Theatre Censorship – 36: The Romans in Britain trial – and a wrap up.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that although Mary Whitehouse’s prosecution against Michael Bogdanov, director of The Romans in Britain, was within the letter of the law, it certainly the transgressed the spirit of the law. NVALA agreed that it was a loophole in the law which allowed her to bring her suit in the first place. The Sexual Offences Act only provided legislation for men to be prosecuted, because it presumed only men were involved in the kind of sexual practice that the act was originally designed to prevent. Therefore, if the play had been directed by a woman, or if it had featured heterosexual rape, the act would not have been applicable. Lord Hutchinson made this point while cross-examining Graham Ross-Cornes, but it cut no ice with Mr Justice Staughton who felt it was irrelevant to the case in hand. When asked to comment on this point, John Beyer, NVALA’s Organising Secretary, stated in a letter to me dated 10th January 1983 that “the law ought to reflect the fashion for equal rights,” and so rather than close the loophole one may assume that the association would have preferred to widen and legitimise it.

There is one further point concerning the spirit of the law that could do with some clarification. Many people, including Sir Peter Hall, accused Mary Whitehouse of bringing the law into disrepute because, as he said on LBC’s Artsweek programme on 21st March 1982, “the Theatres Act of 1968 was designed to protect the theatre from private individuals or minority sects prosecuting the theatre for their own ends.” Certainly, the act was designed to form some protection for the theatre, chiefly against the ritual submission of new plays to the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It was never the intention of the 1966-67 Committee to protect the theatre from the catalogue of injustices listed in the 1909 report, except that of offending a friendly power (i.e. political censorship) which they recommended should cease. All the other categories would simply rely on the law of the land, and, as Lord Chesterfield said to Walpole, “the king’s courts are open.”

Romans in BritainHowever, the Committee also stated that any legislation should have regard to five common considerations – the right of trial by jury, the admissibility of expert evidence, the effective treatment of obscene plays, the uniform application of the law, and, especially appropriate to “The Romans in Britain” trial, the prevention of frivolous prosecutions. The Committee went on to say, as is stated in their report, “no criminal prosecution whether under statute or common law arising out of the performance of a play should take place without the order of the Attorney-General having been first obtained. Subject to this provision, any individual would have the right to take legal action against a stage performance which he considered contravened the law”.

Therefore, one can claim that when Mary Whitehouse continued to attempt to prosecute Bogdanov after the Attorney-General had specifically refused permission to prosecute under the Theatres Act, it was then that she transgressed the spirit of the law. In fact, it was only the poor wording of the Theatres Act – which in effect permitted other laws to apply to the theatre – that caused the whole legal comedy of errors in the first place. Even Mr Harrington – the magistrate at Horseferry Road who found in favour of Mrs Whitehouse – pointed out that he thought it was extraordinary that the Act had failed to exempt sexual offences at Common Law and under the Vagrancy Act.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

As Bogdanov had his costs paid for him – although Mary Whitehouse and NVALA had to pay theirs – the Theatre Defence Fund money suddenly became a useful financial weapon with which to fight for an amendment to the Theatres Act. The change that would be necessary to prevent a similar occurrence was merely to include the words “and statute law” in its list of items which have no association with the Act. Following the trial, Christopher Price, then MP for Lewisham West and Spokesman for the House of Commons Select Committee on the Arts, pledged to fight for the amendment in Parliament, and until this amendment were to be made, asked the Attorney-General to issue a nolle prosequi in all similar cases, so that, even if the theatre and the law were brought into disrepute, at least the play’s director should not be sent to prison. In a letter he wrote to me dated 14th January 1983 he confirmed that he’d had no success in this venture, saying “there is no prospect of an amendment either to the Theatres Act or the Sexual Offences Act.” Mr Price lost the 1983 general election and was never returned to Parliament.

