Theatre Censorship – 28: The portrayal of real people

Julian Mitchell

Julian Mitchell

The laws of libel and defamation remained largely unchanged from 1968 until 2013 – and this meant that dramatists still had to exercise caution if they wanted to incorporate a non-fictitious character into their work. Many represented real-life characters by implication. In Another Country (1981) Julian Mitchell took one aspect of each of his chief protagonists to create an amalgam of a real-life person. His character Guy Bennett, who is gay (and named Guy), and his character Tommy Judd, who is a Marxist, together add up to an implied portrayal of the spy Guy Burgess, who defected to the Soviet Union in 1951. As if to confirm this implication, Bennett at one stage announces: “I think perhaps I’ll be a spy when I grow up”; and at the end of the play both characters become outcasts as a result of those characteristics. Guy Burgess had actually died way back in 1963, so could not be libelled; but Julian Mitchell’s device of creating a non-fictional character out of two fictional characters is a fascinating piece of invention.

G F Newman

G F Newman

Another 1980s play took a much more hard-hitting and topical scandal for its basis. The Attorney-General was called upon to decide whether a production of G. F. Newman’s Operation Bad Apple should go ahead as planned at the Royal Court in February 1982. The author, known for his tough police fiction both in novels and dramatised on television, had based his play on “Operation Countryman” – an official investigation into corruption in the Metropolitan Police Force. The police lawyers were not deceived by the change of name from Countryman to Bad Apple. They requested that the Attorney-General should insist on its withdrawal because it could prejudice a fair hearing in the Operation Countryman trials which were taking place at the same time. Newman, naturally, insisted that all the characters in the play were totally fictitious, but the atmosphere of the play is one of intense realism with many contemporary references. For example, it included criticism of the Scarman report, which had been commissioned by the UK Government following the 1981 Brixton riots, and had been published on 25 November 1981. According to the lawyers it was the persuasive nature of the realism that could have influenced the trial.

Operation Bad AppleThe main theme of the play is that corruption in the force is not confined to just one bad apple, but that it is widespread; indeed, the play claims that the number of corrupt police exceeds 95% of the entire force. As if to prove the point, two of the play’s most crooked characters end up actually in control of Operation Bad Apple – nice work if you can get it. After consultations between the Attorney-General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, both of whom feature in the play, it was decided to let it continue as planned. As the critic Charles Spencer remarked in the April 1982 issue of Plays and Players Magazine: “The opening… has brought a most welcome whiff of controversy back to the Royal Court. Merging from the underground station you can almost smell the smoke of battle wafting out of the theatre and over Sloane Square. It has been quite like old times… with the Attorney-General keeping an anxious beady eye on the production.”

Royce Ryton

Royce Ryton

The lifting of restrictions on presentations of members of the Royal Family on stage enabled Crown Matrimonial (1972) by Royce Ryton, a serious dramatization of Edward VIII’s abdication crisis, to enjoy a long and successful run. In 1981, however, the same author collaborated with Ray Cooney on Her Royal Highness?, a play which jumped on the bandwagon of the Royal Wedding between Charles and Diana. John Barber referred to it in the Daily Telegraph of 22nd February 1982 as “that tasteless farce about the Prince and Princess of Wales. The Lord Chamberlain would never have licensed that – but it didn’t last long.” According to Ray Cooney’s website, “owing to subsequent events in the tragic life of the real Diana, this play is not available for performance at the present time.”

Happy as a SandbagOne renowned personage who has been subjected to perhaps more than his fair share of satire and abuse is Sir Winston Churchill. It’s not hard to see why. He became synonymous for everything strong, patriotic and magnanimous; for the “blood, toil, tears and sweat” which made Britain great. His victorious cigar was an obvious choice for the centrepiece of the logo which advertised Ken Lee’s musical Happy as a Sandbag (1975). His influence and renown was so strong that to question his greatness was – or maybe still is – also to bring Britain’s greatness into question; especially in those early years after censorship was withdrawn. In Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, the successful search for Churchill’s missing penis at the end of the play acts as a blessing for the themes of sexual liberation that Orton examined so thoroughly in the rest of the play. This discovery is made when all the apparently unresolvable events of the play are, somehow, resolved; just as Nick and Geraldine are twins and Prentice and his wife are lovers, the missing part of Winston Churchill has been literally staring us in the face all along.

The Churchill PlayCast your mind back, if you can, to 1974. Britain in recession, the three-day week, power cuts, miners’ strikes, unstable governments, IRA bombings… it wasn’t the best of times. It was also the year that Howard Brenton wrote The Churchill Play, which opens with the surreal vision of Churchill, presumed dead, springing from his coffin, brandishing cigar and Union Jack. At first you might expect the embodiment of Churchill to represent a spirit of greatness, arriving like the cavalry to rescue Britain from the doldrums. However, as the play unfolds, you realise that Churchill shoulders the blame for everything wrong with the country. The play is set in a British Concentration Camp in 1984 – the Orwellian reference is by no means coincidental – where prisoners of conscience are sent. Their crime? To question the justice of the Con-Lab government which is, as Jonathan St. John (M.P., Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Committee of Ways and Means) describes himself, “more Con than Lab. Very much more.” The camp is proudly referred to as the Churchill Camp; so the country has seen fit to pay tribute to its “great man” with an edifice that represents, symbolises and embodies fascism. You don’t need me to point out the irony that it was Churchill who successfully waged the 1939-45 war against the Nazis and their concentration camps. Gerald Morn, a representative of the last vestiges of socialism in Britain, calls the camp “the English Dachau”; to prove it, Colonel Ball, the military mastermind of the camp, and who appears to believe implicitly that “Winston Churchill saved this country from one thousand years of barbarism”, continues to implement this barbarism and taint Churchill’s reputation by naming it after him.

