Theatre Censorship – 17: Jimmy Blows his Trumpet – Look Back in Appreciation of Look Back in Anger (Part One)

Look Back in AngerOn reflection, one of the most surprising facts about 20th century British theatre is that the play which has been most widely regarded as being the watershed in modern drama, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger (1956), with its reputation for anger, generation-gap protest, bald domesticity, and bloody-mindedness, does not fall foul of any of the categories agreed by the Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship) in 1909, and did not receive much attention from the Lord Chamberlain’s office.

There was some bartering over a few words and phrases, some of which Osborne agreed to change, some on which the censor relented. My favourite example of horse-trading getting this play licensed was the censor’s insistence on removing the song title “There’s a Smokescreen in my Pubic Hair”, which Osborne changed to “You can quit hanging round my counter, Mildred, cos you’ll find my position is closed.” Go figure. Bizarrely, the thing that upset the censor the most was Osborne’s imagery of a python devouring its prey as a metaphor for Alison’s sexual hunger. Eventually they agreed on a milder description of the act; maintaining the metaphor but just toning down the language a little. It all seems so petty nowadays.

The play takes war, arguably the most offensive and indecent act in the world, as the starting-point for its anger. Jimmy Porter tells Helena: “I learnt at an early age what it was to be angry – angry and helpless… I knew more about love, betrayal… and death, when I was ten years old than you will probably ever know all your life.” This desperation was caused by the young Jimmy’s concern for his dying father. The rest of his family did not care about him because he had been wounded fighting for the cause of socialism in the Spanish Civil War; this was an embarrassment to them as they preferred to belong to the “smart and fashionable” set. Jimmy’s disgust at this mother, whose only thought was “that she allied herself to a man who seemed to be on the wrong side in all things” went on to cause an obsession with mother-figures; recognisable in both his utter hatred of his girlfriend Alison’s mother, and his unconditional love for his mate Hugh’s mother.

Jimmy’s war-scarred upbringing, then, converted him into a socialist because of his admiration for the supreme sacrifice made by his father. However, rather than trying to be an upbeat promoter of his cause, he tries to inflict the misery which he experienced on others in the hope that, via suffering, they might reach the same conclusions as him. Unsurprisingly, this is not a successful tactic. At best his motives are misunderstood and at worst he’s the epitome of boorish insensitivity. He’s the archetypal “own worst enemy”.

Ronald HaymanThis boorishness and insensitivity led to a critical misunderstanding of the significance of the character of Jimmy Porter. Consider, if you will, the difference of opinion between these short statements: “Jimmy Porter is being offered as a spokesman for a disaffected generation… contrived to express the misgivings, the grievances and the impatience of almost everyone who resented the power and the corruption” (Ronald Hayman, in British Theatre since 1955 – A Reassessment); “there is absolutely no indication in the play that Osborne ever intended Jimmy’s remarks to be taken as a general condemnation of society. Jimmy is an extremely unusual young man and anything but representative of the young men of our time” (George A. Wellwarth’s essay, John Osborne – Angry Young Man?) Fifteen years elapsed between the two comments – Hayman’s was made in 1979, Wellwarth’s in 1964 – and certainly the more recent comment reflects the attitude most widely held nowadays.

Today aficionados of Jimmy Porter and his play would criticise Wellwarth’s opinion, believing that at the time he was too close to the situation to understand its truth – basically, he couldn’t see the wood for the trees – and that the added years have enabled us to see the play in greater perspective. Jimmy fans may well also believe that he was too realistic and accurate a creation to be easily acceptable. Nevertheless, Wellwarth’s comment was delivered eight years after the play, and, as the play itself clearly states, society is continually changing, so I think it is unlikely that he was too involved in the situation to have a clear vision of what was taking place. Supporters of Wellwarth’s argument might well agree that Jimmy is a psychotic individual with an individual tale to tell. Certainly, in performance, the audience is more interested in discovering how the love affairs of Jimmy, Alison and Helena will work out, rather than relating the whole story to Britain in 1956. Perhaps Ronald Hayman’s quote suggests that he succumbed to the easy mistake of considering the myth more than the play itself.

George Devine

George Devine

It is important to separate the two. Over the past six decades, commentators have romanticised the play and its characters almost out of recognition. Osborne’s own personal success with it is a kind of fairy story; George Devine, director of the English Stage Company based at the Royal Court theatre, had invited young and as yet unknown writers to submit their plays with a view to their being produced in the 1956 season. Look Back in Anger was submitted in this way, and was the only play from those sent in that was chosen for production. In his famous criticism in the Observer of 13th May 1956, Kenneth Tynan agreed “that “Look Back in Anger” is likely to remain a minority taste. What matters, however, is the size of the minority. I estimate it at roughly 6,733,000, which is the number of people in this country between the ages of 20 and 30…. I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see “Look Back in Anger”. It is the best young play of its decade.” Tynan’s typically sensationalist and emotive language did not cut much ice with many of the other critics. Milton Shulman, never quick to keep up with the times, wrote in the London Evening Standard on 9th May 1956: “Nothing is so comfortable to the young as the opportunity to feel sorry for themselves… [Look Back in Anger] aims at being a despairing cry but achieves only the stature of a self-pitying snivel”.

