Despite the considerable influence of Look Back in Anger
, there was no immediate enormous swing to realistic, working-class drama. The Suez Crisis had passed, the Hungarian Revolution had passed. As 1956 became 1957, people in Britain felt exactly the same about things as they had before. The direct influence of Look Back in Anger had not yet been felt. Any anticipated, endless supply of prospective dramatists, sending in an abundance of new scripts to the Royal Court, had not materialised; the situation was no different from when Osborne submitted his play and the majority of new drama was still “endless blank verse shit”, as Tony Richardson, who had directed Look Back in Anger, put it. In fact, the only production in the first season at the Royal Court which was financially viable was a star-studded production of Wycherley’s The Country Wife
, a Restoration Comedy which transferred into the West End and whose success paid for the continuation of the English Stage Company’s policies.
The next dramatic work to engage the public’s imagination (although its impact was considerably less) was Osborne’s next play, The Entertainer (1957). Before Look Back in Anger, Osborne had written Epitaph for George Dillon in collaboration with Anthony Creighton, where the central character is a performer; and like George Dillon, and Jimmy Porter, and Archie Rice – The Entertainer himself – hasn’t achieved any substantial success. The Entertainer continues where Epitaph for George Dillon left off; this time the central subject matter, the settings and the structure of the play create an analysis of the role of the theatre in everyday life. Archie Rice is an old-fashioned entertainer; unlike George Dillon, he seems unlikely to become acceptable to modern tastes. He is a music hall artiste, a stage comedian and compere whose persona revolves around pubs, girls and mother in law jokes. He’s very much based on the real-life Max Miller. His downfall has been his inability to keep up with the times – although his father Billy, himself an “old pro”, is even further behind; he believes the kind of music-hall entertainment that Archie practices has changed too much since his day and, of course, for the worse.
In his introductory note, Osborne writes: “the music hall is dying, and, with it, a significant part of England. Some of the heart of England has gone; something that once belonged to everyone, for this was truly a folk art.” The Rice family are a microcosm of 1957 England. They are scattered and disunited through their attitudes to relationships, beliefs, age and duty. The confident music hall patter gradually sticks in Archie Rice’s throat as he realises, through the course of the play, the enormous gap between himself and his stage persona. The music hall routine is full of nationalistic pride, but this is a painful juxtaposition with his sorrow at the death of his son returning from Cyprus with the British Army. His jokes are all based on sexual prowess, but we know that he and his wife Phoebe no longer have sex. His songs are full of irony; they contain throw-away asides like “why should I worry?” and “thank God I’m normal”, a bitter humour that pokes fun at anyone who doesn’t conform to the norm; and which also gives the (wrong) impression of a happy, carefree man on a one-way ticket to self-enjoyment. Not surprisingly, at the end of the play, he just crumples up. The glitter and fun and noise of the music hall make it a deceitful art – it only allows optimistic thoughts to be expressed, suppressing the real dissatisfaction people hide behind the smiles – the Tears of a Clown, as Smokey Robinson would have it.
The simplest and most obvious way a music hall performer could inject sexual intrigue into his act was to be backed by a group of nude girls. Music hall itself was never categorised separately in the 1832 Theatres Act and because of that anomaly the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain did not extend to it. However, music hall acts within other plays or revues were censorable. The fact that this form of uncensored entertainment had outlived its popularity and was thus on its last legs could clearly be used by those in favour of stage censorship as an argument for its retention. This was certainly what Billy Rice believed. He’s in no doubt that the nudes are to blame for the music hall’s decline: “they’re killing the business… why should a family man take his wife and kids to see a lot of third class sluts standing about in the nude?” Billy clearly approves of the work of the Lord Chamberlain who, as far as he’s concerned, protects the family unit – knowing how disparate his own family is. Archie, of course, takes the opposite view and exploits the nudes for as much sexual joking as possible: “What about these girls? What about them? Smashin’. I bet you think I have a marvellous time up here with all these posing girls, don’t you? You think I have a smashin’ time, don’t you? You’re dead right!”
Posing girls became an almost unavoidable part of revue entertainment during the Second World War – they became synonymous with the Windmill Theatre, and it was at this time that music hall merged into revue and became subject to the censor’s rules and regulations. Owing to the controversial nature of this subject, the Lord Chamberlain’s office had issued a statement on the use of nudity on stage. As we’ve already seen, actresses were allowed to pose completely nude “provided the pose is motionless and expressionless, it is artistic and something rather more than a mere display of nakedness, and provided that the lighting was subdued”. One would expect that none of these conditions were met in Archie Rice’s show. Actresses who moved were meant to wear at least “briefs and an opaque controlling brassiere”, and “strip-tease” was not permitted in any circumstances. These instructions continued until the 1968 Theatres Act was introduced.
The death of Billy Rice in the play represents the demise of his artistic views and values. Nude girls would inevitably continue to be part of the act. Archie notes Billy’s death with sadness and respect, and is obviously sorry that the type of entertainment he represented has also passed on: “Billy Rice will not appear again. I wish I could sing a song for him – in his place”. But he says he simply cannot, and therefore the nudes continue to have gainful employment. Archie has no respect for the censor – in his end monologue he refers to his nudes as “a lot of madam” and then adds “oh, I put a line in there. Never mind, it doesn’t matter”. A performer like Archie must have found it very difficult and restrictive to keep to a script; but of course he had to because otherwise he would have infringed the conditions of the licence.
