I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
I suppose I am bound, as a dramatic author, to declare that I have, at all events, a potential interest in the Bill. It is nearly 40 years since I began to work for the abolition of the censorship of stage plays. In those days it never entered my wildest dreams that I should become, half a lifetime later, a Member of this honourable House. Even when I had been elected, I never anticipated that it would fall to me, in my last Parliamentary days, to introduce a Bill providing for such a happy event. However, on one stormy night in December, 1944, after an equally stormy Debate—I think, on the subject of Greece—I raised on the Adjournment the question of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. I got very much further with my speech than I had anticipated before I was burked—quite non-criminously, of course, Mr. Speaker—by the Chair. Today, however, I am in the happy position of being able to steer my course openly and freely, without having to tack and veer in order to dodge the Scylla and Charybdis of the Rules of Order. I shall always remember with gratitude the many hon. Members of the day, including my hon. Friend the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert), who remained to hear me, although they had every inducement, after a scene of such stress and excitement to seek the relative quiet of the smoking room.
The Bill is concerned, in essence, with one little word, a word which has been synonymous with Britain for centuries. That little word is "freedom" I might, perhaps, extend it and call it the "freedom of words," which, I am sure, will appeal to all hon. Members who are lovers and students of Milton, as is, I believe, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary. I hold it to be true that history at least has proved that if man can achieve the freedom of words, all other freedoms shall in the fullness of time be added unto him. Today in this country the last official chain upon the word is the Lord Chamberlain's exercise of the censorship of plays. In order that the House may understand the background to the Bill I must indulge, very briefly, in a little history. I think I can promise the House, however, that it will not be dull.
That history goes back nearly 300 years. On 21st August, 1666, King Charles II granted his letters patent to Thomas Killigrew, Esq., and Sir William d'Avenant, making them the sole custodians of theatrical amusements in the Metropolis. From the language employed on that occasion by the good King, the lights of morality and virtue shine refulgent:
whereas we are given to understand that certain persons in and about our City of London do frequently assemble for the performing of Plays and Interludes for reward, to which divers of our subjects do resort, which said Plays we are informed, do contain much matter of profanation and scurrility, so that such kinds of entertainment which, if well-managed, might serve as moral instructions in humane life as now for the most part tend to the debauching of the manners of such as are present and are very scandalous and offensive to all pious and well-disposed persons.
If anyone doubts the virtue of that remarkable and truly great monarch, let him ponder these excellent words.
I must however emphasise that official control over the drama was at the beginning confined to subjects directly affecting Church and State and not morality, with which neither Church nor State was then very well acquainted. Morality was, in fact, a smoke-screen for other and darker forces. Morality came to be considered as important in the official viewpoint after the Rev. Jeremy Collier's attack on the profaneness and immorality on the stage in 1697, which drove Congreve from dramatic authorship; and I have always felt that was a high price for British literature to have to pay for the fulminations of a quaint and period divine. This was followed in 1698 by a Royal Order by King William III—and I am sure the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) would wish me to add the words, "of blessed memory." That order prohibited the action of anything contrary to good manners and forbad the Master of the Revels to licence plays containing matter which might be suspect.
From here the dramatists' real troubles began, and they continue to this day; but not, of course, without their own interludes. For, during the next 100 years, so needless, so reactionary, and so unpopular did this exercise of censorship become, that Dr. Johnson—not, one would say, normally a champion of the completest liberty—reflected the rising public resentment in his ironical, "Complete Vindication of the Licenser of Plays," a barbed work which not even Mr. Bernard Shaw could better. Political allusions, political satires, lampoons against the Court and the aristocracy, as well as matters susceptible of the widest and freest opinion, all came under the savage veto of the then Lord Chamberlain; and I would remind the House that that is a veto against which there is no appeal. It is almost shocking to say this, but it is a veto which is above Parliament and, by an incredible anomaly, it is a veto which is above the Law. The Lord Chamberlain was confirmed in his position as Dramatic Censor by Sir Robert Walpole in his Licensing Act of 1737, which is the evil parent of the Act of 1843, is still in force today.
It is interesting to note that the Whig leader of the day, the great Lord Chesterfield, joined forces, if for this occasion only, with Dr. Johnson, and speaking against this Measure in another place said:
My Lords, I apprehend this to be a Bill of a very extraordinary and very dangerous Nature. I fear it tends to a Restraint even upon Liberty itself. I am sure it is a very invidious Post for the Lord Chamberlain to be obliged by his Office to be the Standard of Wit, Politeness and Good Sense to the whole Nation. No Country ever lost its Liberty at once; 'tis by Degrees the Work is to be done, by such Degrees s creep insensibly upon you till 'tis too late to stop the Mischief.
What a surprisingly modern application these words have! Lord Chesterfield goes on:
Our Laws are, I am well convinced, already sufficient to punish Licentiousness in any shape,
and I can see no reason for a new One that may be dangerous and must be allowed to be unnecessary.
However, the Bill went through. And thus the politician of that day successfully destroyed the theatre as a vehicle of ideas and graciously allowed it to become the Mannequin of Contemporary Manners, always provided, of course, that they were good manners.
In 1832 a Select Committee of this House under the Chairmanship of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, later Lord Lytton, was appointed to consider the working of the 1737 Act. The office of Examiner of Plays was attacked as a useless and objectionable feature of the dramatic system. In 1833 Bulwer-Lytton introduced his Dramatic Performances Bill, which passed this House with only seven dissentients, but that Bill was lost in another place, I believe the Bishops were the difficulty; I understand they often are. However, in July, 1843, a Bill was brought in known as the Theatre Regulation Bill and was passed by both Houses very quickly indeed; and the provisions of that 1843 Act are in force today. They unhappily confirmed the Lord Chamberlain in his powers of Dramatic Censor. His and his successors' administration of the Act have often given rise to intense criticism, in particular his refusal to licence certain plays by distinguished dramatists, including Ibsen, Maeterlinck, Bernard Shaw, Granville Barker, Laurence Housman and even Mr. Eden Phillpotts.
The storm so aroused resulted in the matter being submitted to another Select Committee of this House in 1909. That Committee recommended that the Lord Chamberlain should remain the licencer of plays, but that the obtaining of his licence should be optional. In other words, anyone presenting or performing an unlicensed play should not be deemed guilty of illegal conduct, unless the play offended against the canons of the common law. This the authors ardently supported and most of the managers equally ardently opposed. The authors maintained that the common law in regard to indecency and the like amply protected the public.
The managers, on the other hand, maintained that they would be exposed to risks, whereas, if they could obtain the imprimatur of the Lord Chamberlain's licence, they would be immune from prosecution, even at common law. They thought that theirs was a privileged position, which, naturally, they desired to maintain. But this, as I shall show, was a complete illusion. No manager has ever been, or can ever be, exempted from private prosecution in respect of a play licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. Their supposed immunity is, in law, chimerical, although it may be of some value to them in practice. Nevertheless, the managers won, and the authors lost. No legislative action followed the 1909 Select Committee's Report, and the 1843 Act is still in effective existence. Thus the Old Man of Politics remains firmly fastened round the neck of Sinbad of the Theatre.
Then, in the summer of 1948 something else happened. There was held a British Theatre Conference. It was a unique event in the history of the theatre. Delegates and individual representatives from every organised body of workers in the theatre attended and there were 450 members of the conference. We had the benefit of a most revealing, and, if I may say so without gross disrespect, inspiriting speech by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the present Chancellor of the Exchequer. At that conference Sir Lewis Casson, on behalf of British Equity, proposed a motion which was seconded by myself on behalf of the League of Dramatists, calling for the abolition of the Dramatic Censorship. This was carried enthusiastically by the conference, there being only three dissentients. So much for the argument which has been put about that the industry itself does not desire a change in the present arrangements.
I am saddened to notice, that my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) has put on the Order Paper an Amendment which, if it were carried, would be tantamount to killing this Bill. Of course, he is fully entitled to do so if he so desires; but, since the representatives of his union voted at the British Theatre Conference in favour of the abolition of censorship, I confess that I find his attitude a trifle difficult to fathom. I have no doubt that, like the dragons of the prime, he feels within himself some latent urge to evolve. I am only sorry that, like the true Irishman he is, he should be evolving backwards. I can only warn him that if he goes on like this he will end up as a crab. The conference passed other motions advocating a reduction in the Entertainments Tax and the establishment of a National Theatre, both of which have since been achieved. It is, I hope, a good augury for my Bill.
My friends and I contend that the licensing of plays today is anomalous, that it is an anachronism, that it is inimical to the drama as a cultural force and that it contrives to protect the public not from impropriety, because that seems easy enough to slip past the censor, but from the impact of ideas which, however startling or irrelevant or however absurd and far-fetched, may not happen to appeal to the Lord Chamberlain's clerks. I propose to deal with these counts seriatim.
I say that it is anomalous because, while no play can be performed for reward without the Lord Chamberlain's licence, any play can be performed by managements, clubs, societies or private individuals in any theatre without being licensed by the Lord Chancellor, provided that no money is charged for admission. The late Granville Barker, who was refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain for a play by Mr. Eden Philpotts, called "The Secret Woman," revealed the anomaly of the position by presenting the play at a West End theatre to which anyone could write for tickets and witness the performance without paying. And about 100,000 people did so, myself included.
I say it is anomalous because, while any play written prior to the Act of 1737 may be performed for reward without obtaining the Lord Chamberlain's licence, a play written after that date must be licensed. So we get the anomaly of Shakespeare's "Pericles, Prince of Tyre," Vanbrugh's "The Relapse," Wycherley's "The Country Wife" and Congreve's "Love for Love" being presented for reward, when they would never, if written by a modern author, have stood the smallest chance of a licence. I say it is anomalous because the Lord Chamberlain's licence confers no immunity upon a present manager from private prosecution. Up to about a month ago the managers thought it did; now they know that it does not. I am prepared to grant that it might prove to be a deterrent to a prospective prosecutor; but, legally, it is a mere shield of straw. I say that it is an anachronism because the motives which inspired the passing of the 1737 Act, and which were centred in the desire of the Executive to be protected from lampooning and attack, happily no longer apply. Perhaps modern governments have thicker skins—or less to fear—than Sir Robert Walpole.
