Theatre Censorship – 4: Examiners and a quick look at the Restoration

E F Smyth Pigott

E F Smyth Pigott

By the twentieth century, the post of Examiner of Plays had been the subject of some disrepute; a fine example of it’s not what you know it’s who you know. George Redford (Examiner of Plays 1895 – 1911), for example, was only awarded the job because he was a personal friend of his predecessor E F Smythe-Pigott (Examiner of Plays 1874 – 1895), and it was Charles Brookfield, previously a writer of scurrilous plays (poacher turned gamekeeper indeed) and a friend of Redford, who took over when the latter retired. Brookfield died shortly after taking up his appointment in 1913, and after this date the Lord Chamberlain himself became more personally involved in the licensing of plays. The last official Examiner was George Street, and on his retirement in 1936, the work which the Lord Chamberlain chose not to do was passed on to more junior officers known as the Comptrollers, although the Lord Chamberlain himself usually attended to the more controversial material.

Lottie_Venne_and_Charles_BrookfieldTo submit a new play for licensing – that is, a play first presented after 22nd August 1843 – the producer had to follow a procedure which was to remain virtually unchanged from 1843 to 1968. A copy of the text, accompanied by a fee of two guineas, had to be sent to St James’ Palace to be read by the Lord Chamberlain, or, more likely, one of his officers, before rehearsals were due to commence. It should be noted that the fee was considered as a payment for reading the play only. If a licence was refused, the two guineas were not returned. However, with any luck, the licence would be sent back quickly. It would have read:

“I, the Lord Chamberlain of the (King’s /Queen’s) Household for the time being, do by virtue of my Office and in pursuance of powers given to me by the Act of Parliament for regulating Theatres, 6 & 7 Victoria, Cap 68, Section 12, Allow the Performance of a new Stage Play of which a copy has been submitted to me by you, being a …….. in ……Acts, entitled…….. with the exception of all Words and Passages which are specified in the endorsement of the Licence and without any further variation whatsoever.

“Given under my hand this… of …..19…..

Lord Chamberlain”.

St James Palace

St James Palace

As well as the ‘specified Words and Passages’, the licence also bore a list of five regulations, which largely followed the guidelines set down in 1909, “the strict observance” of which, it read, “is to be considered as the condition upon which the Licence is signed.” By the way, if you can’t remember the 1909 guidelines, don’t worry, that’s because I haven’t told you about them yet! Patience, gentle reader. The regulations forbade the appearance of use on stage of “profanity or impropriety of language”, “indecency of dress, dance or gesture”, “objectionable personalities”, “anything calculated to produce a riot or breach of the peace” and “offensive representation of living persons”. It also instructed that “any change of title must be submitted for the Lord Chamberlain’s approval”.

Sydney Grundy

Sydney Grundy

If there was a delay getting a response from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, this normally meant that, instead of the licence, a letter would eventually arrive headed “The Lord Chamberlain disallows the following parts of the stage-play:…” This would mean that the director and a representative of the management would have to go to St James’ Palace and argue their case. In later years the author would get involved as well, although the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was never keen to recognise authors – the censor once wrote to the playwright Sydney Grundy who had dared to question why his play May and December had not received a licence, only to be informed that “he could take no official notice of (his) existence”.

Killing of Sister GeorgeSometimes managements had to chase up the Lord Chamberlain’s Office because they took so long to come to a decision. Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George (1965) was granted a licence only after the producer Michael Codron sent a note in panic to the censor reminding him that there were only ten days before the play was due to open. The onus was always on the management to secure the obtaining of the licence.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

If a play was considered to be so offensive that even drastic changes would not alter its tone, the text would be sent back and no licence issued. The decision would be unequivocal and final. For example, on 8th November 1967 the copy of Edward Bond’s Early Morning, a play which featured Queen Victoria as a lesbian and with her two sons as conjoined twins, was returned to the Royal Court marked “His Lordship would not allow it”, with no other comment. This was the last play to be banned, but no one knows exactly how many potentially marvellous manuscripts had previously been returned with similar disgust, and which have never seen the light of day since.


Isabella and Angelo – Measure for Measure

However novel the shift of drama in the mid-1950s and 60s might appear in retrospect – bearing in mind the critic John Russell Taylor’s great quote “some of the new dramatists were naturally novel, some caught novelty, and some had novelty thrust upon them”, a similar situation had already arisen at the time of the Restoration period. Before the Cromwellian era playwrights had been keen to satirise puritans; Ben Jonson’s Zeal-of-the-Land Busy in Bartholomew Fair (1614) is a typical example. Angelo, the “precise” character who creates all the misery in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1603), is a typical puritan, invoking an ancient law that makes all forms of fornication a crime punishable by death. Under Cromwell, plays were banned, most theatres destroyed and no other entertainments such as Morris Dancing permitted. But on the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, theatre again returned to London, and, not surprisingly, audiences wanted as much satire and bawdy in a play as could reasonably be crammed into two hours’ performance time. Courtall, in George Etherege’s She Would If She Could (1668) appreciates how the theatre reflects Restoration life: “a single intrigue in love is as dull as a single plot in a play, and will tire a lover worse than t’other does an audience.” Fortunately for the Restoration patrons, Walpole’s Theatre Act was not to arrive for 70 years or so.

sodomWhilst we’re in the Restoration era, a word or two about Sodom (or the Quintessence of Debauchery), allegedly written by John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester and privately performed at the Court of King Charles II in or around 1678. It’s a satire, dealing with the corruption and vice of the monarch, and, unsurprisingly, Charles II didn’t appreciate it. Published copies (it was published in Antwerp, no one in England dared touch it) were seized, book dealers who sold it were prosecuted, and when it finally made its way to the Examiner of Plays in 1737, it was summarily dismissed. I’ve only read a synopsis, and it seems there’s little doubt that Rochester allowed his fantasies to run riot. Any play that promotes anal sex between gentlemen, and features characters by the names Bolloxinion, Buggeranthos, Clytoris, Cunticula, Fuckadilla and Prince Pricket, would probably only ever appeal to a niche audience! It’s only once been performed in public in the UK – in 2011 at the Edinburgh Fringe, perhaps unsurprisingly.

Oliver Cromwell

Oliver Cromwell

It is possible to draw a parallel between the puritan era of Cromwell and the mid-20th century when, as a reaction to the stress of the Second World War, early post-war drama avoided any great emotional content and most plays dealt with ‘safe’ subjects and situations. Naturally, this also avoided playwrights conflicting with the Lord Chamberlain. The Restoration period, with its determination to express itself at all costs, may be equated with the 1950s and 1960s, particularly since sex and personal satire figure so acutely in the works of both periods, and playwrights such as Etherege, Wycherley and Vanbrugh were able to deal with matters that would have been censored in the 1950s.

Thanks for reading this far. In my next post I’m going to be looking at the reactions to the abolition of censorship and will be looking in some detail at Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience. No real need to do any research – and I don’t suppose anyone will actually have seen it (I certainly haven’t!) See you soon!

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