Christopher Price in 1980

Christopher Price in 1980

Finally, to return to NVALA’s constant assertion that it was not a case about censorship, this is perhaps a rather sweeping statement whose degree of truth depends on how you define the word. Strictly speaking, “censorship” simply means the prohibition or prevention by someone to allow someone else to read or see a particular thing. The word itself implies no particular motivation, not any attribution to good or bad. It does, however, imply that the censor is invested with more power and freedom than the recipient of the material to be censored; an absolute ability to judge what is either acceptable to or required for the recipient. Mrs Whitehouse wished to prevent the general public from seeing a scene of “gross indecency” on stage at the National Theatre for no reason apart from the fact that she thought it offended public morals. Despite possibly well-meaning intent, she invited the law to act as a censor, although she denied it: “If I had the power to go into the National Theatre and stand on that stage and say, “away with all you, I will not have this on this stage”, you could accuse me of censorship.” If she had brought a successful prosecution, the effect would have been virtually the same. Whatever one’s interpretation of the case, it set a sort of precedent, and one which certainly contravened the spirit of the Theatres Act.

As for the play, despite Howard Brenton’s rather over-confident belief that “this play is going to prosper”, no management dared to present it for several years. Was that because of the quality of the play itself, or because no one knew what legal wrangles it might incur? Apart from a student production by the Bristol Old Vic School in 1994, its only professional reappearance on stage has been at the Sheffield Crucible Theatre in 2006, directed by Samuel West; theatre, cast and director survived unscathed – although the young Celt still felt the pain of invasion.

And that’s as far as my post-grad research took me. Of course, drama didn’t stop in 1982, and plays that would have sent the Lord Chamberlain reeling still took to the stage. The works of Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, even One Man One Guvnor’s Richard Bean have challenged their audiences with sex, violence and all forms of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Maybe that’s some research for me to do another day.

If you’re reading this on the day it was published, 26th September 2018, it is exactly fifty years today since the introduction of the Theatres Act and the abolition of stage censorship. But where are all the flags and banners of celebration? Nowhere. So often we take our freedoms for granted! In the meantime, thank you for your time and effort and I hope that you found some of the little nuggets of interest, or enjoyed some detailed lit-crit of the big plays of Osborne, Bond and Brenton. As for me, I’m going to clear my head by watching some Disney.

Theatre Censorship – 35: How Mrs Whitehouse got her knickers in a twist, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 2)

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

Ian Kennedy QC in 1987

The trial itself spread over the four days from 15th – 18th March 1982. Press and media coverage was enormous. The case divided the public, with perhaps more support for Mary Whitehouse than she usually earned in her campaigns, but still with most people in favour of the defence. On the first day, the prosecuting counsel, Ian Kennedy QC, who had taken over from John Smyth, who contracted a virus, put his case. He was most concerned to emphasise certain facts, including that the act took place in the centre of the stage in full light, implying that not only was the act particularly blatant, but also that his witness, Mr Ross-Cornes, could not be mistaken in what he saw. Kennedy also insisted that the charge was nothing to do with theatrical freedom but with gross obscenity. He emphasised, and Ross-Cornes agreed, that the fact that the audience was asked to believe that penetration was not complete, nor was the act being simulated carried to its normal physical completion, was totally irrelevant to the case. Similarly, he insisted the question of whether the play tended to deprave and corrupt, or whether it was in good or bad taste did not matter, and nor did the unquestioned fact that the performance did not take place for the sexual gratification of either the actors or the audience. As Kennedy summed up, and as reported in the Daily Telegraph on 16th March 1982: “that makes no difference, the law prohibits the commission of the act of gross indecency and it doesn’t examine the act that is done.”

Lord Hutchinson cross-questioned Ross-Cornes during the first and second days of the trial. The witness denied that he went to the play intending to view it in the worst possible light. He also denied confusing the actor’s penis with his thumb, an undeniably most important distinction under the circumstances. This was also relevant to Bogdanov’s stated difference between the simulation of homosexual rape and the illusion of it. Ross-Cornes told the court that he had not known that 99% of cases brought under the Sexual Offences Act involved the motive of sexual gratification.

Jeremy Hutchinson

Jeremy Hutchinson

However, Hutchinson’s chief line of questioning concentrated on whether or not Ross-Cornes differentiated between an act of gross indecency on the street and on the stage. All along Ross-Cornes admitted that he did not differentiate between the two. Although he conceded that three young men walking naked on a stage does not contravene any laws whereas if they were walking in the street they would be breaking the law, he thought there was no difference in the degree of obscenity between a man and a woman making love on a street and in a film or on a stage. Nor did he discriminate between bad language spoken by invading soldiers and by guests at a church tea party, nor between bad language on stage and the same words printed in a book. At the end of the second day Lord Hutchinson repeated: “Do you still stick with the idea that the thirty-second rape scene would be just the same in impact as if it had happened by itself in the street?“ Ross-Cornes’ reply was unchanging as ever: “What I intended to say was that it would be just as grossly indecent on the stage as in the street”.

