- The Censorship of British Drama 1900–1968, Volume Two: 1933–1952 by Steve Nicholson, and: The Censorship of British Drama 1900–1968, Volume Three: the Fifties by Steve Nicholson, and: The Censorship of British Drama 1900–1968, Volume Four: the Sixties by Steve Nicholson
Official theatre censorship in England was instituted in 1737 and lasted until 1968. All plays intended for public performance were vetted by readers in the Lord Chamberlain’s offices in St. James Palace. Wielding their blue pencils, readers could demand cuts or changes to dialogue or stage directions; they [End Page 494] could even ban a play outright, although this was a rarity. While negotiations over changes often occurred between the Lord Chamberlain’s officers and theatre managers or playwrights, there was no appeal process; issues of particular controversy were referred to the Lord Chamberlain himself and his decision was final. One unexpected legacy of this centralized bureaucratic system is a huge trove of documents, first made public in 1999, tracing the history of drama censorship in Britain.
Since the 2003 publication of the first volume in this series, Steve Nicholson has performed the herculean task of mining the 50,000 files in the British Library and another mountain of information in the Royal Archives at Windsor Castle to provide a comprehensive history of twentieth-century theatre censorship. The thoroughness of his accomplishment is clear in the ballooning size of the series—originally intended for two volumes, it has grown to four (plus another book reprinting primary documents, The Lord Chamberlain Regrets, published by the British Library, which Nicholson coedited with Dominic Shellard and Miriam Handley). The result of this expansion is a telescoping survey: volume 1 covers thirty-two years; volume 2, twenty-one years; and volumes 3–4, only eight years each.
Nicholson has impressively shaped a pile of bureaucratic policy memos into an engaging narrative through his clear, lively prose; his text is more accessible, for instance, than the specialist’s Theatre Censorship from Walpole to Wilson by David Thomas, David Carlton, and Anne Etienne, which focuses on the legislative history of censorship. Nicholson also has a keen eye for the telling detail or entertaining quotation: a play that imagined a black US president was allowed only “on the understanding that the ‘United States’ is changed to ‘Utopia’” (3:164); on the issue of sexual perversion in Giraudoux’s Judith: “We must draw the line at a donkey” (3:181).
Volume 2 covers the years 1933 to 1952. It is slightly disappointing that, given the political tensions of the era, this volume lacks the spirited jousting between committed playwrights and the Lord Chamberlain’s office that animate volume 1, encompassing the years 1900 to 1932. Instead, Foreign Office policies practically dictated censorship decisions, quashing any debate. In this absence, the most interesting part of the second volume concerns the culture wars of the era, particularly the Lord Chamberlain’s dealings with the Public Morality Council (and fellow travelers like “the terrifyingly named British Women’s Total Abstinence Union” [2:75]). Staffed largely by clergy though also politically well-connected, the council, which lasted through the 1960s, could not be entirely ignored, although the Lord Chamberlain clearly regarded it as a nuisance. Reading their correspondences gives some credence to fears later expressed by theatre producers in the 1960s that the abolition of official state censorship would expose productions to even harsher local censorship bodies: the assessments issued from St. James Palace are certainly more sophisticated and liberal than the narrow-minded, racist, and homophobic letters from the Public Morality Council and its ilk complaining of lax censorship standards.
These tensions heat up in volume 3, “The Fifties,” which is anchored by the complicated battle over the policy on representations of homosexuality. Although...