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Censorship and the Stage

Naked Censorship: Stripping the Censors’ Discourse

La censure mise à nu ou le discours des censeurs déconstruit
Anne Etienne

Résumés

Craint pour son potentiel subversif, le théâtre anglais fut soumis au contrôle préalable du Lord Chamberlain pendant plus de 200 ans.

Cet article interdisciplinaire vise à éclairer les principes sur lesquels se fondèrent la législation de la censure théâtrale et la politique d’inertie des gouvernements modernes. Ainsi, il offre une perspective nouvelle à l’argument moral utilisé par Walpole initialement puis repris comme défense finale dans les années 1960. À cette fin, nous explorerons l’écart qui existait entre les discours officiels et officieux des censeurs, permettant ainsi de révéler les moyens et la mécanique secrète de ce contrôle disciplinaire. Nous pourrons donc évaluer comment les différents censeurs se sont adaptés aux pressions internes et externes et de quelle manière ces changements ont affecté les relations entre censeurs et auteurs. Enfin, nous poserons la question d’une présence censoriale après 1968.

Ce travail est le résultat de recherches en archives (British Library, National Archives) et d’entretiens avec des auteurs et autres praticiens du théâtre.

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Texte intégral

  • 1 This notion is to be found notably in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1.
  • 2 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, Miscellaneous Works, ed. M. Maty, vol. 2, London: E. (...)
  • 3 For a complete list of the censorship systems in foreign countries, see the Report of the Joint Se (...)

1Bourdieu defines censorship as a process of euphemisation and Foucault as a disciplinary power that shapes society through specialised discourse.1 Statutory theatre censorship as it was exercised in England from 1737 to 1968 provides ample confirmation of these theories and points to the essentially controlling form of the relationship between theatrical production and the government. Indeed, the very nature of censorship initiated by Prime Minister Robert Walpole proves the necessity for concealing the true motives of its existence in a country that was proud of its liberties. Walpole engineered the 1737 Licensing Act for his own benefit because he had been attacked by such satirists as John Gay and Henry Fielding. However, it was only at the Second Reading of the bill to amend vagrancy legislation that he stepped in with a clause that would make the Lord Chamberlain the censor of plays prior to production. His official reason was to stop scurrilous plays. Given the freedom the stage had enjoyed since the Restoration as well as the hand-made proof Walpole produced (the infamous Golden Rump), Parliament passed the Act that would silence political plays for over 200 years. Only Lord Chesterfield’s voice resounded in the House of Lords, albeit in vain, against the danger of arbitrary powers and the risk of bidding “adieu to the Liberties of Great Britain”.2 Though overstated, his fears proved prophetic as plays could continue to be banned as late as 1968 when other European democracies had abandoned their censorship at the turn of the century.3 The answer for this discrepancy lies once more in the subtle use of the censor’s discourse. This is not to say that authors themselves did not eventually retaliate, and indeed we shall observe how their own discourse and strategies evolved in a way that affected the censorship system. Finally, the 1968 Theatres Act that discharged the Lord Chamberlain of his censoring responsibility merely led to dramatists being thereafter subjected to the common law, like any other writer. As a result, new multimorphous censors emerged to react to the authors’ freed dramatic discourse.

Invisibility as the Art of Censorship

  • 4 “Censorship and Morals: an Age-Old Fear”, The Times, 13 September 1929.

There’s an instinctive fear that, unless the strong interest in sex was controlled, it would destroy much that made life worth living. All the ridiculous, and even pernicious, forms of censorship were based on that age-old fear. It was utterly impossible to eradicate sex from art. 4

  • 5 John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London: Methuen, 1986, 256.

2While it seems anachronistic that theatre censorship could remain until the late 1960s, the caricatural prudishness of the audience — no sex please, we’re British — partly explains the firm hold that the Lord Chamberlain kept on the stage. The Lord Chamberlain’s archives demonstrate how the excision of themes such as adultery, divorce, illicit unions, seduction, masturbation, sexual offences, mentions of wedding nights, naked breasts, other private parts, manifestations of the penis, and utterances of “prat, cat, fuckers and buggers”, represented the daily task of his Readers of Plays. From the late 1950s onwards, as the censors grew belatedly more lenient in response to the zeitgeist and authors’ repeated complaints about restrictions on their creative limits, rewriting became an increasingly frequent alternative to brutal cutting and banning. The censors took such pain to tone down plays with acceptable euphemisms that Joe Orton, for instance, exploded with humour at the ridiculous maiming of his sexed-up plays: “What am I saying about Churchill, though? I’m saying he had a big prick. That isn’t libellous, surely? I wouldn’t sue anybody for saying I had a big prick. No man would. In fact, I might pay them to do that”.5 This example, mixing as it does the demands of propriety and the reputation of a political figure, points to the very nature of censorship.

  • 6 “And be it enacted, That it shall be lawful for the Lord Chamberlain for the Time being, whenever (...)
  • 7 A brief study of the list and dates of Lords Chamberlain in office compared with those of the Prim (...)
  • 8 See LR Corr 1923/10, 19 November 1923. (LR indicates Licence Refused)

3Because 75% of the plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain were concerned in a broad sense with morality (from societal issues such as divorce or drug abuse to indecent language), censorship in the 20th century was still understood to be a moral shield. Yet, the claimed protection of morality, embedded within the wording of the 1843 Theatres Act, was also a convenient pretext.6 In a democracy renowned for its respect of freedom, it would have been unconceivable to admit to restraining free speech for political reasons. Following Walpole’s suit, the whole apparatus of censorship had cloaked itself under an air of neutrality. The Lord Chamberlain was the first officer of the Royal Household and, as such, officially apolitical.7 In practice, he would refer plays to the relevant government departments when he was in doubt as to how to proceed. For instance, Marie Stopes’ play Our Ostriches, promoting the need for birth control, was finally licensed when the Lord Chamberlain received the agreement of the Minister of Health.8 In all cases their liaising was kept carefully secret. Similarly, despite an initial positive response from the Reader of Plays Henry Game, Irwin Shaw’s The Assassin, concerned with the murder of Admiral Darlan, was directly condemned by the Foreign Office:

  • 9 LR Corr 1944/3. Letter from Sir Alexander Cadogan (Foreign Office) to Lord Clarendon (Lord Chamber (...)

[…] If Shaw’s play were to be given a public performance now, the whole sordid Darlan story would be dragged into the limelight again and old passions revived at a moment when it is more important than ever before for Frenchmen to fall together and to forget their past differences with the Americans and ourselves.9

4History sheds light on this close and unpublicised relationship between St James’ Palace and the governmental Offices. Until 1924, the censor was replaced at every change of government and the newly elected Prime Minister would choose his Lord Chamberlain among his circle of friends, thereby ensuring his best interests and his policies would be served and the stage maintained in a state of obedience and adequation with the governmental views of the pace of the evolution of British society and values. Furthermore, since the Lord Chamberlain would not be questioned in the Commons, his position was officially beyond interference. Both he and the government desired to retain this commonly advantageous situation even when the Prime Minister ceased to appoint his Lord Chamberlain in 1924, as indicated in this exchange:

  • 10 National Archives, HO 45/12254. Correspondance between Home Office and Lord Cromer, 5 January 1925 (...)

It does not make any fundamental change […] It will no doubt be convenient that the Secretary of State shall continue to answer questions in the House of Commons when they arise. For that reason the Lord Chamberlain should keep in close touch with the Home Office, and consult the Secretary of State beforehand as to any matters which are likely to arouse public comment but the Secretary of State will take no responsibility for the decisions of the Lord Chamberlain.
It will, I feel, be a matter of gratification to the King to know that the Government would certainly be reluctant to see any alteration in the existing system, which, in spite of the criticisms […] seems to work quite well in practice. I need hardly assure you that in matters governing questions of policy or legal points I should always work in consultation with the Home Office, and I am very grateful to you personally for your kind assurance of advice and assistance in case of need.10

5Hence, the Lord Chamberlain would continue to ban any discourse that could endanger the status quo by prompting the audience to question their social and political environment. As a result, throughout the 20th century, not only was political drama virtually extinct but most serious plays were also banned or rephrased to such an extent that their authors, such as George Bernard Shaw and Edward Bond – both representatives of New Drama in the two periods of theatrical renaissance - would refuse to have them produced, or even printed in the case of Rattigan’s Follow my Leader.

6Hiding the censorship’s true nature was further rendered possible by constructing a form of communication that explained nothing to the authors. It is notable that neither the text of the 1737 Licensing Act nor that of the 1843 Theatres Act mentions the dramatists. The individuals who were stigmatised as criminals — as they were breaking the law, their hard work could be reduced to nothing — were ignored by the legislators, an initial process leading towards erasing the existence of their plays. Secondly, when a play was refused a licence, the Lord Chamberlain could merely, and often did, close the case with the simple judgment that the play was “immoral and otherwise improper for the stage” and contravened the 1843 Theatres Act. Consequently, the author was not given the slightest indication as to the exact offence he had committed. This lack of clarity was coupled with another communication device which seems to have been implied within the wording of the censorship acts. Since the authors were absent from the legal texts, the Lord Chamberlain did not address his report to them. His sentence was issued to the theatre manager, the one who was considered at risk should he produce a delicate play. Hence, the work of months of writing could be annihilated by a stroke of the blue pencil and in silent disdain for the author, who had additionally no right to appeal.

7Theatre censorship therefore created clans within the profession. Theatre managers believed, wrongly, that they were being legally protected by the Lord Chamberlain’s approval of a play. Most authors agreed to have their words and thoughts rephrased by the Lord Chamberlain’s office in exchange for the financial security of a production. Walpole’s scheme had been faultless in taming a potentially dangerous art form.

“We shall get in one blow […] and it must be a smasher”11

  • 11 George Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters 1898-1910, ed. D. H. Laurence, London: Max Reinhardt, 1972, (...)
  • 12 In 1907, 71 authors signed a “protest against the power lodged in the hands of a single official” (...)

8At the turn of the twentieth century the government, commercial theatre managers and the general audience appeared quite satisfied with the presence of a centralised censor and a tamed stage. At the same time, the influence of European drama, especially Scandinavian and French drama, was to be felt on British authors in that it encouraged them to explore social issues on stage. To name but the most controversial dramatists, George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker, respectively in Mrs Warren’s Profession and Waste, questioned the state of society and its hypocritical morals. Their plays were duly banned but they were not the type to suffer in silence. Authors started to express strong resistance against arbitrary censorship and made their case as public as they could through the press. Their action eventually resulted in the setting up of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship), the first Parliamentary investigation devoted to theatre censorship since it had come under statute law. Shaw in particular was incensed when three of his plays were banned for addressing moral, religious and political issues (Mrs Warren’s Profession between 1898 and 1924, The Shewing-up of Blanco Posnet from 1909 to 1916, and Press Cuttings in 1909 — this last play having been written for the express purpose of being censored according to some). He reacted in typically outspoken fashion. Not only did he devote the preface of Blanco Posnet and Mrs Warren’s Profession to the question of censorship, but he also led the authors’ rebellion against the censor in 1907.12 He was not alone in denouncing the dire consequences of the censor’s ignorance in matters theatrical: the critic William Archer expressed the sentiment of unrepresented authors at the 1909 Joint Select Committee:

  • 13 Report of the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship), 30 August 1909, 34.

The effect of censorship is to depress and to mutilate and actually to keep out of existence — not only to destroy, but to keep out of existence — serious plays; because many authors will not write serious plays under the threat of having them destroyed by a single act of the censor. On the other hand, it is in the nature of the censorship to be indulgent, shall we say, to all the lighter forms of frivolity which sometimes trench very closely upon indecency and impropriety.13

9These testimonies clearly point to the Lord Chamberlain and his Reader of Plays as the primary bearers of responsibility for the impoverished state of British drama, compared with the flourishing productions of the free European and Irish stages.

  • 14 See Chapter 3 in David Thomas, David Carlton and Anne Etienne, Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to (...)

10Shaw and his fellow signatories signalled the need to abolish censorship and to develop a shared language between censors and authors, that of art and literature, a dialogue that would render the stage better rather than worse. The 1909 Joint Select Committee concluded that censorship should become optional. Yet no legislation ensued: the King wanted to keep his Lord Chamberlain and the Prime Minister deemed it wiser to fight him over the Parliament Bill rather than over censorship legislation.14 Nonetheless, as a new Lord Chamberlain was discreetly appointed and his infamous Reader of Plays George Alexander Redford dismissed, the censors finally began, if slowly, to adapt to cultural and societal evolution and to understand that their actions would be scrutinised in the future.

11This sudden decision to address the stigmatised writers was initiated in response to loud revelations of the contradictions created by the censorship system:

  • 15 Letter from Granville Barker to the Editor, The Times, 10 June 1909.

How is one, unenlightened, to distinguish between Salome with the head of John the Baptist (censored) and the same Salome with a blood-dripping sword (licensed); […] between Monna Vanna, wholly clothed in a single garment (censored) and The Devil in which the same situation is suggested (licensed)? […] How was I to tell, in writing Waste that, while almost every variety of adultery, seduction and debauchery may be vividly presented in the theatre, yet an illegal operation might not even be mentioned? […] It is for the public good to have vice painted in glowing colours, but for the public harm that its consequences should ever be referred to.15

12In drawing this comparison, Granville Barker was aware that other plays about abortion had been allowed by the censor. If censorship had so far prospered because it was a silent and invisible process, it would now remain only by adopting a more direct form of communication with the authors. This drastic change was anticipated when censoring Shaw’s Blanco Posnet. It was to avoid more bad press from its author that the Reader of Plays opted for a detailed analysis of the offensive passages instead of the usual deadlock following a refusal to license. It is interesting to note that this use of a specialised discourse was initially aimed not at improving the censorship process but at limiting the authors’ freedom of speech once more.

  • 16 Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw, in The Complete Plays, New York: Grove Press, 1976, 371.
  • 17 See Report of the Joint Select Committee on Censorship of the Theatre, 6 December 1966, 39-40. The (...)

13Yet, once censorship had been revealed for what it was, a political tool devised to discipline the audience, it was only a question of time before it became an anachronistic embarrassment for the government, a situation that finally occurred in the 1960s. This was the result not only of a strong resistance exercised by the authors but also of a slow erosion of the censors’ vetoes. From the inter-war period onwards, the censors adapted progressively to dramatic language and issued new rulings as the evolution of society as they saw it commanded. For instance, Queen Victoria became an apt subject for the stage — when reverently mentioned — in 1937, and God followed in the late 1950s. Homosexuality was tolerated if camp, and nudity — or its suggestion and implications — remained a delicate matter, carefully checked, but was allowed to seep onto the stage. It was in the 1960s that the main difficulty for the censor emerged. In the wake of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, young irreverent authors such as Bond and Orton questioned contemporary values and the veracity of the “never had it so good” catchphrase. If Joe Orton’s plays were read with open disgust and his most outrageous, sexed up sentences duly cut (“You were born with your legs apart, they’ll send you to the grave in a Y-shaped coffin”)16 only to reappear on the stage as soon as production opened, salacious language and inappropriate sexual behaviour were in fact not the central problem of censorship in the swinging, emancipated 60s.17

  • 18 LCP 1958/578 Endgame. Memo by Assistant Comptroller, 22 January 1958.
  • 19 The scene also allows Bond to present his case: “Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London (...)
  • 20 LR Corr 1965/1 Saved, Report by Charles Heriot, 30 June 1965.
  • 21 This generational and societal discrepancy between the Lord Chamberlain and the Angry Young Men was (...)

14Drama in the late 1950s and 60s has been defined as the site of a double revolution, consisting in a new aesthetics as illustrated by Beckett and other Absurd writers, and of a social and political discourse developed by Osborne, Arden, Wesker and Bond. If his staff were merely irritated by Beckett, “a conceited ass”, 18 it was against John Osborne and Edward Bond that the Lord Chamberlain still wielded his blue pencil as if it were a knife. The transvestite ball scene had to be excised from Osborne’s A Patriot for Me. It did not solely flamboyantly express the homosexuality of the characters, but it also endangered the respect due to the Establishment elite since these characters were also prominent individuals at Court. In Bond’s Saved, the scene of the stoning of the baby had to be removed despite its fundamental importance to the narrative. Placed centrally in scene 6, it focuses the gaze on a senseless act of violence, presented as a mere game which escalates into infanticide as the baby’s father outdares his friends to fill their empty day.19 Similarly, the colourful colloquial language of the disillusioned, lost youth was judged “vile” and “revolting” and vetoed, with a few unacceptable euphemisms proposed as alternatives by the censor.20 To show his willingness to compromise, the Lord Chamberlain allowed Bond to propose his own rewording, thereby proving that the objective of the naturalistic language used by the new generation of writers, a semantic representation of the social and cultural vacuity of their lives, was misunderstood.21 The correspondence file illustrates how strongly the censor felt about the play and how calculating his officers proved themselves in drafting an appropriate response:

  • 22 LR Corr 1965/1, Tim (Nugent) to Eric (Penn), 25 July 1965.

I am wondering whether it would not be better to allow the play with the many and absolutely necessary cuts that Charles Heriot suggests. It is tantamount to banning the play because I presume the tasteless Devine will merely put it on when the Court is a theatre club whether it is banned or not and I cannot conceive how he can put it on commercially with the cuts that the Lord Chamberlain will insist upon.
Another point occurs to me which you may think too fanciful. If the play is banned could not Devine tone it down considerably and then put it on at his theatre club as an example of the Lord Chamberlain’s prudishness. Whereas if the play is not banned but merely cut to ribbons he can’t trail off this childish score off the Lord Chamberlain.22

  • 23 Ibidem, Letter from Lord Cobbold to Norman Skelhorn (Director of Public Prosecutions), 6 October 1 (...)
  • 24 See note 11.

15Bond resisted by refusing to amend his text in any way and their ploy failed. The Royal Court Theatre resorted to a private production under the auspices of the English Stage Society, without toning down the play. The stakes must have been high since the Lord Chamberlain decided to put pressure on the government to launch a prosecution against the theatre. Clearly vexed by the Law Officers’ refusal to do so when the Royal Court had produced A Patriot for Me under similar conditions, Lord Cobbold plainly expressed his position: “I think that any Lord Chamberlain would find difficulties in attempting to administer the present Theatres Act indefinitely if it became clear that it could be flouted with impunity”.23 His sentiment was heard and a court case ensued. The magistrate resolved a legal point which had been inconclusively interpreted by the Law Officers since the turn of the century: all private performances were illegal according to the 1843 Theatres Act. This platform, so far tolerated by the Lord Chamberlain as a convenient safety valve, could not be used by banned authors any longer. The Saved case had shaken the already fragile status of censorship and precipitated its abolition. Without the outlet offered by private productions, the censored plays of the major authors of the period would be effectively barred from the stage, leading to more adverse press coverage against the Lord Chamberlain, more embarrassing questions in Parliament, and further distancing from the Government — a process which was clearly initiated with the case of A Patriot for Me. Though not “in one blow”, and not in Shaw’s time,24 the authors’ fight against censorship had nonetheless been successful.

Political Correctness

  • 25 A questionnaire was sent to 454 venues and theatre companies and asked whether they had been threat (...)
  • 26 With their first plays, respectively Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, Kane and Ravenhill shocked t (...)

16The provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act were aimed at prohibiting obscenity, defamation and racial hatred. Drama was at long last a free art form and dramatists were placed on the same legal footing as any other artists. It was initially feared that sex would invade the English stage and that the Royal Family would become fair game for radical authors. Beyond Hair and Oh Calcutta!, these fears proved unfounded, but while the act was devised to avoid petty prosecutions, legislators could not foresee or make provisions for the emergence of other forms of censorship. According to a survey carried out in 2003, the removal of the censor had made way for careful self-censorship on the part, not of the authors, but of the producers and theatre executives.25 While only five organisations admitted to an amount of self-censorship, as if the notion itself were shameful, 24 testified that their artistic choices were indirectly governed by market pressure and their Boards of Governors. In other words, in either case, the inference is that they know their audiences and base their programming on likely box-office returns. The centralised censor has therefore been replaced by a number of theatre executives and sponsors who choose not to take chances with the tastes of their patrons. For example, in the provinces, the confrontational, “In-Yer-Face” plays of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill are rarely produced because they are deemed too controversial and challenging for audiences.26

  • 27 Toma Dim (Battersea Arts Theatre) interviewed by Anne Etienne, 27 January 2003.

17A direct form of censorship which turned out to be more pernicious emerged once more at a centralised level with Tony Blair’s government. To ensure its efficiency, its presence remained unknown to the public at large. It was decided from June 2001, in response to evidence of racism in the Metropolitan Police, to engineer a scheme for all state-funded organisations. Perceived as presenting a mirror image of English society, London theatres should thereafter act as a shop-window for multicultural Britain. In the post 9-11 era, a policy that would encourage and celebrate integration and attempt to erase racial hatred might at first appear as a positive move and one to be publicised rather than hidden. Yet, the very fact that its cultural application was kept confidential indicates that the principle of secrecy on which censorship is founded was at play. The practical implications were brutal financially and aesthetically. London theatres had to fill in and fit quotas in order to continue to receive subsidies through London Arts. Despite applauding the concept of attempting to modify the mainly white and middle-class audience profile into a more diverse one, practitioners testified to their dislike of the policy on artistic grounds: “We believe we should be doing the best work and not ticking boxes ethnically [...], not if it makes an artistic difference”.27 The cultural diversity action plan meant that artistic quality was to take second place to the political agenda. A new form of state-controlled censorship had risen from the ashes of 1968. The document issued by London Arts displays a masterful use of jargon:

  • 28 London Arts’ consultation document, December 2002. The theatre practitioner who provided the docume (...)

We are seeking to establish how our support helps you to respond to London’s cultural diversity. […] We will be looking for you to develop a plan to take this area of work forward, to review where you stand at the moment in relation to audiences, programming, staffing and governance. Then we will discuss and agree challenging and achievable targets that are appropriate for your organisation. These targets will form part of your future funding agreement with us.28

18London Arts was clearly pursuing not an artistic policy but a social one, which was decided upon at governmental level. London’s state-funded theatrical organisations were expected to follow the politically correct attitude of the government in their choice of staff and programming and, by extension, audiences. In practice they had to analyse the ethnicity, though not yet the gender, of their audiences. This raised not only the issue of the quality of the work which might be affected if theatres were to disregard authors because they did not fit the requirements of London Arts. This also implied that the government was nursing the cultural consciousness of theatres. In most cases, these were already

  • 29 Theatre practitioner interviewed by Anne Etienne on 19 January 2003. The practitioner, who also pro (...)

interested in the voice of minorities for artistic reasons, not to fulfil quotas given to us by the Government [...] It would break my heart to contract a writer simply because he’s Black; and it would break his heart as well to know it’s to be able to tick a box.29

19At an artistic as much as at a social level, the action plan was creating uneasiness even before it was to be implemented.

  • 30 On the issue of the potential to shock of contemporary writers such as Mark Ravenhill, see Rachel H (...)

20The necessity for London artistic organisations to obey proved the most direct form of governmental censorship since the various departments advised the Lord Chamberlain on his policies regarding themes and plays to be licensed. What this interference also signals is that, while no riotous behaviour has been prompted even by in-yer-face drama, theatre remains the medium of choice for the government to reinforce its policies.30 A disciplined theatre is the representative of its society and censorship the most efficient means to attain it.

  • 31 Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Bezhti, London: Oberon, 2004, 17.
  • 32 < http://www.AsiansinMedia.org >, “Five arrested as religious unrest grows in Birmingham over play”, 17 December 2004.

21It is therefore ironic that, in the context of the multicultural action plan, a play written by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a young Sikh author, caused great offence when it was staged at the Birmingham Rep Theatre in December 2004. In the play, Min, a young woman, and her mother Balbir go to the temple (the Gurdwara) to seek help. Behind the screens that separate the administrator’s office from the faithful at prayer, Min is raped, her screams physically and symbolically muted by the chanting. Balbir discovers the truth about the rapist, the temple’s representative, and murders him. The play explores the concept of truth, central to the Sikh religion. The author’s purpose, as stated in her foreword, is not to offend her religious community but to recall her people’s heritage of courage and victory over adversity.31 Hence, the play does not attack the Sikh religion but questions the errors of individuals and their propensity to hide the truth — be it behind a screen, fabricated memories or behind false appearances. The location of the action in a Gurdwara is significant: it is within the confines of the temple that all the characters will openly express their wishes. The reverence of the place is central to revealing religious hypocrisy. More than the rape and the murder contained in the play, it was the treatment of the Gurdwara that was disrespectful according to the demonstrators: “To stage a play around such a feature in a Sikh religious institution not only shows ignorance of the community, but a deliberate attempt to be offensive for the sake of it”.32

  • 33 “Five police officers were hurt and two people arrested. […] More than 800 people were evacuated, (...)

22When further protests against the showing of the play took place five people were arrested. Sikh community leaders indicated that they would not be held responsible for the actions of others if the run of the play continued. Tension escalated and violence finally erupted at the Saturday (18 December) performance when hundreds of Sikh protestors gathered outside the theatre and a few forced their way in, thereby causing the performance to be cut short. The violent attack, when children and their families were attending the Christmas pantomime in the next auditorium, amid the sound of fire alarms blazing and stones crashing through the theatre’s windows, was an act of terrorism.33 As the police could not guarantee the safety of the theatre patrons and actors, the director of the Rep decided to cancel the production. Mob violence, as well as the death threats made against the author, must therefore be considered as the response of extremists trying to impede freedom of speech because they misconstrue a work of fiction.

  • 34 The following year, the BBC faced Christian protests against their planned broadcasting of Jerry Sp (...)
  • 35 Editorial, The Independent, 21 December 2004.

23This last case not only questions the limits of freedom of expression but also the contradictory position the government was assuming in order to please the diverse communities in Britain. Much has been written in the aftermath of the violent outbreak that took place. The debate has opposed freedom of speech to the freedom to offend, Western to Eastern societies.34 There is, legally, no freedom to offend. However, freedom of speech is one of the tenets of the British state. In this instance, “the threat of violence was allowed to curtail Britain’s tradition of free speech”35 at a time when the government was attempting to reconcile two opposed values, politically correct sensitivity towards minorities and a free stage.

  • 36 National Archives, HO 45/12254, 16 December 1924.
  • 37 For a study of new forms of indirect and direct censorship between 1968 and 2007, see David Thomas, (...)
  • 38 The author responded to the events in an autobiographic manner, through the writing in 2011 of Behu (...)