To the great surprise of legal commentators – again – on the third day the judge not only threw out Lord Hutchinson’s submission that no triable offence had been committed, he also agreed that there was no difference between a simulated act on stage and a real one. This pronouncement astounded the theatrical profession who had always assumed that the presence of the stage meant that drama was obviously “unreal”. Peter Hall stated on the Artsweek programme: “I am sure there is a statute which says that you mustn’t run crap games on a pavement in the middle of the town, and somebody could actually prosecute us for doing “Guys and Dolls”, because the law has also… during this trial… said that what happens on the stage and what happens in life is one and the same thing which… is not true. The theatre is not life, it’s imitation.” Such a judgment, taken in isolation, certainly seems to threaten basic theatrical freedom, and the outrage expressed by the theatrical profession was the panicky cry of people fighting for their livelihood.

However, the surprises provided by this case did not end there. The judge’s decision on whether or not the Sexual Offences Act was applicable in this case was paramount; if he decided that it was not, then the case would have to be dropped, and if not, the case could go ahead. Having decided that the act was applicable, the prosecution lawyer decided to withdraw the case. This, of course, begged the question “why”, and naturally many rumours instantly started spreading that the bottom had fallen out of the case and that Ian Kennedy had decided to withdraw because he knew he had no chance of winning. However, the judge’s opinion patently precludes this possibility. In Mary Whitehouse’s words, as she wrote in her book A Most Dangerous Woman?, “we had established a very important legal verdict and there seemed to me absolutely no point in prolonging Michael Bogdanov’s agony.”

According to the strict terms of law, it is not permitted for a private prosecution to be withdrawn after the presiding judge has decided that a triable offence has been committed. However, this transgression is only minor in comparison with the legal errors made on all sides of this lawsuit. The judge would not have allowed the prosecution lawyer to withdraw, apart from the fact that the defence counsel had told Bogdanov of this fact and that by means of this by-pass, the judge’s own role had been disregarded. The Attorney-General had been consulted and had decided to issue a nolle prosequi on the case. There followed further confusion and consternation, because at the time there was a good deal of legal debate as to what the exact meaning of a nolle prosequi was. Strictly speaking it is as though the case never existed and any penalties or personal judgments made in it are negated, a little like an annulment of a marriage.

However, nobody could decide whether other rulings should stand, and so nobody could decide whether the Sexual Offences Act could be brought in to prosecute a similar play in the future. NVALA insisted that the judge’s ruling did provide a precedent; Equity rather thought that it did not, but that it was reasonably likely that, given the same circumstances all over again, that the Sexual Offences Act could successfully be invoked. However, the Attorney-General cleared up most of the confusion in the House of Commons when he stated his intention behind issuing a nolle prosequi was that the judge’s ruling should apply in future cases. Doubtless if any such cases were to take place, the defence counsel would contest this in court.

At any rate, Michael Bogdanov came away from the trial without a slur on his name, and in fact he probably benefited a little from this succès de scandale. He was certainly relieved that the case against him was dropped, but he was also annoyed that he never got the chance to defend his actions, or to justify the exclusion of the theatre from this kind of law. It was ironic that, as the man at the centre of the trial, he remained silent throughout. However, he determined to join the Theatre Defence Group’s fight to amend the Theatres Act so that a prosecution like this could not be brought again.

Next Tuesday, 25th September, it will be exactly 50 years since theatre censorship was abolished. Come back then for my final blog post on the subject!

Theatre Censorship – 34: Simulated sodomy, or The Romans in Britain trial (Part 1)

Romans in BritainOn 24th October 1980, the Attorney-General sent a lawyer to the theatre to watch a performance of The Romans in Britain. The National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association (NVALA) did the same, asking John Smyth QC to witness the activity on the stage and form his own conclusion. On his return, Mr Smyth said he had been shocked by the play and recommended that NVALA’s legal adviser, Graham Ross-Cornes, should ask the Attorney-General to take action against the play and insist on its withdrawal. A month later the Attorney-General’s reply was received, to the effect that he would neither prosecute the play nor permit NVALA to do so. When asked why, he simply replied that he did not believe that the case would be successful. This split the two sides in the argument even wider. NVALA became even more determined to prevent the play from continuing and the National Theatre regarded the decision as an official condonation of the production.

