Monday, April 6, 2020

All the Plays Not Fit to Perform: Theatrical Censorship in London

By Lauren Beglin

In 1909, the Lord Chamberlain banned a play by George Bernard Shaw. The play included the following exchange about what the government should do regarding suffragettes:

BALSQUITH: But you can’t shoot them down! Women, you know!
MITCHENER: Yes you can. Strange as it may seem to you as a civilian, Balsquith, if you point a rifle at a woman and fire it, she will drop exactly as a man drops.

The play, Press Cuttings, was banned from public performance. This was due not to suggesting the government should murder protesters but that the Prime Minister character bore too close a likeness to the then-sitting Prime Minister.

And so went the censorship of London’s theatres.


Parliament’s earliest known interference with theatres dates to 1530 and was intended to curb potential mob violence. Censoring plays due to subject matter began not quite a decade and a half later in 1543. As part of the English Reformation, Parliament banned plays that involved any sort of religious indoctrination, including interludes and mystery plays. Put another way: If a performance could be viewed as pro-Catholic, best not to stage it.

Modern censorship, as it were, began on June 24, 1737, courtesy of Prime Minister Robert Walpole and his Licensing Act. Playwrights and managers were required, at least fourteen days before performance, to submit plays to the Lord Chamberlain for approval. Anyone who did not would be considered “a rogue and a vagabond” and potentially fined.

Examiners of Plays read the plays and flagged those that required the Lord Chamberlain’s attention. Examiners were not required to provide any reason for censoring a play. While some did, those who did not left playwrights guessing as to what needed to be altered for a play to reach the general public. What was allowed and what was forbidden seemed an ever-moving target. Comedies had more leeway than drama, and censorship was pre-production and limited to a play’s text.

Even these generalities had exceptions, as demonstrated by Arthur Wing Pinero’s A Wife Without a Smile. This 1904 comedy included a doll that one reporter wrote “acts as indicator of the different degrees of amorousness of persons using the couch.” Upon reading a review that referenced this dancing doll, one man wrote to the Lord Chamberlain and demanded the play be closed for being “repugnant to every sense of decency.” The gentleman in question had not seen the production, but the Lord Chamberlain had and initially allowed the play to continue. Public outrage and pressure, however, caused the Lord Chamberlain to withdraw the play’s license.

These events occurred alongside a widening divide between public performances, which required the Lord Chamberlain’s approval, and private performances, which did not. The latter were not amateur performances done in residential drawing rooms but clever legal fictions. Private theatre clubs were usually subscription based and sometimes presented at major London venues. For those in the know, these clubs were the best way to see controversial productions. Earning the Lord Chamberlain’s disapproval came to be considered a badge of honor. Press Cuttings became the Edwardian version of a cult favorite in private performances.

Other notable plays that earned the Lord Chamberlain’s disapproval included:

  • Waste by Harley Granville-Barker. Originally written in 1906 about a politician’s affair with a married woman and her subsequent abortion.
  • Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. Completed in 1894 and focusing on a young woman who discovers her gilded existence is thanks to her mother being a member of the world’s oldest profession.
  • Lorelei by Jacques Deval. A 1938 anti-Nazi drama never granted a license for fear of offending the German head of state.
  • Phyl by Cicely Hamilton. Centers on a governess who turns to prostitution, and licensed in London in 1911 but not performed after it ran afoul of the censor in Oxford.
  • Vectia by Marie Stopes. Banned due to its central theme of couple’s lack of marital relations stemming from the man’s disinterest.

Granville-Barker rewrote Waste, and the updated version premiered in the 1930s. Mrs. Warren’s Profession reached a limited audience via private performances in London before causing an uproar following its 1905 New York premiere (a story unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay).

1918 Production of Mrs Warren's Profession

Stopes recorded her thoughts on censorship in the 1926 printed edition of Vectia. That Vectia was published demonstrates one of the oddities of the censorship laws: books did not fall under the Licensing Act. Similar to private performances, books became another avenue for writers to bring their work to at least part of the public.

