- Moscow, Saint Petersburg, London:Hubert Griffith and the Search for a Russian Truth
Censoring the Revolution
Hubert Griffith’s play Red Sunday premiered at the Arts Theatre, London in June 1929 under the direction of Russian émigré Theodor Komisarjevsky.1 Subsequently, Griffith submitted the play to the Lord Chamberlain with the express aim of performing it on the West End stage.2 Lord Cromer rejected it, responding to vocal condemnation of the play from mainstream media—The Times criticized Red Sunday in an editorial entitled “A Dramatic Indiscretion”—and Buckingham Palace, from where the King, under pressure from exiled Russian royalists, requested it not be granted a license.3 The general consensus claimed that Red Sunday caused unwarranted “pain to Russians in London.”4 This was primarily due to its focus on real people, particularly the deceased Russian Tsar Nicholas [End Page 1] II, and its presentation of such a dramatic, bloody, and recent period of Russian history as “entertainment.” The Times’ editorial condemned Red Sunday as unnecessarily cruel:
Though he [the dramatist in a general sense] argues that an artist is free to choose his material where he pleases, he might well remember that a man of honour [sic] and independence is no betrayer of his right to speak freely, and even endorses that right, when he avoids a subject that must increase the suffering of those who have already suffered enough.5
The Times accused Griffith of neglecting his position as self-regulator of his own work. Ignoring calls to grant it a license, including “howls of protest from [George Bernard] Shaw among others,” the censor deemed Red Sunday unsuitable for the mainstream stage.6 In this regard, it can be read as part of a diverse canon of modernist work rejected by the Censor, from Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts to Oscar Wilde’s Salome.7
Red Sunday clearly incensed the authorities. But what was it about this play that caused such outrage? Why was a play, whose initial Komisarjevsky-directed performance John Gielgud (who played the character of Bronstein/Trotsky) praised as a celebration of “continuous life and movement on the stage,” so heartedly rejected from the West End?8 Griffith provided an initial answer to this question by responding to The Times’ editorial in the letters section of the same newspaper:
I treated his [the Tsar’s] domestic character with the very utmost reverence and sympathy of which I was capable. But that, as his political actions affected the whole world, I could not (and still cannot) conceive but that these are legitimate matters for the freest possible public discussion.9
He counteracted the claims that he had presented an unfair account of the Tsar, distinguishing between the private tragedy of a fallen leader and his far less agreeable politics. In a sense, counteracting The Times’ claims, Griffith certainly did self-censor to an extent and committed to presenting a somewhat more sympathetic figure than his leftist convictions might naturally have occasioned. It did not seem to matter; the play was censored regardless. Furthermore Griffith provocatively attacked the Censor for preventing general access to a play that enabled audience members to understand important and far-reaching world events. Proverbially biting his thumb at the Lord Chamberlain, The Times, and Buckingham Palace, Griffith published the play with “Banned by the Lord Chamberlain” [End Page 2] emblazoned on the front cover and proceeded to write a scathing indictment of Cromer’s decision and the restrictions of censorship. He included this incendiary manifesto as a preface. Griffith wrote it as a detached observer, authoring it from the perspective of “a poor native of the South-Pacific island of Ping-Pang-Bong.”10 Unfortunately this infuses the preface with an unnecessary and troubling colonial under-narrative. Nevertheless it remains one of the most damning early twentieth-century denunciations of theatrical censorship.
The “poor native” apparently watched Red Sunday while visiting London on a short break away from his “dancing-girls…dancing in the background, in arabesques that would have enchanted Gauguin.”11 The preface addresses the dual concerns of the Censor: that these events were simply too contemporaneous and painful to provide material for theater and that the...