It is not difficult to see why the case might have failed. The prosecution would have been brought under the 1968 Theatres Act which states “a play shall be deemed to be obscene if, taken as a whole, its effect was such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons who were likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to attend it.” It is very rarely that these woolly words are exposed as the meaningless drivel they are. The problem with any prosecution brought under this paragraph is one of proof and criterion. In these circumstances, what is depravity and corruption? In terms of morality, it’s hard to define what corruption really is. And, even if you can define these terms, how can they be proved to have happened?

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

There seems to be four or five possible reactions to the play and most particularly the rape scene. One can appreciate the symbolic meaning of the rape as signifying invasion by an alien culture and accept the scene as writer Howard Brenton intended it. This would not involve any depravity or corruption, as one would not view the incident in sexual terms, but purely symbolic. Those people who were shocked by it and found it offensive would voluntarily detach themselves from the play, stop watching it, and stop thinking about it. Perhaps they might walk out, in which case they would no longer be present to face depravity or corruption. Some people might feel that the whole scene was ludicrous and either out of embarrassment or simply because of the inept choice of metaphor, find it funny. This reaction would mean they wouldn’t take it seriously, and would mentally block any seriousness about it. Perhaps as a result they might be accused of condoning such sexual violence; but above all, laughter is a defence mechanism to protect oneself, and one would be most unlikely to be corrupted by laughter.

Even if the scene were to excite a member of the audience sexually or pornographically, one could claim – and this a matter of much debate – that that person was already depraved and corrupt anyway and that the play made no particular difference to their already established outlook. Only if a dangerously impressionable person with no criminal record were to go out and commit homosexual rape as a result of the performance could the play decisively be said to have been proved to have depraved and corrupted this person. In any case, this mythical miscreant would have to be so impressionable; reading an Agatha Christie murder mystery would be as likely a cause for them to commit murder. The legal viability of the Theatres Act obviously has its limits.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

After the Attorney-General’s refusal to prosecute or grant permission for others to prosecute, NVALA was left with two options. Either they could drop the case and admit defeat, which is certainly what the Attorney-General would have preferred, or they could take out a private prosecution against director Michael Bogdanov under the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Section Thirteen of this Act stated: “It is an offence for a man… to procure the commission by a man of an act of gross indecency with another man.” At the time, the charge of procuration carried a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. This was the course of action that Mary Whitehouse took. It’s interesting to note that Section Thirteen of the 1956 Sexual Offences Act was repealed by the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, and the charge of procuration is no longer an offence.

Michael Bogdanov’s reaction was one of surprised annoyance. In the LBC Artsweek programme broadcast on 21st March 1982 he stated: “I felt that she was pursuing to an illogical end a case that she had got obsessed with, and therefore had not due regard to the circumstances and the occasion of the play.” This comment is at odds with Mary Whitehouse’s denial after the trial that she would prosecute “The Romans in Britain” again if it were to be presented at a different theatre. Her words were: “I’m not interested in chasing a particular play”.

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

There were two aspects of the case which captured the attention and imagination of the public. The first, which was frequently used against Mary Whitehouse, was the fact that she was going to all the trouble of privately prosecuting Michael Bogdanov, and running the risk of incurring very expensive legal costs if she failed, when she had never actually seen the play herself. This struck many as hypocritical and censorial, because she was attempting to influence what other people could see from a position of ignorance, depriving herself of first-hand knowledge of the matter in question. She defended her position by saying that she had been told in full by her representatives who had seen the play all about it, and that therefore she knew enough. She said that quite simply she had no wish to see it; and she considered that if she did go to see it that would benefit her opponents in the argument. They would say that she’s been to see it and she hasn’t been depraved and corrupted by it, so why should anyone else? I’m sure she was right on this particular point.

