Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Lord Chamberlain regrets

The Lord Chamberlain Regrets: A History of British Theatre Censorship by Dominic Shellard, Steve Nicholson, and Miriam Handley (British Library, 2004)

For over 200 years, if you wanted to put on a play in public in the UK, the script had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain, primarily an obscure royal courtier but one who had also mysteriously been saddled with this peculiar task. Lines deemed obscene or blasphemous were regularly edited out, and plays that lampooned distinguished living persons or had plots that were sufficiently risqué were not allowed on stage at all.

I've read much about this quaint practice from the p.o.v. of dramatists and theatre companies. Here's a history from the other side of the table. For much of this period, the Lord Chamberlain, who had other things to do with his time, devolved the research part of his duties to a subordinate officer called the Examiner of Plays. The Examiner would read each submitted play, and write up a report and recommendation to submit to the Lord Chamberlain for a final decision, and it's these reports, on file at the British Library, which form the basis of this study.

The principal examiner through the 1950s and 60s was a man named Charles Heriot, of whose background the text says nothing, though I've learned online that he was an actor himself, and whose reports I find bewilderingly charming. Bewildering, because he ventured far beyond his censor's remit to make sweeping critical judgments of the plays he read, and charming, because he often wrote the kind of evaluation I'd love to see in published reviews but rarely do, of the kind of tiresome modernist plays that I've left with the feeling "Why did I subject myself to this pretentious bombast?" Here's Heriot on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:
Once again, Mr. Williams vomits up the recurring theme of his not-too-subconscious. This is the fourth play (and there are sure to be others) where we are confronted by the gentlewoman debased, sunk in her private dreams as a remedy for her sexual frustration, and over all the author's horror, disgust and rage against the sexual act.
And on The Birthday Party:
An insane, pointless play. Mr. Pinter has jumbled all the tricks of Beckett and Ionesco with a dash from all the recently produced plays at the Royal Court Theatre, plus a fashionable flavouring of blasphemy. The result is still silly. The Emperor is wearing no clothes.
Burn, baby, burn! Although it's worth noting that, apart from advising that a few lines be cut, the reader recommended approving both these plays for performance.

But by far the most interesting comment I saw was a note appended to the report on Look Back in Anger by John Osborne (1956). This work is more of a major landmark in modern British intellectual history than it is a famous play. As the keystone event of the "Angry Young Man" literary movement, its premiere got a strong response discussed in detail in many books about the period, but always with a weird absence of description of the actual play itself. Curious, I once decided to see it for myself. I don't like reading unfamiliar plays in text form, but I found a tape of a tv performance starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, back when they were still a couple, as Jimmy and Alison, the married pair who are the central characters. Surely, if anybody could communicate the meaning of this play, they could.

They couldn't. I could make little sense of the plot or motivations. Jimmy and Alison are living a proletarian life in a working-class flat in Birmingham or somewhere, despite having more privileged family backgrounds, that much was clear. Jimmy spends most of the play standing around ranting about something or other, I could not figure out what. He seems just inchoately angry at the world. Much of his standing around ranting is done without his trousers on, because Alison spends most of the play ironing either Jimmy's trousers or his friends' trousers. It wasn't clear either why she's obsessed with ironing trousers or why it takes her so long. They may just both be thunderously bored; I know I was.

Anyway, Heriot's report offers a more clear and succinct summary of the plot than anything I've seen in serious literary studies, and concludes with this strange little footnote:
The prototypes of Jimmy and Alison may be Giles Romilly and his wife. Romilly was killed in the war and his biography was sketched in a book called "Friends Apart" by Philip Toynbee, published in 1954.
Now this interested me. First it was clear that Heriot miswrote himself and meant not Giles Romilly but his brother Esmond. Giles was still alive in 1956. Esmond is the one who was killed in the war and is the subject of Philip Toynbee's memoir. (Not that the book in hand takes note of this confusion.) But what really made it interesting to me is that Esmond's wife was Jessica Mitford, the one of the famous Mitford sisters who became a Communist, moved to America, and ended up as Queen of the Muckrakers, author of The American Way of Death and the exposé of the Famous Writers' School. She's one of my favorite writers, and would certainly make my top five on the list that Gay Talese couldn't think of a single name for, along with Molly Ivins, Ursula Le Guin, maybe Nora Ephron, and probably Diana Wynne Jones.

But nothing that I've read about Decca (as she was called) and Esmond, or about John Osborne for that matter, gave any indication that the couple were in any way models for the play. True, they came from privileged backgrounds (Esmond was Clementine Churchill's nephew, and Decca the daughter of a lord) which they gave up to run off and cover the Spanish Civil War and later to live in genteel poverty on the south side of London, but that's as far as the parallel goes. Jimmy is undirected and wasting his life; he's abusive to Alison, scornful of her pregnancy, and has an affair with her best friend. None of this is remotely like Esmond as I've read of him. Decca, by her own account, was a hopeless housekeeper, so no obsessive ironing, and she absolutely rejected Alison's secret desire to reunite with her family; Decca's family were mostly notable fascists, and she wanted to keep well away. In any case, Osborne's knowledge of Esmond and Decca's life, if he had any at all, was likely to have been second-hand, as he was under ten years old when they were in London.

So I found Heriot's connection implausible at best. Puzzled, I consulted two experts in the field - Peter Y. Sussman, editor of Decca's letters (a marvelous book titled simply Decca), and Meredith Whitford, author of a biography of Esmond and Decca (Churchill's Rebels, which I haven't read yet but I'm on my way to get it) - and neither of them put any credibility in it either. So I'm going to dump this note as a curiosity with probably no further significance.

Theatrical censorship in the UK was ended in the late 1960s, as part of a brief wave of civilization that also brought the decriminalization of homosexuality. One thing the book doesn't mention is that the Lord Chamberlain of the day, whenever for the rest of his life he ran into the Home Secretary who'd been responsible for initiating the change, thanked him profusely for having relieved him of this onerous duty.

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