The internees of the camp look upon the production of the Churchill play (within a play) as a diversionary tactic, helping them to stage their planned escape, which shows that they see him in a different light from the Colonel and the politicians. They regard him as symbolising a possible salvation from fascism, rather than a justification for it. In the end, the security arrangements are tighter than they thought, and the prisoners’ rebellious spirit disintegrates as they realise that the strength of right-wing militancy sweeping the country. This new regime will not permit them any reintegration back into society. The probable result is that, after the curtain falls, they will either “be dumped”, or received Julia Redmond’s (a most suspicious PPS) white-box torture: “you are tied in a white room. The eye cannot focus. The white… an ionized paint… is infinite. Like the dark sky of a moonless night… in the end you become a white, three-D void… there are drugs. And surgery… You cut the brain… butchery… against the butchers.” Elsewhere in the play, when Churchill is not being used to represent this kind of savagery, he is ridiculed in an imaginary presentation of the 1945 Yalta Conference, where he met Stalin and Roosevelt to complete plans for the defeat of Germany and the foundation of the United Nations. Brenton has him taking a bath with Stalin, with the bath-water representing Europe, displaced in Archimedean fashion by their discussions. Churchill is the unifying thread which runs throughout the play, and a good example of the portrayal of a non-fictitious public figure on stage, with inventiveness and originality.

In my next post I’ll look at some more “real” people on stage and the use of national stereotypes.

Theatre Censorship – 27: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and Mary O’Malley

Narrow road to the Deep NorthIn the opening scene of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Basho the poet watches a woman abandoning her baby by a river, prepared to sacrifice the weakest of her children so that the five others may live; an act that shows the harsh reality which governs their way of life. Basho’s attitude is clinical; but he feels no further responsibility towards the baby and does nothing to rescue it from its fate. Later, Shogo, the leader of the city, and indeed this abandoned baby now an adult – somehow it survived – entrusts Basho with the responsibility of looking after the son of the deposed and dead Emperor. Again, Basho attempts to shun the burden, but Shogo blackmails him into accepting the responsibility. Basho sets himself up as a pillar of the community only to be pilloried himself. As a responsible adult, he is later to come back from his search for enlightenment in the deep north thirty years later, having decided that “enlightenment is the awareness that there is “nothing to learn in the deep north”. Zen, or ridiculous? As a master of haiku, Bond’s version of his famous verse appears as: “Silent old pool, Frog jumps, Kdang!” Reprehensible or brilliantly comic? You choose.

In his 1977 book The Plays of Edward Bond, Tony Coult refers to how “terrified” the young Bond was “to think how God was love, and he killed His son for us and hung him up and tortured him and washed us in his blood”. Hardly surprising, then, to find so many anti-religious themes in his plays. Narrow Road to the Deep North contains good examples of the use of religion and freakish religious supporters towards attaining selfish material ends. These are all encapsulated in the horrifying character of Georgina. As an evangelising Christian she deprives the peasants of their own sacred religion and enforces hers, infected with hypocrisy, upon them. Bond quickly shows her insecurity and selfishness; when Basho verifies that the city is prosperous, Georgina’s tambourine trembles to show her sudden excitement at the whiff of money. Aware of the noise she is making, she apologises, thereby confirming her guilt all the more. Bond’s portrayal of her is that of a gross parody of a Salvation Army general, continuously banging her tambourine, her symbol of Christian joy, with a hearty meaninglessness that is comic in its tedium. When she permits warfare ostensibly in the name of Christ her stipulations are ridiculous: “We will give you soldiers and guns to kill your enemies – and in return you must love Jesus, give up bad language, forswear cards, refuse spicey foods, abandon women, forsake drink and – and stop singing on Sundays… except hymns and the authorised responses.” The phrase “guns to kill your enemies” is fairly unequivocal in its intentions; it does not even hide behind the easy excuse of self-defence. Loving Christ and forsaking drink are fairly conventional demands; “refuse spicy foods” is mere nonsense.

The character of Georgina is a good example of how to get comic mileage out of religion. Ossian Flint’s irreligious behaviour sparks off a great deal of humour based on deflating hypocrisy. The comic master of the 1960s, Joe Orton, recognised the potential in religious adherence to make people laugh – frequently with considerable savagery, and although it was never really a central theme in any of his plays, he incorporated it in many. For example, the opening conversation in his television play Funeral Games (1968) takes place between two ostensibly religious men, one a leader of a dubious sect called “The Brotherhood”, who wrote a brochure called “Blessings Abound” and who owns a hot water bottle in the shape of a cross; the other is a frequenter of the blue bookshop next to Tessa and McCorquodale’s “love nest”. Of course, these people have no relief belief in God or the scriptures at all. When faced with a tricky situation, Caulfield suggests “perhaps we could pray”; and Pringle replies: “I’d be obliged if you’d treat this matter with due seriousness.” I’m also personally fond of the line: “He’s a preacher of note. They sell the Bible on the strength of his name.”

Once A CatholicMary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic (1977) is a very funny satire poking fun at Catholicism – perhaps destructively so. The virtuous pupil Mary Mooney is the unfortunate product of a combination of a too-trusting, too-innocent imagination, foolish ignorant parents and hypocritical nuns. She does not suspect anything remotely evil of anyone, so she has no qualms about accompanying the mischievous Derek back to his rooms. However, after the “J Arthur Rank”, she is so terrified that she might go to hell, that she visits Father Mullarkey at home, where the father’s concern for her is overshadowed by comments such as “Help yourself to the Lot’s wife”, and “You can’t go to confession tonight. The church is all locked up and I have to get down to the Off Licence”. His attitude is comic, but is most unfeeling for poor Mary Mooney. O’Malley shows here how the church sets you up to be terrified of mortal sins but offers no practical assistance. Mary Mooney simply feels abandoned. The Church’s attitude to crime and vice is fascinating; there is a peculiar ranking of severity of different crimes such as the grouping of both eating meat on a Friday and murder as mortal sins, or: “A person who lies in bed and refuses to get up for Mass is committing a far more serious sin than a person who lashes out and murders his wife in a fit of fury”. How would that go down in a court of law?