Despite the enormous variety of critical responses, it was not a box-office success until a scene from it was shown on television. Public awareness of the play suddenly grew, as did the audiences, and the season was extended. Also, despite their reactions to the play itself, the critics were almost unanimous when they considered Osborne’s skill as a writer. Cecil Wilson, in the Daily Mail, also on 9th May 1956, hit the nail on the head as far as many commentators were concerned, when he said: “we can perceive what a brilliant play this young man will write when he has got this one out of his system and let a little sunshine into his soul.”

In my next blog post, I’ll delve a bit deeper into the character of Jimmy Porter.

Theatre Censorship – 16: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part Four)

Herbert Kretzmer

Herbert Kretzmer

Saved is about the capacity of good to overcome evil despite the latter’s pressure to dominate. Just as, for example, although (in my opinion!) The Merchant of Venice is primarily concerned with showing that “the world is…deceiv’d with ornament” (III.ii.74), one’s first reaction to these plays is that The Merchant is about Shylock and Saved is about baby-battering. The other elements of the plays tend to pale in comparison, and as a result they are both easily misread. Hay and Roberts note, of Saved, that “the shock of one image in one scene became the focus for most of the rage directed against the whole play, and it consequently became transcribable in terms that guaranteed it notoriety, and, equally, an almost total lack of analysis”. Indeed, neither Irving Wardle of The Times (“the play…does nothing to lay bare the motives for violence”) nor Herbert Kretzmer of the Daily Express (“the infanticide is entirely unmotivated and unexplained… [the theatre] cannot be allowed, even in the name of freedom of speech, to [reflect the horrific undercurrents of contemporary life] without aim, purpose or meaning”) understood the violence at all.

William Gaskill

William Gaskill

Saved bears the dubious honour of being the last play to be cut heavily by the censor. It had originally been commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, and, when he read the script, William Gaskill, the director, knew that they would face difficulties with the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Gaskill consulted George Devine, who had just left the Royal Court as Artistic Director, for advice as to how to present the play at St. James’ Palace. Devine sent a lengthy memorandum:

“I have read this play from the point of view of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.

1) The intrinsic violence will automatically disturb the reader.
2) I have marked with pencil all the things I could spot that are like to meet with objections. I may have missed some. It should be checked.
3) My advice is to cut out all the words we know will not be passed – such as bugger, arse, Christ, etc, before submission. To have them in creates immediate hostility. The problem is to get the play on with a licence: not to alter the L. C. I presume.
4) I suggest that Charles Wood’s technique is a good one. Swallow pride and reinvent, even one’s own swear words and phrases. Rewrite scenes, if necessary, to retain intrinsic rhythms etc, rather than arguing over words or phrases which he will never yield on.
5) Cut out stage directions which suggest sexual situations. I have bracketed these.
6) I think you might get away with the stockings scene if you present it carefully, as I have indicated. Often things are said, which don’t always need to be said – except in free circumstances which you don’t have.
7) As for the baby, I don’t think the scatological bits will get through under any circumstances. Worse kinds of violence may well be passed but references to shit and piss will never pass in my opinion.
8) I suggest EB works on all this – show it to me again if you like.
9) The passages I’ve marked with a squiggle are dubious – finally it’s give and take, but the shorter the list of dubious passages and obvious disallowances (piss, bugger, etc) the better chances you have.

P. S. A few less bloodies would help – esp. Act II.”

George Devine

George Devine

In the end, the censor asked for countless verbal changes and small cuts throughout the play, but insisted that both scenes six and nine should be cut in their entirety. That would have meant proceeding directly from the scene with Pam in bed waiting expectantly for Fred’s arrival and ignoring the baby, to Pam’s visiting Fred in prison, where it would have taken a long time for his crime to have become evident, and even longer for the audience to discern the reason for it. Similarly, we would not have known of the scene between Len and Mary, so much of scene eleven – the violent scene with the teapot – would have been incomprehensible. However, you can appreciate the censor’s difficulty. Especially when taken out of context, the death of the baby is a highly emotive issue; nearly everyone would find it shocking, disgusting and sick. Given the laws and the guidelines, the censor really had very little choice.


