The Lord Chamberlain Regrets….:A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson and Miriam Handley6 October 2007
I’ve been pulling together some research notes on various aspects of political censorship in relation to the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries, and since I’m in a censorship sort of mood, here’s a book all about the power of blue pencils.
The Lord Chamberlain Regrets….:A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson and Miriam Handley
Censorship is a subject that’s guaranteed to stir up passions, and theatre censorship touches a raw nerve at times. When politicians try to determine what the general public should and should not be allowed to see, one might say that the stage is set for a complicated drama — or quite possibly, a farce. From the early nineteenth century until Theatres Act of 1968, the Lord Chamberlain had the power to licence playscripts for performance in the major London theatres and in other theatres across Britain. Any playwright who was serious about having his or her work performed at a ‘quality’ theatre had to submit the play to the Lord Chamberlain’s blue pencil. Numerous British playwrights found that their works were deemed unsuitable for performance unless they made specific changes to the text and/or content, removing reference to major religious figures or important living persons (particularly the royal family), toning down language or violence on stage, or even altering the nature of the relationship between characters (if homosexuality, for example, seemed to be an issue). W.S. Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame took pot-shots at the Lord Chamberlain’s power of licencing in one or two of his plays, and the very notion of having a theatre censor prompted criticism and scorn — either for there being too much or too little censorship of performances on stage. But the power (or the perceived power) of the Lord Chamberlain’s office often worked as a self-censoring device, where anxious playwrights would submit their ideas for consideration and approval even before sitting down to write a script.
The complicated relationship between the Lord Chamberlain’s office and the theatre world shaped the nature of British drama for over a century. The authors of The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… have gone back to the archives, digging through the records of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to find the actual reports that were written about plays and the comments that were made about questionable content in such key dramas as George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (the ‘profession’ in question was fairly obvious to the audience), Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (one audience member who wrote to the Lord Chamberlain to complain about the play described how it had given him nothing but two hours of ‘angry boredom’), and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (described as being like looking into ‘the anteroom of hell’). Yet some entries show the difficulty of dealing with other kinds of potentially controversial subject matter. Such was the case of J.W. Brannigan’s The Life of Christ, with which the censors could find no fault other than the fact that ‘Our Lord must not be impersonated on the stage’…and thus was not accepted for licence.
The book is a very good reference work for those interested in the history of censorship and the individual circumstances surrounding the censorship of certain plays and performances. I think that my lack of familiarity with theatre history was what kept me from enjoying the book more. Then again, not knowing anything about the plays themselves does help me to keep a more open mind about why certain plays received such a harsh treatment at the Lord Chamberlain’s hands. Oscar Wilde (who as might be expected features fairly prominently in this history) once quipped that there was no such thing as a moral or an immoral book; only a well-written or a badly-written book. I’m not so sure that the same can be entirely said of drama, but The Lord Chamberlain Regrets… offers the opportunity to examine just how concerns over morality affected the writing and performance of plays in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first half (and a little more) of the twentieth.