Theatre Censorship – 29: More real people and national stereotypes

Anyone for Denis?John Wells’ farce Anyone for Denis? (1981) was set in the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, and was supposed to show a typical hair-raising weekend with Russian spies and insulted delegates… you know the kind of thing. The play was notable for its highly topical script which changed daily – which of course would have been impossible under the Lord Chamberlain’s regime – and actually it was the Falklands campaign which caused the play to close because, basically, topical references on that subject simply weren’t funny. There was a minor publicity campaign founded on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to see the show – with photographs afterwards of herself with Angela Thorne, the stage Margaret, and everyone looking distinctly uncomfortable apart from the real Denis Thatcher who seemed to have a whale of a time. To see the Prime Minister of the day standing next to a satirical version of herself would have had Robert Walpole turning in his grave. After all, he had introduced censorship to prevent this kind of thing going on.

Alma Rattenbury

Alma Rattenbury

Other plays that featured “real” people, included two plays, in the late 70s, that were based on the case of Alma Rattenbury who was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1935; Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre (1977) which concentrates on the trial, and Simon Gray’s Molly (1977) which tells the story by means of analogy. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara as well as the less well-known Henry Carr for a skit on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and Robert David Macdonald’s Summit Conference (1978) shows Eva Braun and Clara Petacci (Mussolini’s mistress) holding an imagined conversation in 1941.

Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn

On the subject of national origins – the last of those categories mentioned in the 1968 Theatres Act – despite any acrimony between Britain and Argentina at the time, the Falklands War did not bring about a deluge of anti-Latin American drama. Today we can see that Brexit has shown that there is always scope for – shall we say – international rivalry. Playwrights still satirise whatever nationalities they choose. As an example, and plucked from nowhere in particular, Sven, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart (1978) is described as “terribly solemn, terribly Scandinavian, a sweet person but never ever wrong”. In fact, Ayckbourn characterises him as infuriating and pompous, someone who takes the pleasantly Home Counties atmosphere of the play and sours it into something dark, gloomy, and over-serious. Young Mandy, who just likes a bit of painting for relaxation, may just be sketching a drawing of the side of the house for her own enjoyment, but Sven has to turn the whole exercise into an inflated lecture about art: “I would like you to think about this. Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth. Do you know who said that? It was Picasso who said that… I think in some ways you are trying to be too truthful. The result being, at the moment, that your picture has no truth. Think about that.” His instructions sound like those of a part-time art critic who thinks he knows it all but in fact knows nothing; an inflated ego, vain and boorish. Ayckbourn chooses for Sven a particularly unpleasant ending: “one middle-aged mediocrity… who has fought and lost. …The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.” Sven is, of course, an exaggeration of those gloomy Finnish traits – Ayckbourn is actually very popular in Scandinavia – but nevertheless he is a totally believable character.

PlentyIn Plenty (1978) David Hare points out how one associates Scandinavians with gloom and despondency and how people from different Scandinavian countries are indistinguishable from one another, as in this conversation:

Susan: “Apparently it’s about depression, isn’t that so, Mme. Wong?”
Mme Wong: “I do feel the Norwegians are very good at that sort of thing….”
Darwin: “Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede”.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Unlike Sven, Agatha Christie’s Paravicini from the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap (1952) is a totally larger-than-life creation, an exaggeration of the most ridiculous Mediterranean elements, who creeps around stagily and suspiciously, appears to wear rouge make-up, and makes a big mystery of himself: “I turn up saying that my car is overturned in a snowdrift. What do you know of me? Nothing at all! I may be a thief, a robber, a fugitive from justice – a madman – even – a murderer.” Christie has drawn on legendary Italian lasciviousness and added a touch of camp to accompany her character’s ingratiating and fawning behaviour towards his hostess in a good example of parody over characterisation. Of course, as it was written in 1952, this famous play would have been subject to the old rules of censorship. I’m sure it didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain one jot.

In my next post I’ll look at some other plays that might – but probably might not – be considered to “stir up hatred” based on colour or race.