I say it is inimical to the drama as a cultural force because it compels the theatre to lag behind public opinion instead of being, as it should be, in the van. May I give some instances of this? Ibsen's great morality play "Ghosts" was refused a licence in the early 1890's, and was never licensed until about 1915, by which time it had become a museum piece. Eugene Brieux's "Les Avariés" dramatized over here under the title of "Damaged Goods" and translated by a distinguished author, Sir John Pollock, was refused a licence for many years because the play, written as a warning against promiscuous sexual intercourse, treated of the dangers and horrors of the infection of syphilis. It was hurriedly licensed in the 1914–18 war in order to be shown as an object lesson to troops and civilians alike. In his preface to the English translation Mr. Bernard Shaw says:
When a dramatist is enlightened enough to understand the danger and sympathetic enough to come to the rescue with a play to expose the snare and warn the victim, we forbid a manager to perform it on pain of ruin, and denounce the author as a corrupter of morals. One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry at such perverse stupidity
How vastly better it might perhaps have been for hundreds of young men and women if the Lord Chamberlain's licence for the play had not been withheld for the years that it was. That is a melancholy reflection.
Let me turn to some much later cases. A play based on the factual biography of Dante Gabriel Rossetti called "We Dig for the stars," was refused a licence quite recently by the Lord Chamberlain because some distant relative of Rosetti chose to object, yet the book is there on the bookstalls for everyone to buy and read, and has no fear of Censorship. If I have a famous grandmother, is that to give me a vested interest in her historic life? Indeed, I have such a grandmother, for my greatest great-grandmother was Nell Gwyn, but I have never sought to > object to the portrayal upon the stage of that lovely lady.
Another play called "Sweet Liberty" was refused a licence in very recent years by the Lord Chamberlain, I believe at the instance of the Foreign Office, because it made a figure of delightful fun out of a Soviet Commissar. I read the play in typescript. It was extraordinarily witty and amusing, and kept me in fits of laughter during the whole of one afternoon. But it was all so innocent and good-natured that it would not have caused the temper even of the hon. Member for West Fife (Mr. Gallacher) had he been here, to mount by as much as one degree.
Of course there are occasions, I am willing to admit, when the eagle eye of the Lord Chamberlain does protect the public. I shall give one instance relating to a play of my own. The manager presenting it received a letter couched in more or less the following terms:
The Lord, Chamberlain is prepared to grant a licence for this play on the understanding that the exclamation of the old Victorian lady in Act I is intended to be 'Fiddle, my dear' and not, as in the typescript, 'Piddle, my dear.'
The House may smile. But it would have been a dreadful thing, if neither myself nor the management nor the actress concerned had noticed that typographical error during rehearsals.
I say that it is unjust to the author, and it is in any case an intolerable humiliation, to have to submit every word he writes to the close scrutiny of a public official. What would hon. Members say if they found that they could not make a speech in this House without referring it, beforehand, let us say, to the Serjeant at Arms? We dramatic authors ask for liberty. We do not ask for licence. If there be some unworthy few authors who are desirous of writing matter of a seditious, scurrilous, blasphemous or indecent character, surely any manager who is worth his salt is his own best censor, and he can prevent any such intention by refusing to produce such a play. If he did produce it the common law would step in and take care of him. As things stand at present, the manager puts his own conscience into the pocket of the Lord Chamberlain. But, as I have endeavoured to show, that pocket is full of holes. It will do the managers no harm to have to exercise their own common or garden intelligence in the conduct of their business, and I have no doubt that their consciences will respond in a lively fashion to the very normal responsibilities which this Bill inherently imposes Upon them.
Let me take, finally, such a case as this:—An author may have spent a year writing a play. That play is banned, not because it contains indecent or blasphemous or seditious matter, but possibly by reason of some external influence; it may be because a Government department or merely because the whims or the prejudice of the Lord Chamberlain for the time being—and they vary; heavens how they vary—might object to the theme or to some major issue of it which will prevent its being performed. What a monstrous thing this is! The unfortunate author loses his time irrevocably and the public is prevented from seeing what might be a memorable and thought-provoking play.
Only this morning I received a very remarkable letter from that most distinguished dramatist, Mr. Laurence Housman. I should like to read the relevant passages of it to the House:
Will the following facts help you in your proposal for the abolition of the Censorship on Plays? In 1901 my Nativity play 'Bethlehem' was refused a licence, the Censor saying, quite untruthfully, he had' no power to licence a play containing scriptural characters.' Ten years later, without any alteration of the law or any alteration of the play, it was given a licence, but I had no remedy for the loss which the Censorship had caused me. In 1910 my historical play 'Pains and Penalties' was to have been produced at the opening of a new London theatre.
—and for the information of the House I would say that the play concerned the trial of Queen Caroline, the Consort of George IV—
It was censored and I was refused any information as to what alteration in the play would secure a licence. Ten years later I was informed that a licence would be granted if I would remove two sentences, two historically true statements of Queen Caroline.
I will read those statements. The first is:
If I ever committed adultery it was when I married the husband of Mrs. Fitzherbert.
The second is:
Heirs male of the last generation have not been a conspicuous success.
Mr. Housman continues:
That last sentence has since been passed by the Censor when I transferred it to one of my 'Victoria Regina' plays.
For the information, again, of the House, I might say that Mr. Housman has written a number of one act plays on the subject of Queen Victoria and that some of these were strung together and made into a long play. Mr. Housman says:
In 1921 I began writing these plays and in the course of their publication submitted them to the Lord Chamberlain's office for a performing licence. I paid the necessary fees but the licences were refused. In 1936 owing to the personal intervention of a very high personage, a licence was granted to nine of them. The dealings of the Censorship with my plays up to date have been that 36 of them have been censored, and from 20 of these the Censorship has now been withdrawn. In every case 1 had to pay the Censor's fees for the refusal of a licence and, when it is granted, I have to pay him another fee for the recovery of his senses. The arbitrary powers (and his misuse of them) which the present law for the licensing of plays allows, has robbed me of many thousands of pounds, and I have no legal remedy against it. Since the copyright of plays expires within a comparatively short time after the author's death, it is extremely unfair that such undefined power should be in the hands of the Licenser of Plays to deprive an author of his emoluments while his rights last. It may be a lifelong deprivation. Even if the Government refuses to abolish the censorship, it should surely agree to limit these powers to destroy an author's property.
That is Mr. Laurence Housman on the position.
I am afraid I have detained the House for an inordinate length of time and I shall leave it, therefore to the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot), who is to second this Bill, to explain the very simple legal Clauses which it contains. But before I sit down I should like to pay a very warm tribute to my hon. Friend and usually opponent, the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy). He has worked indefatigably on behalf of this Bill, and during my recent absence through influenza he carried the main bulk of the burden. After all, a coalition can achieve very useful work when the parties to it have one end in view and pursue that end selflessly and without regard to fundamental political differences.
Finally, I would appeal to hon. Members in all parts of the House not to be led aside by exaggerated ex parte statements, by needless fears or by prejudice, from breaking this one last chain upon the freedom of words. It is laughable to suggest that chaos in the industry and an unleashing of impropriety will be the result of this Bill. The true result of this Bill will be to bring order into what is at present a chaotic position and, so far from unleashing impropriety, impropriety in itself will receive a natural, inevitable and proper check which it lacks at present—the honest corrective of public opinion, while it will encourage to the theatre some writers of distinction who today are diverted from it because of this condition of In objectionable, long obsolete and never necessary censorship.
I regard it as a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) and to support the Second Reading of this Bill. I cannot speak with anything like the same knowledge or skill as the hon. Gentleman used in his eloquent contribution. I have not the association with the theatre which is possessed by him and by others who have sponsored this Bill, but I feel that it is a Bill which concerns not only playwrights, actors and those directly interested in the theatre. It also concerns the public and it concerns a principle which all, or almost all, of us in this House are eager to protect and to extend. This is a non-party Measure, and I should have thought that it should be almost a non-controversial Measure.
The hon. Member for Ashford referred to Charles II and he appealed to Cavalier traditions. I am in arch a non-controversial mood that I do not even mean to have any quarrel with him about Charles II. If he appeals to the traditions of the Cavaliers, then I appeal to the traditions of the Roundheads and to the principles for which Cromwell fought at Marston Moor, for which John Milton wrote in "Areopagitica" and which Admiral Blake and so many other sons of the West Country carried triumphant across the Seven Seas. I believe that all these— Cavaliers and Roundheads, Tories, Socialists and Liberals—ought to unite in this cause. I should have thought the only objection to the Bill on grounds of principle might come from the Communist Party. I very much hope that we are not to see the Home Secretary, when he gives the Government view on this matter, occupying the position of a philosophical fellow-traveller.
I come to some of the details of the Bill. Perhaps the easiest way in which I can deal with them is to take the objections to the Bill which have been proposed by the theatre managers, and to consider how those objections are met by the Bill itself. It has already been stressed, and I am sure that everyone will understand it, that the theatre managers are not speaking for the theatre; they are only speaking for themselves. However, they have a right to have their views considered. Some hon. Gentlemen may have received a letter on this subject from the Theatre National Committee. I propose to go through some of the objections which they have put forward against this Bill. Their first reason against the desirability of this Bill is that they say:
In our opinion the Lord Chamberlain, through his office, has always carried out his duties with broadmindedness and erudition …
and I would emphasise that word "always" They say:
…and the system has worked most satisfactorily and expeditiously, resulting in benefit both to playwrights and to the provider of public entertainment.
I do not think I need say much on that general principle, because it has already been dealt with by the hon. Member for Ashford better than I could deal with it. Certainly, the playwrights do not agree with that claim, and that is the whole principle we are debating today. The second objection of the theatre managers is:
In the event of the abolition of the present censorship, our members feel that they would ultimately be at the mercy of unilateral action by different bodies in various parts of the country, such as county or local authorities, watch committees, the police, or even a common informer, whose views on artistic matters are invariably divergent; a situation which would inevitably lead to much confusion and even chaos in the arrangement of theatrical tours.
Under such circumstances, the booking of a consecutive tour throughout the country would be impossible.
I do not think that objection is valid and I do not think that those who make the objection can really have studied the Bill. There are ample safeguards against those possibilities and dangers provided in Clauses 2, 3 and 5. In Clause 2 provision is made whereby the terms on
which licences may be refused to theatres are most narrowly and precisely stated. In Clause 3 there is ample provision for a right of appeal. In Clause 5 there is a special protection against frivolous prosecution. That Clause is based on die Newspaper Act of 1888. The Clause is taken almost indentically from that Act. That Act has protected the newspapers from such frivolous types of prosecution by the provision that no criminal prosecution can be commenced without the order of a judge in chambers. If it has worked in the case of newspapers, there is no reason why it should not work in the case of the theatre.
