Following are reproductions of chapters from two period publications addressing the issue of theatre censorship.
Plays Acting and Music, by Arthur Symons (LONDON CONSTABLE & COMPANY LTD 1909)
THE QUESTION OF CENSORSHIP
The letter of protest which appeared in the Times of June 30, 1903, signed by Mr. Swinburne, Mr. Meredith, and Mr. Hardy, the three highest names in contemporary English literature, will, I hope, have done something to save the literary reputation of England from such a fate as one eminent dramatic critic sees in store for it.
"Once more," says the Athenaeum "the caprice of our censure brings contempt upon us, and makes, or should make, us the laughingstock of Europe." The Morning Post is more lenient, and is "sincerely sorry for the unfortunate censor," because "he has immortalised himself by prohibiting the most beautiful play of his time, and must live to be the laughing-stock of all sensible people."
Now the question is: which is really made ridiculous by this ridiculous episode of the prohibition of Maeterlinck's "Monna Vanna," England or Mr. Redford? Mr. Redford is a gentleman of whom I only know that he is not himself a man of letters, and that he has not given any public indication of an intelligent interest in literature as literature.
If, as a private person, before his appointment to the official post of censor of the drama, he had expressed in print an opinion on any literary or dramatic question, that opinion would have been taken on its own merits, and would have carried only the weight of its own contents. The official appointment, which gives him absolute power over the public life or death of a play, gives to the public no guarantee of his fitness for the post. So far as the public can judge, he was chosen as the typical "man in the street," the "plain man who wants a plain answer," the type of the "golden mean," or mediocrity. We hear that he is honest and diligent, that he reads every word of every play sent for his inspection.
These are the virtues of the capable clerk, not of the penetrating judge. Now the position, if it is to be taken seriously, must require delicate discernment as well as inflexible uprightness. Is Mr. Redford capable of discriminating between what is artistically fine and what is artistically ignoble? If not, he is certainly incapable of discriminating between what is morally fine and what is morally ignoble. It is useless for him to say that he is not concerned with art, but with morals.
They cannot be dissevered, because it is really the art which makes the morality. In other words, morality does not consist in the facts of a situation or in the words of a speech, but in the spirit which informs the whole work. Whatever may be the facts of "Monna Vanna" (and I contend that they are entirely above reproach, even as facts), no one capable of discerning the spirit of a work could possibly fail to realise that the whole tendency of the play is noble and invigorating.
All this, all that is essential, evidently escapes Mr. Redford. He licenses what the Times rightly calls "such a gross indecency as 'The Girl from Maxim's.'" But he refuses to license "Monna Vanna," and he refuses to state his reason for withholding the license. The fact is, that moral questions are discussed in it, not taken for granted, and the plain man, the man in the street, is alarmed whenever people begin to discuss moral questions. "The Girl from Maxim's" is merely indecent, it raises no problems. "Monna Vanna" raises problems. Therefore, says the censor, it must be suppressed. By his decision in regard to this play of Maeterlinck, Mr. Redford has of course conclusively proved his unfitness for his post. But that is only one part of the question. The question is: could any one man be found on whose opinion all England might safely rely for its dramatic instruction and entertainment? I do not think such a man could be found. With Mr. Redford, as the Times puts it, "any tinge of literary merit seems at once to excite his worst suspicions."
But with a censor whose sympathies were too purely literary, literary in too narrow a sense, would not scruples of some other kind begin to intrude themselves, scruples of the student who cannot tolerate an innocent jesting with "serious" things, scruples of the moralist who must choose between Maeterlinck and d'Annunzio, between Tolstoi and Ibsen? I cannot so much as think of a man in all England who would be capable of justifying the existence of the censorship. Is it, then, merely Mr. Redford who is made ridiculous by this ridiculous episode, or is it not, after all, England, which has given us the liberty of the press and withheld from us the liberty of the stage?
The English Stage, Its Origins and Modern Developments
A Critical and Historical Study by D. E. Oliver (John Ouseley Ltd 1912.)
THE CENSORSHIP AND ITS EFFECT UPON THE STAGE
GB. SHAW was once asked by the London Playgoers' Club how the Censorship could be abolished. He replied, to the great horror of that loyal body — "You must begin by abolishing the Monarchy."