Lord Stonham

Not surprisingly, though, Bond did not agree to comply with the Lord Chamberlain’s demands, and so Saved was staged by the Royal Court as a club performance, although the Royal Court was not strictly a theatre club. However, this had been a tactic employed successfully in the past, for example when the Royal Court wished to stage Osborne’s A Patriot for Me a few months earlier. Nevertheless, in March 1966, the Director of Public Prosecutions summonsed the English Stage Company because the theatre was not being run as a genuine club. The prosecution failed, but the magistrate fined the company £50 because, as the play had not obtained a licence, and it was technically “for hire”, it contravened the 1843 Theatres Act. In the short run, this was a grave blow as it meant theatre clubs could no longer be guaranteed exempt from censorship. However, in the long run, it added pressure to the anti-censorship lobby and it was only two months later when Lord Stonham moved to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to review stage censorship.

If you read my four posts about Saved, thank you very much! In my next post, I’m looking at another very significant play of the mid 20th century, Look Back in Anger. This will also be split over three blog posts, but I hope you will join me for the battle!

Theatre Censorship – 15: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part Three)

SavedBond has frequently reiterated that a major tenet of the play, as he states in the 1966 author’s note, is that Len is essentially good “in spite of his upbringing and environment, and he remains good in spite of the pressures of the play”. This is also a chief stumbling-block for many critics who cannot understand why, if he is a good person, he does not make any attempt to save the baby from the assault.

Len tells Fred that he witnessed the death by climbing a tree and looking down. There seem to be three major reasons – not necessarily justifications – for Len’s course of action: firstly, up to this stage he is immensely impractical. He fails to keep Pam’s attentions as soon as she meets another man; he does not realise he ought to attend to the crying baby; he misjudges Pam’s attitude towards the child and brings it into the bedroom where she shuns it. When he saw the gang attacking the child, he admits “I didn’t know what t’do. Well, I should a stopped yer.”. So, at least he realises his mistake; but he is hypnotised by the action, and does not necessarily want it to stop because it satisfies his hunger for experience, usually satisfied by incessant questioning.

A second cause of hesitance on his part is that he is presented with a problem which would make him choose between friends; his loyalties are divided. If he were to attempt to save the child, he would land Fred in trouble. It was a question of divided loyalties which caused the baby to be left alone in the first place; Len had to choose whether to stay behind and look after the child or to follow Pam and comfort her; he chose to follow Pam because he had known her longer, because she was so obviously distressed and because he feared she might have done some damage to herself. The baby faced no such problems, and, indeed, its father was present anyway.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

By showing this failing in Len’s character, Bond demonstrates that Len is not totally “good”, and therefore not very different from his acquaintances; it also gives Len “room for improvement”, towards which he certainly strives. It wouldn’t be realistic for Len to possess a semi-divine goodness, given his position in the messy and claustrophobic environment of this play. Good but flawed, maybe? This raises another question: if Len’s action is designed to portray him as only a partly “good” person, surely he would nevertheless have attempted to save the baby. In a matter of life or death, a partly “good” person would prove themselves wholly good; their “goodness” might be lacking in lesser areas of life. It’s hardly reasonable to accept a baby dying unnecessarily. Is this an irreconcilable fault in the play?

Another quote from Bond’s author’s note of 1966: “The play ends in a silent social stalemate, but if the spectator thinks this is pessimistic that is because he has not learned to clutch at straws. Clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.” The faults in Len’s character are the price one must pay for appreciating the good aspect of his nature; and, taken as a whole, Len is a good character. He helps Mary with her shopping; he looks after Pam when she is ill; he sleeps with the door open so that he can hear if the baby starts crying (by this stage he knows that it is wrong for a baby to be left crying); he tries to encourage Pam to love the baby by bringing it in for her to see; he tries to encourage Fred to visit Pam more often and go out with her; he notes that Pam has left the brake of the pram off, and puts it on; and also it seems that from the death of the child onwards, Len gains in practicality. When he visits Fred in prison, he remembers to bring him some cigarettes, unlike Pam, who forgot. He offers to clean Mary’s shoes for her, so that she looks more presentable when she goes to the cinema. In the final scene, only Len is doing anything positive or constructive: he mends the chair broken by Harry.

This is the way that Len is “saved”, and therefore I think I agree with Bond that the play is indeed optimistic. You could stretch the symbolism to see Len’s mending the chair as an example of his holding the entire family together. The final scene shows Pam, Mary and Harry, all separate, masters of their own little territory, with no thought for the other members of the household. Len is the only one who is prepared to communicate: “Fetch me ‘ammer”, he says, to no one in particular, and no one responds. Yet Len shows no sign of disappointment and continues to work hard at his objective. Bond notes: “Curiously, most theatre critics would say that for the play to be optimistic Len should have run away. Fifty years ago, when, the same critics would probably say, moral standards were higher, they would have praised him for the loyalty and devotion with which he stuck to his post”.