As for the charge of the theatre managers that there would be a danger of action from the police or a common informer, they would only be open to such attack if they were in fact breaking the common law of England. It is our view that the common law of England is the best protection for common decency. As for the claim that the whole of the theatre business will be disorganised by this change and that they will not be able to make extended theatre bookings, I would point out that theatre managers in the United States of America somehow manage to make extended theatre bookings even though they do not have the benefit of a Lord Chamberlain. In fact, in some respects—I do not say in all—censorship as it operates in the United States is very much fairer, at any rate to many authors. There were plays like "Desire under the Elms" by Eugene O'Neill and "Green Pastures" which were allowed to be performed in the United States but were banned for a long period in this country.
There is not a shred of evidence to suggest that the absence of such a prior stamp as the Lord Chamberlain gives to a play in England, has prevented extended bookings in America. There is not a shred of evidence that the local communities in this country would behave in any less enlightened way than people in America. In any case, in the Bill there are elaborate safeguards against the dangers to which the theatre managers refer.
The third charge of the theatre managers is:
A play licensed by the Lord Chamberlain acquires a certain hall-mark which indicates
that it has received authoritative approval and that it contains nothing to which a reasonable unbiased person can object.
That is true. But it depends, of course, on the meaning of the word "hall-mark." The Lord Chamberlain's approval gives a kind of hall-mark. There was a hallmark bestowed on "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" and "Felicity Jasmine" and many other plays to which I could refer. If anybody asks why the hall-mark of the Lord Chamberlain was given to such plays as that, I cannot answer, the Home Secretary cannot answer, and nobody can answer except the Lord Chamberlain himself and he need not tell anybody. The hall-mark is the whim of the Lord Chamberlain, and whims may change according to the holder of the office. They may even change in the same Lord Chamberlain as he grows a bit older. I should have thought that there would be no controversy about the simple view we state, that we prefer the laws of England administered by persons who do not make the law themselves. We prefer those laws to the whims of any individual, whether he be the Archangel Gabriel or even the Archangel Michael.
Therefore, we hope that the Government will support us in this view, because there is full protection under the common law of England against blasphemy, profanity, libel, treason, sedition, obscenity and the rest. Those laws can provide the protection. They can provide protection very much better than the system now operated of a secret irresponsible tribunal composed of one man who is empowered with rights of life or death over the career of an author. The third objection of the theatre managers—that a hall-mark is given by the Lord Chamberlain—does not hold any water at all.
The fourth objection of the managers is that they think the local authorities might stir up trouble and might try to get Private Bills through the House of Commons to ensure rights for themselves over authors and theatres that would interfere with the freedom of displaying different plays. Theoretically, that is true, and it is not possible for us to guard against what Parliament in the future may do, but it is a fantastic proposition to suggest that the author and those who put on a play have better protection under the Lord Chamberlain than under the procedure of a Private Bill, under which a Debate would have to take place and the matter be brought before the House of Commons. In other words, the theatre managers say that they will get better protection and help from the Lord Chamberlain than they would from the wise precautions taken by this Parliament.
There is a further and final objection by the theatre managers that, if this Bill was passed—and this is a kind of threat which they are trying to hold over us and the authors—they would have to set up, or might have to set up, some kind of Board of Theatre Censors on something like the same lines as the British Board of Film Censors. I do not propose to comment on the British Board of Film Censors, although I think something could be said by way of criticism in certain respects. It is, however, very dubious whether the managers would be able to set up any such form of censorship, even if they wanted to. Films differ very much from plays. The person who makes a film sells it to the company distributing it, but the author of a play has to lease it to someone prepared to produce it, and there is the likelihood that if the managers formed together to impose a censorship they might be held guilty of a conspiracy or an attempt to interfere with plays on which the livelihood of the author depends. If they claim that they should have that power, I do not agree.
Those are the reasons which have led to the opposition to this Bill and I suggest that they are trumpery reasons. The real reasons for the objections on the part of the managers were presented very much better than the managers themselves have presented them over 40 years ago by Mr. George Bernard Shaw. I do not think anybody should apologise for referring, as the hon. Gentleman who moved the Bill has done, and as no doubt many other hon. Members will do, to Mr. Bernard Shaw, because what he has said still remains the most brilliant statement of anything which has ever been said on this subject. He described in language very much better than that of the theatre managers the exact case which they have submitted. This is what he said:
A refusal to license does not hurt him (the manager), because, he can produce another play; it is the author who suffers. The granting of a licence practically places him above
the law; for though it may be legally possible to prosecute a licensed play, nobody ever dreams of doing it. The really responsible person, the Lord Chamberlain, could not be put into the dock; and the manager could not decently be convicted when he could produce in his defence a certificate from the chief officer of the King's Household that the play was a proper one.
The censorship then provides the manager, at the negligible premium of two guineas per play, with an effective insurance against the author getting him into trouble, and the complete relief from all conscientious responsibility for the character of the entertainment at his theatre. Under such circumstances, managers would be more than human if they did not regard the censorship as their most valuable privilege. This is the simple explanation of the rally of managers and their associations to the defence of the censorship, of their reiterated resolutions of confidence in the Lord Chamberlain, of their presentation of plate, and generally, of their enthusiastic contentment with the present system, all in such startling contrast to the denunciations of the censorship by the authors. It also explains why the managerial witnesses who have least to fear from the Censor were the most reluctant in his defence, whilst those whose practice it is to strain his indulgence to the utmost were almost rapturous in his praise.
That is the case for the managers, and it is a case which could not be supported by any hon. Gentleman in this House who is concerned with the welfare of the theatre or the welfare of public morals in this country. It is right that we should refer to Mr. Shaw, who has brought more fame to this country and more glory to British literature and letters than all the theatre managers of the last 40 years, good and bad, put together, and yet Mr. Shaw himself might have been put out of business at the very beginning of his career. It is stated in Mr. Frank Harris's book on Shaw that the operations of the Lord Chamberlain almost wrecked his career at that time. The hon. Gentleman has referred to Congreve. Henry Fielding was driven out of the theatre, and it might well have been that Shaw himself might have been prevented from starting on his career by the operations of the Lord Chamberlain. How indelible a crime it would have been, but that, in fact, is what almost happened to the author of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" It was banned in this country, taken across the Atlantic, advertised as a play which was pornographic and had been banned in this country, and, over there, great crowds gathered in New York to see it. The police were called out, and the manager of the theatre and the whole cast were taken to court. The
judge said he would have to postpone the case for a week until he had "read this play by this blackguard," and he looked forward to the task with horror and loathing. Later, he turned up at the court, said he had read the play and could not see anything wrong with it.
That is what happened in New York, but the British public had to wait 30 years before they were able to see that play. Is there anybody in this country today, whatever differences of opinion, politically or on anything else, they may have with Shaw who would dare accuse him of sensuality or indecency? Indeed, Frank Harris says that the naughty bits in his plays are so harmless that they could not even get a showing at a benefit performance for Girl Guides. Yet Shaw was prevented from producing that play by the action of the Lord Chamberlain.
How can anyone defend that state of affairs? But numerous other examples could be given. This is not a dead issue. It still goes on. There has been the play, in which I think perhaps the Home Secretary himself would be interested, and perhaps he has even seen it, called "Pick-up Girl." This play had been banned, but her Majesty Queen Mary who saw it, said it was a brilliant play. It was only by accident that she was able to see it, because the censor had banned it. It was only an accident that a Lady-in-Waiting was present at a private showing of the play and informed Queen Mary that she ought to see it. Queen Mary did see it and said it was a wonderful play. Then the Lord Chamberlain also commended the play. Is this the protection and the bulwark of liberty for the theatre and the author? Can this system be described as a great bulwark of liberty for the protection of the liberties of this country when a play is allowed to be shown only because by accident a Lady-in-Waiting and Queen Mary were able to see it at a private showing? This is really an absurd situation, and I do not know whether the Home Secretary is proposing in any way to defend it, but I hope he will give this Bill his enthusiastic support.
It is not a matter of considering those plays whose heads have been cut off by the actions of the Lord Chamberlain's guillotine. It is not only a matter of those plays. We must also consider the plays killed in the womb. Authors have been driven out of the theatre. There is no
more speculative enterprise than that of someone who wants to write plays and try to make his way in the world by that means. Why should we further burden that enterprise with all these kinds of hazards, absurdities and anomalies. Indeed, the injustice of this situation is intolerable, and I would like to quote one further statement from Mr. Bernard Shaw because it shows something of the passionate hatred which he and other authors very properly feel against this system.
But a playwright's livelihood, his reputation, and his inspiration and mission are at the personal mercy of the Censor. The two do not stand, as the criminal and the judge stand, in the presence of a law that binds them both equally, and was made by neither of them, but by the deliberate collective wisdom of the community. The only law that affects them is the Act of 1843, which empowers one of them to do absolutely and finally what he likes with the other's work. And when it is remembered that the slave in this case is the man whose profession is that of Eschylus and Euripides, of Shakes-pear and Goethe, of Tolstoy and Ibsen, and the master the holder of a party appointment which by the nature of its duties practically excludes the possibility of its acceptance by serious statesman or great lawyer, it will be seen that the playwrights are justified in reproaching the framers of that Act for having failed not only to appreciate the immense importance of the theatre as a most powerful instrument for teaching the nation how and what to think and feel, but even to conceive that those who make their living by the theatre are normal human beings with the common rights of English citizens.
I cannot imagine any right hon. Member on the Front Bench not agreeing with such a statement as that. When I read the names of those associated with this profession, and think of the services they have rendered us, I am not daunted in pressing for this Bill even by the knowledge that it is going to be opposed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien).
I do not want to go into detail about Clause 4 because that is a Clause which I think could be better discussed on the Committee stage. There is a misprint in the Clause; I believe "the preceding 10 years" should be "the preceding 25 years," but it is based on the copyright procedure and the copyright law which has prevailed in other cases. No doubt there will be a discussion on this Clause which guards against a number of the dangers which it is suggested should be considered and might involve difficulties. I think it better that it should be discussed on what I hope will be the Committee stage when the House has voted for the Bill.
In conclusion I would only say that this is an issue which touches the roots of freedom, and that this is a moment at which we should be particularly interested in such an issue. These are cruel times in which we live. Freedom is being suppressed in one land and another, and perhaps the most obvious symbol and example of that suppression are not the prisons of Buchenwald and Saxenhausen, and the slave camps of Siberia. It is not the bodies of the men in such camps which the dictators fear; it is the words they seek to speak and the thoughts they strive to utter. The most evil thing in the world today is censorship which divides nation from nation and people from people on a scale not previously conceived possible.
