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Exit: the Lord Chamberlain — 50 years since the end of stage censorship

26 July 2018

Michael Caines considers the impact of the end of theatrical censorship, 50 years ago this week


William Ash as Christ in The Globe Mysteries, by Tony Harrison, at Shakespeare’s Globe (2011)

William Ash as Christ in The Globe Mysteries, by Tony Harrison, at Shakespeare’s Globe (2011)

WAS it really only 50 years ago? Amazingly, it was. On 26 July 1968, the Theatres Act received the Royal Assent: effectively, it abolished state censorship of the theatre in the UK. An archaic and inconsistent system of stopping playwrights from saying what they wanted to say had been, at last, overthrown. What difference has that made to the relationship between the stage and the Church?

Piety and theatricality have not, of course, always been the best of friends.

“One must deal with the comedians as with public sinners,” one standard French theological work in the 19th century advised. “Remove them from participation with holy things while they belong to the theatre, admit when they leave it.”

Yet “holy things” will keep cropping up on secular stages. Only a few years before the passing of the Theatres Act, the Lord Chamberlain, who bore the responsibility for licensing plays for professional performance, could refer in passing (in The Sunday Times) to one regular aspect of his job: excising “Christ” and “Jesus” when they were used as expletives in scripts submitted to his office. This might be “common parlance”, he argued, but such usages “still do give offence to a great number of people”.

This was censorship as civic responsibility. Not everybody appreciated the gesture: George Bernard Shaw, some years earlier, had dubbed the then Lord Chamberlain “the Malvolio of St James’s Palace”. Plays could be refused a licence for many reasons — perhaps unacceptable political stances, above all — but Shaw’s image of a puritan at work seems all too appropriate. The very idea of a censor implies a dubious narrowness of vision. Yet there it was: a contract between State and stage, by which the stage gained the right to exist and the State gained control over what was staged. Take it or leave it.

ALAMYThe premiere of Lot and His God, a biblical re-imagining by Howard Barker at the Print Room, London (2012)

THE great age of British theatrical censorship began, as these things often do, with royalty. In 1494, almost a decade into the reign of the first Tudor monarch, Henry VII, the first Master of the Revels was appointed to oversee entertainments at the court. It was meant to be a temporary appointment — but monarchs will hanker after their distractions.

By Shakespeare’s day, the Master of the Revels had become a job for life. Licensing plays for performance on the public stage became one of the office’s duties. Scrutinising plays for blasphemy became a fundamental aspect of that duty. From then on, royally authorised censorship was to be the norm, throughout the ensuing centuries, and across the British Isles (although the Licensing Act of 1737 overhauled the Tudor system of licensing plays, and made the task the responsibility of the Lord Chamberlain).

Yet this was not merely censorship: licensing a play also meant stamping it fit for purpose and effectively protecting it from any possible prosecution. Establishing permanent theatrical buildings and professional playing companies was subject to similar rules, and a sense of patronage which ideally offered mutual benefits.

PAKenneth Tynan

Some liked it that way. As recently as 1956, the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan could write that “most theatre managers approve of the Lord Chamberlain,” regarding him as their “guarantee of safety” and rendering their productions “immune from legal action”. To Tynan himself, however, this was a deplorable situation, and he is one of the influential figures whose principled campaigning led to the Theatres Act.

In one sense, this was a matter of making the theatrical company responsible for censoring itself, as the film industry was. The so-called Hayes Code of 1930 included stipulations about refraining from ridiculing any religion, and from presenting ministers as “comic characters or villains”, while also handling the representation of religious ceremonies “carefully and respectfully”. If Hollywood could do it, why couldn’t the West End?

In retrospect, such arguments may seem naïve. They assume both a certain kind of attitude within the theatre business and a commensurate attitude among theatre-goers. The assumption appeared to be that, to escape adult supervision, the infantile theatre needed to persuade the world of the value that it placed on morality and respectability. On the grand scale of things, this pose seems somewhat craven — not least because the past 50 years demonstrate that a secular theatre may set something more like its own agenda, and is all the better for doing so.

This is not simply to boast that, when confronted with a little “commonplace” swearing, it is possible to turn the other cheek (even if this is something that the Lord Chamberlain once protectively assumed theatre audiences would be incapable of). But the freedom to use (or misuse, if you like) religious language on stage would seem to have interesting artistic and social implications: the Theatres Act made it possible to represent new attitudes, changing times, curious reflections of Christianity, and much more.

To some, this might simply mean: cue the swearing. Cue David Hare’s Skylight: “All right, for Christ’s sake, what is it?” Cue: Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker: “Jesus Christ, the hunger on the ship, sailors won’t touch me: no rantum scantum, no food”. All right, we get the message. In the name of realism, anything goes.