The hypocrisy of the nuns is best shown in the biology lesson taken by Mother Basil, a violent and vengeful woman. She is dissecting a rabbit, but unfortunately, as soon as she mentions the vagina, the Angelus, like a psychological alarm bell, calls nuns and girls to prayers which are said at double-quick speed, totally lacking in any expression. Immediately after the prayers are over, they return to the vagina. This humorous juxtaposition prepares us for the end of the scene when the innocent Mary Mooney asks: “Please Mother Basil, could you tell us how the sperm from the male gets introduced into the vagina?” Her question is not designed to shame or embarrass or cause laughter, but nevertheless it does all these, and Mother Basil, not being one of God’s caring creatures, cannot believe her innocence can extend this far. Later Mary Mooney asks Father Mullarkey “what is the sin of Sodom?” Twice then she is punished for her unfortunate innocence, whilst the complacent nuns don’t do their job properly. Music teacher Mr Emanuelli’s attitude to them is straightforward enough: “I loathe and detest nuns. I despise every one of them in this building. They should be tied up with string, laid out in a line and raped by the local police.” This is law and order of Ortonesque sexual savagery.

A short break now from stage censorship blogs whilst we enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe! Back at the end of August, with another blog post where I’ll be looking at the representation of real-life characters on stage.

Theatre Censorship – 26: The blasphemy of Edward Bond and David Mercer

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

Edward Bond’s Black Mass was written for the Anti-Apartheid movement in 1970, and contains that unforgivable sin of two years earlier, the representation of the deity on stage. In this play, which was written to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African Prime Minister is receiving communion from a priest in a church in Vereeniging. During the service, you hear the rifle fire of the police shooting seventy “Kaffirs”; the Prime Minister interrupts the communion so that he, the priest and a Police Inspector can go and congratulate the police on their fine work. Christ is so infuriated at the bigotry of the Prime Minister and the Inspector, and the weakness of the Priest, that, unseen, He leaps down from the cross and poisons the Communion wine. On their return, the Prime Minster drinks the wine and dies. In this act of basic revenge, Christ shows Himself also to be capable of committing a crime, to be capable of evil; indeed, as the wine represents His own blood in the Communion service, He poisons part of Himself and therefore you can consider it an act of self-mutilation or suicide. Justice must then be seen to be done, so Christ is questioned, and, as in the Bible, He offers no defence. With delicious irony, the Inspector asks Christ to account for His presence on the premises.

Christ’s treachery reflects very badly on the Priest, who turns on Him and dismisses Him from His post with the hilarious (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) words: “I can’t risk your contaminating the young people we have here”. Christ’s place on the cross is then taken by a stupid fascist policeman who is suited to the task because it is “a nice easy job”; thus, the symbol of Christian love has been replaced by a symbol of corruption and torture. Even today it’s quite shocking to hear the phrase “wank in your own time” used about the Christ figure, especially in a church. By the end, Christ has been subjugated and finally eliminated by the evil of the bigoted South African authoritarians. It is a simple, emblematic play, designed to show the hypocrisy of those who undertake persecutions in the name of religion. However, the treatment of Christ in the play might well be offensive to many people, including those who were vehemently opposed to Apartheid. Bond’s strong imagery might have alienated them, but it certainly shows up the topsy-turvy morals of the Apartheid regime.

David Mercer

David Mercer

Persecution and hypocrisy also feature in David Mercer’s Flint (1970). The eponymous character’s first words are “Do not go into the Church, Ossian, my grandmother said to me – because God is not fun”. Fun is the Reverend Flint’s main occupation and therefore he always leaves a string of lovers and ex-lovers in his wake, like Miss Biggin, the organist. Swash, the curate, pours scorn on Flint’s enjoyment of the bowling alley because he feels it’s demeaning for a vicar to behave like this. However, there is nothing morally wrong with bowling alleys, and his enjoyment of them is one way in which Flint bridges the gap between the church and the people.

Michael Hordern as Flint

Michael Hordern as Flint

The dual aspect of Flint’s character is instantly shown in this first appearance. First, having heard reports of his behaviour, you’re immediately struck by the fact that he’s not a young man. Secondly, his motorbike apparel, which (certainly in those days) was associated with the rowdiness of youth and a fast life, contrast with his being a member of the clergy, which you might think should be a life of quiet contemplation. He cannot be both young and old, quiet and racey; one must be false. The crux of his difficulties is expressed plainly in the line: “I’ve been an agnostic for forty years”. We already sympathise with him because he is tied to a job for which he is scarcely suited, although it is revealing that he is able to give Dixie, his current lover, the comfort she needs and which the “standard Christianity” of Swash’s service totally failed to give her. His only outlet is to disrupt the meaningless ritual of Christian hypocrisy which surrounds him, choking his every move. Therefore, he takes on mistresses, sets fire to buses and to the church, and other such irreverent actions.

