Censorship of British Drama,1900-1968: Volume One 1900-1932,the Laps of the Gods

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This is the first part of a two volume analysis of British theatre censorship from 1900 until 1968, based on previously undocumented material in the Lord Chamberlain's Correspondence archives. It covers the period before 1932, when theatre was widely seen as a crucial medium with the power to shape the future of society, determining what people believed and how they behaved.
Where previous interpretations, based on more limited evidence and topics, have often constructed the Lord Chamberlain's Office either as an annoying but amusing irrelevance, or as dictatorial in its unchanging certainties, this study throws completely new light on the day-to-day functioning of the system and the principles, policies and detailed practice of theatre censorship. It uncovers the differing views and the disputes which occurred among and between the Lord Chamberlain and his Readers and Advisers, and discusses the extensive pressures exerted on him by bodies such as the Public Morality Council, the Church, the monarch, government departments, foreign embassies, newspapers, powerful individuals and those claiming to represent national or international opinion.
Based on the first comprehensive research on the Lord Chamberlain's Correspondence archives for the 20th century, this book explores the portrayal of a broad range of topics in relation to censorship, including the First World War, race and inter-racial relationships, contemporary and historical international conflicts, horror, sexual freedom and morality, class, the monarchy, and religion.

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The Censorship of British Drama 1900â"1968

Volume One: 1900â"1932

By Steve Nicholson

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2003 Steve Nicholson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-638-2


From Ibsenity to Obscenity

Principles and Practice 1900–1909

If you really want to lead the London stage out of Gomorrah you must abolish the Lord Chamberlain.

In May 1900, Samuel Smith, the MP for Flint, introduced a motion to Parliament stating that the House of Commons 'regrets the growing tendency to put upon the stage plays of a demoralising character, and considers that a stricter supervision of theatrical performances is needed alike in the interests of the public and the theatrical profession'. His supporting speech attributed a remarkable power to the stage to influence the future health of the nation:

Multitudes of young men and young women form their ideas of what is right and wrong in no small degree from what they witness on the stage ... Is it not certain ... that a decadent drama, and, what always accompanies it, a decadent literature, will produce a decadent nation?

And he even extended this to the British Empire:

Would it not be the highest patriotism to keep the heart of this great Empire sound? Is it not lamentable to find that our Colonial and Indian fellow-subjects, when they visit the Metropolis of the Empire, are often staggered at the orgies of vice they witness? If we wish to maintain the loyalty of this great Empire we must keep a standard at home which will command its respect.

Some MPs suggested Smith was exaggerating the importance of theatre, but there was plenty of support for his views, both inside and outside the House. One member lamented the fact that 'there was something about the tradition of the theatre that prevented people exercising that control over themselves there which they exercised in church and in other places'. Eventually, the first of many parliamentary debates on theatre censorship during the twentieth century ended with Smith's motion being 'talked out'; no vote was taken, and the House generally acknowledged that it was not qualified to make judgements on theatre and would harm its own reputation if it tried to do so:

Nothing that the House could do would prevent people laughing at a questionable joke ... public taste had, to some extent, advanced in this matter; but it had not advanced through resolutions of that House, and, whatever estimation of that House might be formed in the country, nobody attached any importance to it when expressing its opinion on literature or art . he begged them for Heaven's sake not to make that House ridiculous by pretending that it was an authority on a subject on which it knew next to nothing (Cheers from both sides of the House.)

The first decade of the twentieth century witnessed growing demands for the abolition or radical reform of theatre censorship; led by writers such as Granville Barker, Shaw and Pinero, and in parliament by the MP Robert Harcourt, the campaign brought sufficient weight on the government to force it to establish a Joint Select Committee in 1909 to consider the principles and the practices of controlling theatres. Yet simultaneous to this pressure for greater freedom, were campaigns which insisted that the Lord Chamberlain had become too lax and the theatre too decadent. Supporters of these campaigns insisted that much more rigorous policing should be introduced, in order to prevent the performance of what Samuel Smith had called 'foul and corrupting plays that no good actor or actress should touch with a pitchfork, and which no youth can witness without taint'. Several newspapers regularly used editorials or headline stories to lambast the Lord Chamberlain and demand that he should 'Keep Our Theatres Clean', and Smith himself had drawn from the complaints of a leading theatre critic, Clement Scott, about an upsurge in the presentation of 'heathen plays' which were 'destitute of any moral sense'. Scott, no less than Smith, feared the persuasive capacity of theatre to seduce audiences into abandoning virtue and embracing immorality by means of 'plays artfully contrived to attract sympathy for vice ... with a glamour of romance and sickly sentiment; plays that bring the power and allurement of good acting, or show, or spectacle, or personal charm, to deaden our moral force and moral fibre'. Above all, Scott blamed the playwrights, mourning the fact that 'dramatists of the first-class have one after the other broken away from the beautiful, the helpful, and the ideal, and coquetted with the distorted, the tainted and the poisonous in life'. Theatre was also one of the key targets in need of reform identified by the Public Morality Council, which had been formed in 1899 under the chairmanship of the Bishop of London.