For Len to run away and for the play still to be considered optimistic would imply that there was no hope for the family and that any attempt at unification would be in vain. But Bond has already shown that Len can improve, and in that he is no different from anyone else in the play. You can therefore assume that things will improve; or, at least, clutch at the straw that says they might improve. At any rate, Len has teased a friendly and significant conversation out of Harry, who has responded to Len’s personality; because Harry cares about Len, he questions the suitability of the current arrangement, as Len bears the brunt of everyone’s unpleasantness. At the same time, Harry makes a plea that Len might stay. It is the only real occasion when anyone apart from Len questions anything. Len poses questions in the same way that the play does; both want to know why expected, standard, decent behaviour does not take place. Therefore, Len asks Pam how her family broke up, and Len asks Fred what it felt like to kill a baby. This causes friction not only because of the characters’ natural reticence to explain anything, but also because of what Hay and Roberts refer to in Bond – a study of his plays as their “paper-thin security”.

Bond’s own opinion of the structure of the play may at first appear surprising. He describes it as “formally, a comedy” and, added to this, there is also a considerable degree of conventionality in the development of the story, although elsewhere its conventions are thwarted. It may seem odd to consider a play where a baby is stoned to death a comedy, but then a son dies and a woman is turned to stone in The Winter’s Tale, which is also – apparently – a comedy. You might maintain that Shakespeare’s play is a comedy because everything turns out well in the end; but isn’t that also the case in Saved? Furthermore, Bond writes some delightfully humorous scenes, largely deriving from sexual awkwardness or embarrassment. The bumbling, neurotic ineptitude of Len in the first scene is very funny, particularly because of the suddenness of the whole situation. The two scenes of hinted sexual frisson between Len and Mary also contain elements of humour; particularly scene three, where the members of the gang are surprised to see that it is Mary for whom Len is waiting and not Pam or someone of her age. Scene nine between Len and Mary has a more sinister sense of humour, but the incongruity of the situation keeps it light, and the brief appearance of Harry halfway through the scene recalls the humour of exactly the same occurrence in the seduction scene between Len and Pam.

Structurally, the play does not begin with background explanations followed by events; it opens with an important event and the merest hint of characterisation and subsequently fills out their lives and those of the people around them. Bond is at his most skilful when introducing a relevant fact before the audience realises that it is relevant. Early in scene two Len tells Pam: “Thass about one thing your ol’ girl don’t do…nag ‘er ol’ man”. A few minutes later, he asks: “’Ow’d they manage?…They writes notes or somethin’?” Similarly, before she has even met Fred, Pam remarks how hungry she is, and Len guesses: “I reckon yer got a kid on the way”.

Bond also ensures that we are never unprepared for an event: not only have Pete’s account of the child he killed and Fred’s fishing scene prepared us for the violence of scene six, but Pam tells us, as early as scene two, of the death of her brother, who was killed by a bomb in the park. History repeats itself. One could complain that in some ways the play is artificially neat; remember J. W. Lambert’s disappointment at what he saw as the contrivance of the play. The conventionality also extends to moments of both typical domesticity and typical romance, like wasting lazy Sundays on a boating-pool. Even the short episode where Pam bursts Len’s spot is, although icky, an act of caring, and homeliness; it is a human equivalent of chimpanzees searching each other for fleas.

However, there is an antagonism in the structure. The conventionality stresses the importance of scene seven, showing Fred in jail, because of its central position, just before the interval. Hay and Roberts believe it is the fulcrum of the play suggesting “the basic domestic triangle” and therefore making the focal point highly personal, unlike the wider tragedy of scene six, the baby-stoning scene, which, if that were the focal point of the play, would make it an impersonal one. The structure pushes the baby-stoning scene six into the background. However, despite Bond’s intentions, scene six is the most memorable; virtually all the critics who commented on the play used that scene as a springboard for their criticisms.

In my next post, which will be the last one about Saved, I’ll consider the troubles that it caused the censor.

Theatre Censorship – 14: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part Two)

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneThe baby-stoning scene (scene six) makes such an impact that it almost destroys the structure of the play. However, the culmination of the play’s violent current does not come until scene eleven. Unlike the earlier scene, this does not result in any death, but it is the wilfulness and malice depicted here, the degree of which has not been encountered elsewhere, which is so disturbing. Pam’s parents Mary and Harry have not exchanged words for years, and it is therefore a great shock to both the audience and Pam to find the couple in the middle of an argument. Their argument quickly accelerates into violence: Mary hits Harry with the teapot so that scalding tea pours over him. The teapot was Mary’s chosen weapon in the war of property waged earlier in the scene; as they cannot identify with each other, they must identify with their own possessions, and it was the interdependence of Mary’s teapot and Harry’s tea that was the catalyst for this showdown.

