- Shaw, The Bell, and Irish Censorship in 1945
Shaw left Ireland at the age of twenty and only sporadically returned for visits over the course of his long life. But he kept himself constantly apprised of the latest news and often ventured into debates on pressing issues confronting his native land. There were several occasions when Ireland and censorship—another particular concern to Shaw throughout his career—converged in such a way as to implicate him either as an involved participant or an interested commentator. One such moment arose in 1945, when the editors of The Bell, an influential Irish journal of the period, instigated a debate on the perceived merits of censorship. Always ready to jump head-long into a controversial fray, Shaw was one of several writers to submit an article in response to the provocative subject. The debate itself fizzled out after only three months and its impact on reforming the Irish institution of literary censorship is questionable. However, the opinions offered over the course of the debate afford critics the occasion to place Shaw’s late-life views on a pressing professional matter in relation to those of the generations of Irish authors who succeeded him and, often, looked toward him as a beacon of wisdom and inspiration.
For Shaw, Ireland represented a relatively free society for the performance of plays. Owing to a loophole in legislation, the Lord Chamberlain’s authority did not extend across the Irish Sea.1 As a result, plays that were banned from British theaters could be staged without fear of both the censor’s prohibition and, as a general rule, prosecution by officialdom. At the same time, Irish shows established performance rights, meaning that the author would own the copyright of his or her own play. Thus, after unsuccessful attempts to mount a copyrighted performance of Mrs Warren’s Profession in Britain, Shaw turned to his childhood friend Edward McNulty in 1897 to produce the play in Ireland, although the enterprise eventually came to naught.2 In 1914, the play was staged by the Dublin Repertory Theatre, which appeared more interested in using the event to [End Page 161] thumb a collective Irish nose at the authorities of Dublin Castle, seat of the ruling British authorities of the day, than in the play itself. Despite warnings of legal and financial sanctions, the production came off without a hitch. In fact, by all accounts it had quite a boring run.3 But the Dublin Repertory Theatre’s staging of Mrs Warren’s Profession was not the first time a Shaw play was used by nationalists to ridicule the British authorities and their system of censorship. In 1909, the year Shaw had both The Shewing- up of Blanco Posnet and Press Cuttings banned by the Lord Chamberlain, the Abbey Theatre, under the direction of Lady Augusta Gregory, produced Blanco Posnet. Gregory’s gamble paid off as the play did not encounter any resistance beyond threats.4 But it was a rather specious victory. As James Joyce testified upon attending the opening night: “Nothing imaginable is more innocuous than [the play] and the audience wonders in amazement why on earth the work was intercepted by the censor.”5 The episode was arguably more of a defeat for British censorship than it was a triumph for nationalists over Dublin Castle.
This is not to suggest that Ireland was always a safe-haven for Shaw. He had experienced the difficulty of informal censorship in 1904 when he submitted John Bull’s Other Island, his only full-length Irish play, to the Abbey Theatre. W. B. Yeats, as Abbey director, told Shaw that he refused the play because it was too long and the theater’s small stage was not able to adequately support the large cast and scenery.6 Shaw, though, felt that his play was rejected because his social vision was counter to the spirit of the Gaelic movement, that nationalist political aesthetics were utilitarian and utopian while he portrayed Ireland as it really was.7 But his play went on to be a resounding success at the Court Theatre in London later that November and was revived several times at...