Happily, we in this country do not suffer from such tyranny. But it would be a splendid thing if, at this moment, we were to show how scrupulous we are in the protection of this freedom, if we were to take steps today to wipe away this absurdity which restricts the freedom of the author and denies the public lull access to new ideas. It would be a splendid thing if at this time, when new and more barbarous forces are being unleashed upon the world, we took steps to enlarge the Empire of the human mind and to widen the territory where heresy and inspiration can bring new life to the people. I hope that in view of these considerations the Government will give friendly attention to this bill and that they will not be niggardly in their approach to it. They and the House of Commons have the opportunity today to assist an act of liberation for a profession whose proudest glories are more associated with the name of England than with any other country in the world.
I beg to move to leave out "now," and at the end of the Question to add, "upon this day six months."
The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) is to be congratulated on bringing this Measure before the House because it gives us an opportunity of assessing the system of censorship that exists today. He and I have so much in common in matters connected with the entertainment industry that I feel like apologising to him for having to move the rejection of the Bill. But he, of all people, knows very well that I appreciate how strongly he himself feels on this particular subject. I am very glad that he disclosed that his greatest great grandmother was Nell Gwyn. Now I know the source of his seductive charm, and his spirit of rebellion against conventional authority. Nevertheless, we must get back to the Bill and to its motives, and all the rhetoric and inflammatory non-conformity just uttered by my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) does not, I am afraid, take us very far. I prefer to follow the mover of the Bill rather than the ill-informed and rather flowery statements of my hon. Friend.
The hon. Member for Ashford said that the Bill is synonymous with freedom, that he and his colleagues are concerned with the freedom of words. If there is any country in the world today that can claim the greatest freedom for words, whether oral or written, it is Great Britain. To suggest that this censorship is an impediment to freedom of words is simply to talk rubbish. Let us get right down to the real meat of the subject. I sat waiting for a long litany, for a long series of grievances from the authors; I waited patiently and with interest for the complaints, the statements, and the cases on which this Bill is based. But what have we heard? We have heard a very interesting historical survey, and how authors of 50 or 100 years ago suffered under the canopy of Victorian respectability. We have heard all that. Very interesting! But we have not heard. with the exception of three cases, of any real grievance against the Lord Chamberlain's office of today or within the last 20 or 25 years.
What are the facts? During the last 25 years, over 20,000 plays have been passed by the Lord Chamberlain. Of that 20,000, 250 or 255 have been rejected—a little over 1 per cent. Does that sound like the denial of freedom? Does that sound as if authors were committed to the Tower, as if they were living in concentration camps? After all, are not certain books banned? Does not the Home Secretary, from time to time, have occasion to intervene in regard to literature?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman can reduce playwriting to percentages. Take the 255 plays which were banned by the censor. Perhaps a great playwright had his heart broken; perhaps a masterpiece was buried in the archives of the Lord Chamberlain's office. How can the hon. Gentleman say that the banning of 255 plays means nothing? It may have meant everything.
I did not say it meant nothing; I was trying to bring this matter into perspective. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport made a general statement regarding freedom, and has brought in tyranny and all the rest of it. Surely we must give credit where credit is due. The Lord Chamberlain's office in our generation has exercised considerable perspicacity, tolerance, sympathy and understanding. Let us give credit for that. The Lord Chamberlain has passed 20,000 plays and, for reasons about which we can controvert, has rejected a little over 1 per cent. of the total number which have been submitted. That, surely, is fair comment.
Perhaps it might be as well if at this stage I said that the Home Secretary does not intervene in the question of books. Anyone can proceed to a magistrate's court and complain that a certain book is indecent and improper. That is, in fact, how it happens. Within the last month a Catholic Guild in Birmingham has brought two books to the notice of the Birmingham stipendiary magistrate and he has inflicted a fine. There is no Government department in this country which deals with the censorship of books, although on occasion, of course, the Director of Public Prosecutions has his attention drawn to a particular book by the police, not through the Home Office but directly, and he may order that a prosecution should take place.
I am much obliged for the statement which my right hon. Friend has made.
Most of what we have heard so far deals with the distant past. Let us deal with the position as it is today. As evidence of the Lord Chamberlain's broadmindedness and breadth of vision, my hon. Friend the Member for Devon-port has said that such plays as "The Respectable Prostitute" have been passed. In addition, there are plays such as "No Orchids for Miss Blandish," plays dealing with artificial insemination in the human field, about venereal diseases, and the more difficult aspect of the consequences of those diseases, and so on. These plays have been passed in our own time, within recent years. Can it be said that the Lord Chamberlain's office is motivated by intolerance or narrowmindedness? Certainly not.—[An HON. MEMBER: "Caprice."]—Hon. Members may say it is caprice, but in this case let us apply the logic of the argument to other fields of activity. We might as well say that it is caprice to give licences to motorists or to give licences for the sale of alcohol. It is the law. If hon. Members want censorship to be applied by law, to take this case a little further, a law should be passed cementing and consolidating the censorship, whether it is to be left in the hands of the Lord Chamberlain or any other body.
Let me deal with another point which the hon. Member made. He referred to the British Theatre Conference which was held a year or two ago. That conference, as he knows, was attended by more people unconnected with the theatre than by people from the theatre. Every kind of crank from outside the theatre that could be dug up was brought into it as a delegate. It was not an official conference in the sense of being a delegated conference. The sponsors of that conference made it clear in the recital of its objects that no particular organisation was in any way committed to policy; in fact, it was a sort of consultative arrangement. One is entitled to comment on the fact that representatives of the organisation which I represent were present. I myself was not present. The recommendations of that conference, whether they were good or bad, were not adopted by my organisation; neither were they adopted by many other organisations represented at that conference. Remarkably enough, none of the owning or managerial interests were represented at the conference.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) has made rather a serious charge against the promoters of the British Theatre Conference, and has said in so many words that a number of those who attended had nothing to do with the theatre and that the conference in calling itself the British Theatre Conference was, therefore, by implication, spurious. Would my hon. Friend be prepared to give us the names of 12, six or even three people who attended that conference in an official capacity and who had nothing to do with the theatre?
Yes, I will certainly send to my hon. Friend the information he requires.
Reference has been made to the United States. Let us keel the following facts in mind concerning censorship in the United States. The United States is a very large country, and a system of censorship by a body like the Lord Chamberlain's Department operating in New York could hardly deal with issues relating to public taste, etc., in the State of Washington, in the far North-West, in California and so on. It is not possible to compare one country with another in this regard. If we do away with the system of censorship which we now have in this country for stage plays, we shall bring into existence the very state of affairs which exists in the United States. There they have hundreds, if not thousands, of societies which pester playwrights, authors, managements and so on with all kinds of objections from time to time. That happens throughout the country, as is well known. Is that what we want over here? It is because there is nothing similar in the United States that the police, local authorities and all sorts of other organisations can step in at any time and bring disorder and chaos.
However, let us try to see who supports and who does not support this demand. I said that we were waiting for a litany of complaints and woes. We have not had it. We have had a historical survey which has been very interesting. We cannot ignore the fact that if this Bill were really wanted, the people who would have the most benefit from it would be the managements who have to present plays. There are seven societies dealing with the management of theatres in this country. There is the Society of West End Theatre Managers, in which there are a number of well-respected men. There are a number of people with whom we can disagree on all questions concerning the theatre—that I will frankly concede—but among the Society of West End Theatre Managers are men who have given their lives to the profession as a self less interest rather than as a profit-making interest. There are not very many, but there are some. That Society feels that this Bill is undesirable and unnecessary. Then we have the Entertainment Protection Association which represents the theatres of suburban London and the Home Counties. That society feels that its interests are better safeguarded under this existing system than by its abolition.
Let me refer to Scotland. It cannot be suggested that in Scotland they do tomorrow what England does today. There is the Society of Theatre Managers, who are at one with the London managers in this matter. In other words, Scotland is quite satisfied with the present system. Then we have the representative of the provincial theatres—the Theatrical Managers Association, which represents the larger drama houses in the provinces. They have a London slant on this matter and in any other matter theatrical. They are an independent body. They agree that the Lord Chamberlain's system of censorship is satisfactory and that it ought not to be abolished, because the alernatives would probably be more unsatisfactory than the present system. Then we have the Association of Touring and Producing Managers, the interests that are concerned with the touring shows that leave London and play in our provincial theatres. That association is an independent body and its members feel that they are satisfied with the present system. We have another society remotely concerned with this matter—the Association of Circus Proprietors, who, from time to time, put on certain plays and sketches in their organisations. We have seven distinct, independent, theatrical bodies who are unanimous on this matter, and it is about the only issue on which they are unanimous.
Never in the many years of my association with the theatre have I seen such unanimity as I have seen on this particular issue from practical men of experience. They are men who are themselves of the theatre; not vultures and profit-grabbing people, but men of high character, some of them dramatists themselves, who have spent their lives in advocating freedom of expression and freedom on the stage. They are unanimous on the risks involved by the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain's censorship.
Let me now turn to the question of touring. If we abolish the system of censorship, we are bound to create an alternative method. If we think that by taking this line there will be no kind of censorship in the future, I say that that is a fallacy. It is the greatest mistake. We shall throw on to the local authorities the responsibility for deciding this matter themselves. A play may be acceptable in Birmingham but it may not be acceptable in Edinburgh; it may be acceptable in Leeds but not in Liverpool, and so on. When we come to apply Clause 4 of the Bill, we shall find that the local authorities will view the issues quite differently one from the other. We shall have appeals and demands to this House for local Bills empowering local authorities to take action in this matter, and each local authority will look at the issue from its own point of view. The City of Bath will have a different slant on this particular issue of censorship and of what is good taste or not, from the Borough of Rochdale. We shall have Harrogate with different views on culture and artistry from those held in Leeds. The last state will be worse than the first. We shall bring chaos into the country on this matter and into the industry.
It is said that there can be an appeal. An unscrupulous writer or an unscrupulous manager could connive to put on a very objectionable show if this Bill goes through—a show with a scurrilous and obscene theme, or containing something which is highly distasteful and against the traditions of our country before the proposed law could operate and an application could be made to a judge in Chambers, even providing that a judge in Chambers agreed to give his decision, and, in the meantime, money could be scooped up as a result of the show. All kinds of undesirable practices could exist, and the whole purpose of the Clause dealing with appeals could be defeated. In fact, the Bill itself is dangerous in many respects.
With regard to the other side of the industry, we have four trade unions concerned with the theatre. We have those of the variety artists, the actors, the musicians, and my own organisation representing the stage technicians and other workers. We have a Federation of Theatre Unions. I happen to be the president of that body. One would have imagined that on a matter such as this dealing with the interests of the theatre and its future that some kind of consultations would have been opened with us officially as a Federation, not through this vague and vacuous body the British Theatres Conference, but directly with the unions themselves. I know of no such approaches having been made to us collectively for our views; not that we are entitled to be consulted, but one would have thought that prudence would dictate that such consultations should take place. However, they have not, and that indicates that there is no great demand on the side of the actors, artists, musicians or technicians for this particular reform.