The second aspect which stirred public interest was to what extent was the homosexual rape on stage “real”. It had always been taken for granted by the public that the rape had been simulated, but accounts of the scene made it sound very real indeed. Bogdanov cavilled over the use of the term “simulation”. From the Artsweek programme: “I don’t believe you can simulate buggery… like you don’t believe the woman can really be sawn in half, you can’t simulate that, you can only create the illusion of it… a leading lady and a leading man are not necessarily in love; in fact they might hate each other, and one might have bad breath and the other a pimple on the upper lip and neither of them actually likes kissing each other but one says to the other “I swear I will love you for ever” and he kisses her, and that is the simulated kiss. But actually, you can create the illusion of a kiss; you can take somebody’s face in your hands and you can appear to kiss them but actually your thumbs have masked the fact that you’re kissing your thumbs, not their lips.” He preferred to use the term “illusion”, because “simulation” refers too closely to physical appearance instead of how the act appears to the mind. Bogdanov also insisted that the physical positions of the actors meant that “biologically it was impossible for it to have occurred”.

Six months after the decision had been taken by Mary Whitehouse to prosecute under the Sexual Offences Act, in June 1981, the charge was heard at Horseferry Road Magistrates Court in London. Bogdanov was represented by Lord Hutchinson who was the defence lawyer in the Lady Chatterley trial in 1961, which gave the whole affair an additional frisson for the general public. It also, subconsciously, emphasised the censorship nature of the case. Much to the surprise of theatrical and legal commentators, the magistrate decided that the theatre was not exempt from the Sexual Offences Act and that there was, indeed, a case to answer. Therefore, he committed Michael Bogdanov for trial at the Old Bailey. The legal commentators were especially baffled since the paragraph cited from the Sexual Offences Act, under which the charge was brought, was originally designed to prevent sexual acts taking place in public lavatories.

The theatre world generally regarded this decision as an insult, and it became a matter of pride for bodies such as the National Theatre Board, the newly-formed Theatre Defence Group and the Actors’ Union Equity to fight the charge tooth and nail. A fund was set up, called the Theatre Defence Fund, whose chief object was to raise money to fight the case and pay for Bogdanov’s trial costs if necessary. A most lucrative way of raising this money was the organisation of a chain of readings of “The Romans in Britain” at theatres up and down the country, at which audiences would donate however much they wished. Interestingly, NVALA made no comment about these readings, which showed that it wasn’t their intention to silence the play itself. It was also evidence of the fighting spirit of the theatre world who saw it as a legal way of showing defiance. This was especially true of the group of actors at the Oxford Playhouse who daily staged a reading of a transcript of that day’s proceedings in court, thereby creating theatre out of the theatre, so to speak. This continued despite a warning from the judge Mr Justice Staughton that they might be in contempt of court.

More about the trial in my next blog post.

Theatre Censorship – 33: Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

“It was an illusion… a point that was made to illustrate the main theme of the play… that invasion by an aggressive force is wrong; that a territorial acquisition, the destruction of one culture by another, invasion by forces who are stronger than the country that they are invading is absolutely immoral. And therefore, what we were doing was showing a moral act, not an immoral act.” With these words Michael Bogdanov justified the scene of homosexual rape in Howard Brenton’s notorious Romans in Britain which opened at the National Theatre on October 16th 1980. As director of the play, Bogdanov was at the centre of what could have become the most thrilling theatrical trial of all time, and one which did, at any rate, question the freedoms which had been granted to the theatre in 1968.

LBC, the news radio station that now broadcasts nationally (and all over the world thanks to the Internet) was, in 1982, confined to coverage in only London and the surrounding satellite towns. On the schedules was a regular weekly programme called Artsweek, a digest of what was happening in the arts scene in London; and on 21st March 1982 they transmitted a programme purely devoted to The Romans in Britain, and its famous trial that never was. I recorded the programme onto cassette, transcribed it, and it provided a wealth of first hand accounts that today are of invaluable help in remembering what happened and explaining what all the fuss was about. Alas I no longer have the recording, or the full transcript; but I do have several quotes from the key players in the story – Howard Brenton, Michael Bogdanov and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association supremo Mary Whitehouse – which I will use to bring this extraordinary episode in theatrical history back to life. All the comments quoted in this chapter are taken from this radio transcript unless stated.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