Thus it was not only the opponents of stage censorship who favoured the removal of the Lord Chamberlain and his Examiner of Plays; those demanding more restrictions and tighter control frequently argued that the power to license or refuse plays for public performance should be handed over to magistrates or local authorities, who would be tougher in their decisions, and who would also be in a better position to inspect the actual performances which took place. The Home Secretary admitted to the 1909 Joint Select Committee that a censorship which based its decisions almost entirely on a script seen in advance of a performance could not be fully effective. Further confusion was caused by the fact that some of the performances which provoked the most hostility from the Public Morality Council and other vigilante groups were staged in music-halls; although the law did not exempt these venues from the same process of censorship imposed on theatres, in practice they were not required to submit their material to the Lord Chamberlain to be licensed, and were only liable for prosecution for indecency or for other reasons after a performance had occurred.

Technically, the granting of a licence for a play did not preclude a prosecution being instituted against those involved in its production, and the Lord Chamberlain's Office covered its back by requiring that the theatre manager should take full responsibility for the nature of a production; licences contained an endorsement that 'no indecency of dress, dance, or gesture' was to be permitted, and official letters to managers frequently pointed out that 'the fact of the piece having been licensed for representation does not relieve you from the responsibility of the representation'. This statement was also intended to devolve to the manager the duty of ensuring that actors did not add lines or deviate from the licensed script. Yet to take legal action against a play which had been licensed by the Lord Chamberlain would be to challenge the authority of a member of the royal household; in practice, therefore, once a script had received its licence it was extremely unlikely that it would be challenged in a court of law. This was the reason that most theatre managers continued to oppose any significant change in a system which effectively offered them an immunity against prosecution.

Legally, as we have seen, censorship was still based on the 1843 Theatres Act, which instructed the Lord Chamberlain to refuse a licence whenever 'he shall be of opinion that it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum, or of the public peace so to do'. However, the actual wording on the licences being issued by 1900 also promised that the play 'does not in its general tendency contain anything immoral or otherwise improper for the stage'. More specifically, it required 'strict observance' by the management of four regulations; the first simply indicated that the Examiner of Plays must be informed of any change in the play's title, but the other three were more significant:

No profanity or impropriety of language to be permitted on the Stage. No indecency of dress, dance, or gesture to be permitted on the Stage. No offensive personalities or representations of living persons to be permitted on the Stage, nor anything calculated to produce riot or breach of the peace.

As the Joint Select Committee of 1909 pointed out, these regulations had no legal status, because the wording was not part of any Act; however, most of the members of that Committee accepted the assurances of the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's Office that 'the words on the licence may be considered as the Lord Chamberlain's interpretation' of the 1843 Statute.

The written evidence of Viscount Althorp (the incumbent Lord Chamberlain) to that Committee—which went unchallenged—explicitly revealed that his rulings were primarily based, not on the content of a play per se, or even necessarily on the way in which it was interpreted in performance, but rather on its predicted effect upon an audience. Whether or not this was a legitimate interpretation of the 1843 Act may be open to question, but it was a shrewd position to adopt since it allowed for an effective response to the accusations of inconsistency and variation which were frequently levelled at the Lord Chamberlain's Office; such accusations invariably depended on a comparison of content rather than on the more nebulous and hypothetical effect of a performance. Althorp's argument, derived from the advice of a previous and experienced official, also offered a plausible justification of why a play which had already been licensed could subsequently have that licence revoked (as famously happened with The Mikado in 1907) on the basis of the changed historical or political context of a particular production, of the venue and likely composition of an audience, of how the play was being interpreted, or even of the particular performers involved. Similarly, it provided a legitimate pretext which would sanction the Lord Chamberlain's undeclared habit of consulting government departments, foreign embassies and others as sources of advice.

But how did the censorship operate in practice and—equally important—how did its functionaries, its supporters and its critics perceive it to be operating? In 1899 Bernard Shaw, one of its most committed and eloquent opponents, had summed it up in an essay for the benefit of American readers. In a typically witty and mocking onslaught he described the Lord Chamberlain as 'the Tzar of the drama', pointing out that the office was not democratic and that its holder was responsible only to the monarch. Because the Lord Chamberlain was so taken up with other duties, power effectively devolved onto one of his 'breath-bereaving retainers', his Examiner of Plays, who thus became 'the most powerful man in England or America'; the Examiner had an authority which, according to Shaw, was greater and more significant than that of the monarch or a Cabinet minister: 'Other people may make England's laws; he makes and unmakes its drama'. Yet in attacking the censorship, Shaw was keen not to lay the blame on the Lord Chamberlain as an individual, explaining rather that the rules by which he was bound to operate 'simply codify the present and most of the past prejudices of the class he represents'. The fault, Shaw argued, was located primarily in the English character, which seemed strangely willing to grant the right to make judgements on behalf of the individual to a spurious authority. Most people, he said, seemed to be

absolutely convinced that only by a strenuous maintenance of restrictive laws and customs ... can society be withheld from casting all moral considerations to the winds and committing suicide in a general Saturnalia of reckless debauchery ... the normal assumption in England is that without a Censor the stage would instantly plunge to the lowest practicable extreme of degradation.