In fact, letting actors take certain names in vain meant nothing more than allowing them to say on stage what might be heard on many a night or day in many a street. Even in the House of Commons, in 1971, this was deemed to be common sense. “As for those four-letter words,” the theatre-loving MP Hugh Jenkins said, “I confess that I do not believe that people utter them quite so often as playwrights like to pretend these days, but I believe that the words are beginning to lose their magic as, indeed, ‘bloody’ lost its magic with the passage of years. I believe that before long dramatists will have to return to the hard slog of being coherent.”

ALAMYSimon Callow as Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels to Elizabeth I, in Shakespeare in Love (1988)

THERE have, however, been more significant developments for playwrights in the wake of the Theatres Act. Take the case of Sarah Kane, that radical and uncompromising playwright of the 1990s. According to one of her obituaries, Kane was a “fervent born-again” Christian in her teens, before she made a “conscious decision to reject God”.

She would go on, in her difficult, necessary plays, to embrace the freedom to use language how she pleased. “What the Christ was that?” somebody says in Blasted, her Daily Mail-baiting breakthrough. And elsewhere there is: “Bric-a-brac, bits and bobs, getting by, Christ Almighty wept”; as well as “Christ is dead And the monks are in ecstasy”.

This is not simply a desire to swear for swearing’s sake. Kane’s work is full of unremitting anguish, and, with according respect, in his book The Tragic Imagination, Rowan Williams is inclined to meditate on this “theatre of extremity” and its meaning. Kane’s dramas are “monumentally unconsoled” — what does their grotesque violence, as well their violent language, reveal about the modern world?

In the case of Blasted, the aim is not “to offer a series of gratuitous shocks, but to expose the interpersonal world in which it begins as a paper-thin cover for the savagery that surrounds and pervades”. For those who can bear it, it has the radical impact of a new rending of the veil.

Before 1968, it would have been impossible to stage Blasted in the conventional manner (although a significant circumvention of censorship was available in the form of “private” theatrical clubs that, for nominal fees curiously close to the normal ticket prices, allowed large audiences to enjoy performances of contraband drama).

Similarly, it is difficult to imagine, two decades earlier, Howard Barker getting away (or perhaps even attempting to get away) with some of his work staged in the 1980s, such as The Last Supper or The Castle. The Castle, to take just one instance, depicts a king pursuing his own perversion of Christianity, and includes an obscene travesty of the eucharist (it has something to do with Mary Magdalene).

Recognised at the time as blasphemous, Barker’s play none the less drew little or no protest. It is, as one critic has put it, a “doctrinally complex” piece of work, and its religiosity “does not fall into easy soundbites” — unlike, say, Jerry Springer: The Opera, which, two decades later, did create a storm when it was staged at the National Theatre.

In that instance, as with The Book of Mormon in more recent years, the purpose of the satire was clear, as was its popular appeal. It is notable that the red-faced crowd did not turn up until Jerry Springer had reached the sizeable and prestigious National Theatre, accompanied by much hype.

That hype did its job all too well. It seems unlikely that the mob would have taken any notice if the show had remained, as The Castle was, a relatively marginal concern of greater complexity and seriousness; for The Castle is also concerned with paganism, fertility, power, war, and much else besides — it is well worth seeking out. And it is one of the rewards of the post-censorship age that it has become possible for plays such as this to emerge at all.

In other words, letting the profane genie out of the bottle is by no means the death of all that is sacred, but a deepening of theatre’s capacity to reflect the world as a whole. Facetious entertainments such as The Book of Mormon, and extreme events such as the work of Sarah Kane stand at opposite ends of the spectrum, and yet depend on the same idea: that there is a right to freedom of theatrical expression.

Richly rewarding work such the dramas named above — or David Edgar’s Ecclesiastes, or Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, or Tony Harrison’s Mysteries cycle, based on the medieval canon of religious drama, or many others — may not be guaranteed at every turn, but the artistic achievements in this regard, over the past five decades, seem to me to be inarguably worth the price of admission.

This is not to pretend, incidentally, that religiously tempered drama was impossible before 1968; on the contrary, certain species of drama, such as T. S. Eliot’s, if not exactly flourishing, were certainly encouraged to bloom. Hypothetically, it is possible to imagine a playwright such as David Hare submitting work to a Lord Chamberlain and getting some version of it accepted — whether or not he could call a monologue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Via Dolorosa, or a chamber piece about Oscar Wilde and his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas The Judas Kiss.

Yet it is easy to imagine some censorious clerk frowning over the flippancy of the dialogue in the latter play.