There is one other aspect to which I wish to draw attention. If the hon. Member wanted to press for this Bill, and it was a matter of life and death, surely one or more of the unions could have approached the Trades Union Congress with a view to their putting the matter on the Agenda of the T.U.C. for the consideration by the workers of this country of a subject which is concerned with the freedom of the people.
Feeling may be strongly in favour of the Bill, but there has been no decision on policy on this matter made by any particular union or combination of unions officially assembled.
There is one other point to which I should like to refer. That is the question of the "hall-mark" referred to by the hon. Member for Devonport. There is no question about it that the licence of the Lori Chamberlain does give, if not a guarantee, a certain assurance to local authorities in the provinces that a particular play or plays can meet all reasonable objections from their own citizens—objections against profanity, libel, sedition, obscenity and all the rest of it. To take that away, would throw on them the responsibility of providing a substitute. At present the managers of theatres, who are responsible under their licences for the proper conduct of the theatres, are safeguarded. They have a defence as a whole in the fact that a play is licensed by the Lord Chamberlain. If they are wrongfully accused, not by the common law, but by resolution of local bodies, protests, etc., they can refer to the fact that a particular play has been passed for approval by the Lord Chamberlain, and that is a protection against the appeals of busybodies and cranks and even against local political influence.
For those who want more robust entertainment there are, of course, the theatre clubs. These clubs very often put over plays that are subsequently passed by the Lord Chamberlain and in that sense they perform an excellent function in that they enable the general public to take difficult themes step by step.
In conclusion I wish to urge upon the House that this matter should be looked at not so much in retrospect, which is what we have beer doing, but in prospect. The variety stage has no censorship. The Lord Chamberlain's office does not extend its jurisdiction to the variety or vaudeville stage, but, notwithstanding that, the variety artists themselves have set up their own Variety Entertainments Council to apply a voluntary censorship upon its own people; a censorship upon objectionable gags, stories, and dress or the absence of it. They feel that without some kind of censorship, the dignity and prestige of their own calling would be diminished, and they have created, therefore, this voluntary body.
The cinema side is not subject to censorship by the Lord Chamberlain. As we all know, the film side of the industry has set up its own voluntary body, the British Board of Film Censors. There are such things in life as good taste and delicacy. An audience is a cross-section of the community and does not represent one class, nor does it represent people who come from the same occupation. In an audience there are sensitive people with susceptibilities as well as the more raucous elements. There are people sitting in the stalls or in the galleries who have very tough skins and stomachs. The managers of the industry have to cater for all these people, and they want in self-defence to have some kind of censorship. They want some kind of medium to eliminate the more extreme elements. To abolish censorship will create far worse difficulties than those which the promoters of this Bill are seeking to eradicate. It is not a case of freedom of words or tyrannical control over the authors, or something that is incompatible with our traditions.
The overwhelming mass of the interests on both sides of the industry, as well as the general public who go to the theatres, do not want this Bill. Members have not been lobbied about this matter in the course of the past few weeks or years. One would imagine from the speeches in favour of this Bill that there was public fury against the tyranny of the Lord Chamberlain's office and the lack of freedom on the stage. We have more freedom on the stage than any other country,. with the possible exception of the French stage—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] At any rate we have a freedom that can compare with that of any other country. We have a freedom which is satisfactory to our people, and a freedom which they want. This Bill is both unnecessary and undesirable. To say the least, it is premature. I have much pleasure in moving its postponement so that regard can be paid to the practical difficulties which would arise if it becomes law.
I did not say that or mean that. The unions have not been asked their opinion by the sponsors of this Bill. There has been no official consultation with the unions at all. There has been no demand at all from the unions for any modifications of the system of stage censorship.
Since the hon. Member appears to speak with some knowledge of theatre managers, is it a fact that theatre managers say they will be incapable of deciding what sort of plays should be put on for public performances if censorship is removed?
No, Sir. They do not say that. It would bring about a chaotic situation. I have already named seven organisations representing theatrical interests in this country. I leave to the imagination of the hon. Member the chaotic position that would arise with 500 to 600 independent cinema managements.
I beg to second the Amendment.
I am not speaking as a theatrical manager or as a playwright. I have no connection with the theatre world but speak only as a member of the theatre-going public. We have only two questions to decide. The first question is whether censorship of plays is necessary to the country, and the second is whether the Lord Chamberlain is the best person to do the censorship. I have no hesitation in saying that censorship of plays is necessary. If we compare our stage with the theatre in France, it will be found that the quality and wit of our plays are infinitely superior—I am not speaking of the quality of production which does not enter into it. If there is no censorship, except that of the police as in France, one is wearied by the same kind of wit and gesture on the same kind of subject. We have the impropriety of the head of the State being guyed daily, as happens in France. I consider it is highly undesirable each time one goes to the lighter theatre in France to find the same person or same office being made fun of or guyed.
The religious aspect is also highly important. We should not allow the Deity to be portrayed on the stage, and we should not allow certain sects to be made fun of in public. I look upon myself not as a prude but as a sophisticated person who has lived for some time and has had a good many years of experience in this House. I was able to go to the Gate Theatre, that excellent institution run by Norman Marshall, which was bombed during the war, where I saw a play about Mrs. Eddy. Not being a Christian Scientist I had one of the most entertaining evenings in my life. But had I been a Christian Scientist, that play would have wounded me to a great degree and given me deep offence. I think that the Lord Chamberlain was right in not allowing that play about Mrs. Eddy. The same applies to Plymouth Brethren and Jehovah Witnesses. It is most desirable that there should be a censorship on religious themes so as not to give offence. There are also certain sex questions which should not be enacted in public on the stage. Those of us here do not suffer spiritual or moral setback by seeing that sort of subject because we have reached an age when we can take it, but for the young it is certainly a moral setback. There are also political matters which should not be produced on the stage. I do not think there should be any violent praise of Communism at the present time; I think the Censor would be right in stopping it.
I believe that the Lord Chamberlain is the right person to act as Censor. Many people think that he is an elderly Peer who, during the odd moments when he is not using his blue pencil on garden party lists, uses it on the plays that are put before him. They do not realise that he has working under him understudies who read plays, and who can consult with a committee which consists of persons of very advanced thought. They can always be called upon. The Lord Chamberlain is in a position to go to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Foreign Secretary for advice. He is above party politics; he has no axe to grind.
I believe that the Lord Chamberlain—and, of course, I mean his play readers and the advisory committee—has advanced with the times. I am sure that in the Victorian days of hypocrisy and smug morality they were right not to allow "Ghosts" and "Mrs. Warren's Profession." to be performed. It would have offended many people; it would have upset the thought of the time. People were not ready for those plays; they were ready only for "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." There was an outcry over "Mrs. Ebbsmith," who, I believe, lost her temper and burnt the Bible in a coke stove in a corner of the stage. There was some outcry as well over "The Second Mrs. Tanqueray." to which young people were not allowed to go. The Lord Chamberlain udged the public mind rightly at that time.
The late Lord Chamberlain, Lord Cromer, did a great deal of good for the English stage. He rightly judged the public mind on a lot of things which would not have been allowed before the First World War. He allowed expressions to be used and subjects to be discussed, and advanced with the public thought of the times. I instance "The Hidden Years" and a recent play called "Breach of Marriage," which were allowed to be performed. Last year the Lord Chamberlain considered 1,200 plays, and only six were banned. It may be that alterations were made to others, but it is not for me to say whether those six banned plays were masterpieces, although I think that it is doubtful.
No, but judging by what I know of the work of the Lord Chamberlain's office—I have never been inside it, but I know members of the Advisory Committee, and the trouble they take over their work—I would say that those plays were barred with good reason. I believe that the censorship of plays is necessary in this country. I also believe that the Lord Chamberlain's office is the suitable office to do it. I should much regret it if censorship of plays were abolished or taken away from the Lord Chamberlain, and I shall have pleasure in voting against the Bill.
If the Home Secretary intends to oppose the Bill, I feel he must do so with a certain amount of regret after listening to the two opening speeches in this Debate. But if those opening speeches did not convince him of our case, then the two speeches which followed must have convinced him. If I had come here in an undecided mind nothing would have stopped me from voting for the Bill after hearing the speeches of the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Waterloo (Captain Bullock).
My hon. and gallant Friend, for whom I have great respect and whose comradeship and friendship I enjoy, moved back the calendar with a vengeance. As he was speaking I thought I was listening to my grandfather. The sentiments he expressed were those which made the Victorian stage so inept and unworthy of this great people. Ibsen and Shaw were striving to be heard, yet there was an idea that people must be protected from thought and controversy—a most astonishing idea. As to the French stage being lacking in wit or effectiveness as compared with ours, I am not so sure. There are men in France who are writing very well and with the intellectual freedom which belongs to that country and has belonged to it for so many generations.
My hon. and gallant Friend said there was a play about Mrs. Eddy which he saw and enjoyed, but that he was glad it was not licensed for public production. Mrs. Eddy was a woman who was within her rights in putting before the world a new philosophy, combining the spiritual and the physical. If there ever was a subject for a play it was Mrs. Eddy. What matters if some feelings would be hurt? Such a play would be one for thought, and the stage is a great debating chamber. My hon. and gallant Friend was afraid that someone might write about Jehovah's Witnesses. Why? He said he would not like to see a play in praise of Communism. As a dramatic critic, if such a play was well written I would urge everybody to see it. I went to the Unity Theatre about a year ago and saw there a revue written in the interests of Communists in this country—very wisely they went to private enterprise to get their composers and writers. That revue left the Tory Party nothing but its eyes to weep with, and it was rather hard on the Labour Party as well. It was such good fun, and so witty, that I did what I could to ensure that the theatre was packed for months afterwards.
Are we to say to our playwrights, "You must not offend Aunt Fanny or Jehovah's Witnesses, or Christian Scientists; you must not tread on the toes of the Presbyterians; you must not laugh at the subject of divinity." Then there is Jerome K. Jerome's play "The Passing of the Third Floor Back"—an adaptation of the Christ theme. Would that be ruled out? This is going to reduce the theatre to a maiden aunt's charade, where nobody is allowed to see anything except what is pleasant. I am very sorry that my hon. and gallant Friend put that case.
I tried to follow the arguments of the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien). He has perhaps more association with the films than he has with the theatre. He said that 20,000 plays were passed within a certain length of time, and that only 280 or something like that were rejected. Would we call that tyranny, he asks. Surely tyranny is always exerted on a minority. That is the meaning of the word "tyranny." That is the very thing we hear from Moscow. We heard in the House yesterday of a lady who is visiting us at the present time and who says, "We have freedom in Russia and those who oppose the Government are sent to gaol where they are taught the error of their ways." The hon. Gentleman's is the same process of thought, though not carried to the same degree.
The hon. Member for West Nottingham says there would be chaos if this Bill were passed. Is there chaos in the United States? There is no censorship there, but while that is so, it has also to be recognised that on the whole the United States stage is cleaner than ours. Very seldom does anyone see anything on the New York stage that is offensive. That is astonishing, but it is true. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the awful possibility of a play going to Bristol and being rejected by Bath. I should be delighted to see that. I should like to think that the public would take the theatre so seriously that they would even have a civil war between one town supporting something and one town rejecting it. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that is chaos, let me tell him what he knows better than I do—if Bath rejects a play the advertisement will be worth a very great deal, because others will book it where they would never have booked it before. The hon. Gentleman must not treat this House as if we were a collection of innocents, because he knows that instead of that being chaos it would be liveliness and life. It would bring new health to the theatre.
Another point where the hon. Gentleman went wrong is that the theatre is not a mass medium in the same sense as the cinema is. The film industry produces a picture and it has to be shown in almost every city of various countries. There are towns where there is only the cinema, and there is no possibility of selection. The theatre puts on a play to a limited public, for it is not a mass medium. The play is generally only produced at that theatre. It is reviewed by the critics—and this is a point which my lion. and gallant Friend the Member for Waterloo might think about—and they say what the play is like. To some extent the critics are the first line of censorship. If the play is salacious, dirty, and if its treatment is unworthy of the theatre, the critics will say so, and the management will be arraigned by public opinion. I want to repeat the point that the theatre is essentially a selective medium. The people know what kind of play they are going to see, because it has been reviewed and discussed.
What in effect does censorship do? I agree that the Lord Chamberlain has shown increasing broad-mindedness. In fact, later I shall adopt that as part of my argument that he should now cease to exist as a censor of plays. In the past what was the basic attitude of the Censor? Vice, according to the Lord Chamberlain, must only be shown in its unattractive or forbidden form. That has been the basis of censorship in the theatre ever since it was established, and no play is allowed which wants to show the result of vice carried right through from one generation to another, because the Lord Chamberlain says that that is not a fit subject for the public to see.
Gradually public opinion has overtaken the censorship, but "Ghosts" should have been shown the day there was a management ready to put it on. Ignorance in those days of the Victorian era of what happened on account of venereal disease was one reason why the play should have been put on at once. It is ridiculous that it should have been held up for one single day. I am now going to say something which might be considered a little bit delicate, but it should be said. There is a play called "Oscar Wilde" It was written by two Englishmen and was played in New York some years ago. It is being played in Australia. Here we only allow it in a tiny, experimental theatre. It deals with a degrading subject and also with a case that will be discussed for hundreds of years. That case is probably the most terrible example of a conflict between the citizen and the artist. Wilde will live as an immortal for two reasons—for his vice and his genius.
The play "Oscar Wilde" takes the tragedy of that man's life and, like all other great tragedies in the theatre it has an ennobling and cleansing influence. The old Greek school knew that tragedy cleanses and ennobles. The play "Oscar Wilde" should be shown to the public. It deals with a forbidden subject, but do we ban the books on Oscar Wilde? The answer is "No." Reading can be less selective and more salacious than seeing this play. Again I say, it should be shown. The public should be trusted, and it will have I repeat, an ennobling and cleansing influence. If a modern Euripides came to the Lord Chamberlain and brought the story of "Oedipus Rex" for permission to produce it in London, the Censor would say "No," and another great play would be lost to the world. The more one studies this question of censorship the more utterly absurd it becomes. I do not want to hold up the House longer on this subject although it is very close to my heart. I have received several telegrams this week, all of which are against this Bill. They have all come from theatrical managements who do not want the censorship abolished. I am quite uninfluenced by those telegrams.
There comes a moment in the affairs of people, and of nations very often, when, if people will not accept freedom, it must be imposed upon them. When a nation is ready for freedom it must be imposed upon it, even if its people still ask for the manacles to hide the fact that their hands are trembling. I sometimes even think that we shall have to impose freedom on this country again after the next election, for a lot of people seem to prefer the other thing. I realise, however, that we must not now enter that field of controversy. The theatrical profession should be ashamed of itself for objecting to the confidence which this House, or a section of it at any rate, is prepared to put in them. That they should say, "No, we are afraid. We want to know where we are at" is a great pity.
We owe a great deal to the two hon. Members who have raised this matter today. They will probably pay the price—that is, they will probably not succeed—but they will have made some impression on that mass of cotton wool which is opposing us; but of all men in this House I cannot conceive the Home Secretary moving the rejection of the Bill.
I meant not moving, but supporting, its rejection. Obviously, the right hon. Gentleman is not spending the day here just for fun. I think he is going to speak. This is a Private Member's Bill and the Whips are not on; and if I know anything about the right hon. Gentleman he is with us in spirit, and I hope that we shall meet in the Lobby in the cause of intellectual freedom.
I wish only to make a very short contribution to the Debate. The hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy) invited me to come with an open mind. I have, indeed, done that, because when I came into the House I was not clear how I should vote in the Lobby, although I had tried to think a little about both sides of this question. I did not have the opportunity of hearing the opening speech of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith), but I heard a good deal of the speech of the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) in seconding the Bill, and I have listened to the other speeches. I shall not, however, have the opportunity of hearing the hon. Member for Eton and Slough before I speak. If I did, I should not have an opportunity of speaking at all as, I understand, he is winding up the Debate.
As I have listened to the Debate I have tried to feel that we are discussing an essentially practical question and not purely an academic question. There are times when those of us who believe strongly in a theory have to make some sacrifice in the interest of practical convenience and ordinary, effective working. We are all in this House believers in freedom. All of us, I suppose, believe that on certain occasions there must be some limitations on that freedom. The theatre itself is a great factor in the social life of this country and it is of enormous importance how it is conducted and whether it is an influence for good or for evil.
We have been told that in a certain period of years the Lord Chamberlain has licensed 98½ per cent. of the plays submitted to him and has refused licences to the rest. It is well that we should look at the positive side of this question. After all, the Lord Chamberlain exists to license plays, not to ban them, and it is an important fact that he should have licensed such a very large proportion of the plays submitted to him. Supposing he has, in fact, refused licences in the case of, say, 1½per cent. I take it that even the promoters of the Bill would assume that out of that 1½per cent. some were rightly refused, so that the injustice, if there is any injustice, resolves itself into a very small proportion.
The hon. Member for Devonport made great play with the refusal of a licence to "Mrs. Warren's Profession," but it is true, surely, as I think the hon. and gallant Member for Waterloo (Captain Bullock) said, that that is evidence of the progress, not only of public opinion, but of the Lord Chamberlain's practice. After all, if we have advanced from the banning of "Mrs. Warren's Profession" to the licensing of "No Orchids for Miss Blandish" we cannot feel that any great narrowness or intolerance remains.
I have been impressed by the arguments of the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) on the practical side of this question. It obviously is a convenience for theatre managers all over the country to have the imprimatur of the Lord Chamberlain and to know that if they put on a certain play it is almost certain not to be challenged by any local authority. That is particularly important for touring companies, who take a play around a number of different localities.
There is just one point that weighs with me. One dislikes censorship of any kind. On the other hand, one must be conscious of the evils of completely unlicensed freedom. As the hon. and gallant Member for Waterloo has said, theatre audiences are not composed simply of Members of the House of Commons. They are composed very largely, and very rightly, of young people of an impressionable age, whom one wants to guard to some extent against certain influences which the theatre might exert. In regard to a certain portion of the British public, I am afraid it is true to say that pornography pays; that if only some critic can be got to label a play as "daring," its fortune is made. We can have plays which are too daring, and which come a little too near to the pornographic. I cannot believe that any injustice will be done to art or to the public who go to the theatre if certain plays which fall into that category are stopped before they get to the stage at all.
Does the hon. Member agree that there should be a privileged group of people who, in fact, see these plays because they can pay a little extra money and join a club?
My reference to art is a concession to the hon. Member. I thought he was claiming that there was a danger of some damage being done to art through plays being kept from the stage. With regard to the question by the senior Member of the Combined English Universities (Mr. K. Lindsay), I am not concerned with what groups of private people do. We are discussing plays which are put on a public stage, advertised, and to which the public are attracted, and I feel that if possible some standard should be set below which our stage should not fall. If, as it seems to me so far, the Lord Chamberlain is the best person, and his office is the best machinery, to achieve that end, then I am prepared to vote against the Bill unless some stronger reasons can be shown than have yet been shown against the working of this system.
I realise that I shall be hearing the hon. Gentleman presently, and I shall be here whatever happens, but for the moment, having come with an open mind, I am bound to confess that the arguments I have heard from both sides of the House incline me to go into the Lobby against the Bill.
The chief qualification I have for speaking in this House seems always to be that I can claim lack of expertness on the subject under discussion. Perhaps, however, I might tell the House the views of someone who, as an ordinary member of the public, except that he is a Member of this House, might have a contribution of some small value to make.
The argument put forward by the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) about the theatrical profession, or part of it, not being in favour of the Bill because managements will not know where they stand if the Lord Chamberlain's cachet is removed, seems to me to be a singularly unattractive one. It seems to suggest that we should maintain the censorship largely on the ground that commercial managements are little interested in intelligence or boldness of thought, but are largely concerned not to have any trouble from anybody such as local authorities on the question of indecency, and that they prefer to have a censorship, however bad, provided that it guarantees them against trouble.
All the thoughtful, intelligent and forward-looking people connected with the theatre, of course, resent the Lord Chamberlain's censorship and support this Bill. Nothing has been added to the arguments against the Bill by the suggestion that commercially-minded managements, whose main interests are profit and a quiet life, might oppose the Bill. It must be a sad argument, which is so repetitively put before the House, that the Lord Chamberlain is not so bad a fellow and only mutilates a percentage of plays and bans altogether quite an insignificant minority, six in 1,200 or 12 in 600, I am not sure of the figures. The seconder of the rejection of the Bill seemed to think that an argument for censorship. It seems to be senseless that it should be held as a virtue that only a slice of advanced thought is being suppressed and little bits of advanced thought in hundreds of other plays are mutilated and this general childishness of outlook is maintained.