There can be little doubt that but for its intimate connection with the King's household the Censorship over theatrical productions exercised by the Lord Chamberlain would long since have disappeared. Its institution by Henry VIII. was not with the object of serving the interests of public morality, but to prevent the stage becoming a means of spreading political and religious views obnoxious to constituted authority. Hence Henry appointed an officer of his own household to perform this work of supervision, and thus came about that connection between the King's retinue and the licensing of stage plays, which renders the task of the Censor abolitionists extremely delicate and difficult. Fear of seeming in any degree to trench upon the privileges, however effete, of the Court, is clearly shown by the sycophantic recommendation made in the report of the Censorship Committee to the effect that the Lord Chamberlain shall still retain his privilege of licensing plays voluntarily submitted to him, and that authors and managers of plays licensed by him shall enjoy certain immunities denied in the case of unlicensed plays.
The Censorship trouble only dates back to the last decade of the 19th century. The "bodiless creations" of mid and latter Victorian dramatists disturbed not the even tenor of the Censor's office, but with the advent of the new school of dramatists, a product of the times, friction began. The evils of the Censorship, as Shaw points out, are not really the fault of the individual Censor so much as inherent in the nature of the office. If we insist upon the necessity of some official control over the production of plays, we in effect seek trouble. What on earth is the good of a Censor if he is not at some time or other to exercise his powers?
The danger of the office is as great as the difficulty of suitably filling it. Mr Redford's immediate predecessor, Mr E. F. Smyth Piggott, was considered qualified for the post by the fact that he had been educated at Eton and Oxford, and "was a friend of M. Regnier, the Due d'Aumale, and M. Van de Weyer." The salary attaching to the post of "King's Reader of Plays," according to evidence of the Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's department before the Censorship Committee, is £300 a year, paid by the Civil List; but "fees" constitute his chief source of income, which are as follows:
For reading a play of two acts or less, £ 1 1 0.
And for one of more than two acts, £ 2 2 0.
In 1908 Mr Redford's income from salary and fees amounted to the comfortable sum of £1,318.
Mr G. A. Redford, who has just resigned after seventeen years' enjoyment of the "sweets of office," was a personal friend of the late Mr E. F. S. Piggott. When Mr Piggott was not quite up to the mark, or had to go off on a holiday jaunt, he was in the habit of asking Mr Redford to "deputise" for him. At that time Mr Redford was manager of the Great Portland Street Branch of the London and South Western Bank, and "dabbled a little" in literary pursuits, and was the author of "several plays," which "have not been performed," he told the Censorship Committee. In short he made himself generally useful to Mr Piggott, and all con amore. When Mr Piggott died, Mr Redford was selected from a long list of applicants (of which, by the way, the new joint-examiner, Mr E. A. Bendall," dramatic critic of 'The Observer', was one) to succeed him. Whether the Lord Chamberlain of that day was cognisant of the happy relations which subsisted between Mr Piggott and his banker friend we do not know; doubtless he thought Mr Redford just the man for the job with that "special knowledge," which impels Cabinet Ministers even now to go outside the ranks of those Civil Service officials, who have gained their posts by competitive examination, in order that the country may not lose the priceless services of unexamined geniuses.
The appointment of Mr Charles Brookfield to be joint-examiner of plays with Mr G. A. Redford in November last (1911) is the reductio ad absurdum of the Censorship — and doubtless precipitated the resignation of Mr Redford. The disgust provoked by the appointment of the author of "Dear Old Charlie," in Parliament, literary and dramatic circles, and among those who desire our stage to be something more than a vehicle for the production of foolish, frivolous and pornographic plays, was beyond utterance.
During the debate in the House of Commons [1st December 1911] which followed this extraordinary appointment, Mr McKenna informed the House that the Lord Chamberlain was alone responsible for it, and that the appointment could not be rescinded. Since Mr Brookfield entered upon his duties at the commencement of the present year, the blue pencil has been busy. Mr Zangwill's play, "The Next Religion," was censored; as was also a harmless piece of political idealism in one act entitled, "The Coronation"; and, lastly, Mr Eden Phillpotts' play, "The Secret Woman," fell under the ban of our refined Censor.
Hardly any one is prepared to defend the Censorship, and most thinking people regard it as an insuperable barrier to all healthy and intellectual dramatic advance. Who can contemplate with equanimity the fact that some of the finest work of Ibsen, Sudermann, Hauptmann, Tolstoy, Maeterlinck, Gabriele d'Annunzio, Shaw, Barker, and Zangwill has at some time or other fallen under the ban of a Piggott, a Redford, or a Brookfield? And when we are told this is done in the interests of public morality, in consideration of one's political susceptibilities, or out of regard for sensitive folks' religious consciences, we are inclined to shout "To the devil with such hypocrisy! We ask for 'Monna Vanna' and they give us 'Dear Old Charlie'! for Shaw's 'Mrs Warren's Profession,' and Mr Redford invites us to 'The Merry Widow'; and when we express the wish to see Barker's 'Waste,' we are told to feast on 'The Spring Chicken.'