For four days in March 1982, the No 1 Court at the Old Bailey heard about the scene which caused all the fuss. Three Roman soldiers approach three naked young Celts, kill one, wound another, and attempt to rape the third. For reasons of biological impracticality there was no penetration (a question of haemorrhoids, apparently) and from that point of view the rape does not actually take place, but neither Brenton nor Bogdanov regarded this as a “get-out clause” in the trial because it never occurred to either of them that they would have a case to answer. “I have always believed implicitly in the integrity of the play and indeed in the integrity of the National Theatre in asking me to produce this play,” Bogdonov stated. In retrospect, this seems obvious, as the National did not consider it necessary to take any legal advice on the production until the rumours of prosecution began to circulate after it had opened. Brenton’s attitude to the production was more ideological, and perhaps naïve: “I believe in a free theatre… you should be able to stage everything that happens in life, and say indeed what you will about it.”

However, then as now, the theatre is subject to laws and if the laws are broken, then inevitably justice must take its course. Brenton wanted to change the theatre and confer on it an even greater freedom than it already possessed, by stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable on stage. As such, he did not shy away from his responsibilities towards the play and was in fact annoyed and disappointed when, in the end, the law did not require him to defend his own play.

Romans in BritainThe play itself tries to make a very simple point. Brenton suggests that the presence of Roman soldiers in England in 55BC creates a parallel with the presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1980. This ambitious play deliberately muddles reality and fantasy to prove its point. Part One is set in 55BC, but in its final scene Caesar and his legates appear on stage in the dress of the British Army of 1980. Similarly, Part Two, ostensibly set in modern day Northern Ireland, is interspersed with scenes set in Britain in 515 AD. The relevance of this date escapes us, the audience, until the end of the play. Brenton uses this complicated time scale to illustrate Caesar’s central belief. Caesar says: “it’s an affliction to see in any one act its consequence… in any predicament, its opposite. To build a tower, knowing brick by brick, how it can be destroyed. Even in the victor of an enemy, I see his defeat”. Caesar may be enjoying a glorious victory in 55 BC, but Brenton also shows us Britain in 515 AD, the date of the death of the last Roman lady on the island of Great Britain. This was the heinous murder of a wretched noblewoman, riddled with plague and paranoia, by her treacherous lover, a mere steward.

In the same way that Caesar looks to the future, British Army Officer Thomas Chichester, his unorthodox 1980s counterpart, looks to the past and relives in his mind the 515 AD scenes that we see on stage. He is in Ireland to kill Republican activist O’Rourke, but like the invading Saxon of Part Two, Scene Four, Chichester is killed instead. How often do we cry that we never learn the lessons of the past? Chichester learns this lesson; that the sequence of consecutive invasions has to be broken. This is why he does not kill O’Rourke when he has the chance. O’Rourke, on the other hand, not having reached Chichester’s same state of awareness, takes his opportunity and has Chichester shot.

These balancing mirror images between the past and the future are not only found in the main elements of the play. There are minor occasions on both sides of the time-gap which reflect the same mental processes and attitudes; for example one of the soldiers in Part Two thinks “we’re just in Ireland to dig toilets”, while in 55 AD a soldier is not particularly proud of his war effort. He sums it up with the words: “I dug a shit hole on the edge of the world”.

Romans in Britain - Celts

The Celts in the original production of The Romans in Britain

However, all these images are secondary to the chief theme of invasion. The rape of the Celts is not the only example of sexual assault symbolising territorial gain. Caesar, the supreme expansionist, sends a legate back to his mistress in Rome with the instruction “tell her to guard with this knife, what I would enter as a knife”. Sex is replaced by violence from the top down, so to speak, so it is not surprising that the soldiers’ attitude to the Celts should also be a confusion of sex and violence. Furthermore, the invasion gives rise to the destruction of the native culture, as Bogdanov stated in the opening paragraph of this chapter, and it is worth noting that it is not the attempted rape that drives the young Druid priest to suicide, but the imposition of wearing Caesar’s Venus pendant around his neck. For him that creates taint beyond redemption and thus he ends his life; in the same way, incidentally, as a Roman would traditionally take the honourable way out. The play makes the point that Caesar inflicting Roman gods on the Celts is the same as England inflicting Protestantism on Irish Catholics, a source of conflict that has troubled Anglo-Irish relations since Cromwell’s time.

