaps today quite easy to overlook, is the use of swearing. The censor seemed to have evaluated all the different swear words as to their potential offensiveness, and this gave rise to the possibility of bargaining. The censor might object to the use of one of two “bad” words and, to appease the offended playwright, would permit a few extra “bloodies” in their place. The playwright Stephen Jeffreys told me in a letter dated 17th March 1982 (and from which I quote here) that he was told by the producer of one of his radio plays that “the level of language varied from channel to channel and from night to night. You could say “bugger” on Radio 4 except on Saturdays and you could only say “fuck” on Radio 3, and even then you couldn’t use it more than three or four times in one play”.

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneAccording to Malcolm Hay & Philip Roberts’ book Bond – a study of his plays, George Devine, director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, advised William Gaskill, the director of Edward Bond’s Saved (1965) to exclude “all the words we know will not be passed… before submission.” Indeed, in a letter Lindsay Anderson wrote me dated 1st February 1982, he remembered how Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar (1960) was very nearly banned outright simply because the father continually said “bloody”: “Since it was a character point, and indeed its very repetition illustrated the irredeemable coarseness of the character, no compromise was possible. In the end the censor gave in”.

Marat SadeStage violence was also considered an act of indecency. In Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade (Marat/Sade) (1964) which appeared in the RSC’s Theatre of Cruelty season, there is a chilling violence mixed with sadism and insanity, at once both riveting and distasteful. Its challenge to the audience lies in assessing whether its disconcerting effect stems from the violence and suspense of the play or its universal lunacy. In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, insanity is again linked with violence, although this play is not as disconcerting, because of the deliberate lack of realism in the presentation; with actors playing horses, and, in the original 1970s production, the actors not involved in any one particular scene sat at the side of the stage, observing the proceedings in a disinterested manner, as actors rather than as characters. However, in the Marat/Sade, the characters are a group of lunatic actors who are sometimes impossible to control. The play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier, the Napoleonic director of the Clinic of Charenton, attempting to restore order, by striking his patients, much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade, who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Equus, on the other hand, by contrast, ends in quiet reflection.

In my next four posts I’m going to concentrate at some length on Edward Bond’s Saved. Put the four together and you’ve got a full essay on everything that I think and feel about the play, together with its relevance to the issue of censorship! The first post will contain an introduction, and then an analysis of the first few scenes. If you’ve got a copy of the script, please feel free to refresh your memory of it!

Review – The persecution and assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the marquis de Sade, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 19th October 2011

Marat/SadeOr, the Marat/Sade to be concise; not that concise is a word that comes to mind when thinking back to Wednesday’s preview. At a good hour and three quarters before the break, having just witnessed a feast of anal rape, the interval Shiraz should be available through the NHS.

But I’m giving away the plot. Actually the (full) title tells you all you need to know. The Marquis de Sade really was imprisoned at the asylum in Charenton and really was allowed by the director Coulmier to stage plays acted by the inmates. So the story created by the writer Peter Weiss is a perfectly legitimate fantasy, and it was originally produced in the UK by the RSC as part of their Theatre of Cruelty season in 1964.

Herr Weiss is no longer with us so we cannot tell what he would have made of the liberties taken with his text. It’s certainly been updated, with additional speeches by Marat, Roux and the Herald (there may be more); his descriptions of his characters’ attributes and their costumes have largely been ignored; and Weiss was very minimalist with his stage directions, which allows the director Anthony Neilson, pretty much Carte Blanche to do what he wants.

Some of these liberties are very successful. Coulmier controls the inmates through a system of mobile phones and the piercing sound of ringtones has a startling effect throughout the play. A dangerous ploy – it would kill the atmosphere if a phone accidentally went off in the audience. Marat himself prepares his speeches using a laptop in his bath – in fact the whole production couldn’t have gone ahead without the late Steve Jobs. Lisa HammondThe Herald is no longer a male clown-cum-harlequin, but the role is performed by an actress with restricted growth who often uses an electric wheelchair to move around the stage. She’s quite an arresting sight, and often has a glint in her eye that she can turn to evil effect; it’s a very good performance from Lisa Hammond.

Mrs Chrisparkle, however, is less charitable of the director’s motives. Her reaction to the production was that he had a checklist of faux offensive activities he wanted to ensure were included, and that he wouldn’t be satisfied until every one of them was ticked off.

The programme makes much of the play’s parallels with the Arab Spring of today and its relevance to the 21st century. There are some excellent lines (in the original text) about having trust in “our minister of war” and also the irony of “calmly watch these barbarous displays that could not happen nowadays”. All that on the week that Colonel Gadaffi was killed. You couldn’t make it up. It’s true that the play hasn’t dated at all – I think it was probably always timeless. Amanda WilkinThere is some surprising use of the hijab, and Khyam Allami’s stirring and atmospheric music for the production lends an eastern lilt to the play. The four asylum inmates who act as singers in the production are in excellent voice and contribute to making the music one of the highlights of the play. I particularly enjoyed the performance of Amanda Wilkin as Kokol.

