Saved from Censorship

Street Performer Protest

Photo by Pete Carr — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What a happy anniversary: a death of theatre censorship.

As posted this week in KArts Culture News, forty years ago, on September 28, 1968, the Theatres Act passed in the UK and ended the monarchy’s total control of theatrical expression.

Previously, every producer had to submit their script to the Lord Chamberlain for the right, or license, to present the work to the public. Two to three readers would review each of the scripts handed over, with the threat of jail if their ruling was violated. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not composed of elected officials, or civil servants, but appointed directly by the royal household.

Obviously, the monarchy was less concerned about the public’s exposure to “bad” language, “offensive” ideas, or oh-it-can’t-exist homosexuality — all the stated purposes of the law — than the fear of mocking the monarchy.

That’s the truth of censorship the world over: it’s not about protecting the public, it’s about protecting those in power.

Isn’t it ironic that at a time when nations such as the UK are rather adamantly arguing for the sanctity of democracy and free speech, it wasn’t that long ago that they must have their mirrors covered?

Coming years after the Theatre of the Absurd, this absurdity was saved with the help of Edward Bond’s Saved and his producer, William Gaskill. Gaskill skirted the rules, and consequently began the breakdown of the Lord Chamberlain’s reach, by presenting the play in a private club.

This tactic is alive and well, as today’s Belarus Free Theatre knows so well.

In the west, today’s threat comes more from economic censorship. However, theatre will find a way to keep its contract with audiences for direct, unfiltered, and immediate communication. (Take a look at David Rabe’s column, from last week, on how theatre is doing a better job at revealing the stories of our time than our journalists.)

Want to know more? Check out the British Library exhibit of The Golden Generation: British Theatre 1945 - 1968, running through the end of November.

Oh, the day after the Theatre Act passed, Hair opened in London. Let the Sunshine In, indeed.

- Bill Reichblum

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One Response to “Saved from Censorship”

  1. Terry Victor
    November 5th, 2008 04:18

    There is to be a script-held performance of my play No Offence (a Comedy of Terrors) at Chapter Arts in Cardiff on December 10th 2008, as a part of the On The Edge season. The central, overriding theme of the piece is Theatre Censorship. Spread the word.

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