As for The Entertainer itself, the censor demanded a number of changes, which Osborne reluctantly agreed to make. Nearly all were at the expense of some sexual innuendo, as sex was of course still the censor’s chief bête noir (at this time, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was still banned). The individual lines which the censor refused to pass, when taken as part of the whole work, don’t stand out as extreme in any way. Taken out of context, however, they could give the impression of a sex-crazed script, much as Peter Nichols had said of his own Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and I doubt the Lord Chamberlain would have approved.
For example, when the members of the family are discussing Archie and Phoebe’s son Mick at war, Archie denies any allegations that Mick might be suffering from depression: “I expect he’s screwing himself silly. I hope he is anyway.” The censor deleted this line, not only because it advocates sexual immorality but also because the phrase may have suggested a kind of syphilitic madness. The censor could not possibly allow such a flippant attitude to so serious a subject to remain unchecked. After all, Ibsen’s Ghosts (1881), which features a character suffering from inherited syphilis, remained banned in Britain for nearly forty years, and indeed the actual word syphilis was still forbidden. Osborne did not substitute another line for this one – he just removed it and made Archie continue with his speech: “What’s happened with you and Graham?” he asks Jean. Osborne’s original intention was to make Archie imply that sexual problems were the cause of Jean and Graham’s problems. However, now that the reference to sex has been removed from the speech, that implication is missing. Osborne’s original wording enhances our understanding of Archie as a seedy, insinuating person. Without it, it becomes just a bland sequence of conversation.
The censor also shortened the verse of one of Archie’s chorus songs. His songs are, of course, an intrinsic part of his act and reflect the persona with great accuracy. He sings about sex, and about being “ordinary” to make the majority of his audience relate to him. This made the censor’s job more difficult because the audience is on Archie’s side. Therefore, the censor removed the lines: “I don’t push and shove at the thing they call love, I never go in for goings on.” The lines are deliberately ambiguous; again, they do not seem particularly daring in context, where their chief purpose is to confirm the idea “I never really care, I’m what you call a moderate”. However, the censor doubtless saw the references to sexual intercourse: “push and shove”, “go in”, both in the context of “love” and “goings on”. As a result of this cut, Osborne also chose to remove the lines: “I’m what you call a moderate, I weigh all the pros and the cons” in order to make the metre fit the tune again. The whole cut makes the song rather innocuous.
Another major cut is that of the passage in which Archie very frankly described the regularity of his sexual activity. He maintains: “I’ve always been a seven day a week man myself, haven’t I, Phoebe? A seven day a week man. I always needed a jump at the end of the day – and at the beginning too usually. Just like a piece of bacon on the slab.” The censor probably thought that, given the repetition in the speech and the maudlin, drunk tone Archie has adopted, the audience might find this speech embarrassing. The imagery of the piece of bacon was no doubt a step too far. By cutting this speech, it was as though the censor was protecting Archie from himself, and from the audience’s judgment. He is drunk, and possibly he may say something he will regret, especially as in a few moments he will hear that Mick has been killed on his return home. This paternalistic censorship changes our impression of Osborne’s attitude to Archie. Osborne’s attempts to communicate Archie’s coarseness are effectively thwarted and the effect of the cut is to render Archie’s speech confusing if not meaningless. The speech sounds very much as though a key issue has been omitted from it – which, of course, it has: “Say, aren’t you glad you’re normal? Well, it’s everybody’s problem”. That’s a complete non-sequitur. What is? Being normal or not being normal? In fact, the problem Osborne intended Archie to refer to is that of chercher la femme. Archie’s explanation: “either they’re doing it, and they’re not enjoying it. Or else they’re not doing it and they aren’t enjoying it” seems a little out of place without the overt sexual reference.
The only other censored word in the text is the censor’s insistence on using the word “decent” instead of “devout” in the description of an act Archie used to know called “Lady Rosie Bothways”. The censor obviously thought that the religious overtones of the word “devout” were not in keeping with the rest of the description. All in all, the substituted words and passages and censored sections of the play weaken the force of the play; it’s less coarse and therefore Archie himself doesn’t come across as quite so reprehensible a character.
Thematically, any relation the play bears to Look Back in Anger is indistinct. There are hints of class-consciousness, such as Billy’s attitude to Archie’s “third class sluts”, and Graham’s attitude to Jean and her family, but there is no real advocating of a class-struggle. War is just a catalyst, causing the death of Mick, the missing link of the family chain, but not the overpowering threat that it is in the earlier play. The closest association may be seen in the character of Jean who, though, not central to the play, is nearly an “angry young woman”; she is at least sufficiently motivated to protest in Trafalgar Square against the government. She gives up her boyfriend at the end because of class differences and family loyalties. She decides that nothing can be gained merely by turning her back on her family: “here we are, we’re alone in the universe, there’s no God, it just seems that it all began by something as simple as sunlight striking on a piece of rock… somehow we’ve just got to make a go of it. We’ve only ourselves”. Her final position is one of reconciliation with her family, just as Jimmy Porter and Alison are (temporarily at least) reconciled at the end of Look Back in Anger.
Next up I’m going to take a look at Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey.