A Secret System

From 1901, when the Edwardian age began, to 1968 there was a secret, or rather concealed, system of censorship of the London stage. It was only at this latter date that peculiar restrictions upon what could be said and depicted on public stages were lifted by an act of parliament. From 1737 the text of any play to be performed before a public audience in the United Kingdom had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain, one of the senior members of the royal household. The intention was that every word and action to be played out upon the public stage had to have the Chamberlain's sanction in advance of a play's performance.

I do not employ the dramatic adjectives 'secret' and 'concealed' loosely, for until 1991 the files of the Lord Chamberlain and his staff were withheld from the public domain. These files reveal what went on in the Chamberlain's shady closets. They provide, for the first time, surprising and often comic insights into the principles governing the practice of theatre censorship in the 20th century and the views and values of the gentlemen who administered it.

The Stage Licensing Act of 1737 had entrusted the Lord Chamberlain with freshly defined duties of control over all plays due to be performed in Britain. The wording of the act was so vaguely framed that the Chamberlain could censor anything and could ban "as often as he shall think fit". The processes by which the Chamberlain's Examiner of Plays worked were rarely disclosed and his reasons for censoring plays or cutting scenes, incidents or words were not publicly divulged. All the Chamberlain's or Examiner's communications with theatre producers who sought to present plays, or theatre managers responsible for selecting plays for particular theatres, were regarded as confidential. The Lord Chamberlain's judgement was final and he would not enter into discussion with playwrights. There was no court of appeal and no questions about his decisions could be tabled in the House of Commons or the Lords.

Aristocratic Values

Lords Chamberlain, appointed by the monarch from the ranks of senior courtiers, naturally reflected the values and views of a conservative aristocracy. They were reactionaries, with little capacity for reflection. The men appointed by the Chamberlain to help run his department, the Comptrollers, were mostly upper-middle-class, retired senior officers from the armed services. In the 20th century they tended to be intelligent and diplomatic, but were also often philistine, with little knowledge of serious drama and its traditions.

These men appeared to have little awareness or appreciation of the modern movement in literature, drama, art and music. They relied on their gut feelings and they were full of guts; radical directors and producers tended to be treated with the cold shoulder of condescension. Anti-Semitic and anti-homosexual sentiments are also sometimes evident in the files, but these were not that unusual amongst that class in the earlier part of the century.

From 1909 until the late 1930s, whenever the Lord Chamberlain was uncertain whether to license a play, he sent the script to an advisory board for the benefit of its advice. These board members were invariably relics of the establishment. They included Asquith's Lord Chancellor, Lord Buckmaster, and superannuated theatre directors, producers and actors of conservative cast. Sir John Hare, Squire Bancroft and Johnston Forbes Robertson were among them. One member, Sir Walter Raleigh, who was also an Oxford Professor of English Literature, wrote off Ibsen's Ghosts in 1914 saying, "If it had been acted 20 years ago it would have been dead now."

Bancroft and Hare revealed themselves to be stupid or ignorant, and sometimes both, when giving advice on plays. Hare suggested that there was a case for banning a production of Sophocles' Oedipus Rex in case it encouraged the writing of other plays with a similar theme. Bancroft dismissed Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author as a work that ought to be sent back to Vienna, the place from which he believed it had come. These chauvinistic men often used their influence to suppress not to sustain.

The Weight of History

Such a stance now appears blinkered and obstinate, but the role of Lord Chamberlain must be viewed in its historical perspective. Successive Lords Chamberlain believed that the theatre could be a persuasive focus for social and political dissent. This view dated back to 16th century when the country was destabilised by the upheavals of the Reformation and the government feared eruptions of social and religious unrest. The population of London was small and the theatre, visited by all classes, was liable to be a potent form of influence and incitement; and there was no police force to control an excited mob.

Stage censorship, in such circumstances, was sometimes justified as securing the stability of the realm. The ideological foundations of 20th-century theatre censorship were fortified by the 19th-century censors' principle that the theatre should reflect an idealised and conventionally moral view of society, and should avoid any serious questioning of orthodox values, any debating of contemporary political issues, or any form of social heterodoxy.

Missed Masterpieces

Public Record Office files cover most, if not all, of the plays submitted for licensing between 1901 and 1968. They contain Examiners' reports on playscripts, the internal memoranda of the Lords Chamberlain and their staff, and their external correspondence with theatre managers, directors and producers. A list of plays that the Lord Chamberlain ruled unsuitable for public performance during this period included some of the most remarkable plays of the 20th century: Shaw's Mrs Warren's Profession, Ibsen's Ghosts, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Tolstoy's Power of Darkness and Granville Barker's Waste.

The shock of the new agitated and appalled these censors. The angry young playwrights of the 1950s alarmed them. From their reports and inter-office memoranda of the 1960s it is not difficult to glean the impression of a group of like-minded men standing firm against the tide of what they perceived to be 'bearded lefties' undermining all that they held dear and valuable in Britain. And they fought to the very end in this endeavour.

In 1965 Private Eye mocked the Lord Chamberlain's approach to the theatre, floridly describing the incumbent "in all his prudish glory, a heraldic figure in gold-embroidered regalia wielding the blue pencil with the face of the toothily beaming Lord Cobbold and the mind of a sex-mad hypocritical maiden aunt." Sex-crazed maiden ladies, however, even those who do not practice the chastity they commend to others, do little harm.

The Damage Done

The Lords Chamberlain caused a great deal of damage. Their system of censorship suffocated the British stage in the 20th century by limiting its freedoms; they refused to allow performances of important foreign plays that revolted against the stifling embrace of the status quo; they weakened the resolve of British writers and dramatists who did not even try to challenge their edicts for the first half of the century.

Relatively speaking, the 20th-century English stage was subject to more censorship than in the reigns of Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I. Stultified and repressed, Britain's theatre became a reactionary, unintellectual outpost of Europe, scarcely involved with the modern theatre movement.

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