After she has hit him – their first real act of communication – she blames him for the fact that the teapot has been broken. As a weapon, the teapot has fulfilled its purpose and outlived its usefulness; like a bee, whose weapon, its sting, is saved for the moment of greatest provocation; and afterwards, it dies. The violence stems from the mutual hatred between Mary and Harry, and it is because they are not used to any communication between each other that the whole incident escalates out of control; it is the inevitable result of the release of so much accumulated tension. This is Bond’s plainest statement of violence; the need to communicate and interact combined with hatred in a claustrophobic atmosphere, with only one direction in which to escape.

To return to Bond’s analogy of the dog – “human beings are violent animals only in the way that dogs are swimming animals” – Mary and Harry can find no path with which to skirt the lake of co-existence and have no alternative but to swim across. But Bond also states in the essay On Violence: “Human violence is contingent, not necessary, and occurs in situations that can be identified and prevented. These are situations in which people are at such physical and emotional risk that their life is neither natural nor free”. Mary and Harry’s barriered existence could not continue forever; if Pam could somehow have unified the family – and perhaps her baby would have been helpful here – then this violent episode could have been averted, and they might have all been able to get on. Unfortunately, it provides only a momentary relief; in the final scene of the play there seems to be a total lack of communication between everybody.

Of scene six, J. W. Lambert reflected the concerns of many when he posed the question in the Sunday Times of 11th November 1965, “was there ever a psychopathic exercise so lovingly dwelt on as this, spun out with such apparent relish and refinement of detail?” The detail, it should be said, is no more refined here than anywhere else in the play, which is written with beautiful precision, and with highly detailed stage directions. By making the play more explicit in this way, Bond deliberately asks the audience not to use their imagination; what you see is what you get, and everyone sees the same thing, everyone is an equal witness, as though we were observing some strange ritual. Similarly, the scene is no more “spun out” than anywhere else in the play; admittedly scene six is the longest scene in the play, but it also contains the fishing episode, as well as dealing with the most emotive issue within the play, the death of the baby. Had the scene been shorter, the tension and suspense would have been lost. Indeed, had the death been speedy, the charge of gratuitous violence might have been more justified. A quick death would have negated Bond’s attempts to prove that humans are not necessarily violent.

Saved - lads with pramThe description “a psychopathic exercise” is much more difficult to discuss. You may think of killers who have no motive as being psychopaths, and this description certainly applies to the members of the gang. However, Bond has attempted to prove that the youths are merely following in society’s footsteps and are, in fact, perfectly ordinary individuals themselves. It is society, says Bond, that is psychopathic. So the scene really is a “psychopathic exercise”, at least, because it sets out to prove something. Lambert describes it as an exercise, and therefore artificial, with a reasonably convincing argument for believing much of the scene to be contrived: “Why does the baby, which has previously howled for a quarter of an hour at a stretch, utter no sounds? For practical reasons, obviously – and a perfunctory reference to its having been dosed with aspirin only underlines the contrivance. And after the killing, when the reluctant mother Pam returns, how are we to accept that she never so much as glances into the pram to notice the mangled little corpse? Again the perfunctory statement that “I can’t bear to look at you” only underlines the contrivance.”

Bond defended his play from such criticisms both in letters to newspapers and at a “teach-in” held at the Royal Court on 14th November 1965 under the chairmanship of who else but Kenneth Tynan. Here’s an extract from an article entitled Critics Hold Teach-in on Saved, published in The Times, on 15th November:

“According to Miss Mary McCarthy, who opened the discussion, the play was concerned with “limit and decorum”. She thought it showed a “remarkable delicacy”, and praised the infanticide scene for its “delicate escalation”. This was not a view that had occurred to the play’s other critics – even its admirers… There followed a practice scene under the direction of Mr William Gaskill who denied any intention of giving the audience a sado-masochistic thrill. “We wanted to show the whole of life that includes the sudden accident, but also the hours and hours in which nothing happens. Imitation of a violent action is the most difficult of all to present in a theatre – that’s why the Greeks avoided it… In the second half of the evening, the Rev. Stanley Evans, Vicar of St Marks, Battersea, commented on the Christian dilemma of making contact with the area of society portrayed in the play; and an approving Roman Catholic lady in the audience said that on the evening’s showing, Britain’s drama critics ought not to have their jobs”.

