Posted by a Contributor in March's Magazine
When Wikipedia went dark in January it was an eloquent protest against what it saw as censorship. The theatre lost its censor, the Lord Chamberlain (a member of the Royal Household), in the 1960s. The Lord Chamberlain and his team – based at St James’s Palace – had absolute power over anything that appeared on stage. Members-only theatre clubs proved to be one way of staging provocative and controversial plays without his intervention – the most famous of these, the Establishment, was opened in 1961 in London’s Soho by the late Peter Cook. Edinburgh’s Traverse was another pioneering example of the theatre club which circumvented some of the absurd strictures of the Lord Chamberlain.
In some ludicrous decisions many major plays of the mid-20th century were banned or cut. The Lord Chamberlain’s team of readers would vet play scripts before they were produced on the stage and advise on deletions of scenes and changes of wording. By the 1960s the whole edifice began to look ridiculous and the Lord Chamberlain was widely seen as representing a class whose place in society was looking more and more shaky.
These readers’ reports often look like theatre reviews written by some reactionary old duffer. One Lord Chamberlain had the habit of previewing plays from the royal box and some directors and stage managers made sure that anything risqué took place in the corner, way out of his view. Often plays were considered – for no very good reason – ‘not suitable for public performance’ and refused a licence. Producing a play without a licence could result in legal action. Themes considered taboo, even in the anything-goes 1960s, included homosexuality, artificial insemination and bad language (the likes of ‘piss’ and ‘arse’). Criticisms of the Church and the Crown were also considered beyond the pale.
John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me was banned yet went on to win the 1965 Evening Standard Award for best play. Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge was refused a licence, as was Tea and Sympathy although the latter proved one of the most popular American plays of the 50s. Even Look Back in Anger was sent back with a list of changes.
In 1963 The Bedsitting Room by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus required numerous changes and cuts. One of the Lord Chamberlain’s injunctions was: ‘the mock priest must not wear a crucifix on his snorkel’.
In 1967 the Lord Chamberlain foamed over Edward Bond’s Early Morning. Bond was one of Britain’s most shocking, uncompromising playwrights and his play portrayed Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale in a lesbian relationship. The British Council didn’t share the Lord Chamberlain’s view and was later to send the play on foreign tour. It was clear that the Lord Chamberlain’s office was getting more and more out of touch.
The history of theatre censorship is littered with examples of daft decisions. A licence was once refused because the play’s heroine was seen to enter a tent ‘nude under her clothes’. The Lord Chamberlain objected to the term ‘up periscope’ as too suggestive. Cole Porter was famous for his musical comedies and their suggestive lyrics. His song Let’s Do It (Let’s Fall in Love) had clear sexual overtones: ‘The dragonflies in the reeds do it/Sentimental centipedes do it…’ His Lordship did not see the innuendo but congratulated Porter on the extensive research that had gone into the song!
The post of Lord Chamberlain originated in the late 15th century. It was he who appointed the Master of the Revels, who supervised entertainment at Court. After the Restoration in 1660 the Lord Chamberlain began to intervene directly in the regulation of theatre and censorship (usually on political or religious grounds). His powers were formalised in 1737.
Nude in wheelbarrow
Later he was responsible for pronouncing on matters of indecency, impropriety, profanity and sedition. He could withdraw a licence without giving a reason. Later still his office employed a team of readers to consider scripts and visit theatres to ensure that the amended scripts were kept to.
At the tail end of the Lord Chamberlain’s story the subversive power of the theatre was being eclipsed by cinema and TV and the Lord Chamberlain’s office became obsessed with what it saw as ‘vulgarity’, a word (it must be said) rarely heard, or even understood, these days. In 1963 a letter from the Lord Chamberlain’s office read: ‘I can categorically say that the Lord Chamberlain would not allow a nude woman to be wheeled across the stage in a wheelbarrow’.
When, in 1967, Peggy Ramsay, the celebrated theatrical agent, read the play What the Butler Saw by her client the controversial playwright Joe Orton she told him: ‘The Lord Chamberlain is not going to allow you to show Churchill’s prick on the stage!’
In September 1968 the Lord Chamberlain’s powers ceased. The next day the musical Hair opened in London complete with full frontal hippies. As they said at the time: ‘Let the sunshine in!’