At one point he talks about how he has hosed down some little boys; his Ortonesque explanation for their nudity: “It would have been aggressive to hose down four little boys with their clothes on!” has that outrageous yet undeniable logic you’d attribute to the best of Orton’s works. For example, when Mrs Prentice in Orton’s What the Butler Saw announces that she will take an Indian lover in New Delhi, her husband is shocked, but for the wrong reason: “You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling” is his response. Again, it’s logic, but it’s the wrong kind of logic. And both Flint and Mrs Prentice believe their explanations are perfectly reasonable.

Flint’s life is full of tragedies and crimes, not because he is wilful or malicious, but simply because he is careless and getting old. One can imagine that any intrigues set up in Bishop Auckland (we never know quite what happened there) came as a result of his mistaking the name of the town for that of a senior colleague. He is, nevertheless, kind to Dixie, which creates a direct contrast to his wife, Esme: “You are a monster, Ossian”, she says. “The best thing that could happen to you would be a sudden coronary.” Despite this malice she assumes a godly superiority and even takes the virginity of Mary to extremes in her refusal to consummate her marriage. When Esme dies, Swash tries to comfort Flint with his belief that “she is with God”; Flint replies, “they certainly deserve each other.” Esme’s religion is kept firmly in its respectable place and never allows her to become a good person. “Earl’s Court is an underground station and not a place where one finds Jesus”, she grumpily explains, conveniently forgetting that He is, apparently, everywhere.

However, in Flint’s keenness to cross lines and not to draw them, he is most definitely open to the charge of blasphemy. When he feels the need for a quick drink, he suggests taking some of the Communion wine: “I believe we have a few untransmogrified bottles; mere wine until somebody does the abracadabra bit on it”. Dixie, a devout but easily misled Catholic, cannot take Anglicanism seriously as a religion, and Flint is not the right person to help her out. His religious idol is usually “the incumbent Biggin”, in this case Dixie herself: “The flesh tints of Rubens. The ribald calligraphy of Rowlandson. The sensuality of Renoir. All combined for the terrible sacrament of my disintegration”.

The play ends with Flint, flustered by the responsibility of having to find some midwifely assistance for Dixie, rapidly plummeting over a hill on his motorbike “into an army truck full of something explosive”. Perhaps Flint’s death comes as a salvation for the “sentiment of religious reverence”; alternatively, his death comes at a moment of selfless risk; this could be Mercer’s way of ensuring that Flint is not eternally damned. Whichever interpretation one places on Flint’s death, it feels like a highly moral end to the play.

In my next blog, there’ll be more blasphemy from Edward Bond, and from Mary O’Malley.

Theatre Censorship – 25: Changing Rooms and Sheer Unadulterated Filth

The Changing Room

The Changing Room, photographed by John Haynes

Julian Hilton, in his essay The Court and its Favours, published in Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 19, draws attention to David Storey’s fascination with what may be termed the off-centre: “he deliberately presents, as it were, the two outside panels of a triptych, but consciously removes the middle”. The three acts of his 1971 play The Changing Room are set in the changing room of a Rugby League club before, during and after the match. The match is the least of his concerns, and our interest is only marginal; we never discover the final score, and we the audience are happy to ignore it. Instead Storey wants us to observe the movements and behaviour of a group of closely united people whose actions are not restrained by any external influence.

On the pitch, the rugby players know they have to put on a show because they are being watched. The changing room, however, offers them a sanctuary away from the public gaze, free from the pressure elsewhere imposed on them. This dramatic reversal provides the play’s strength; as the rugby players are being observed in private, the play offers an outstanding atmosphere of comradeship and frankness, which is certainly enhanced by the use of nudity. Storey wants to show that the characters are all members of the same “team” in two ways. First, that they are the “City” side as opposed to their unnamed rivals; secondly, that they are, for a short time, a group of twenty-two segregated men who can talk freely yet privately about wives, girlfriends and other topics of all-male interest. Such a play in such a setting would not have been feasible without the use of nudity because it couldn’t depict the team members getting undressed and bathing, and the play would not ring true. In other later productions such as Equus (1973), Privates on Parade (1977), The Elephant Man (1977) and Bent (1979), the nudity offers a sense of honesty and genuineness; again, the impression would have been obviously false if nudity had been avoided in these cases. And not just male nudity – Nell Dunn’s Steaming (1981) features the women who take refuge and support from using their local baths, and their fight to keep them open in the face of financial cuts by the Council.

Stephen Poliakoff

Stephen Poliakoff

In discussing sexuality, topics became daring and challenging. Stephen Poliakoff’s Hitting Town (1975), for example, deals with the incestuous relationship between Clare and her irresponsible brother Ralph. One of his pranks – and certainly the most revealing about his character – is to ring the phone-in programme on the local radio station, pretending to be an eleven-year-old and saying he has had sexual intercourse with his sister, also aged eleven. However, as in so many of Poliakoff’s early plays, the author’s main objective is to create a little colour and excitement to cry out and get noticed against the greys and neons of his soulless Leicester walkways.

Lay By

Portable Theatre’s production of Lay By (1971) photo by Roger Perry

Poliakoff was also involved in the writing of possibly the most significant play of its time concerning rape, the infamous Lay-By, first presented by Portable Theatre at the Edinburgh Festival in 1971. Apparently, after a meeting at the Royal Court, David Hare announced, “Anyone who wants to write a play with me join me in the bar”. Thus Poliakoff, Hare, and five other accomplished playwrights – Howard Brenton, Brian Clark, Trevor Griffiths, Hugh Stoddart and Snoo Wilson – collaborated on this work. The play took as its inspiration a newspaper report discussing the apparent innocence of a van driver, Jack, who had been sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment for rape, which, it was alleged, took place in the back of his van. In “Lay-By”, the facts of the rape are very blurred; the presence of Jack’s mistress in the van at the same time as the alleged rape adds to the complexity. The play shows the adverse effects of pornography and drugs, and culminates with two hospital orderlies abusing an unconscious girl who is about to die from the effects of a back-street abortion. Finally, her dead body, and those of Jack and his mistress, whose deaths remain unexplained, are washed in what appears to be blood.