The play’s two sections are individually titled; Part One is called Caesar’s Tooth and Part Two, Arthur’s Grave. Caesar suffers with toothache, which, on a symbolic level, might represent an sickness within the body politic. During the first act, the problem tooth is removed. This represents Caesar’s ability to see disaster in the future; the pain is perhaps a warning system, telling Caesar that all will not be well in the future. Similarly, “Arthur’s Grave”, a title that represents the ideological downfall of England, is, Brenton argues, the consequence of the country’s meddling in Ireland. Moreover, the play ends with the birth of Arthur; not the legendary mystic arrival as lyricised by the likes of Malory and Tennyson, but simply an idle arbitrary invasion by a couple of cooks. In terms of the year 515 AD, the cooks represent hope for the future; seen from 1980, this hope is replaced by conflict. In any case, the revelation that he did not exist but is purely a work of fiction symbolises the total destruction of England’s misplaced national pride. “A king who never was” – as described by the First Cook – of the great country that also never was.

One final point concerning the play is the general tone of the language that occurs within it. As I mentioned when referring to the works of Arnold Wesker, the writer David Zane Mairowitz has said “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”. From the opening speeches, the tone of the language and the words used are frequently a mix of the sewer and highly sensuous imagery, designed to disconcert the audience. In the middle-class comfort of the Olivier Theatre, the language may have felt more offensive than if it was staged in, say, the Young Vic or the Donmar Warehouse. In fact, Brenton has successfully used the device that Handke failed with in “Offending The Audience” (see Chapter Five). The opening conversation between Conlag and Daui – two rather superfluous characters – feature words such as fuck, shit, leeches, boils, dogshit, arse and pus. Although this sets the scene quite successfully, it acts as a barrier to the audience from gaining any real sympathy with these characters. You could say this is unfortunate as Conlag, throughout Part One, is a common man on the run, requiring our sympathy. The whole exchange between the two involves a very sensuous linguistic construction. Consider what you feel with the sentence: “Lying in a boat with salt round the back of my eyeballs”. It conjures a very vivid picture of discomfort and unpleasant taste, blurred sight and a rocking movement. Another example; Conlag’s description of how he reacts to this alien environment: “smell their food. Smell how their teeth went into it. The little squirts of fat in the meat. The spit that washed it down”. It suggests a sickly taste and you can almost hear the sound made by the teeth as they sank into the meat.

The sensuous language works very hard to create images that prepare the audience for the violence later in the play. As an example, Viridio’s eloquent hatred for the Romans -which causes his death – involves a good deal of sensuous invective: “with my fingers in the sockets of your eyes, I will hold up your skulls, wet with the flesh of your eyes and your blood!… I will hold your bloody hearts… up to the sun as it sets, and squeeze, and your blood will run down my throat, and I will drink you, get pissed on you! And vomit on you and drink more of you!” There’s no limit to Viridio’s expressions or his intentions.

The production earned generally bad reviews across the whole spectrum of critical comment. Most reviewers could find nothing at all to praise in it, and many were shocked by the homosexual rape – indeed even those who were not themselves shocked were alarmed at the play’s capacity to shock others. Some commentators were startled by the simplistic equations made in the play – especially the reappearance of Caesar’s army in modern British uniforms. Others found the standard of the production generally feeble and an insult to the audience – considering the great reputation of the National Theatre that had produced it. Typical of some of the comments on some of the scenes was that singled out by John Walker in his review in the now defunct Now! magazine: “there is one scene of total unintentional hilarity in which a fugitive, running from Irish wolfhounds, is seen wrestling with a stuffed dog which, after much effort, he bravely subdues. It seemed aptly symbolic for an evening of nursery theatre, of self-indulgent shock-horror fantasy.”

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

By concentrating too heavily on the shocking and violent nature of the presentation, Bogdanov appeared to destroy any serious intentions the play originally had. Some believed the Olivier Theatre should be the pinnacle of art of the highest standard; and this idea was central to the indignation felt by Mary Whitehouse who believed that “Britain is judged in part by what goes on at the National Theatre.” The production was considered a threat to the country’s reputation; and of course, as a recipient of public money to fund the National Theatre, the scandal just grew and grew. Indeed, Sir Horace Cutler, at the time Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, said that the National Theatre’s grant from the Arts Council should be withheld until the play was withdrawn from the repertoire.

In my next blog post, I’ll recount the story of the trial.