Half a century on from the end of official British theatre censorship, Nick Smurthwaite looks at writers and critics who campaigned for freedom of expression and works that were given the chop by the Lord Chamberlain
The day after government-sanctioned theatre censorship was finally abolished by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration, after a century-long battle, American producer Michael Butler opened the ‘make love not war’ musical Hair in the West End.
As well as ushering in a spate of shows celebrating sex and nudity – The Dirtiest Show in Town, Let My People Come and Oh Calcutta! among them – Hair raised two fingers to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that had vigorously prevented unfettered dramatic expression for 230 years. By 1968, theatre censorship had long been a cultural millstone and a major source of irritation to playwrights, directors and producers alike.
“It is almost incomprehensible now to think of all the hoops one had to go through,” recalls veteran West End producer Michael Codron, who was responsible for bringing the early plays of Joe Orton, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn and Christopher Hampton into the West End. “It really was nanny-state mentality.”
The critic Michael Billington, who started reviewing in the early 1960s, wrote in his book State of the Nation: “The Lord Chamberlain’s arbitrary powers had become an anachronistic absurdity in an age of free speech. No longer would writers and directors have to go cap in hand to argue the toss over deleted expletives, intimations of sexual intercourse, references to the deity or the representation of living persons on stage.”
Theatre censorship had been around since Tudor times, when the powers that be considered theatre a potentially subversive and destabilising force. It was up to the Master of the Revels, an executive officer appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, to stamp out anything that might threaten the status quo or upset the monarch.
‘Writers were summoned to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to argue their case for including particular words or actions’
It wasn’t until 1737 that prime minister Robert Walpole put the job of censoring plays on the statute book, empowering the Lord Chamberlain – a minor official of the royal household – to veto any new works considered likely to corrupt or deprave. The real reason, by all accounts, was that Walpole wished to protect himself from damaging political satire.
Those powers were extended by the Theatres Act of 1843, which enabled the Lord Chamberlain to do whatever was necessary “for the preservation of good manners, decorum and the public peace”, whether banning a play altogether or requiring the playwright by law to remove offending words, actions or passages.
In the first half of the 20th century, the “examiners of plays”, as they were called, tended to be anonymous ex-military gentlemen of a certain age and class with very little knowledge of or interest in the theatre. They would read a play submitted for licence, write a synopsis and draw the Lord Chamberlain’s attention to anything they considered unpalatable.
If the Lord Chamberlain agreed with the reader’s opinion, a letter would be sent to the playwright saying the play could only be licensed if certain changes were made. On numerous occasions, writers were summoned to the Lord Chamberlain’s office to argue their case for including particular words or actions. They were always treated with courtesy, respect and, one suspects, varying degrees of incomprehension.
In a published interview with Richard Eyre, a former senior official in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, Lieutenant-Colonel John Johnston, revealed the Lord Chamberlain’s yardstick for deciding what was and wasn’t acceptable. Johnston told him: “If you see in a script a word that you would not expect to hear in someone’s drawing room, they ought to think again about it.” Johnston added: “Of course, if the play was set in a coal mine or in a pub, or somewhere like that where drawing-room language is not used, you get into difficulty.”
This led to some hilarious yet no doubt po-faced bargaining sessions in which ‘fart’ would be traded for ‘belch’, ‘fuck’ for ‘cuddle’, ‘arse’ for ‘rear’, ‘screw’ for a ‘nail’, and so on.
In his excellent 2001 history of theatre censorship, Politics, Prudery and Perversions, Nicholas de Jongh recalls playwright John Osborne’s struggle with the censors over his play The Entertainer in 1957, which they considered full of “verbal dirt and smart-alec lines”, as well as “inducing a mood of aversion and disgust”.
They demanded Osborne – a tireless campaigner for the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain – remove “arse upwards”, “clappers”, “pouf”, “shagged”, “rogered”, “wet your pants” and “I always needed a jump at the end of the day and at the beginning as well”. Yet they allowed “have you ever had it on the table?”, “pissed up”, “poke the fire” and “she needs some beef putting into her”. As De Jongh points out, it was hard to see any consistency in the Lord Chamberlain’s rules.