The play is a strange mixture of dramatised documentary and fantasy, its unevenness being an inevitable consequence of its group composition. The different styles of Poliakoff and Brenton, for example, may be seen with regard to their artistic treatment of realism. They are at opposing ends of the spectrum: Poliakoff is deeply concerned with realistic presentation – the Wimpy Bar in “Lay-By” is definitely of his invention – whereas Brenton uses more imaginative and fantastic devices, such as the horses in Epsom Downs or the raising of Churchill in The Churchill Play. “Lay-By” had been commissioned by the Royal Court but they eventually refused to present it because it was too daring, and possibly liable to prosecution on the grounds of its possibly tending “to deprave and corrupt persons…likely…to attend it”. Nevertheless, the Royal Court finally accepted it for occasional Sunday performances, and I’m sure the irony of that wasn’t lost on the theatregoing public of the day.

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda

Denis Quilley as Carmen Miranda, with Joe Melia and Simon Jones, Copyright Orion Classics

The inclusion of homosexuality in plays was as frequent as it was before the new Act. Peter Nichols created gay characters for both tenderness and ridicule in Privates on Parade, as well as for the humour involved in Terri Dennis’ drag appearances as Marlene Dietrich, Vera Lynn and Carmen Miranda. Earlier in 1967, Simon Gray’s Wise Child had featured female impersonation for much more sinister ends. The play was originally written for the BBC, but the producer to whom it was sent turned it down on the grounds that it would offend the general public. Surprisingly, perhaps, the Lord Chamberlain passed it, with a few cuts. Norman Krasna’s Lady Harry (1978) involved female impersonation and was a total box office failure, running for less than a week at the Savoy Theatre. In 1979 Martin Sherman’s Bent won critical accolades for its boldness and maturity, although its very fragmentary and extended structure detracts from the play as a whole, in my humble opinion. In December 1980 Brenton’s The Romans in Britain arrived at the National Theatre to great scandal and I’ll be looking at this episode in theatre history separately later.

Caryl Churchill

Caryl Churchill

In the 1970s you could find much cruder examples of religious irreverence than were around before 1968. Two notable examples are “God? Are You there? Bastard… Well fuck you, God the fucking father, and fuck you Jesus Creepers and fuck you, God the Holy Fucking Ghost” (Deeds by Brenton, Griffiths, Campbell and Hare, 1978) and “Shitting, pissing, spewing, puking, fucking Jesus Christ” (Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill, 1976). The latter example, in particular, appears solely to set out to shock, and although it is a fairly effective device, and certainly an alliterative curse, its very frankness detracts from its meaning and, in the final analysis, it’s just a bunch of words. At least when Samuel Beckett wrote “He doesn’t exist!” in Endgame he substantiated his claim.

It’s interesting to think what might have happened if these plays had been written ten years earlier. They would then have been open to prosecution under the old Blasphemy Act of 1697 which was not repealed under the 1967 Criminal Law Act. Paragraph 44 of the 1967 Committee’s report states that “violation of religious reverence is covered by the law of blasphemy” and cited this as a safeguard against offensive texts in its recommendation that censorship be withdrawn. However, in the same year the Criminal Law Act repealed the 1697 Act, and as a result, the “violation of religious reverence” is not held a crime under any circumstances. The old Act, which had been passed for general suppression of blasphemy and profanity, read:

“An offence is committed in:
(1) shockingly or irreverently ridiculing or impugning the doctrines of the Christian faith, or
(2) uttering or publishing contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, or
(3) profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule.”

Caryl Churchill’s description of Christ mentioned above is clearly contumelious, and under the strict codes of law, the passage would have been illegal. One can only speculate whether this forgotten old law would have been brought into practice against such writing.

In my next blog post I’ll take a look at blasphemy in post-1968 theatre.

Theatre Censorship – 24: Oh, Quel Cul T’as

The 1909 guidelines make an interesting comparison with the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act, whose chief points are below:

(a) There should be an abolition of the present system of pre-censorship.

(b) “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.”

(c) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) he did so with intent to stir up hatred against any section of the public in Great Britain distinguished by colour, race, or ethnic or national origins; and
    (ii) that the performance, taken as a whole, is likely to stir up hatred against that section on grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins.”

(d) “…if there is given a public performance of a play involving the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words, any person who… presented or directed that performance shall be guilty of an offence… if:

  • (i) He did so with intent to provoke a breach of the peace; or
    (ii) the performance, taken as a whole, was likely to occasion a breach of the peace.”

In a nutshell, the chief difference introduced by the new Act is that, apart from the removal of the Lord Chamberlain as the pre-censor, before 1968 plays were liable to be censored if they were likely to offend, whereas after 1968, plays were liable to be prosecuted if they could be proved to have offended. Comparing the two highlights the different preoccupations of the two eras; in 1909 figures of authority were still on guard against immorality, a legacy of the Victorian period perhaps; strict “religious reverence” was still the order of the day; and governments were also keen to be on good terms with foreign powers because of the considerable political tension in Europe. 1968 saw the Swinging Sixties in full throttle, and self-expression and liberation was the name of the game. In 1968 there was, of course, tension as ever, but the new sensitive area was that of race. The 1909 guidelines give a good indication of how controlled life was in those days – there was very little scope for self-expression and the guidelines only served to keep artistic freedom at bay.