Another aspect of the play which offended many was the amount of sexual joking and banter which takes place, usually among the gang members, although Len also joins in on certain occasions and Pam responds to it in a positive way; it is Fred’s sexual forwardness that first attracts him to her. Penelope Gilliatt, in a reasonably fair review in The Observer, dated 11th November 1965, commented: “The scene where a baby is pelted to death by a gang is nauseating. The swagger of the sex jokes is almost worse.” The sexual content of the general conversation in the play is a natural reflection of the sexual tension generated by characters such as Pam and Fred. So is the faltering physical scene between Len and Mary – which has been presaged in scene three where the gang had teased Len for meeting Mary in the park; and all the sexual innuendo delivered by the gang, for example, describing Barry’s girl-friend as a “gunged-up ol’boot”. Their rhyme about Roger the Lodger typifies their attitude to sex: crude, humorous and crammed with double-entendre:

“Roger the lodger ‘ad a bad cough
‘E sneezed so ‘ard
‘Is door knob fell off.
‘Is landlady said we’ll soon ‘ave yer well,
So she pulled of ‘er drawers
‘An polished ‘is bell!”

Mary disapprovingly murmurs “lot a roughs”, but, in fact, the rhyme is prophetically close to what could have happened in that intimate scene between her and Len. With this strong sexual current in the background, it is not necessarily surprising that children should be disliked because they get in the way of limitless, condom-free sex. This may be a subconscious reason for Pete’s killing the boy, or for Fred’s lack of defence for his own child.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

When Len indulges in sexual badinage he is less crude and more tentative. This is because he is not able to share in the others’ carefree attitude to sex, being both more sensitive and more nervous. That humorous first scene of the play is a seduction with a difference; it is not long before we realise that Pam has approached him, and not vice versa, and the consequent scene reveals the chief difference between Pam, who replies to Len’s “Wass yer name?” with an assertive “Yer ain’ arf nosey”, and Len, whose sexual neuroses make him hear voices, or breathing, or footsteps, each of which prevent him from taking things further. At later moments in the play he shows a prurient fascination with Fred and Harry’s sexual experiences with Pam and Mary, respectively, revealing a sexual insecurity which stems from a confusion with him; sex is the raison d’etre for all his contemporaries; but not for him, and he wonders why.

In the next post, I’ll look at Bond’s insistence on its being an optimistic play.

Theatre Censorship – 13: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part One)

Post War British TheatreThe most notorious play of the 1960s to depict violence is Bond’s Saved with its baby-stoning scene. It’s widely believed that this particular work played a decisive role in the battle against stage censorship, because of its thematic power and skilful writing and construction; yet the censor’s demands, had they been met, would have reduced the play to an emasculated wreck – a mere series of unconnected scenes without any “bite”.

On one hand, the play disgusted the theatrical reactionaries; Irving Wardle, in his review for the Times, described it as “a work which will supply valuable ammunition to those who attack modern drama as half-baked, gratuitously violent and squalid”, and as such disliked it not only for its own sake but because he felt it brought drama and the Royal Court into disrepute. On the other hand, the play interested the radicals; John Elsom, writing in his book Post War British Theatre Criticism, appreciated “the realism of Bond’s writing, his superb evocation of a flat, arid, hopeless and deprived social life in South London [which] compelled everybody who saw the play to recognise that atrocities were not confined to fascist camps… but took place in supposedly civilised countries as well”. Indeed, it is the antithesis between expected behaviour and actual behaviour which creates much of the play’s power. One does not expect a crying baby to be perpetually ignored. One does not expect a jilted lover to remain in the same household with both his ex-lover and her new boyfriend. One does not expect a “good” person to watch the gradual killing of a baby without trying to prevent its death.

Bond: Plays OneThe published text of the play has two appendices. The first was written in 1966 to accompany the original publication; the second, On Violence, appeared in 1977, twelve years after the first production of the play, in the collection of plays, Bond: Plays One. The second contains Bond’s philosophy of violence and acts as a complement to the play, which itself is an attempt to explain the nature of violence through the power of drama. Bond’s overriding belief on the subject is that man is not necessarily a violent animal, but that he merely has a capacity to be violent. He uses the analogy of a dog: “A dog has a capacity to swim the first time it goes into water, but it has no need to swim because it has no need to go into water. Human beings are violent animals only in the way that dogs are swimming animals”. He goes on to explain how any species which had an innate need for violence must eventually die out; we can contrast this with the author’s frequently quoted assurance that Saved is “almost irresponsibly optimistic”. To what extent the play supports the philosophy has been the subject of much debate.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