Lanre MalaoluIn fact one of the really strong points of this production is the excellent ensemble work of the actors playing the inmates. They provide a really credible image of they type of people who might inhabit an asylum – their walks, their tics, their habits are all well observed and totally believable – apart perhaps from Lanre Malaolu’s Duperret, who really does masturbate an awful lot (tick). I felt that was probably only so they could often call him a “w**ker” (not in the original text) (tick), so I’m not blaming him.

Whether it’s the play itself or the specific production, it’s hard to determine, but I have two main problems with the show. Firstly, it’s way too long, particularly in the first half. A lot of that is Weiss’ fault. In the text, the first act covers 69 pages, the second act, 30. But there’s a lot of self-indulgent activity in the first act that could either be completely removed or drastically cut down – the anal rape (tick) scene goes on and on, and on… and on. One feels that he’s proved his point; now can we get on to something else please. Many of the speeches by Marat and Sade are very heavy and wordy – to the extent that you stop paying attention and focus on the stage activity instead. As they haven’t treated the text with reverence, I think it some of these speeches could have done with extra pruning. The result of all this is that there are many sequences that are just plain boring.

Secondly, basically, it’s a play that hates its audience (which is one of my pet hates). A member of the audience gets approached by one of the cast which results in their being called a c**t on stage (tick). Members of the cast variously insult and moon at the audience (tick), people have popcorn chucked at them like a weapon, a black actor turns to a white man in the audience and says “Death to the White Man!” (not in the original text) (incitement to racial hatred? Tick), the dildos that are used in the anal rape scene are then waggled in the faces of elderly ladies in the front row (tick). I’m sure you get the picture. There is a moment when Marat walks down an aisle asking patrons if any of them can speak French, because he wants them to translate something for him. Only a fool would offer to help, because God knows what trick would have befallen that person. I certainly kept schtumm, as did everyone else. It’s up to you to decide whether this is a legitimate way of challenging an audience, or if it’s merely taking the Mick.

Having said that, one thing I did like at the end of the first act was how Arsher Ali’s Marat started deconstructing the piece. Voltaire and Lavoisier do their interminably dull speeches to the audience and frankly no one is paying any attention, at which point Marat says, “you’re losing them, it’s no good, stop now, they all want the interval, they all want their ice-creams” and then he starts to go around the front row taking ice-cream orders. Nice. That’s what I call subversive, much more than the bizarre over-use of jockstraps (although that did reveal a curious tattoo of a map of Africa on one person’s buttock).

Jasper Britton What of the main roles? I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Jasper Britton’s Marquis de Sade. Weiss’ description makes it clear that he should be an imposing figure. But I didn’t find him that imposing. I found him very human, very flawed; to be pitied rather than to be in awe of him. They’ve made him into a cross-dressing chameleon, taking on a different persona almost every time he comes on. I wasn’t very convinced by him as an American cowboy; but he was absolutely right as Mary Portas. There’s also a scene where he comes on dressed as the Herald, in her wheelchair, and with shoe attachments on his knee so that he can mimic her stature when on all fours. In the first act her character abused an audience member who had been tricked into patronising her disability. In the second act, the production itself patronises her. You can’t have it both ways, Mr Director. Which is it to be?

Christopher EttridgeChristopher Ettridge’s Coulmier is every inch the respectable director and on the face of it a world apart from the general madness surrounding him. The coup de theatre at the end is effective but not in keeping with Weiss’ original; and it’s been done before in Rocky Horror. Actually, the whole meaning of the end of the play is changed – in the original version the play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier attempting to restore order by striking his patientsNathaniel Martello-White much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Not so in this production. I also very much enjoyed Nathaniel Martello-White’s performance as Jacques Roux, who has a very commanding presence, natural authority and moreover a voice as clear as a bell. This is his RSC debut season; I think he could become a bit of a star.

Imogen DoelImogen Doel as Charlotte Corday looks very much the part, but I couldn’t always understand the words she was saying; and this production has the character played by an inmate with sleeping sickness (which is quite funny) whereas Weiss described her as a somnambulist. Do you think someone ought to have checked the dictionary definition?

Arsher AliArsher Ali as Marat was very convincing, spoke clearly, and I admired the clever make up job that makes him look like he’s had part of his head shaved. Was it entirely necessary to have him sitting on the toilet at the beginning of the second half? Was it just so that one of the inmates could smear themselves in his excrement? (tick).

A number of people left at the interval. To be fair, a play like this isn’t doing its job properly if at least some people aren’t motivated to prefer their own more polite company. The audience reception at the end was more rapturous than I expected, although a lot of it was from some whooping girls who had got more into the sex and nudity elements of the evening than might otherwise be deemed dignified.

So in conclusion I’d say yes to its still being relevant; yes to its ability still to shock; yes to the overall standard of acting; but no to a feeling of overall satisfaction. A plucky failure? Probably, but often that can have more artistic value than an unambitious success.