Kenneth Tynan

Kenneth Tynan

The chief effect of the lifting of the regulations against indecency was that free, expressive nudity became completely permissible. As has been mentioned, Hair included male and female nudes; after Kenneth Tynan’s Oh! Calcutta! (1970), it was totally acceptable to stage nudity for nudity’s sake. There had been so much pre-production publicity for the play – whose unusual name was derived from anglicising the French phrase “Oh, quel cul t’as” (Oh what an arse you’ve got) – which anticipated the threat (or promise, depending on your point of view) of so much corruption and on-stage degradation, that when it finally appeared at the Round House, its effect was something of an anti-climax. Peter Lewis remarked in his Daily Mail review on 28th July 1970 that “Oh! Calcutta! […] is five years too late to be the great liberating sensation it was obviously intended to be”; however, John Barber, reviewing it in the Daily Telegraph enjoyed its frankness: “there is poetry in its celebration of the human body, and much to laugh at in its mockery of sex. So far as I can judge, I was neither depraved nor corrupted by its impudent humanity.”

Oh Calcutta

Oh! Calcutta! Original Broadway cast

Both these reviews help explain why Oh! Calcutta! was a remarkable box office success, running nearly ten years, whereas Tynan’s 1976 follow-up, Carte Blanche, was a dismal failure, both financially and artistically. By this time “nudity for nudity’s sake” was outdated and Sandy Wilson’s savage review of the production in the December 1976 edition of Plays and Players Magazine summed up critical opinion: “Carte Blanche is billed as “an adult entertainment”, and in describing it thus the producers are guilty of gross misrepresentation, since it is about as adult as the Beano and a good deal less entertaining. They are also guilty, in my opinion, of greed, incompetence, complacency and a betrayal of every standard which… it is their duty to uphold.”

David Storey

David Storey

“Oh! Calcutta!” had heralded the arrival of many other similar revues: The Dirtiest Show in Town, Pyjama Tops, Let My People Come and so on. I am only aware of one show since 1968 that was withdrawn from performance owing to a successful prosecution; this was Manchester’s Dee Jay (1971), and it seems likely that this was because of the extreme youth of some of the performers. In her famous autobiography Spend, Spend, Spend, the late Vivian Nicholson noted that a sixteen-year-old boy took part in a scene involving a simulated rape.

However, titillation aside, the lifting of the ruling against nudity broadened the scope of the theatre to tackle interesting subjects which were not previously possible. A good example of this is David Storey’s The Changing Room (1971), which I’ll discuss in my next blog post.

Theatre Censorship – 23: Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter’s first full length play, The Birthday Party (1958), was universally disliked by all the major critics except the Sunday Times’ Sir Harold Hobson, who appreciated that the new writer’s style had a power and indeed a terror all of its own. Judging from that initial critical reaction, few would have believed that his career could have developed as successfully as it did. The world of dark confusion in The Birthday Party shares a similar sense of disenchantment to that in Look Back in Anger, and maybe that affected how the critics appraised it. An example of that shared, stifled need for creativity can be seen in Jimmy’s playing his symbolic trumpet although no one listens, whilst Stanley – the lost, terrorised central character in The Birthday Party – has his hidden piano.

For me, a major difference between the two plays is that Osborne’s is essentially extrovert, and Pinter’s is introvert. Whilst Jimmy Porter continually moans and complains about the state he is in, Stanley internalises his problems and merely thinks about them. On the other hand, the daily problems that beset Jimmy are mainly represented as words, which is why he relies so heavily on the newspapers, whereas the threats in Stanley’s existence appear before him in the much more real and immediate physical embodiment of the uninvited guests, Goldberg and McCann. However, these differences are more of tone and style rather than content. Stanley also seems to share some of his predicament with the title character in Osborne’s Epitaph for George Dillon; so there may be a significant influence on the early Pinter by the early Osborne.

There were just two short passages that the censor insisted on being removed from the script, both on the grounds of blasphemy, during the famous interrogation scene: Stanley’s version of the Lord’s Prayer – Thy Kingston come, thy Wimbledon – and McCann’s accusations that Stanley “pierced the holes” and “hammered the nails” in a reference to the Crucifixion. However, what really interests me here is Pinter’s ability to shock or stun without having to resort to – or choose to use – language that alerted the attention of the censor. Many a dramatist writing a few years later would doubtless have phrased the two scenes where Goldberg and McCann terrorise Stanley with words that would have attracted his blue pencil. The suppressed violence – that today we appreciate for its surprising elegance and beauty – would probably have been fully verbalised.

Birthday PartyConsider, for example, the similarity in structure between the interrogation scenes with Goldberg, McCann and Stanley and the scene in Edward Bond’s Saved where a baby is stoned to death (see blog posts 13 to 16). In both cases the writer used bullet-point, one-line conversations to communicate a gradual escalation of terror and violence against a helpless and virtually speechless victim. Of course, the audience reaction to the two plays is different because of context; in Saved, one is shocked because of the defencelessness of the victim, whereas in The Birthday Party the shock is all psychological. If fear of the unknown makes us nervous, that should make the audience of The Birthday Party absolutely terrified as we haven’t a clue why Stanley deserves such treatment. Clearly, Pinter’s characters are in solitary confinement. They scarcely relate to the other people they know; and there is no obvious association between them and the events that concern them. We don’t know their background, but they don’t seem to realise that that they even have a background. They are also physically alone, and displaced; for example, Stanley, Goldberg and McCann are in someone else’s house, in a town where they do not belong. All their shared history is confused and none of them ever agree on anything that has taken place; thus we remain ignorant as to how the present relates to the past; and the future is left to look after itself. Pinter’s isolating and disturbing use of solitude in all these forms was enough to shock his audience without having to write swear words.