I think the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) is right in insisting that we should not speak as though Members have recently emerged from a girls' school, because one knows that obscenity which has venerableness behind it, is passed every day. One can put things on the stage provided they have been sanctioned in some way by long usage, whereas if they were put on in a modern play they would be banned instanter by the Lord Chamberlain. This censorship operates against honesty of thought and not against salaciousness and suggestiveness. It seems hypocritical for hon. Members to support censorship of plays on the ground that some may have in them things to which the Lord Chamberlain objects and which might offend the sus- ceptibility of Jehovah's Witnesses or maiden ladies from Kensington.
No, I mentioned the hon. Member for Wood Green as I thought he was supporting the idea that venerable salaciousness can go through, but any modern idea comes under the Lord Chamberlain's ban. It is quite hypocritical for hon. Members who oppose the Bill to tolerate all sorts of things which are really obscene and against which an intelligent censorship might operate, although I do not advocate it—in other fields, in the cinema, advertising and on bookstalls. It is only the stage which is to be subjected to this sort of censorship. Probably it is a hangover from the days when strolling players were regarded as an evil influence on the community and more impressionable members of the community were locked up when they came into the vicinity, in case something might be said or done to shock their impressionable minds. It seems odd that plays should be subjected to this autocratic censorship, controlled by nobody, while all other forms of entertainment and publication in other respects can get away with things which perhaps could be regarded as harmful.
The argument advanced by my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) bewildered me at first when he said that the Bill was premature. I only began to understand him when the seconder of the rejection pointed out that past experience shows that if one waits long enough, any of the Lord Chamberlain's sins will be remedied by the effluxion of time. So it appears that the Bill is premature in that we need not worry terribly if anything worth hearing today is being suppressed, because in 1990 it will be the accepted thing and even Members who will vote against this Measure, will be quoting it against a Private Member's Bill similar to this one in 1990. It seems to me that somebody ought to justify this censorship with one serious argument palatable to an adult who is not under any obligation to adopt any hypocritical posture. I can honestly say that so far in the whole Debate I have not heard a single argument advanced by those who oppose this Measure which can be accepted as a serious argument for the retention of this illogical censorship.
Like all hon. Members, I, too, approach this Bill with quite an open mind, or at any rate as open a mind as ever I am likely to have on the matter. I must say I have been quite convinced. I listened to the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) and he completely succeeded in convincing me that I must vote for this Bill. Up to then, I might have had a little doubt.
I am sorry to say I do not know a great deal about the theatre, but perhaps that is an advantage in considering this Bill, because, when considering individual plays, each one applies different standards to some extent or another as to whether a play should be banned or not. Everyone is constituted differently and has different ideas. I should not venture to put forward my own views on this matter, but what I object to and what I think I am entitled to object to, is that the Lord Chamberlain does venture to put his own views forward and from his view there is no appeal and no reason need be given why he has adopted a particular attitude. That seems, prima facie, to be completely wrong and I think it amazing that an author who writes a book and a play, in the case of the play, should have to go to the Lord Chamberlain for a licence, but in the case of the book can sell it at once without any licence at all.
Clearly the author of the book sets his book at the bar of public opinion and I should have thought there was no greater criterion than that. If his book offends, there are plenty of ways in which it can be dealt with. It seems extraordinary that the same person who writes a play should first have to seek a licence. It is quite wrong to think that any question of morality enters into it, because the author who has been refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain can, with perfect impunity, put his play on, provided he does not put it on for hire. I amused myself a short time ago in looking at the
Act of 1843 and I noticed that one of the charming sections in it was entitled
What shall be Evidence of acting for Hire
and, in the quaint language of the time, it says:
…That in every Case in which any Money or other Reward shall be taken or charged directly or indirectly, or in which the Purchase of any Article is male a Condition for the Admission of any Person into any Theatre"—
I do not know if that is done now—
to see any Stage Flay, and also in every Case in which any Stage Play shall be acted or presented in any House, Room, or Place in which distilled or fermented Excisable Liquor shall be sold, every Actor therein shall be deemed to be acting for Hire.
But provided the manager is careful not to put his play on in a house, room or place in which distilled or fermented excisable liquor is bought or sold, and does not sell anything to or take any money from persons who are admitted, he can put on a play. There is nothing to prevent him from doing so, and no proceedings can be taken against him except under the common law. Surely we cannot import into the matter any question of morality? If morality is the criterion, he should not be allowed to put the play on at all, whether is be a house, room or place where excisable or fermented liquor is sold or not, and he could easily be prevented from doing so.
I have listened to the arguments against this Bill. The argument put forward by the hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien), which I sugpect had its origin on the breasts of some theatrical managers struck me as—I hesitate to use the word—almost the most dishonest argument of all, the argument that theatrical managers welcome the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain. After hearing the speech of the hon. Gentleman, I have no hesitation in coming to the conclusion that what that really amounts to is that the theatrical manager is prepared to put his conscience into the pocket of the Lord Chamberlain, and he is guile happy so long as it is there, because h feels that he cannot be dealt with no matter what sort of play he puts on.
The theatrical manager has no higher or lower views than other people. I am sure that, like any other person, if he thought he could make a great deal of money out of a play which privately he thought was rather "near the knuckle" or was rather of a type to which objection might be taken by a number of people, he would not hesitate to put it on, provided that he thought he was protected. His anxiety about the Lord Chamberlain is to get that hallmark of protection so that he can have his play. It is the purest nonsense that any theatrical manager should try to import any moral arguments into this question. It seems to me that these are matters which really go beyond the theatre. It is of the greatest importance in the case of the theatre or any other activity that censorship should be reduced to a minimum. I can see no reason why it should not be abolished where it is possible to do so, and I should have thought that this was a case in which this particular form of censorship was obnoxious and unpleasant and should be abolished.
I hope that the Home Secretary has been impressed by the arguments on both sides. I feel that he cannot fail to be impressed particularly by the wealth of argument in favour of this Bill. Intellectually and in every other way all the arguments have been on the side of the Bill and in favour of the dissolution of the censorship which at present obtains. The principal objection to the Bill has come from my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien). His main objection appeared to be that there was so small a number of plays banned by the Lord Chamberlain that it really did not matter very much. That sounds like the time-honoured excuse which has been quoted over and over again about an error being a very small one. But it is an error just the same and any kind of ban—a ban upon freedom of speech and freedom of expression—is abhorrent to a great number of us.
To say that while 20,000 plays were licensed only 250 had been banned, or to say, as the hon. and gallant Member for Waterloo (Captain Bullock) said, that out of 1,200 plays only six had been refused a licence, gives us little satisfaction, when we see the quality of some of the 1,200 and are ignorant of what the quality of the six may be. It may well be that some of the six have been plays which compare with Ibsen, Shaw, O'Neill, Congreve, Wycherley or Shakespeare. Until we have seen them it is impossible to commend or condemn the Lord Chamberlain for his action. If the number of plays banned was so small surely the office of the Lord Chamberlain in that particular connection is really redundant and unnecessary, and there might be a little saving of manpower among play-readers if that office were done away with entirely.
I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham, who is after all a responsible trade union leader, did not speak on behalf of the trade unions connected with the theatrical industry. They are very strong and large unions. Yet he deliberately dissociated himself from them in his expression of personal opinion. On the other hand, he spoke for the managers, which seems to be a strange form of industrial collaboration, which I much regret to see. I happen to have something to do with theatrical managers and to know that they are not unanimous in the views expressed in the letter which has been sent out to all hon. Members setting out their objections to this Bill. I know for certain that a large number of managers would like to see the censorship of plays completely abolished.
These societies of theatrical managers—seven of them were quoted this morning—exist not for the regulation of plays or the presentation of enlightenment or art on the stage but for the provision of entertainment which will bring in profits. Those societies exist purely for a commercial and not an artistic motive. They have little authority on the artistic side. An examination of some of the entertainments for which they have been responsible in the West End and elsewhere in the last few years would show that their appreciation of art had been very slight. In many cases even their appreciation of what constitutes box office appeal is very slight.
My hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham referred to the variety stage and commended the practice there as something that might well be followed on what we call the legitimate or straight stage. I am not quite sure that we should like to see that. Those of us who occasionally see a variety performance know that there is quite a lot to make us feel embarrased and even to raise a blush. Vulgarity, grossness and crudity exist in the variety world which according to my hon. Friend has a voluntary censorship. If that is the result of a voluntary censorship there, I am sorry that he should ask why we should not have the same in the theatre if the Lord Chamberlain's office were done away with. I think that voluntary censorship would exist to a much better extent among playwrights and managers when supported by the public and the critics, than under anything of the kind that at present exists. My hon. Friend further said that variety and films have created censorships of their own while the stage has its own censorship under the Lord Chamberlain. The difference is that the stage has not its own censorship; it is imposed upon the stage by an obsolete and illogical Act which is now very much out of date.
To pass from the arguments of my hon. Friend to the position which we should all like to see, I suggest that the best censorship of all is the censorship which public opinion itself imposes, and the censorship of the critics, who are a very enlightened, erudite, reasonable, sensible body of men and women. I have the greatest respect for the dramatic critics of this country. Most of them are well-informed, and they help to keep the public informed as to the merits of the various plays and films presented. The majority of people in this country like to see what the critics have to say before they go to see a show at any time. That is why Monday night is usually a bad night in any theatre; people are waiting to see what the first night will be like, particularly in a repertory show. That criticism is in the hands of enlightened and witty critics like the hon. Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter), whose criticism we all respect and whose politics we all deplore. We could only wish that he would stick to dramatic criticism. With such witty and informed critics as the hon. Member, the public have a true guide as to which plays would benefit them and entertain them, which plays are worth going to see and which are worth the expenditure of money and time in visiting.
The standard of criticism has developed not merely among critics, but among the public generally in accordance with the general standards of education. Plays which were palatable a little time ago are unpalatable now, and vice versa, not because of any action taken by the Lord Chamberlain but because general public opinion has become enlightened and more educated. Things become more worthwhile or less worth-while and managements, therefore, either put on plays or refrain from putting them on because they say "It would not go today; the public would not stand for it." We have absurdities today in the way in which some plays are licensed and some are not. If there is to be any standard of censorship at all I should like to see a censorship of literary quality and not of morality or topicality; that is, if there is to be any censorship at all. But we all have different standards and it would be impracticable, just as impracticable as keeping on the present censorship.
If I have any criticism to make against this Bill it is that i
These things are illogical, but there is much in connection with our entertainment world which is illogical. I am glad to see that in this small Bill there is an attempt to put right some of the obsolete and illogical things which have existed for so long. I would commend the Bill to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who I know is a lover of freedom and of tolerance, in the hope that he will agree that the Government should back this further step towards freedom of expression.