Osborne told Kenneth Tynan, the critic and keen anti-censorship campaigner: “It’s the sheer humiliation that’s bad for the artist. Eventually you can’t avoid thinking of him while you’re writing. He sits on your shoulder like a terrible nanny.”
The resistance of the new wave of post-war playwrights such as Osborne, Pinter, Charles Wood, Arnold Wesker and David Mercer was one of the key factors in the erosion of the Lord Chamberlain’s credibility. If a play fell foul of the censor, London’s Royal Court circumvented his authority by calling itself a private members’ theatre.
Prior to the blossoming of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court in the 1950s, London theatre had been dominated by the likes of Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, Somerset Maugham and Frederick Lonsdale, who were willing to accede to establishment diktats, whether directly or covertly. The new generation of writers demanded honesty, truth and exposure.
‘Even after the abolition of theatre censorship, a vociferous group of self-appointed vigilantes would boo what they regarded as unseemly language or behaviour’
The ploy of staging censored plays in club theatres – the Lord Chamberlain’s jurisdiction extended only to public performances – was also adopted by the commercial theatre. HM Tennent, the powerful West End production company, founded a special club at the Comedy Theatre to stage a banned plays including A View From the Bridge, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy. All three plays dealt with, or hinted at, aspects of homosexuality, which was evidently considered unfit for public consumption.
Even after the abolition of theatre censorship, West End theatres often found themselves invaded by the Gallery First Nighters’ Club, a vociferous group of self-appointed vigilantes – precursors to Mary Whitehouse – who would position themselves in the upper gallery to barrack and boo what they regarded as unseemly language or behaviour.
Private prosecutions have been few and far between since 1968. The Theatres Act made it clear that obscenity rather than indecency was the only real justification for prosecution – and if offended most of us prefer to express our disgust or disapproval by walking out or choosing not to attend the performance in the first place.
In recent times, plays dealing with matters of faith have come under fire from protesters. In 2004 Birmingham Rep’s production of Behzti (Dishonour), written by British-born Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, depicting murder and rape in a Sikh temple, provoked such violent protests by Sikh leaders outside the theatre that the run had to be curtailed.
More recently, the National Youth Theatre cancelled a show it had commissioned, Homegrown, about the radicalisation of young Muslims, citing issues of artistic quality. An extract from the play was performed later by Index on Censorship, but it has yet to receive a full production, although the text has now been published.
Compared with most countries, Britain enjoys a long tradition of freedom of speech but the forces of repression are never far away. “The more we move from public to private funding on the American model, the greater the risk of external intervention,” says Billington. “Theatrical censorship in Britain may be dead, but total freedom of expression has yet to be achieved.”
Ibsen’s play tackling the subject of sexually transmitted disease was banned and received a single private performance in London in 1891, when it was described as “abominable” and “an open drain” by critics in attendance.
Taking his cue from Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw set out to shock with this play about prostitution, which had to settle for a single club performance before being passed for public consumption in 1925.
Wedekind’s satire on youthful sexual oppression was branded pornographic and banned outright for decades. Only in 1963 was a censored version finally cleared for performance in the UK.
Noel Coward persuaded the Lord Chamberlain that his play about sexuality and drug abuse among the upper classes was deeply moralistic, and it was given a licence – with some cuts – proving to be a stonking West End hit.
It was more than 50 years before Joe Orton’s black comedy was produced in its original form at the Park Theatre in 2017, having been heavily censored for its homosexual references and profanity.
So determined was the Royal Court to produce John Osborne’s banned play about homosexuality in the Austro-Hungarian intelligence service in the 1890s that it converted itself to a members’ club for the duration of the run.
Once again, the Royal Court reverted to being a club theatre to stage Edward Bond’s inflammatory play about the desperate lives of a London under-class. Director William Gaskill was prosecuted and fined £50.
This play accused the recently deceased Winston Churchill of war crimes, but the censor’s main objection was that it portrayed a living person, the head of Bomber Command, in an unflattering light. Kenneth Tynan produced it in the West End shortly after censorship was abolished.