Arnold Wesker

Arnold Wesker

The other major dramatist to break through in the late 1950s was Arnold Wesker. Unlike Pinter, Wesker did cross swords with the censor, but in the long run, he did not find him an overwhelming hurdle. In a fascinating letter he wrote to me dated 15th February 1982, he stated: “I was irritated to have to change “bugger it” into “sod it” and “Jesus Christ!” into (I think) “God Almighty!” It was time consuming to have to make the changes, and it offended my sense of the veracity of verbal exchange. It also offended my sense of common sense. But for me it was much more significant that I was free to recreate what I understood to be the truthfulness of my experience. In other words, no one sought to censor a play with a communist heroine. Freedom to express beliefs were more important to me than requests to delete vulgarisms.”

RootsThe heroine to whom he refers is Beatie Bryant in Roots (1959), the country girl whose love for Ronnie Kahn, the young hero who unites the entire “Wesker Trilogy”, coupled with her close association with selfless hard work and fighting for a minimum wage, make her the representation of the socialist – if not Soviet – dream. The imagery of her political principles and the total sincerity of her feelings elevate her language to a level of crusading excitement. As she herself says: “Socialism isn’t talking all the time, it’s living, it’s singing, it’s dancing, it’s being interested in what go on around you, it’s being concerned about people and the world.” Beatie is consistently positive; had she been nothing more than a dreary political commentator, or if she had been offensive to people holding other political beliefs, the censor might have looked for a way to silence her. As I hope to show later on, the censor did sometimes exercise political censorship.

David Zane Mairowitz

David Zane Mairowitz

However, Wesker has hit the nail on the head in identifying the most common cause for, and indeed the essence of, censorship. Words were thought by the Lord Chamberlain to have the potential for far greater damage than ideas. The writer David Zane Mairowitz believes that it was use of language that caused the public outcries against Wallace Shawn’s A Thought in Three Parts (1977) and Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain (1980), much more than anything to do with sexual promiscuity. In a letter to me dated 2nd February 1982 he stated simply: “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”.

Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett

Here’s a story that shows that the power of words, more than their meaning, was the most important element to the stage censor. In 1957, Roger Blin’s original French production of Samuel Beckett’s Fin de Partie opened at the Royal Court in that year as part of a French exchange programme, to benefit trade agreements between the two countries. The production went ahead without any hitches. Six months later, Beckett’s own English translation, Endgame, was due to open at the same theatre; exactly the same play, simply in a different language. The Lord Chamberlain’s office insisted on a list of small cuts and verbal changes including one which would later become celebrated in theatrical circles: when Hamm attempts to pray and finds that his prayers are not instantly answered, he says (of God) “the bastard! He doesn’t exist!” The censor considered this too insulting to the deity and refused to let it pass.

EndgameAfter another six months of debating, the censor and the Royal Court management finally agreed to compromise with the line: “the swine! He doesn’t exist!” It seemed incidental to the censor that anyone who would be offended by the sentiment of the original line would be likely to be as offended by the amended line. Of course, the change of word eliminated a possible reference to the Immaculate Conception which might have been perceived in “bastard”; an inference absent in the original French, as “salaud” does not have this double meaning. Commentators, especially those in favour of abolishing censorship, took the opportunity to ridicule the Lord Chamberlain’s office by implying that the censor thought all those people who understood French were irredeemably corrupt. Others maintained that a knowledge of French could be used as a personal barrier against corruption. Whatever interpretation was applied to the events, the Lord Chamberlain’s office did not survive the episode with all its dignity intact.

In my next blog post I’ll recap on the provisions of the 1968 Theatres Act and take a look at those mischievously naughty shows like Oh! Calcutta!

Theatre Censorship – 22: John Osborne’s Luther

John Osborne

John Osborne

John Osborne’s Luther (1961) was a major milestone along the road to the abolition of censorship. A history of Martin Luther, it traced his life from being a young, fearful monk born in the late 15th century, through his arguments with the Catholic Church, to his advocating a Reformed Church and his marriage to ex-nun Katherine von Bora. The subject matter of the play was obviously controversial and the censor feared that it might be offensive to Christians. Throughout the century the censors had been particularly strict against plays which they felt offended on religious grounds; the chief problem was that it was forbidden to portray the deity on stage, although, as Fowell and Palmer point out in their 1913 book Censorship in England, nobody seems able to trace the origin of this rule. As a result several thought-provoking and quality plays were long banned. For example, W. B. Yeats’ Noh Drama Calvary (1920), based on Oscar Wilde’s story The Doer of Good, has at its core two awkward problems; one, that Lazarus does not wish to be raised from the dead, and two, that Judas betrays Christ in order to escape the trappings of his all-encompassing religion. The Lord Chamberlain could never have permitted Christ to be vilified on stage by his enemies like that. The American Marc Connelly’s fantasy representation of the Old Testament stories, Green Pastures (1929), was also banned outright even though critical opinion felt it was good enough to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1930.

LutherFaced with the prospect of licensing Luther, the Lord Chamberlain had no hesitation in demanding fourteen cuts from the play. Osborne had been appalled at the demands made by the censor of his previous two plays, The Entertainer and The World of Paul Slickey (1959). In the latter case he employed the services of a solicitor to argue with the Lord Chamberlain over changes. Osborne decided that he had had enough unfair treatment from the censor. He refused to comply with the cuts under any circumstances and wrote a public letter to the Lord Chamberlain, who was at the time Lord Scarborough: “I don’t write plays to have them rewritten by someone else,” he said; “I am quite prepared to withdraw the play from production altogether and wait for the day when Lord Scarborough is no more…” Surprisingly, Osborne’s anger made an impression on the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and, presumably feeling threatened, or guilty, they withdrew most of their amendments. Bullies always back down when you face them openly, and Osborne’s easy victory made the censor appear weak and inconsistent. This did the public image of the Lord Chamberlain’s office no good at all. Shocked by the success of his letter, Osborne compromised, went back on his word and agreed to accept the few changes which the Lord Chamberlain continued to demand.