24History shows that on past occasions, the stage has taken second place to the government’s intentions. While Walpole’s Licensing Act was allegedly passed to protect the British audience from immorality on the stage, censorship can all too easily become a political tool specifically designed to mould the arts in order to promote hegemonic political, religious and moral principles. Resistance developed in the twentieth century at times when drama was most vital. Despite the increasingly negative value attached to censorship, Home Office internal correspondence clearly stated that it was “better to let sleeping dogs lie”,36 another euphemism to indicate that the most effective policy was to keep the subject sealed. Marginalised among artists by obsolete legislation, victimised by biased censors for writing brutally about their society, major authors such as Shaw in the 1900s and Bond and Osborne in the 1960s reacted to the maiming of their texts by denouncing the practice of censorship or openly defying the censor’s ruling on private stages. The best drama will always move its audience, sometimes disturb or offend them. The legal text of the 1968 Theatres Act had been carefully drafted in order to prevent petty prosecutions, and was proved to be effective in this regard by the Whitehouse-Bogdanov case in 1981-82. Yet, new forms of direct and indirect censorship emerged.37 Mob rule, as in the case of Bezhti, will not always be allowed to succeed in muzzling the theatre.38 While this assault on freedom was an open and physical threat, a renewal of silent pre-production censorship was engineered by the Blair government. In applying financial pressure on the London theatres to fit a multicultural policy, the government was privately substituting London Arts for the Lord Chamberlain, thereby reviving an age-old practice:

  • 39 Peter Hall’s testimony, read by Michael Kustow, Camden Hall debate on US, 21 January 2003. The even (...)

The threat of grant standstill is a potent weapon and Whitehall knows it. Government now dominates the Arts Council. […] In the Arts, governments have long realised that he who pays the piper can have a very big influence on the tune.39

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Bibliographie

British Library. Lord Chamberlain’s Correspondence Files.

National Archives. Home Office Papers 1839-1979.

Licensing Act 1737 (10 Geo. 2, c.28).

Theatres Act 1843 (6 & 7 Vict., c. 68).

Theatres Act 1968 (c. 54).

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Report of the Joint Select Committee on Censorship of the Theatre, June 1967.

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KAUR BHATTI Gurpreet, Bezhti, London: Oberon, 2004.

LAHR John (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London: Methuen, 1986.

NICOLSON Harold, King George V: His Life and Reign, London: Constable, 1953.

NICHOLSON Steve, The Censorship of British Drama, vols. 1-3, Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003-11.

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SHAW George Bernard, Collected Letters 1898-1910, ed. D. H. Laurence, London: Max Reinhardt, 1972.

SIERZ Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber, 2001.

STANHOPE Philip Dormer, Earl of Chesterfield, Miscellaneous Works, ed. M. Maty, vol. 2, London: E. & C. Dilly, 1779.

THOMAS David, CARLTON David and ETIENNE Anne, Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

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Notes

1 This notion is to be found notably in Discipline and Punish and The History of Sexuality, vol. 1.

2 Philip Dormer Stanhope, Earl of Chesterfield, Miscellaneous Works, ed. M. Maty, vol. 2, London: E. & C. Dilly, 1779, 331.

3 For a complete list of the censorship systems in foreign countries, see the Report of the Joint Select Committee on Censorship of the Theatre 1967, 188-199.

4 “Censorship and Morals: an Age-Old Fear”, The Times, 13 September 1929.

5 John Lahr (ed.), The Orton Diaries, London: Methuen, 1986, 256.

6 “And be it enacted, That it shall be lawful for the Lord Chamberlain for the Time being, 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, to forbid the acting or presenting any Stage Play, or any Act, Scene, or Part thereof, or any Prologue or Epilogue, or any Part thereof, anywhere in Great Britain, or in such Theatres as he shall specify, and either absolutely or for such Time as he shall think fit “. Theatres Act 1843 (Act for Regulating Theatres), (6&7 Vict., c. 68).

7 A brief study of the list and dates of Lords Chamberlain in office compared with those of the Prime Ministers since the eighteenth century provides evidence to disprove this claim. Political influence is further innocently confirmed by Harold Nicolson when he discusses Ramsay MacDonald’s Premiership: “Hitherto the senior offices of the Court had been regarded as political appointments, made on the advice of the Prime Minister in power”. King George V: His Life and Reign, London: Constable, 1953, 390.

8 See LR Corr 1923/10, 19 November 1923. (LR indicates Licence Refused)

9 LR Corr 1944/3. Letter from Sir Alexander Cadogan (Foreign Office) to Lord Clarendon (Lord Chamberlain), 13 June 1944.

10 National Archives, HO 45/12254. Correspondance between Home Office and Lord Cromer, 5 January 1925 and 30 January 1925.

11 George Bernard Shaw, Collected Letters 1898-1910, ed. D. H. Laurence, London: Max Reinhardt, 1972, 715.

12 In 1907, 71 authors signed a “protest against the power lodged in the hands of a single official” which launched their campaign against theatre censorship. “Censorship of Plays”, The Times, 29 October 1907.

