The Lord Chamberlain’s filesProfessor Stephen Nicholson from the…

The Lord Chamberlain’s files

Professor Stephen Nicholson from the University of Sheffield was one of the speakers at our recent panel discussion, Theatre Censorship: Then and Now, part of our current series Shakespeare & Censorship.

Here he delves into the Lord Chamberlain’s files on theatre censorship.

When you start to read through the Lord Chamberlain’s files on theatre censorship you soon realise that they tell you a lot more than which plays were turned down or had cuts made in them. In fact, they’re an incredibly rich resource which offers all kinds of insights into the period and some of the attitudes and assumptions.

It’s striking how ‘difficult’ playwrights are spoken of. When Samuel Beckett refuses to make a change to the script of Endgame he is ‘a conceited ass’. John Osborne is a ‘naughty little smart-alec small boy… scribbling words on lavatory walls’. Tennessee Williams was ‘pathologically biased’ with ‘an inflated sense of his own importance’, who ‘vomits up the recurring theme of his not-too-subconscious’.  

We can also see the arguments and negotiations that went on – not to mention the strategies and tricks used to get around his rulings. So when in 1964 the Lord Chamberlain refuses to allow ‘Jesus’ as an expletive in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the management seek (and receive) permission to substitute ‘Cheese us’. Which, as his secretary reported after watching a performance, ‘sounds exactly as one would imagine an American female would say “Jesus”. ’ Or when cuts were made to the ‘barrackroom language’ of John McGrath’s Events While Guarding The Bofors Gun, the banning of the ‘f’ word was circumvented by the invention of inventing an offstage character called ‘Kinell’ whose name could be shouted aloud as required. Harold Pinter even persuaded them to allow ‘Stuff this mangle up your arse’ in The Homecoming; ‘Mr Pinter says that after searching his mind diligently he just cannot find an effective substitute’, reported the Lord Chamberlain’s secretary. Given what he called ‘The physical impossibility of stuffing a mangle up an arse’, Lord Cobbold reluctantly decided that ‘in a play of this sort [he] might have to let it go’.

The files also show that the Lord Chamberlain’s claim to be ahead of public opinion is not necessarily without foundation. Certainly, there are plenty of objections to what he allows, both from individual members of the public, and organisations such as the Public Morality Council, who were convinced Britain was on its way to hell in a handcart – and that the theatre was largely to blame. In 1963 he licensed Oh What a Lovely War with relatively minor changes, and received a string of complaints and dire warnings about what would follow from allowing ‘dangerous anti-British propaganda’ which ‘attacks everything that is sacred and decent’, and which was being presented by ‘the most deadly enemies of our country’. As one letter put it: ‘What a misbegotten philosophy to feed to the hundreds of younger people of our own country who appear to flock to this kind of thing … I call upon you either to exercise your functions or resign’.

Sometimes people overestimated the extent of his authority. In 1961, for example, a doctor felt ‘compelled to complain in the strongest possible fashion about a programme of African dancing’ he had seen on television. Of course, this had nothing at all to do with the Lord Chamberlain, but the letter is revealing:

Although as a doctor the human body comes in my view often, I have never seen it portrayed in such a sensuous and revolting manner. To show African teenage girls virtually naked except for a flimsy loin cloth struggling and writhing sensuously all around the platform was in the lowest possible taste and completely unprofitable and unnecessary… The fact that these primitive and ignorant dances take place in countries where the people as yet know of no better way of life is absolutely no excuse for making them cheap entertainment.  

Worst of all,

We had in our house at the time some teenagers who were viewing with us at that early hour in the evening… I would calculate that the damage done to young people who saw this programme was impossible to estimate. In these days with the dreadful decline in morals in our nation, such things can only worsen the situation.

One thing I hadn’t quite anticipated was that Lord Chamberlains had so many other duties that they often had no real interest in theatre and were happy to leave their staff to deal with most of it. Actually, by the 1950s and 60s,  their main concern was to avoid bad publicity in the press. They didn’t always manage this. In 1958 the Office was widely pilloried when Samuel Beckett’s Endgame was licensed to be performed in French, only for the Reader to notice when the English version was submitted that Nagg not only calls God a ‘bastard’, but also denies He exists. The censorship tried claiming it was different in French: ‘I feel that people erudite enough to go… to a French play can take a great deal more dirt… than an average English audience’, but Parliament and the Home Secretary became involved as the Lord Chamberlain’s competence was questioned and mocked.

Another embarrassing – and damaging – incident occurred when it came to light that a Joan Littlewood production had illegally added new lines and even scenes (one of them involving Sir Winston Churchill and a public urinal) to the licensed script. The Lord Chamberlain had a performance secretly inspected to gather evidence, and then brought an official prosecution against Littlewood and the actors. But even though he technically won the case, the fines the court imposed were derisory – and the press had a field day:  ‘Perhaps the Lord Chamberlain is slightly less familiar with real-life speech than with the speech which he hears in the apartments of St James’s Palace which he is privileged to occupy’, wrote the Daily Herald.  While under the headline, ‘THE ST JAMES’S EAVESDROPPERS’ the Daily Mirror described ‘it as ‘one of the most ludicrous prosecutions we had seen for months’, and his inspectors as ‘a couple of Professional Earholes’. The paper was not the only one to recommend that ‘the Lord Chamberlain, in his capacity of “Examiner of Plays” should be scrubbed out completely’.

It was experiences like these which made the Lord Chamberlain increasingly keen to get out of the censorship business. People sometimes imagine him fighting a desperate battle to hang onto his powers, but it turns out that nothing could be further from the truth.  Both Lord Cobbold and his predecessor, the Earl of  Scarbrough, actually did their utmost to persuade government ministers to change the law. You could say that all Harold Wilson ’s government and Roy Jenkins as Home Secretary really did fifty years ago was to put the Lord Chamberlain out of his misery.