Theatre Censorship – 11: A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, by Peter Nichols

When I undertook my original research back in the early 1980s, I wrote to several playwrights asking about their experiences with and attitude to theatre censorship. One of the most helpful was Peter Nichols. The quotes and his thoughts that I talk about in this chapter all come from a letter he wrote to me on 4th February 1982. Oh, and beware – drama criticism alert! I do go into a bit of detail about the nature of this play, which won’t mean much to you if you’re not familiar with it – sorry about that.

A Day in the Death of Joe EggOn the subject of “indecent” material, he has a revealing tale to tell which sums up the suspicious attitude held by the Lord Chamberlain’s office against playwrights in the 1960s. It concerned his meeting with the censor to discuss the licensing of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967): “…there was one wonderful moment when in describing the natural childbirth process used by the mother in the play, the husband does some shallow breathing like a dog and the wife says “Down, Rover”. Not a good joke. Certainly not as funny as the censor’s reaction which was to ask if she was referring to a tumescent penis. When I expressed outrage and denied that intention, he was dreadfully apologetic, offered me another Nelson cigarette and said it was a job that gave you a dirty mind”.

In this particular play, the Lord Chamberlain’s office was worried that the portrayal of a child with cerebral palsy might cause parents of disabled children to be upset. As the parent of one himself, Nichols maintained that this would not be their reaction. Other parents in the same situation would recognise the problems that Bri and Sheila (the parents) faced, and would in fact feel the comfort and reassurance of knowing that others shared the same experience.

Michael Blakemore

Michael Blakemore

In his letter to the Comptroller (the Lord Chamberlain’s assistant, in this case Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Eric Penn), director Michael Blakemore wrote “much hinges on the way the child is to be presented on the stage, and… the writer and myself are agreed that the last thing we want is to unduly alarm the audience, who are meant to see the child as do its parents, with the daily familiarity of ten years’ experience. A perfectly normal child actress will be asked to play being permanently asleep. The fits to which the script refers are small things, immediately perceptible of course to the parents, but of little significance to an outsider. I believe the presentation of the child on stage will be far less terrible to see than it is to read about on the page.”

The censor was convinced by this argument (originally the Comptroller had suggested the child should be represented by a dummy) but nevertheless demanded a number of niggling cuts which, as Peter Nichols himself said, when listed together give “an impression of a sex-crazed script, not the embittered and ironic piece it now seems to be”. However, despite Nichols’ protestations, it’s true that sex features quite a bit in this play. Bri thinks about sex nearly all the time. When his mind wanders, he makes Freudian lapses of concentration, such as when he makes the error of telling his class at school (he is a teacher) to put “hands on breasts” instead of on heads. He is pleased to tell us how his confidence was boosted when Sheila first praised his lovemaking: “I walked around for days feeling like a phallic symbol… I thought… she’ll stick with me because I’ve got magic super-zoom with added cold-start”. Nichols’ aim is to show that Bri is an ordinary kind of guy with an ordinary guy’s sexual fixations. For example, he used to share jokes about how his son (he doesn’t have one) would be born and grow up: “All this trouble getting out and he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to get back in”.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this kind of conversation at all. In addition, Nichols shows how a lack of sexual appetite can be a bad thing. The prudish Mrs. Parry, for example, whom Sheila hates, is described as a “walking sheath”. Sheila, herself, is not as sexually responsive as she once was, because she equates her failure to produce a healthy child with what she considers to have been her promiscuous past; a past which has given her a guilt complex and Bri an inferiority complex. Now that Sheila follows other pursuits, Bri feels left out and jokes, rather bitterly, about “breaking-up”. He also decides to suspect Sheila of having an affair with their friend Freddie, which, although it probably started as just a joke – as a charade or a defence mechanism – does no good for either his marriage or his confidence. At the end of the play Sheila’s promise of a sex romp (as they used to call it in the 60s) comes too late to save their marriage, as Bri is determined to wriggle out of it. Bri now only sees the negative side of sex: that which produces a disabled child rather than as part of a loving relationship.

Peter Nichols

Peter Nichols

It’s no surprise that Bri and Sheila discuss their friend Jenny’s visit to the Family Planning Clinic with general approval. Bri also realises how Sheila’s capacity for love is spread equally through their long list of child substitutes, called the menagerie, and that basically he is no more important to her than any other of her possessions. You can see the bitterness and irony to which Peter Nichols referred in that letter to me; Bri’s boredom and frustration, juxtaposed with Sheila’s apparent activity and full life. The “Joe Egg” of the title refers to both daughter and father; according to Bri’s grandma’s saying, “Joe Egg” was always “stuck with nothing to do”. Whilst it’s a nickname for the daughter’s real name, Josephine, being stuck with nothing to do describes the frustrated Bri down to a T.

