Articles about writing

Censorship and the Theatre

 As writers, we should be aware of what limitations there may be on our writing for public consumption ie censorship. As a lover of history, I also want to know what censorship there has been in the past in the UK.

Scarf censorship
Cartoon from the V&A exhibition by Gerald Scarfe

I will admit, right now, that I was so surprised when I realised that censorship of the theatre in this country was only done away with in my lifetime! When I was a very young and naïve 18-year-old, in fact. I suppose because I grew up with “anything goes” at the theatre, in films and books, I wasn’t really aware what had gone on before and how ground-breaking the Theatres Act of 1968 was.

So I was pleased to have the opportunity of visiting the V&A’s exhibition on Censorship and the Theatre at the end of last year. I’ll come to that later. First, a quick run-down of what censorship there has been over the years.

  • The Greek philosopher Plato is thought to be one of the earliest objectors, declaring that the performances did not portray real events and so were not worthy. Plato’s term for actors was hypocrites, meaning one who hides under a mask.
  • The Athenian lawmaker Solon made similar protests about the plays Thespis was writing, saying that they were not true, and people might start believing in and imitating them.
  • Such moral objections were also raised in Roman times. In the first century AD, Cicero declared “dramatic art and the theatre is generally disgraceful”.
  • As Rome declined towards the end of the fifth century, the Roman Church increased in power and theatres were virtually eliminated.
  • Theatre became popular again in Mediaeval times when the Church was in charge of Mystery plays. But as they got more and more bawdy, they were ordered from church precincts and had to go travelling.
  • Later complaints were that the acting community was amoral and corrupt, having a bad influence on actors and audiences.
  • Censorship of stage plays was exercised by the Master of the Revels in England from Elizabethan times until the order closing theatres in  1642 when the Puritan view prevailed, the first English Civil War began and theatres were closed down.
  • After the Monarchy was restored in 1660, plays were once more allowed, under a new Licensing system.
  • By the end of the 17th century, opinions had changed yet again, and playwrights were accused of “profanity, blasphemy, indecency, and undermining public morality through the sympathetic depiction of vice.”
  • In 1737 Sir Robert Walpole was responsible for passing The Licensing Act. It was said he wanted to prevent criticism of his government from the stage.
  • From then until 1968, theatre censorship was in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain, a senior servant in the royal household and responsible to the monarchy. No new play could be publicly performed without being first licensed by him, and he could either ban plays or demand changes as he saw fit. The Lord Chamberlain was not obliged to supply reasons for his decisions, or to follow any criteria other than his own whims, and because he was part of the royal household, he was not even answerable to parliament.

So now we come to more modern times and the V&A’s exhibition. Letters, cartoons, photos, newspaper articles and film were all used to illustrate how things began to change in the 1960s.

  • While censorship was often linked to moral issues (in the early 20th century Oedipus was banned in case it inspired audiences to go home and commit incest), it was also applied for political reasons – even Noel Coward saw his plays banned in the 1920s because of fears that their depiction of a decadent upper class might encourage working-class revolution.
  • In an age when there was no television and little radio, theatre was seen as second only to the press in its influence; as one MP put it, “young men and young women form their ideas of what is right and wrong in no small degree from what they witness on the stage.”
  • Theatres could be prosecuted for performing work that had been refused a license. Banned plays included Ibsen’s Ghosts and Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. Hair
  • In the 1960s, work by a new generation of playwrights grew in popularity despite being denied a licence; they’d stage works in a private club, as a way of getting around the censor.  
  • The day after The Theatres Act was passed in 1968, the American countercultural musical Hair – with its nude scenes, drug taking and anti-war vibe – opened in the West End, something that would not have been possible 24 hours previously.
  • But while the edgier work by John Osborne and his contemporaries could now be seen on our major stages, in practice the new law did not mean total artistic freedom. While theatre censorship might not formally exist any longer, other aspects of the law have been used since to shut down productions, including charges of blasphemy and indecency. 

So, is the theatre in Britain now censorship free?

Over the last 50 years, there have been a number of incidents that have called into question how free artists really are in what they can depict on stage, with social media playing an increasingly complicated role in the debate. The following are some of the most contentious examples from the past half-century:

  1. The Romans in Britain: male rape. Prosecution for gross indecency failed.
  2. Jerry Springer: The Opera: Jesus wearing a nappy. Prosecution for blasphemy failed.
  3. Behzti: rape scene in a Sikh temple. Violence amongst protestors. Performances cancelled.
  4. Exhibit B: human zoos of the 19th century. Closed because of security fears after protests.
  5. Homegrown: radicalisation of young Muslims. cancelled halfway through rehearsals.

In discussions with other writers, we came up with quite a variety of ways in which writers, particularly playwrights, are still being censored in the 21stcentury.

  • Theatres are often influenced by patrons, sponsors and advertisers as to what they can stage.
  • Local councils have a say as to what theatres in their district can put on.
  • Playwrights have said they are doing more self-censoring because they know what will and will not be permitted.

If you have any comments about anything in this article, please do get in touch.

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