1968 and Theatre CensorshipFifty years ago this month, the…

1968 and Theatre Censorship

Fifty years ago this month, the Sunday Times reviewed the new ‘American tribal love-rock musical’ which had just opened on Broadway. Hair was a protest – an attack by the young aimed at the Establishment, the Vietnam War, Capitalism, and the values of the older generation. The reviewer thought it was ‘the most refreshing, original and maverick entertainment… since West Side Story’, but suspected it ‘couldn’t conceivably be presented on any British stage’ – even though ‘our taboo-ridden, body-resenting, swearword-worried theatre will be poorer for its self-denial’.

The paper’s prediction was not wrong. When the script of Hair was submitted to the Lord Chamberlain in the hope of securing the licence it needed to be staged in Britain, it hit a brick wall: ‘this is a demoralising play’, frothed his secretary. ‘It extols dirt, anti-establishment views, homosexuality and free love, drug taking, and it inveighs against patriotism’. Male and female nudity was a definite no-no, while plans to involve the audience and ‘turn them on’ were offensive. One character in particular sent the officials’ hackles through the roof: ‘Claude…  is a man yet he sings of his tits and his “arse” and he has bad times like a woman’, choked the secretary. ‘Presumably a roaring pansy’.  Well, the Lord Chamberlain’s powers to censor theatre were abolished a few months later, and Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre the following night. The Lord Chamberlain even turned down an invitation to appear on stage with the cast for ITV’s Eamonn Andrews Show.  

So September 1968 marked the end of a system of control – cursed by playwrights from Shaw to Osborne to Tennessee Williams and Edward Bond  – that had lasted for 237 years. It had been introduced in 1737 by Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole because he was fed up with the stage being used to make fun of him and his government. And it required that no new play could be publicly performed until the script had been formally approved by the Lord Chamberlain. I became fascinated by this history – and particularly the twentieth century part of it – around thirty years ago, when I discovered there was an individual archived file on every single new play, and I’ve been reading these ever since. And because the censorship applied to everything from professional theatre to student revues to Women’s Institute and amateur society productions, this could be anything up to around 900 files per year!

As you can imagine, it took me a while to get through them, but I’m pretty certain that now I’m the only person who has read (or probably will ever read!) through every single one. And it would take me even longer to explain how fascinating it was. You see, not so very many plays were absolutely and totally banned, but many hundreds had scenes cut, lines changed, characters removed, costumes – or even lighting – altered, by the demands of the Lord Chamberlain. Often there was extensive correspondence between St James’s Palace (where the Lord Chamberlain was based) and playwrights, theatre managers, government departments, church leaders and members of the public. From Ibsen to Shaw to Strindberg to Pirandello to Rattigan to Lillian Hellman – even to Arthur Miller and Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter – all of them had licences withheld unless and until they agreed to make the cuts he demanded.

Sometimes the contents of the files made me laugh – I can honestly say I’ve never seen so many photographs of nude and nearly-nude women, as the Lord Chamberlain bent his brain to decide which costumes and poses he should allow and which refuse for the Windmill Theatre (often signing his approval across their bodies!). Can you believe that Noel Coward was censored because the Lord Chamberlain feared his plays might encourage a Soviet-style revolution in Britain? Or Sophocles’ Oedipus because he was worried audiences might go home and commit incest? But there were also serious and appalling discoveries. Who knew that right through the 1930s – until the day war was declared in 1939 – you couldn’t stage plays critical of Hitler or the Nazis?

As one MP put it in May 1968, abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s rule was ‘a considerable Parliamentary achievement for which not only we in the House of Commons, but generations of playwrights yet to come, as well as theatre audiences, will have reason to be grateful’. That was then; this is now.

Professor Stephen Nicholson is a panellist for Censorship: Then and Now, on 17 May – part of our Shakespeare & Censorship series.