One of the main questions posed by the author in the play must have also reflected the worries of the Lord Chamberlain’s officers. Where is the boundary of good taste? Does talk of a “spastic” (their words, not a detrimental term at the time) tap-dancing championship or a wild-west hero called the Thalidomide Kid go beyond the bounds of what is acceptable? The answer appears to be no, because although at times Bri behaves contemptibly towards his wife – especially at the point late in Act Two when first having admitted to killing Joe, he rushes her around the house with Sheila, terrified, trailing them – we never fall out of sympathy with him.

In fact, the characters in the play who attack Bri for his jokey, irreverent attitudes are much more offensive than him. Their friend Pam calls Joe a “weirdie” and shuns her because she is, what Pam calls, “N.P.A.” by which she means non-physically-attractive; Freddie’s inept doubting of Bri’s suitability to be a father and Sheila’s mother Grace’s determination not to let Jesus ruin Christmas are all more questionable than Bri at his worst. One wonders how much offence would have been caused had the child been played by a dummy as originally suggested by the Comptroller; surely that would have felt more insulting than any of Bri’s jokes.

The censor’s cuts reflected the difficulty the Lord Chamberlain’s office had in reading this play; they had no real precedent for this kind of drama and were therefore highly suspicious of Nichols’ written word. This is the list of alterations which he said gave the impression of a sex-crazed script; with Nichols’ original text in italics and the alterations he subsequently made after discussions with the censor in bold:

“The Lord Chamberlain disallows the following parts of the stage-play:

Act I 4: “…sod!” “Vicious sod!”  “Vicious pig!”

5: “your legs thrashing about…my tongue halfway down your throat…train screaming into tunnel”  “Clothes strewn all over the place…waves breaking on rocky shore…fireworks in the sky…champagne bottles going pop…”

6: “has he flashed it lately?” “Has he tried it lately?”

9: “…while she got her coil fitted. Wondering if we could have our Guinea-pig fitted with a coil. Or Guinea-sow should it be?” “…while she went to the Family Planning Clinic. Wondering if we could send our guinea-pig to the Family Planning Clinic.”

16: “…bullshit”. “bull.”

19/20: “They made you lie across a pillow.”  “I think they got it out of Hemingway.…I thought well, perhaps I didn’t ring the bell very often but at least I rang it loud”. Both these lines were excluded and not replaced.

27: “From the first show on the sheets to the last heave of the forceps” “From the first pang to the last groan”.

28: “…piss” “…kill”.

29: “I see Him as a sort of manic depressive rugby-footballer. He looked down and thought to Himself,“I’ll fix that bastard” I see Him as a sort of manic depressive rugby-footballer, and I’m the ball.”

34: “Brian knelt in front of me and tried to express it orally”  “You should have seen that – like the Khamasutra” Both lines were excluded and not  replaced.

36: “Universal Shafting” (twice) “Universal Shafting” was eventually permitted to remain, provided that “Story of your life” was removed.

Act II 4: “Piss…” Excluded.

6: “…farting and so forth” “…breaking wind”

17: “…shafted her” “gone to bed with her”

20: From “so I undressed her…” to and inclusive of “…Of course you have” This was a description of Bri taking care of Joe during one of her fits. There were a few subtle changes to make the conversation sound slightly more natural. Presumably the censor was worried about the effect of this account on the audience, but the content was eventually permitted.

56: “… and have him”. “climb in with him”.

The actress must not indulge in erotic caresses.

One can see that by having their graphic nature removed, some of these images can become coy or embarrassingly euphemistic. Some of the comments become vague and essentially meaningless. “Has he tried it lately?” could refer to any number of school misdemeanours whereas “has he flashed it lately?” can mean only one thing. In the change involving the metaphor of God as a manic depressive rugby-footballer, Bri’s anger (“I’ll fix that bastard”) is removed and a very weak joke is left in its place. The conversation between Freddie and Pam at the beginning of Act Two undergoes a total change. In the original version, Freddie was annoyed with himself at falling out of the car and annoyed with Pam for laughing at it: his resentful comment to her “go on, piss yourself” was removed, so that in the censored version, he finds it funny too. In the rest of the play any textual changes tend to weaken the passion of the characters or trivialise their tragedy, neither of which are beneficial to the play as a whole; I love that idea that their guinea-pig should be fitted with a coil, which was replaced with a much blander comment. It was most fortunate for both play and playwright that censorship was withdrawn within a year of the play’s opening, although after a short run at the Comedy Theatre, the play enjoyed a successful transfer to Broadway.

As an aside, I think it’s interesting that what is offensive changes over the years. I can’t imagine anyone going to see a play today and being offended by any of Nichols’ original lines as shown above, but most people would be alarmed to hear characters referred to as “blackies” and “fuzzy-wuzzies”, and where people with cerebral palsy are called spastics. Times change.

In my next post, I’ll be considering homosexuality and swearing as possible examples of indecency.

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