The Censorship of British Theatre and the Lord Chamberlain, 1953-1968

Lead Research Organisation: University of Sheffield
Department Name: Sch of English Lit, Lang and Linguistics


Until 1968, every new play in Britain required a licence from the Lord Chamberlain's Office before it could be publicly performed. General guidelines for withholding licences had been proposed in 1909, but no legislation followed and the Lord Chamberlain could censor as he chose. Relatively few plays were banned absolutely, but many had licences delayed (sometimes for long periods) or were passed only after amendments had been made. The British Library holds a file on each and every play, typically containing a Reader's Report and often extensive correspondence and memoranda, and notes on changes required.
I have worked extensively in this archive, and have read every file. I have also researched relevant material held in the Royal Archive at Windsor Castle, and published two volumes about theatre censorship under the Lord Chamberlain, covering the period 1900 to 1932, and 1933 to 1952. Thanks to a small research grant from the AHRC, I have already read and noted the correspondence files from the period 1953 to 1968, and, as necessary, the relevant playscripts. I now require the time to write the concluding part of the trilogy, which will contribute valuable insights into the theatre, but also the political, moral and social history, of these two important decades. Other books on theatre censorship have relied on very limited exploration of these archives, and have concentrated on relatively well-known texts and examples. Such an approach necessarily limits their authority, and tends to simplify (if not to skew) the conclusions. While the examples I draw on will still be selective, they are drawn from the full and very extensive range of what is available. My research demonstrates that crucial material is as likely to be found in files relating to unknown plays as to more familiar texts, and it is only by being aware of them all that we can begin to get to grips with the detail and complexity of this history. Little was fixed; few principles were rigid / and because each individual playtext was different policies and positions were constantly being challenged and negotiated. It is impossible, I believe, to understand the history of theatre in Britain in the twentieth century before / and perhaps since / 1968 without considering the effects and the role of censorship.
It is also essential to situate the research in relation to historical, theatrical and ideological contexts. For this volume, it is also feasible to carry out interviews with some who encountered censorship directly, and this will provide a further dimension. Though it is outside the direct focus of my research, a further twist is given by the fact that issues around contemporary theatre censorship have recently thrust themselves once more into cultural and political debates, and I have been invited to contribute a historical perspective to several research seminars and public debates about censorship, sometimes alongside contemporary playwrights. In many respects, the issues giving concern and what is at stake are different, and it is important not to draw spurious or simplistic connections. Nevertheless, it is striking when one finds a passage such as the following in a Reader's Report of 1957 about a play which satirised religion, and which was issued a licence without significant alterations:

'Much of this play about what makes religions tick will offend deeply religious folk... if the dogmas and faiths of such religions cannot stand up to this kind of hard-hitting, barbed banter, so much the worse for them'.

Equally, it could be argued that no-one was trying harder from the mid fifties onwards to get rid of the Lord Chamberlain as censor, or at least to modify his powers, than the Lord Chamberlain himself! While it is easy either to lampoon or vilify the Lord Chamberlain, or to assume that his rule created a theatre which was always more reactionary and restrictive than our own today, the story is actually much more complicated than that.


10 25 50