The play contains a great deal of violence, and, as it proceeds, the individual episodes of violent acts build up in an escalation, not necessarily of horror, more of malice. The beginning lulls us into a false sense of security with a very funny opening scene between Len and Pam, both in their young twenties, not quite having one-night-stand sex but leading up to it. In Scene two, Len and Pam are now an item, and he’s obviously shacked up at her place and is paying rent, which is why her parents don’t object. Len has taken Pam out onto the boating pool in the park; a very traditional, relaxing, maybe romantic, way in which to pass an afternoon. She starts to show signs of caring for him, by offering to knit him a jumper – providing he pays for the wool. But, clearly, she wants to keep the relationship on a purely physical level, whereas Len’s desires are almost entirely the opposite; his questions show that he wants to get to know her mind probably more than her body. When cocky young Fred appears, delivering lines packed with sexual innuendo, Pam recognises a fellow being only interested in sex, and so her relationship with Len, as far as she is concerned, is almost instantly over.

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneThe first suggestion of violence, which comes in a scene crammed with sexual banter and laddish teasing, concerns a horrific incident but which we don’t see on stage, it’s only reported. Pete, one of the local gang of youths, – in fact at the age of twenty-five hardly a youth – has returned from the inquest of the death of a young boy whom he deliberately ran over in his bus. Pete, of course, said it was a tragic accident and the trusting coroner exonerated him from any guilt. It’s another example of Bond shocking us with an unrecognisable moral code. Pete obviously does not believe that life is sacred. It was not a long-planned murder; he neither knew the boy nor bore any grudge against him. He simply felt a sudden blood-lust, and the boy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Towards the end of the play the elderly Harry explains what he believes is the value, or benefit, of killing someone: “Gives yer a sense of perspective”. In a way, murder has been an experience which has helped both Pete and Harry to come to terms with themselves. This seems to deny Bond’s belief that humans do not need to be violent, because otherwise surely Pete would have done his best to avoid hitting the boy.

Scene four is a memorable piece of theatre; an irritated and divided family are seen discussing and indeed arguing about trivia whilst outside a baby cries incessantly and nobody attends to it. Anyone who automatically thinks that the needs of a child comes first will look on this as an act of cruelty towards the unfortunate little mite. Of course, we know nothing about the baby – we do not see it, we do not know its name, we do not know if it’s a boy or a girl; as far as its family is concerned, it might as well not exist. The scene gives us great insights into the characteristics of the other people in the play. Pam is lazy, uncaring and self-centred; to her, the baby is just the unwanted product of some casual sex, and therefore just a hazard to occasionally expect with her lifestyle. Harry, the baby’s grandfather, appears to have no involvement with the rest of the family and only comments: “I ain’ getting’ involved. Bound t’be wrong”. Mary, who has the experience of being a mother, knows that it is wrong to ignore the baby and, indeed, feels a little guilty about the whole affair. It is she who finally raises the question of the baby’s crying. Nevertheless, she is intransigent and will not attend to the child on a matter of misguided principle. As for Len, he also takes a back seat. Whether or not he is the father, (we don’t know at the time) he clearly feels some responsibility for it. Although he says “it’ll cry itself to sleep” you sense that he realises that the child is not being looked after properly.

In scene five we are finally introduced to the baby, which drives his plight home to the audience a little more. We are also given first-hand evidence of his mother’s relationship with it: she will not touch it, and at one time it is just lying on the bed in danger of falling off, before Len rescues it.

Saved - lads with pramScene six ends this “trilogy” of scenes, and, indeed, the baby’s life. Using this structure Bond shows how varying degrees of cruelty, both indirect and direct, lead up to its death. However, before the baby-stoning section of the scene, there is an unusual conversation between Fred and Len. Neither Fred nor the audience can really understand why Len should be friends with the man who has stolen his lover from him. One can only presume, at this stage, that Len is either exceptionally selfless or exceptionally stupid. Fred is fishing, and Len is watching and learning Len’s methods. It is a scene which combines peace and violence; fishing is always regarded as a peaceful, relaxing pastime, but in one regard it is a form of hunting at its most ruthless – by suspending the bait in the water, the fisherman plays on the fish’s hunger to lure it and potentially kill it.

In his 1977 appendix, Bond discusses how hunting is not violent because violence involves hatred and “searching for food can’t be connected with hating it. Hunting is violence only when the prey becomes a threat”. Of course, Fred is not being threatened by the fish; but neither is he catching the fish to eat them. What was originally a food-seeking act has developed into a hobby or sport. The fisherman, admittedly, does not feel hatred for his fish; he is doing little more than exercising his ability to outsmart them; demonstrating his “capacity for violence”, perhaps. Bond also goes into considerable detail in explaining how to affix the bait on to the hook: it is a gory, violent procedure, and Len proves himself to be an inept angler because he is neither violent nor practical. Added to any insights which this short scene raises of its own accord, it is, of course, also a forerunner to the more explicit violence to follow.

