Stage Censorship – an Introduction

It was fifty years ago – or at least it will be on September 26th – that stage censorship was abolished in the UK. Many avid theatregoers of today might ask, “what’s stage censorship?” Indeed, generations have now enjoyed the liberty and expression that a, generally, free theatre offers. But prior to 1968, each new play had to go through a process of being read and evaluated, and potentially censored, before it reached the stage. And unlike films, which also have a censorship procedure, there was no classification of U, A, AA, and X (as it was in 1968 – U, PG, 12, 15, and 18 today). There’s no age restriction on a play unless the theatre where it’s playing chooses to adopt an age limit on any one particular production.

BBFCOccasionally films are subject to blanket censorship – the British Board of Film Classification can refuse to licence a film, or to insist on cuts before licensing. But that’s comparatively rare; the main element of film censorship in the UK is simply a matter of protecting people under 18 from seeing material deemed unsuitable for them. Not so in the theatre pre-1968. A play was either licensed “as is”, in other words as presented by the theatre management with no changes to the text; or the censor would require certain passages to be removed or rewritten; or it would be banned outright.

Queen Mary College
Queen Mary College

Back in 1981, as a hopeful, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed young chap, with an unspectacular degree from a spectacular university in English Literature under my belt, I applied to a number of universities to spend two years researching The Effects of the Withdrawal of Stage Censorship. Many failed to respond at all; several politely declined; some rudely declined (yes, University of Wales at Lampeter, I’m looking at you); some made constructive suggestions whilst still declining; and one – Queen Mary College at the University of London, bless them – said yes. I was really pleased at that, because one of the lecturers at Queen Mary was the playwright Simon Gray, whose works I greatly admired (and still do). What surprised me was that it wasn’t the late Mr Gray who ended up being my supervisor, but an American lecturer by the name of Dr Paul Kirschner. I found out after many years that Dr Kirschner was a devotee of the Irish poet W. B. Yeats, as was my tutor at Oxford, Dr Francis Warner. I have no idea if this was a coincidence or not; knowing academia, possibly not.

Sadly, Dr Kirschner and I had different views on what my thesis would contain. He was, of course, right, and did his best to point me in the right direction towards achieving that elusive Master of Philosophy degree. But I couldn’t write what he wanted me to write, even though I tried really hard. After about 18 months of fascinating research, extensive writing and a whole lot of brick wall head banging, I decided to call it a day. One of the main problems was, having called it “The Effects of the Withdrawal of Stage Censorship”, I largely concluded that there weren’t any. That was probably the wrong conclusion to draw, but once I’d got that idea into my head, there wasn’t any progress to be made!

Since then, I’ve often wondered what, if anything, I should do with all the research and writing I had done. I’ve looked at it, laughed at the pomposity of my writing style, cringed at how politically slanted my approach was, gasped at my occasional use of awfully non-PC terminology (well it was 35 years ago), and accepted that no way was this stuff ever going to get me a postgraduate degree! Additionally, over the years, some much brighter brains than mine have published excellent books about the history of stage censorship, and I’m in no position to compete with them.

But the 50th anniversary of the withdrawal of stage censorship seems too good an opportunity to miss, and I feel I must mark it in some way. Now that I am 9 years into my blog and I have a devoted readership to whom I am extremely grateful for their attention and kindness, I thought it was time to take another look at what I’d written. Jazz it up a little for the 21st century and bring in a few ideas and events that hadn’t even happened at the time – after all, drama didn’t end in 1983. There’ll be some history, some background, some personal observations, even some literary criticism – I know, get me. Above all, I’m hoping to remove much of that faux-academic style that I could never master anyway.

John Osborne
John Osborne

The plan is largely to keep to the same structure as my original thesis, which means some chapters are quite short and others are quite long – especially when I get into the nitty-gritty of (what I think are) two significant pre-withdrawal plays, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger and Edward Bond’s Saved. I’ll mention in advance any plays that I’m going to consider in any great detail, so you can have a re-read or a quick Google to refresh your memory. But I’m going to try to break down the longer chapters into bite-sized chunks so that you don’t have to put aside a whole evening just to wade through some interminable stuff about old plays. Even tragedy is meant to be fun sometimes!

Edward Bond
Edward Bond

To prepare you for what’s ahead: in the first couple of posts I’ll be doing some introductory stuff and looking at some Shakespeare, Restoration comedy and the 18th century ridiculing of politicians, which was really what got the censorial ball rolling in the first place. No need for you to do any research, and don’t worry, I’ll keep it light!

So, gentle reader, we embark on a new project for summer 2018. I give you, not “The Effects of the Withdrawal of Stage Censorship”, but “Stage Censorship? Leave it Out!” Welcome!

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