With what one assumes was unintended irony, in the same essay where she argued against banning her play, Stopes ended by supporting the status quo on the basis of limiting theatre’s liability. By taking this position, she sided with theatre owners and managers rather than playwrights.

Beginning in the late Victorian Era, writers and actors had chafed against being limited by one man’s tastes, morals, and convictions. The importation of plays such as Hedda Gabler had increased the demand for dramas that tackled social issues. The sometimes arbitrary system of censorship made creating such plays tricky as those who write for money are unlikely to devote time to projects unlikely to reach an audience.

Parliament convened a joint select committee to study theatrical censorship in 1909. In the course of hearings, several well-known members of the theatrical community spoke. George Bernard Shaw, Harley Granville Barker, JM Barrie, Arthur Wing Pinero, and John Galsworthy all argued in favor of artistic freedom.

Suggestions were made. A report was issued. Nothing of substance was done.

World War I ended the push to curtail the Lord Chamberlain’s powers. The issue was not taken up again until after World War II. Not until 1968 would theatres be allowed to stage whatever filth and controversy they desired.

For trivia buffs: The last censored play was Hair. Once the Theatres Act 1968 passed, the musical went onto a run of 1,997 performances, ended only by the theatre’s roof collapsing.

These days, plays sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s office before 1968 can be referenced at the British Library. Some now in the public domain are available online (see below).

Returning to the Edwardian Age, which has been the focus of my research, censorship had an unintentional side effect of aiding the movement towards realism and modernism in the twentieth-century English theatre. The forbidden fruit, after all, is that much sweeter.


Sources
Fraser, Neil. Theatre History Explained. Ramsbury, UK: Crowood, 2004.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Three Plays. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1909.
Ellis, Samantha. “Pinero's A Wife Without a Smile, October 1904.” The Guardian, June 11, 2003. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2003/jun/11/theatre.samanthaellis
Hamilton, Cicely. Diana of Dobson’s: A Romantic Comedy in Four Acts. London: Century Co., 1908. Reprinted with preface and notes by Diane F. Gillespie and Doryjane Birrer. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2003.
Licensing Act 1737. 10 George 2 c. 28. Available at http://statutes.org.uk/site/the-statutes/eighteenth-century/1737-10-george-2-c-28-the-licensing-act/
Shaw, George Bernard. Mrs. Warren’s Profession. With an introduction by Leonard Conolly. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview Press, 2005.
Shaw, George Bernard. Press Cuttings: a topical sketch compiled from the editorial and correspondence columns of the daily papers. Reprint of the 1913 London Constable edition, Project Gutenberg. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/5723
Shellard, Dominic. The Lord Chamberlain Regrets … : A History of British Theatre Censorship. London: British Library, 2004.
Stopes, Marie C. A Banned Play and a Preface on the Censorship. London: John Bale, Sons & Danielson, 1926.
Theatres Act 1968. c. 54. Available at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1968/54

Plays Available Online
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101064790387&view=1up&seq=11
Press Cuttings https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t7hq42c8r&view=1up&seq=7
Waste
https://archive.org/details/wasteplayinfoura00gran/page/n8/mode/2up
A Wife Without a Smile: A Comedy in Disguise
https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc2.ark:/13960/t2q52hv6n&view=1up&seq=7

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Lauren Beglin is based in Los Angeles. Her current manuscript is a comedic novel set in Edwardian London. Although unable to travel to England for research, she did visit the Library of Congress, the Folger Shakespeare Library, and the Belmont-Paul House in Washington, DC. In Los Angeles, she’s become a regular fixture at several libraries, most notably the Los Angeles Central Library and its fabulous collection of plays, including several first editions circa 1900.

The aforementioned institutions are not to blame for any errors in the preceding paragraphs.

For updates on her road to publication or to connect with her via social media, please visit: laurenbeglin.com
Twitter: @lauren_beglin
Instagram: laurenbeglin

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