Theatre Censorship – 12: Homosexuality, Swearing and an Introduction to Violence

Separate Tables

John Mills and Jill Bennett, in the 1977 production

Another major “indecent” theme was homosexuality, which had been a prevalent topic in plays since about 1950. At first, references to it were very tentative; indeed, two of the three plays presented under the auspices of the New Watergate Theatre Club were concerned with young men who appeared to be homosexual but were not, and with the women who loved them, and stood by them during their ordeals. Terence Rattigan’s original intention in Separate Tables (1954) was that the respectable Major Pollock should have accosted men in public lavatories, but the management insisted that this should be changed, and Major Pollock became a heterosexual menace instead.

After the restrictions on plays about homosexuality were lifted in 1958 (please see Chapter 6 if you’d forgotten about this!), there was little positive or original use made of this liberty. Homosexual characters were mainly used for stereotypical camp fun, such as the fussy antiques dealer Harold Gorringe in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy (1965). Christopher Hampton included homosexual characters in both When did you Last see my Mother? (1966) and Total Eclipse (1968), where he dramatised the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine.

A Patriot for MeThe most notable play in the 1960s involving homosexuality was John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me (1965), based on the true story of Alfred Redl, who worked for the Austro-Hungarian intelligence service in the 1890s and was blackmailed for being gay. In the months immediately preceding the 1968 Theatres Act, this play became a popular weapon in the war against censorship. John Mortimer, for example, on behalf of the League of Dramatists, submitted the following memorandum to the Joint Committee on 22nd November 1966: “We are bewildered by the total banning of “A Patriot for Me” … which dealt with homosexuality in an adult and dramatic way; we can see no valid reason for this action.” The League of Dramatists were not entirely telling the truth, as the Lord Chamberlain’s Office did not ban the play; they did, however, demand swingeing cuts, such as “Act 3, Scene 1: The two men must not be in bed together”, “Act 3 Scene 2: the line “You were born with a silver sabre up your whatnot” was disallowed, as well as the total omission of Act 1 Scene 10, Act 2 Scene 1 (the celebrated drag ball), and Act 3 Scene 5, where Redl has an argument in bed with a naked Second Lieutentant. The sexual explicitness in these scenes would not have been acceptable even in a heterosexual context. It was no surprise that the censor considered them unsuitable; the 1958 statement had plainly read: “Embraces or practical demonstrations of love between homosexuals will not be allowed”. Osborne chose not to make those cuts and the production of the play went ahead as a club performance at the Royal Court; as a result, the censor troubled it no more, but the Royal Court made a large financial loss. The rest of Mortimer’s comment is totally justified: it is a mature, responsible and yet very exciting play, which involves the audience totally in Redl’s plight and creates an extraordinary atmosphere of sympathy.

Children's Hour - Lillian Hellman

Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman

Lesbianism appears to have reached the stage much later than male homosexuality with the major exception of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour, first performed in the US in 1934 and first officially performed in Britain in 1950, a painful study of the damaging repercussions of rumour in a girls’ school. The play is infused with bitterness and evil: the character of Mary Tilford, who starts spreading the malicious gossip, may be considered a fore-runner to Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953). Hellman’s play is most skilfully written. The scandal is, by necessity, all expressed in insinuation and innuendo, but this feels appropriate because the characters are themselves so horrified by the notion of lesbianism that they could not bring themselves to utter the word anyway.

Killing of Sister GeorgeFrank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George (1965) only just avoided being banned outright; the two reasons why this was avoided were that it was a respectable company – the Bristol Old Vic – who wanted to stage it, and because the word “lesbian” did not appear in the text. Had the word appeared, the play would surely have been rejected. I know this for a fact, as Mr Marcus told me himself during a phone conversation we had at the time. As it was, it became Marcus’ greatest success. Irving Wardle, writing in the Times newspaper on June 18th 1965, rhetorically questioned the suitability of the subject matter: “How would audiences a few years ago have responded to a lesbian marriage handled in earnest? The cheers of last night’s audience left no doubt of their response”. Times change.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

The other major lesbian affair in 1960s drama, which certainly caused offence to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, as has been mentioned, was between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in Bond’s Early Morning. The play is full of very black humour, but primarily Victoria’s attentions to her son’s fiancée and her beseeching “Call me Victor”, were considered too offensive, especially coming from a member of the Royal Family. Despite the censor’s ban, every theatre critic in London was invited to a hastily called matinee, performed in total secrecy, on the afternoon before the intended first night. Had the show gone on, in the evening, it was the intention of the police to arrest every member of the audience, as could be guessed from the number of police vans parked along King’s Road.

One form of indecent material, which is perhaps today quite easy to overlook, is the use of swearing. The censor seemed to have evaluated all the different swear words as to their potential offensiveness, and this gave rise to the possibility of bargaining. The censor might object to the use of one of two “bad” words and, to appease the offended playwright, would permit a few extra “bloodies” in their place. The playwright Stephen Jeffreys told me in a letter dated 17th March 1982 (and from which I quote here) that he was told by the producer of one of his radio plays that “the level of language varied from channel to channel and from night to night. You could say “bugger” on Radio 4 except on Saturdays and you could only say “fuck” on Radio 3, and even then you couldn’t use it more than three or four times in one play”.

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneAccording to Malcolm Hay & Philip Roberts’ book Bond – a study of his plays, George Devine, director of the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, advised William Gaskill, the director of Edward Bond’s Saved (1965) to exclude “all the words we know will not be passed… before submission.” Indeed, in a letter Lindsay Anderson wrote me dated 1st February 1982, he remembered how Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s Billy Liar (1960) was very nearly banned outright simply because the father continually said “bloody”: “Since it was a character point, and indeed its very repetition illustrated the irredeemable coarseness of the character, no compromise was possible. In the end the censor gave in”.

Marat SadeStage violence was also considered an act of indecency. In Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as performed by the inmates of the asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade (Marat/Sade) (1964) which appeared in the RSC’s Theatre of Cruelty season, there is a chilling violence mixed with sadism and insanity, at once both riveting and distasteful. Its challenge to the audience lies in assessing whether its disconcerting effect stems from the violence and suspense of the play or its universal lunacy. In Peter Shaffer’s Equus, insanity is again linked with violence, although this play is not as disconcerting, because of the deliberate lack of realism in the presentation; with actors playing horses, and, in the original 1970s production, the actors not involved in any one particular scene sat at the side of the stage, observing the proceedings in a disinterested manner, as actors rather than as characters. However, in the Marat/Sade, the characters are a group of lunatic actors who are sometimes impossible to control. The play ends in total anarchy with Coulmier, the Napoleonic director of the Clinic of Charenton, attempting to restore order, by striking his patients, much to the delight of the Marquis de Sade, who glows with pleasure at the mischief. Equus, on the other hand, by contrast, ends in quiet reflection.

In my next four posts I’m going to concentrate at some length on Edward Bond’s Saved. Put the four together and you’ve got a full essay on everything that I think and feel about the play, together with its relevance to the issue of censorship! The first post will contain an introduction, and then an analysis of the first few scenes. If you’ve got a copy of the script, please feel free to refresh your memory of it!

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