13 Report of the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship), 30 August 1909, 34.

14 See Chapter 3 in David Thomas, David Carlton and Anne Etienne, Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

15 Letter from Granville Barker to the Editor, The Times, 10 June 1909.

16 Joe Orton, What the Butler Saw, in The Complete Plays, New York: Grove Press, 1976, 371.

17 See Report of the Joint Select Committee on Censorship of the Theatre, 6 December 1966, 39-40. The report was printed in 1967 but the testimonies were heard over winter 66-67. The reference here points to a testimony given on Dec 6th, 1966, and to be found in the printed report published in 1967.

18 LCP 1958/578 Endgame. Memo by Assistant Comptroller, 22 January 1958.

19 The scene also allows Bond to present his case: “Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London park is a typical English understatement. Compared to the ‘strategic’ bombing of German towns it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children its consequences are insignificant.” Saved, London: Methuen, 2nd ed., 1969, 6.

20 LR Corr 1965/1 Saved, Report by Charles Heriot, 30 June 1965.

21 This generational and societal discrepancy between the Lord Chamberlain and the Angry Young Men was thus described by his Comptroller Norman Gwatkin: “The Lord Chamberlain cannot, even if he wished to do so, for ever travel in a horse carriage: he is now in a motor car and many people are trying to force him into a spaceship”. John Johnston, The Lord Chamberlain’s Blue Pencil, London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990, 165.

22 LR Corr 1965/1, Tim (Nugent) to Eric (Penn), 25 July 1965.

23 Ibidem, Letter from Lord Cobbold to Norman Skelhorn (Director of Public Prosecutions), 6 October 1965.

24 See note 11.

25 A questionnaire was sent to 454 venues and theatre companies and asked whether they had been threatened with prosecution or experienced any forms of direct or indirect censorship. It received a 40% response rate. For further details on the results of the survey, see Thomas, Carlton and Etienne, op. cit., 235-248.

26 With their first plays, respectively Blasted and Shopping and Fucking, Kane and Ravenhill shocked their audiences. Their work was identified as In-Yer-Face theatre, a phrase coined and explained by Aleks Sierz: “the language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each other, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent.” In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber, 2001, 5.

27 Toma Dim (Battersea Arts Theatre) interviewed by Anne Etienne, 27 January 2003.

28 London Arts’ consultation document, December 2002. The theatre practitioner who provided the document has wished to remain unnamed.

29 Theatre practitioner interviewed by Anne Etienne on 19 January 2003. The practitioner, who also provided the London Arts’ consultation document, has wished to remain unnamed.

30 On the issue of the potential to shock of contemporary writers such as Mark Ravenhill, see Rachel Halliburton, “Faust and Furious”, New Statesman, 8 November 2004, and Aleks Sierz’ seminal book In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, op. cit.

31 Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Bezhti, London: Oberon, 2004, 17.

32 < http://www.AsiansinMedia.org >, “Five arrested as religious unrest grows in Birmingham over play”, 17 December 2004.

33 “Five police officers were hurt and two people arrested. […] More than 800 people were evacuated, security guards were attacked and thousands of pounds’ worth of damage was caused. A foyer door was destroyed and demonstrators smashed equipment backstage “. BBC News, West Midlands, 19 December 2004.

34 The following year, the BBC faced Christian protests against their planned broadcasting of Jerry Springer —the Opera.

35 Editorial, The Independent, 21 December 2004.

36 National Archives, HO 45/12254, 16 December 1924.

37 For a study of new forms of indirect and direct censorship between 1968 and 2007, see David Thomas, Carlton and Etienne, op. cit., chapter 8.

38 The author responded to the events in an autobiographic manner, through the writing in 2011 of Behud (i.e. Beyond belief) in which she explores artistic freedom.

39 Peter Hall’s testimony, read by Michael Kustow, Camden Hall debate on US, 21 January 2003. The event was organised to commemorate the production of US and the debate focused on the censorship they experienced in 1966.

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Référence électronique

Anne Etienne, « Naked Censorship: Stripping the Censors’ Discourse », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. XI - n°3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2013, consulté le 15 décembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/5509 ; DOI : 10.4000/lisa.5509

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Auteur

Anne Etienne

Dr. Anne Etienne est maître de conférences en théâtre moderne dans le département d’anglais de l’université de Cork depuis 2003. Son premier champ de recherche concerne la censure théâtrale dans l’Angleterre du XXe siècle et a abouti à la publication aux Presses d’Oxford de Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson. Elle étudie maintenant l’œuvre dramatique et culturelle d’Arnold Wesker.

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