In his preface to 'Three Plays by Brieux,' George Bernard Shaw writes: "In France he (Brieux) was attacked by the Censorship just as in England; but in France the Censorship broke itself against him and perished. ... In France the Censorship was exercised by the Minister of Fine Arts (a portfolio that does not exist in our Cabinet), and was in the hands of two or three examiners of plays, who necessarily behaved exactly like our Mr Redford. ... These gentlemen ... prohibited the performance of Brieux's best and most useful plays just as Mr Redford did here, But as the French Parliament, having nobody to consider but themselves, and in the interests of the nation, presently refused to vote the salaries of the Censors, the institution died a natural death. We have no such remedy here. Our Censor's salary is part of the King's Civil List, and is therefore sacred. ... Nevertheless, Brieux has left his mark even on the English Censorship. This year (1909) the prohibition of his plays was one of the strongest items in the long list of grievances by which the English playwrights compelled the Government to appoint a Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament to inquire into the working of the Censorship."
The terms of reference to the Joint Select Committee of the Lords and Commons appointed July 1909, were:
"To inquire into the Censorship of Stage Plays as constituted by the Theatres Act 1843, and into the operations of the Acts of Parliament relating to the licensing and regulation of theatres and places of public entertainment, and to report any alterations of the law or practice which may appear desirable."
The Committee had twelve sittings, examined forty-nine witnesses, and published its most unsatisfactory report on 11th November of the same year. This report admits the charge brought against the Censor of systematically suppressing plays dealing seriously with social problems, whilst passing without challenge the usual "commercial" theatrical rubbish of a suggestive nature. It advises that the submission of plays to the Censor shall in future be optional, but with characteristic sycophancy recommends that the Lord Chamberlain should remain the Licenser of Plays, and that plays licensed by him shall enjoy certain advantages and immunities denied in the case of unlicensed plays.
When we consider that this report has not one word to say in defence of the Censor, but on the contrary explicitly states that his license affords the public no security that the plays he approves are decent, and, moreover, states that authors of serious plays do need protection against his unenlightened despotism, we can only marvel at the ineptitude and timidity of its recommendations.
The list of offences for which the Lord Chamberlain in the opinion of the Committee should refuse a license are stated to be: Indecency; offensive personalities; the representation in an invidious manner of a living person or a person recently dead; violation of the sentiments of religious reverence; the presence of anything likely to conduce to crime or vice, or to cause a breach with a friendly Power, or a breach of the peace.
Well might the dramatic authors protest against this recommendation as being drawn up in such loose general terms "that there is hardly a play in existence or possible to be written which could not be found guilty under it. We ask why we alone, among British subjects, are to be allowed to exercise our profession only on the impossible condition that we hurt nobody's feelings. We again demand as complete freedom of conscience and speech as our fellow-subjects enjoy."
Suppose, however, an author chooses to refuse to submit his work to the Censor — what then? He has to persuade some theatre proprietor or manager to risk the production of his unlicensed play. Should the piece, at the instance of the Director of Public Prosecutions, be proved to trangress any of the before-mentioned conditions, the manager, as well as the author, would both be liable to penalties. Endorsement of the theatre license would follow conviction, three such endorsements within five years constituting ground for the forfeiture of the license. Further productions of the play would be forbidden for ten years.
It is true that the proportion of censored to licensed plays is infinitesimally small, but as Mr Archer said before the Committee, "the Censor keeps serious drama down to the level of his own intelligence, and probably lower, and does not even pretend to keep the lighter drama up to the level of his own morality." Thus the modern school of serious playwrights who desire to depict life as it is, and not to gloss over its iniquities with a joke, find they are compelled to pursue their calling with one eye on the Censor.
Personally the writer's view is that the licensing of plays should be abolished altogether. The public is already protected against managerial misconduct by the yearly licensing of theatres, and more than that is not required. Most reflective people prefer in the interest of morality the strength of truth in all its beauty, and may be, in all its hideousness, to that veiled and corrupting innuendo which is often the characteristic of plays that have received the imprimatur of the Censor. Surely we all desire the strength that comes from knowledge, rather than that dangerous innocence which is born of ignorance.
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