Who's afraid of the Lord Chamberlain
by Irving Wardle
One obstacle facing the young John Osborne, like every other British playwright since the eighteenth century, was the office of the Lord Chamberlain, which might or might not license his work for public performance. In Osborne's time it was situated in Stable Yard, St James's Palace. Here the writer would be received by the exquisitely courteous military gentlemen who held sway over British drama, and who might let his piece through after trading two 'fucks' in exchange for a pair of 'arses'. By such haggling, Osborne's earlier plays got through. But not A Patriot for Me, whose treatment of homosexuality culminating in a glittering drag ball was judged to lie beyond the pale. So, like all unlicensed scripts, the most ambitious work of Britain's leading playwright could only be performed as a members-only club show. As a result, it made a loss of £16,500 in spite of being acclaimed as the best play of 1965.
By that date, stage censorship was under the concentrated attack which shortly led to its abolition under the 1968 Theatres Act. The wonder now is that a measure that originated in political corruption should have taken root as a respected national institution. When Prime Minister Walpole gagged his theatrical critics by pushing through the 1737 Licensing Act, he aroused a storm of protest: not least from Dr Johnson (no theatre-lover) who weighed in with a devastatingly ironic pamphlet suggesting that the Act should be extended to the teaching of reading so as to ensure 'decent submission to our superiors'. But Walpole won. His rogue statute was reconfirmed by the 1843 Theatres Act, and censorship reigned unchallenged until the turn of the nineteenth century.
This was not simply a matter of supine resignation. To actors and theatrical managers, the Lord Chamberlain and his Examiner of Plays ranked as cherished allies. The modest price of a licence was a guarantee against local prosecution throughout the country. In business terms that made good sense, and managers were defending censorship right up to 1968. It made no sense to playwrights, though, and it was the upsurge of new drama — first with Shaw, and then with Osborne — that first shook the peace of Stable Yard. No-one ever delivered the case against censorship more eloquently than Shaw, but his 1909 campaign failed because the theatre was still controlled by stars and managers. It was the arrival of subsidy in the 1950s, prompted by the 'writer's theatre' renaissance, that finally dispatched the Chamberlain and his men into oblivion.
When they are remembered now, it is as members of a quaint British institution like some old public school, with stories of writers playing daring japes on the beak: JB Priestley peppering his stories with oaths to give the Examiner something to cut; Keith Waterhouse inventing brand-new four-letter words, on which the censor would swoop as regional expressions of unspeakable filthiness. But it was not all jokes and naughty words. For over 200 years, censorship effectively stifled all sexual, religious and political debate on the English stage — even forbidding adverse comment on fascist leaders during the 1930s. Between the wars, Aristophanes, Strindberg, Pirandello and O'Neill figured among the banned authors. And to the last gasp, in the 1966 prosecution of Edward Bond's Saved (which blocked up the theatre- club loophole for unlicensed work), the Lord Chamberlain was trying to put uncomfortable artists to silence. In the very year of abolition Bond's Early Morning was banned in toto, and when William Gaskell went ahead with a Sunday night club production at the Royal Court, he underwent police interrogation after the first performance and the second performance was cancelled.
Shaw's main argument against the censor was that he was an anarch. Certain things were forbidden, but anything could be banned without explanation or right of appeal. Nanny knew best; and writers who wanted their work performed had better avoid going Too Far in defying the prejudices of the Royal Household. In terms of outright suppression, the British casualties are few compared to those of East European censorship. But who knows what we have lost through self-censorship; or how many writers shared Arnold Bennett's reasons for avoiding the stage: 'Immediately you begin to get near the things that really matter in a play, you begin to think about the censor, and it is all over with your play.' All of which was foreseen by John Milton long before the theatre began competing with the follies of Stable Yard: 'If it come to prohibiting, there is not aught more likely to be prohibited than truth itself
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