Earl of Scarborough

Earl of Scarborough

In the scene where Martin speaks to his father Hans after he has given his first Mass, Hans refers to the weak wine made by the monks first as “convent piss” and later as “monk’s piss”. Osborne agreed to the Lord Chamberlain’s demand to change “monk’s piss” to “monk’s wine” which takes the venom out of the term; and he changed “convent piss” to “kidney juice” which, personally, I think is even more distasteful. In the same scene, Hans refers to Martin as “piss-scared”, which Osborne had to change simply to “scared”. When Martin is discussing the nature of contentment with his religious mentor Staupitz he affirms that: “a hog waffling in its own crap is contented”. It was the word “crap” to which the censor most objected, but Osborne changed the sentence to read “a pig waffling in its own filth is contented”. The image is the same; no real damage done to the play.

The final change that the censor required was the exclusion of the phrase “balls of the Medici”. Much to the amusement of commentators, the Lord Chamberlain’s office suggested that “testicles of the Medici” would be acceptable, ignoring the fact that the coat of arms of the Medici family was a set of brass balls. This goes to show that it’s the use of slang, as much anything else, that the censor found more objectionable. That’s why “kidney juice” was not considered as reprehensible as the slang “piss”, even though the longer phrase dwells on the subject more. Osborne was outraged at the suggestion that Luther, furious with the papal bull which excommunicates him, should cast it in to flames with the dramatic declaration, “as for this bull, it’s going to roast, it’s going to roast and so are the testicles of the Medici!” Osborne complained that the censor took no notice of the double significance of “balls” in this context. The word “testicles”, he maintained, did not appropriately describe the crest; the censor, realising his error, felt compelled to withdraw the objection and “balls of the Medici” stands.

Erik H Erikson

Erik H Erikson

Had Osborne accepted the censor’s fourteen original cuts, the play would have lost much of its structure and bite, and would have been largely ruined. The cuts that he did accept, however, have left the play more or less the way he originally wanted. Nevertheless, most critics agree that the play’s structure isn’t that great anyway. Some say the play falls apart after the scene concerning the Diet of Worms, as the sudden change of the character of the knight – from supporter to enemy – is too unbelievable. As the play is mainly derived from a source work, Erik H. Erikson’s Young Man Luther, you might not necessarily expect to find any of Osborne’s recurrent themes; but Martin is surely much more of an angry young man than Jimmy Porter ever was. He is angry at the Church and angry with himself. He is angry at the fools who buy indulgences and at the Swabian peasants whose revolt against serfdom and whose demands for the pure gospel had to be exterminated. Above all, he is also a stubborn young man. He never gives way.

The language of Luther is uncomfortably but realistically uneven in two different ways. Firstly, there is an enormous range of different types of speeches and there are different speech patterns for each of his characters. Osborne offers us the stichomythic (I know, get me, look it up) conversation of Lucas and Hans, the communal speeches of confession, and general conversational speech, as well as vast debates and tirades which extend over many pages such as those delivered by Tetzel, Martin, both Martin and Eck together, and the knight. The length of the speeches grows as the play progresses and they become more philosophical and more turgid in the process. In the Faber edition of the play, only six speeches cover pages 79 – 88, because of their inordinate length. It seems that Osborne is much more at home with diatribe than with dialogue.

Martin’s visceral language provides a strong contrast with the holy conservatism of the monks, using individualistic words and phrases such as “worminess” or “warm hair and a bony heart… a scraped marrow and a dying jelly”. His sensuous vocabulary sets him aside from the penitent low-key confessions of the other monks who have no feel for language or vocabulary of their own, because they are conforming to the ideal of the platonic monk, and therefore must stifle their own personal tendencies. Elsewhere in the play his vivid linguistic imagination gives way to some splendid imagery. I really admire the phrase: “I wish my bowels would open. I’m blocked up like an old crypt.”

As well as using blasphemous language, Luther also takes up the question of blasphemy itself by pointing out the antithesis between the godly and the ungodly, the sincere and the ridiculous: “and so, the praising ended – and the blasphemy began”. This refers not only to his taking Mass – for which he feels he is insufficiently qualified, strictly in accordance with Christ’s teaching – but is also an oblique reference to the naked child he holds; one requires child-like innocence to enter heaven, but after childhood, man’s life is in itself blasphemy because he is no longer worthy of heaven. The phrase is also, even more widely, a reference to Martin’s life of rebellion against Catholicism.

Pope Leo

Pope Leo X

You don’t expect to hear particularly bad language from a member of the Church, so there’s a great shock effect from, for example, Pope Leo calling Martin a “double faced German bastard” – it puts Martin’s earlier use of the words “mother’s tit” in the shade. You expect the clergy to be polite, but they swear; indeed, their bad language is a major outlet for their blasphemy. With his argumentative nature, Martin should have been a lawyer instead of a cleric; rather than saying confession with the other monks, he’s more at home talking about his vivid, sexual, anxious dreams. But over the years Martin realises that the differences between himself and the other members of the Church are symptomatic of the rift he would set in motion.

Looking back, it’s clear how Osborne dominated this period, both in terms of drama and in his struggles against the censor. His argument with Lord Scarborough over Luther indicates the path that other dramatists were about to take but matters had not quite come to a head yet. But we’ll never know what might have been written by those who could not see the point of creating plays which could not be performed due to censorship.

In my next post I’m going to consider plays by Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Samuel Beckett.