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  • Bernard Shaw, the British Censorship of Plays, and Modern Celebrity
  • Brad Kent

“YOU CANNOT HAVE a decent stage with a Censorship,” Bernard Shaw said, “and without a decent stage you cannot have a decent country.”1 At the root of this aphorism was the conviction that censorship is a conservative institution that simply seeks to uphold traditions. While such measures purport to be for the public good, they often lead to decline and ruin by preventing the circulation of new ideas that promote positive reform. For Shaw, censorship and commercial interests had rendered the theatre of the nineteenth century a morbid place of ephemeral entertainment, combining to marginalise and silence such serious modern playwrights as himself and Henrik Ibsen. However, early in his career Shaw turned these matters to his advantage in making a virtue of being a pariah and in casting doubt on the judgment and competence of the authorities. Instead of becoming shamed through castigation and either ceasing to write for the stage or refusing to engage in contentious issues, he was provoked into taking his case to the people. In so doing, Shaw used censorship as a means of trumpeting his success and creating his own celebrity, which would allow him more latitude and in turn raise questions as to the legitimacy of the institution.

This self-fashioning and creation of a public personality was an integral element of literary culture in the modern period. Dispelling prevalent notions of a coterie-driven movement that shunned renown and popular culture, recent critics have argued that modernist authors appealed to new technologies and instruments of the mass media to promote their images and expose their writing to a wider audience.2 Oscar Wilde, perhaps the foremost of his time at creating and exploiting such opportunities, cultivated his dandyism and wit to openly court the public while giving lectures and interviews well before he had become a writer of any accomplishment. As Joe Moran has shown, Wilde’s [End Page 231] reputation-making tour of the United States in 1882 was a part of a long tradition that has its roots in the early nineteenth century, when literary celebrity took hold through the concurrent rise in the com-modification of literature and the development of the advertising industry.3 Authors became the principal celebrities largely because of the dominance of print media in the era preceding the advent of film, radio, television and popular music, and as a result of success on the mediatised lecture circuit. Success was in turn measured by the author’s performativity, defined by refusing to simply read from a lectern, adopting distinguishable dress, and creating a marketable persona. This holds true for Shaw, who was easily identifiable by his flowing beard and trademark Jaeger suit when engaging in a multitude of public debates and lectures throughout his long life. And the same could be said for a host of authors over the course of the past century, especially those whose images have become emblazoned in the public imagination for combinations of their distinct public personalities and wardrobe as much as their literary prowess. The underestimation of celebrity culture by many scholars of the modern period is therefore baffling, and it is especially egregious in a field that is dominated by the cult of the author. Indeed, exceptionalism of the author is an essential aspect of modernism, with its emphasis on style as imbricated in the production of cultural value.4

Although censorship seeks to prevent works and ideas from circulating in society, the institutional importance of the practice paradoxically informed and in some cases made the celebrity of several authors, as was the case of Shaw. And it was simultaneously responsible for instigating new aesthetic forms. Adam Parkes, for one, contends that “the development of literary modernism was shaped in significant ways by an ongoing dialogue with a culture of censorship.”5 Celia Marshik has termed this process the “censorship dialectic.”6 Essentially, modern authors adopted aesthetic modes through complex coding, intertextuality and fragmentation as forms of resistance. More important to this argument, they further participated in a range of spectacles, from letters to the press and polemical prefaces to mass anticensorship campaigns and trials...


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pp. 231-253
Launched on MUSE
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Will Be Archived 2021
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