“This is the hour Christ died,” Wilde announces, at six o’clock. “I thought Christ died at three,” Douglas replies. Wilde again: “Christ died at six. He died at cocktail hour.” These may not be perfectly enlightened times, but at least we can say that the Lord Chamberlain is not allowed to gag (this) Wilde. And, for every lazy portrayal of a comic priest or throwaway spate of cussing, this is probably a forgiving and democratic attitude to be proud of.

Lord Cobbold, the last Lord Chamberlain before the Theatres Act was passed

Licences issued — and removed

by Glyn Paflin

THEATRICAL censorship could have been abolished a decade earlier with the consent of the Lord Chamberlain of the day (Lord Scarborough), who, in a secret memo, proposed its review, the historian Steve Nicholson writes in the third volume, The Fifties, of his The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968 (Exeter University Press, 2011; £65; 978-0-85989-750-1*). That its abolition was delayed was due to “government ministers who refused to bring the matter to parliament for debate”.

By this stage in the history of the Lord Chamberlain’s office, the censor was working on principles set out by a joint select committee in 1909. All plays were to be licensed, except those deemed to be indecent; to contain offensive personalities; to represent “in an invidious manner” living or recently dead persons; “To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence”; or “To be calculated to conduce crime or vice, . . . impend friendly relations with a foreign Power; or . . . cause a breach of the peace”.

The Lord Chamberlain’s Assistant Comptroller, Norman Gwatkin, explained to an enquirer that the censor was not bound by a written code, but had “unfettered judgement”. The censorship was “personal”.

Although in the 1950s the hottest topic, according to Nicholson’s analysis, was homosexuality — banned by the censor, whose rulings were then flouted by the loophole of staging plays such as A View from the Bridge and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a theatre licensed as a “private theatre club” — religious sensitivities relating to irreverence and blasphemy could also still result in the refusal of a licence altogether, or in a requirement that changes be made to the script. More than 20 cuts were required in Sandy Wilson’s musical Valmouth, adapted from Ronald Firbank’s comic novel, with its high campery mixing the sexuality of old ladies with Roman Catholic exotica.

More surprisingly perhaps, from a contemporary point of view, in the same month as Look Back in Anger was approved, a licence was refused for an amateur performance of a play that the Lord Chamberlain’s reader, Geoffrey Dearmer, called “a perfectly reverent, dignified and accurate life of Our Lord”. The ban derived from a rule that no one was to represent the figure of Christ on stage. The play was J. W. Brannigan’s Life of Christ, intended for a pageant that was to have been performed in the Odsal Stadium, Bradford.

A licence was issued for James Forsyth’s The Road to Emmaus in 1957 after the character of Jesus (“The Stranger”) was deleted, but observed only offstage, approaching, and referred to as “the Holy Man”. It was licensed for the Queen’s Hall, Cuckfield. Christ could not be referred to as a “blighter” by one of the guards in A. E. Green’s religious play The Rock, and that change was made before it was licensed for South Benfleet Church Hall, in April 1956.

The fear of appearing to license blasphemous material for performance, particularly if the offence related to the Church of England, did not rule out all digs at religion. Nigel Dennis’s The Making of Moo, a satire licensed for the Royal Court Theatre, was, Gwatkin responded to a complainant after the event, “more of a general questioning of all revealed religions. It was felt that the dogmas and faiths of these religions should be proof against this form of hard-hitting, barbed banter. . . It might even be that ‘we gather honey from the weed and make a moral of the Devil himself.’”

Tyrone Guthrie’s play Follow Me, a transposition of the incarnation to the Scotland of 1959, raised quite different concerns. “If the Incarnation is to be postulated to have taken place in Scotland now, then why not in the Congo, now, in which case the questions of ‘decorum’ and ‘breach of the peace’, upon which the stage censorship truly rest, would most certainly be imperilled.”

It was discovered, however, that the play had already been licensed in 1932, on the advice of the Bishop of London. The Lord Chamberlain’s Assistant Examiner and Reader, Sir St Vincent Troubridge, considered that it would be “folly and impertinence” to override this. Nicholson notes: “Troubridge may well have had in his mind an American text written nearly thirty years earlier and not yet licensed, which imagined God as ‘an idealized Negro preacher’, smoking cigars.”

This play, The Green Pastures, had been turned down in 1930 with the explicit support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King. Despite having been made into a successful film, it was turned down again in the 1950s after Archbishop Fisher advised the censor: “There are many Africans in London and presumably they or some of them would see the play. Knowing the temper of African nationalism at the present time I wonder if this play would strike Africans as helpful or would not rather inflame their feelings. When all around negroes and Africans are claiming the rights of mature people is not it rather a grave thing to have a play which represents them as a child race?”

*Nicholson’s history of theatre censorship draws extensively on the Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence Files, held by the British Library, and is a captivating read.

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