Bond’s device of introducing facts and ideas very gradually in his writing works to great effect in the baby-stoning scene. As soon as the baby is left on stage without either Pam or Len to attend to it, you sense that something terrible is going to happen, but you’re left waiting for a while for this fear to be realised. The main reason for the delay is simply because the gang don’t set out with the purpose of harming the child; it’s a slow, organic development. When the baby is first left in their presence, it is a stranger to them, and the presence of a stranger in any closed community always alters the behaviour of that community. They take time to adapt to the new situation, and most of them react in a rather conventional way; and although each one’s attitude may be designed to impress the others, they do not totally hide the concern they feel. Colin wants to know “Oo left it ‘ere?” as if to reprehend the responsible party; Barry says “we don’t wan’ the little nipper t’ear that!” when Fred swears, because you don’t swear in front of children; Mike tells Pete “don’t stick your ugly mug in its face!” because it is customary not to wake sleeping babies; when Barry starts pushing the pram around, Pete shows signs of (perhaps excited) nervousness: “’e’ll ‘ave the little perisher out!”; even when things are getting out of control, when Pete is pulling the baby’s hair, Colin still observes that the “little bleeder’s ‘alf dead a fright”. So the evidence of the play does not suggest that the youths instinctively wish to harm the child; their chief reaction to it is one of curiosity, as it is outside their sphere of experience. It’s a bit like poking a lame bird with a stick to see if it reacts. Of course, the gradual involvement of the gang with the baby creates an equally gradual build-up of tension.

When they begin to realise that, like Fred’s fish, the child cannot fight back, each individual assault becomes more and more daring. They also become progressively more self-conscious about what they are doing, because they know it’s wrong. At first, they act naturally and pay no attention to anyone else, as they behave no more violently than to express a little verbal bravado: “And down will come baby and cradle and tree an’ bash its little brains out an’ Dad’ll scoop ‘em up and use ‘em for bait”. To the audience this is tasteless and shocking, but to the lads it is no more than a joke. After a little while they become more aware of Fred’s presence, who, though one of the gang, is also known to be the child’s father. Later still, they are checking that there are no other witnesses, and working themselves up into the mood in which to give vent to their violent capacity: “Reckon it’s all right?” “No one around” …”Yer can do what yer like”, “Might as well enjoy ourselves”, “Yer don’t get a chance like this every day”. Finally, when the bell rings to warn that the park is closing, all except Barry take the opportunity instantly to escape from the situation, and Pete, in particular, becomes infuriated with Barry’s insistence on violence: Barry seems to hate the child whereas the others have no special emotions about it at all – to them it is just a coconut at a coconut-shy. They are like a group of football supporters who only become violent in a crowd. They simply attack the child because that is what society expects of them – it confirms their identity.

John Russell Taylor

John Russell Taylor

Bond’s own attitude to the death of the child is straightforward. From his 1966 appendix to the play: “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”. Tell that to the child, Mr Bond! Critic John Russell Taylor makes the valid point that Bond’s comment “ignores the crucial question of the dramatic perspective in which the particular event is placed; it is not compared with the play to the Dresden raid or anything of the sort, but to a recognisable pattern of everyday life”. Taylor goes on to conclude that the assault is arbitrary and unmotivated, but he sees this as a fault whereas Bond would consider it part of the nature of violence. As far as the assault being unmotivated, one could interpret the whole scene as simply being a rejection of life; the baby represents life in its purest form, and the gang are people for whom life has gone sour. In his preface to his play Lear (1971), Bond asserts that of all the human race children are subject to the most violence because the world is not geared to meet their “biological expectations”; “the weight of aggression in our society is so heavy that the unthinkable happens: we batter [the child] … the dramatic metaphor I used to describe it was the stoning of a baby in its pram. This is not done by thugs but by people who like plays condemning thugs”.

For a last reaction to the baby-stoning scene let’s consider the comments made by W. A. Darlington in his Daily Telegraph review dated 4th November 1965: “The effect of this scene on me is precisely the opposite of what the author intended me to feel. I had no sense of horror, no dramatic illusion. I knew there was no baby in the pram, just as I could see there were no stones in the actors’ hands. My only emotion was cold disgust at being asked to sit through such a scene.” Obviously, the play failed for Darlington, although not necessarily in the way that he assumed. Bond’s primary objective in this scene was not particularly to communicate a sense of horror, but to show the easy escalation with which violence can occur, and for this to work on stage the audience must experience some form of genuine alarm. Darlington found the whole episode so “beneath art” that he just could not be bothered to play along with it.

My next post looks at the rest of the play and its sexual content.

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!

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.