In this sense, the actual censor is as much a victim as an autocrat; but his effect, says Shaw, is devastating, since 'he is doomed ... to shut the stage door against the great dramatic poets'.

As regards the actual subjects which a playwright must avoid, Shaw claimed that

You mustn't dramatize any of the stories in the Bible. You mustn't make fun of ambassadors, cabinet ministers, or any living persons who have influence in fashionable society, though no notice will be taken of a gag at the expense of ... a Socialist Labor member of the County Council, or people of that sort ... If you introduce a male libertine in a serious play, you had better 'redeem' him in the end by marrying him to an innocent young lady. If a female libertine, it will not matter if she dies at the end, and takes some opportunity to burst into tears on touching the hand of a respectable girl.

The ultimate and governing principle, he maintained, was embodied in an unwritten rule which never changed: 'that a play must not be made the vehicle of new opinions on important subjects, because new opinions are always questionable opinions'. While Shaw's rhetoric may sometimes have exaggerated the situation, that last comment was not very far from the truth.

Although there were examples of religious and political themes being censored, most contemporary observers of theatre during the first decade of the century saw personal and sexual morality as the main target. In a series of articles in 1907 explaining the history of stage censorship, The Times correctly informed its readers that

The censorship is, therefore, political in its origin. But curiously enough, it is not on the political side that its exercise is much criticised today ... It is with questions of morality and decency on the stage that the censorship now mainly occupies itself.

In its annual report on the same year of 1907, the Public Morality Council was proudly identifying its greatest achievement as the partial success of its attempt to drive living statuary out of the music-halls of London by persuading the London County Council to discourage such performances. The campaign had been based on the arguments that 'exhibitions of apparently nude men and women were demoralising to both spectators and performers', that 'the efforts being made to raise the spirit of purity and self-control amongst boys and girls are being seriously impeded by such exhibitions', and that it was 'the duty of the inhabitants of London to set an example, as what is allowed in London will be introduced elsewhere'. Yet if this was a success then it was a partial one. Writing about the state of drama at the end of the decade, one theatre critic still found it

impossible to deny that the sexual instincts of young men are often provoked to an extreme degree by the sight upon the stage of beautiful, half-nude young women ... The degree of nudity, of display of the human form in our theatres, and, of course, music-halls as well, to those unaccustomed to such matters is certainly quite startling, and by many people such displays are regarded as being entirely demoralizing to hot-blooded young men ... Lately the degree of nudity considered permissible has been largely increased ... it is difficult for stern moralists to stomach the danse du ventre.

As with the living statuary, the writer was referring directly to presentations of the unclothed (or underclothed) body on stage. Surprisingly little distinction was made between the explicit and the implicit. One of the plays which provoked the most hostile attacks on the Lord Chamberlain for having licensed it was the fairly well known example of Pinero's A Wife Without a Smile in 1904. The visual image which provoked the outrage was a doll attached to a string suspended from a couch in an unseen room above, which becomes agitated when characters off-stage are supposed to be on the couch together. Under a headline 'The Dirty Drama', one newspaper, which described this image as 'grossly indecent', accused the Lord Chamberlain of having 'gone straight from Ibsenity to unashamed obscenity'. While contemptuous of Pinero for having written a play 'which no self-respecting writer should ever have begun, much less completed', it was George Redford (the Reader of Plays) and Lord Clarendon (the then Lord Chamberlain) who were singled out for blame for not having 'saved the British stage a greater degradation than it ever suffered at the hands of the Restoration dramatists'. A typically private and discreet meeting between Redford and the manager of Wyndham's Theatre in the light of such criticisms resulted in alterations to the action: 'I need hardly say that we are very anxious to do all in our power to meet your wishes', wrote the latter; 'we have moderated the transports of the doll considerably'. But Clarendon still blamed his Examiner for the bad publicity caused; Redford—an enthusiastic admirer of Pinero's work—had failed to anticipate any problems and had therefore not referred the play for another opinion before recommending it for licence. The subsequent furore caused him to seek to protect himself by obtaining and sending to the Lord Chamberlain a letter from a barrister which 'expressly absolves me from any blame'.


Excerpted from The Censorship of British Drama 1900â"1968 by Steve Nicholson. Copyright © 2003 Steve Nicholson. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Because Lions Ain't Rabbits
Section One: 1900-1918
1. From Ibsenity to Obscenity: Principles and Practice 1900-1909
2. People Who Eat Peas With Their Knife: The Government Enquiry of 1909
3. Cats, Canaries and Guinea Pigs: Principles and Practice 1909-1913
4. A Clique of Erotic Women: The First World War (Part One)
5. The Hidden hand: The First World War (Part Two)
Section Two: 1919-1932
6. The Dead Men: Principles and Practice
7. No Screams from Rabbit: Horror and Religion
8. Merchandisers in Muck: The Immortal Maze
9. Our Good Humoured Community: Domestic Politics
10. Foreign Bodies: International Politics
Conclusion: A Gentler Process of Prevention

Select Bibliography

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