I am bound to say I am a little disappointed at the smallness of the attendance in the House today on the discussion of what I regard as a very important matter. I should have thought that those who are interested in what the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) called the "freedom of words" might have expected from this Assembly, which, after all, has played a great part in securing freedom of words, far more hon. Members to be interested and to express their views on this subject.
This is a very important subject. I am not speaking at the moment in any endeavour to close the Debate. In fact, if I could stimulate one, two or more hon. Members to speak on one side or the other as a result of what I say this afternoon I should not be disappointed at all. My hon. Friend the Member for the Devonport Division of Plymouth (Mr. Foot) read a quotation from Mr. Shaw in which there appeared to me to be one very glaring misstatement of fact. It said that the Lord Chamberlain was a party appointment. That is not so. The Lord Chamberlain is an appointment in the Royal Household for which the parties are not responsible. The present Lord Chamberlain served under two previous Administrations at least and he would not go out of office if the Government went out of office. My hon. Friend the Vice-Chamberlain is a Government appointment, acts for successive Governments as a Government Whip and changes with the Government, but the Lord Chamberlain is not a party appointment. As the quotation was read and there might be a misunderstanding about it, I think it just as well to correct it so that there should be no misunderstanding.
The hon. Member for Ashford, who moved the Second Reading of the Bill with his usual wit and erudition, is advancing in this matter because, while he alluded to what he did in 1944, he did not say what his proposition then was.
Prior to his speech on the Motion for the Adjournment the hon. Member for Ashford asked a Question in the House. He spoke on 20th December, but he asked a Question on 6th December. This was the Question which
he addressed in 1944 to the then Prime Minister:
Whether he will consider making provision whereby the censorship of plays may be transferred to a Minister of the Crown responsible to Parliament."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1944; Vol. 406, c. 525.]
May I say that, of all the censorships, that would be the worst, for I cannot imagine any Minister being placed in the position of coming to this Box to defend his standard of taste and morals with regard to performances on the stage.
I think the hon. Member has very wisely abandoned that position and he now comes in front of us today with this Bill. It is, of course, a very different proposition from the one which he made in 1944. He did not say very much about the Bill. He adopted the somewhat easier target of shooting at the Lord Chamberlain and left to my hon. Friend the Member for the Devonport Division the exposition of the Bill. After all, it is the Bill which we are considering and we have to have regard to what the Bill would establish, although it may well be part of the case that the present system is so anomalous that something ought to be substituted for it, if we can find something which is better.
I do not intend to defend the existing position on the ground of logic. But there are many things that work in the curious British Constitution which cannot be defended on the ground of logic. Hon. Members may say that they exist. Precisely; they do exist. This House has shown in those cases that it can proceed to a logical conclusion which will be very acceptable to all but three or four people who are now in the Chamber. There are many anomalies in the British Constitution. I do not go so far as to say, as some people do, that they are to be defended because they are anomalies. I admit that this is an anomaly. As a son of the same college as John Milton, I recognise the difficulties in which I am placed in taking an impartial view in this Debate. But hon. Members have not really explained to the House exactly what are the provisions of their Bill. The account they have allowed to get into the minds of hon. Members as to what Clause 5 really means is not in fact the real situation.
The hon. Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) alleged that I was responsible for the censorship of books. That is not so. I explained to the House at the time that what happens is that any person can go to any magistrates' court and complain about a book. The offending passages are read, the magistrate, or the magistrates, if it is in an area where there is no stipendiary, examine the book, hear the evidence on both sides and come to a conclusion. Any citizen can take that action. But that is not the position under the Bill, although the exact difference has not been pointed out. If those Catholic young ladies in Birmingham who were responsible for two recent prosecutions respecting a book had been operating under this Bill, they could not have gone to the magistrate. They would have had to go to a judge in chambers and get him to consent to the prosecution. A prosecution under the common law in this case has to go through a preliminary stage and the ordinary citizen who is offended cannot take action himself.
Yes, but I am not at all sure that it is a very good example to quote. I am endeavouring to show to the House that there is not the easy access to the common law, with regard to indecency and other matters, that has been put into the mind of the House by the way in which the discussion has proceeded.
I want to make it clear that the ordinary citizen who objects can only get his objection before the courts if he can persuade a judge in chambers that there is a prima facie case that an offence has been committed. I do not want to say anything in criticism of the judges. They frequently criticise me. I do not desire to reciprocate in any way, but I am bound to point out that there might be difficulties in the way of getting a prosecution according to the individual opinions held by judges on certain matters. I do not think I need say more about that. There is not the ease of access to the magistrates' court which I think has been imagined by Members who listened to the early part of the Debate
The history of this matter was given fairly completely by the hon. Member for Ashford. I do not think that there is much that I need add to what he said. Since the Act of 1843, four Parliamentary Committees have considered this matter. There were Select Committees of this House in 1853, 1866 and 1892, all of whom reported that no change in the law was necessary. Then in 1909 there was a Joint Select Committee of both Houses of Parliament. It was not, as the hon. Member said, a Select Committee of this House. It was a Joint Select Committee.
They examined the matter with some care and recommended that the Lord Chamberlain should remain the licenser of plays and it would be his duty to license any play submitted to him unless he considered that there might reasonably be one or more of seven objections to the play. It might be indecent; it might contain offensive personalities; it might represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living person or a person recently dead; it might do violence to the sentiments of religious reverence; it might be calculated to conduce to crime or vice; it might be calculated to impair Friendly relations with a foreign Power; or—and this seems to me to cover a very wide range in view of some of my recent difficulties—it might be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.
But if a person did not get his licence, he would still be able to produce his play and, as far as I can make out from the Report, there would be complete access to the court if the play was objected to. It should be recognised that some of these seven considerations—every one of which is a point that ought to be borne in mind by the producer of a play—are not easily susceptible to trial by the court. The Committee of 1909 summarised that point in language which, although the quotation will be rather long, is probably sorter than I should use if I attempted to paraphrase their comment. Perhaps the House will allow me to quote. They said:
We consider that the law which prevents or punishes indecency blasphemy, and libel in printed publications would not be adequate for the control of the drama. Ideas or situations which, when described on a printed page, may work little mischief, when represented
through the human personality of actors may have a more powerful and more deleterious effect…
Scenes in a play may stimulate to vice without falling within the legal definition of indecency; they may include personalities so offensive as to be clearly improper for presentation, which yet are not punishable as libellous; they may outrage feelings of religious reverence without coming within the scope of the Blasphemy Laws; and they give occasion for demonstrations injurious to good relations between this country and Foreign Powers without coming within the purview of any law whatsoever. The performance day after day, in the presence of numbers of people, of plays containing one or other of these elements, would have cumulative effects to which the conveyance of similar ideas by print offers no analogy.
I suggest that these considerations must be borne in mind and that if we are to remove the present illogical and anomalous censorship, we should have to make quite certain that those seven reasonable objections that might be taken to certain plays should be brought within the purview of whatever court in future had to settle the matter.
May I just give the kind of feeling that I have on this matter? I have always been in favour of the Sunday opening of cinemas, and, when the matter was before the House, I spoke and voted in support of it. I have been, for 35 years, a member of an authority which has the duty of dealing with the opening of cinemas. I have supported the Sunday opening of cinemas, but I have always opposed the opening of cinemas on Good Fridays, because, although I do not share the view, there are certain religious bodies in this country which do regard Good Friday with such reverence that I do not think that I, or anyone else, ought to do anything in this free and tolerant country that would outrage very firmly held convictions on that issue. That is the kind of thing which I regard as coming within the fourth category which I read out, namely, "doing violence to the sentiments of religious reverence."
I have taken something which is quite outside this particular controversy so as not to be attempting to influence unduly the views of hon. Members on this particular matter. But I do suggest that something far more delicate in its adjustment than the law against blasphemy would be required to deal with the question of the impact of the stage on religious sentiment of the country. In the same way, I could examine the others. I do not quite know how one could place before a court the question whether something on the stage was likely to impair friendly relations with a foreign Power.
No, I did not, and the House did not, but I suggest that this matter is one that ought to be considered with regard to the extent to which complete freedom should be allowed inside the theatre. The Government recognise that this is a matter on which the House and private Members themselves will hold views that are quite irrespective of their party affiliations. It is not a matter on which the Government feel that they ought to say to the House that a vote should be given one way or the other. After all, that in itself would be an attempt to impose in some ways a censorship on the House on this very delicate matter.
Therefore, I have drawn the attention of the House to the difficulties that the Bill will create. I suggest that they are at least as great as the difficulties which the present system creates, and I say quite frankly that I could not consent to the idea that a prosecution could only be undertaken if the consent of a judge in chambers had been obtained. There must be, as there certainly has been, the assumption behind the discussion that the common law should be readily invoked to deal with anything that offends in this matter.
Will my right hon. Friend allow me? I am not at all clear as to what is the point which he is making Is it that, in some way, no action can be taken without the consent of a High Court judge, or that, in other circumstances, a person would have to have the consent of a justice of the peace? Is it the case that he cannot launch a prosecution in any event without somebody's permission?
After all, if he takes an information to a magistrate's court, it is infinitely easier for him to launch a prosecution than if he has to go to a judge in chambers. As I understand it, and no doubt hon. and learned Gentlemen will correct me if I am wrong, he will probably have to make the application in London. Once we admit—and this is the point that has to be answered—that he shall have such access, we get the great disadvantage of varying standards set in different parts of the country. I imagine that the idea of putting in the judge in chambers is partly to avoid getting different standards in different parts of the country, but we cannot, at the same time, put in the judge in chambers and place upon the common law the excessive reliance that has been placed upon it in this Debate.
That is not a very strong argument. There is no particular desire to nationalise taste, if there is any difference in taste between one place and another.
I have myself tried to avoid dealing with what I would call trade objections, because I think this is a matter that ought to be discussed in the House largely on the basis of intellectual freedom than of a minimum of orders that ensure that reasonable people shall not be offended. But, once we have varying standards, we are faced with the difficulty that the touring company may have to ask what is the standard set by the chief constable or the watch committee or some private association of citizens in the particular towns which the touring company may visit. The hon. Gentleman has said that it was not a very strong argument. I suggest that it is one of the practical arguments that have to be considered in the working out of this scheme.
I am quite sure that we all desire that there shall be the widest possible range of intellectual freedom in the country, but I am equally sure that we do not desire to have anything that shall unnecessarily cause offence to any citizens who are prepared to approach these matters in a tolerant spirit. Therefore, I hope that the House, in considering this Measure, will realise that, even if it is given a Second Reading today, it will have to face in Committee a number of points that I have indicated, which I think are fundamental even to the case that was put up by the promoters of the Bill.
We must be assured that in giving liberty we do not assure a licentiousness that may very well have repercussions and lead to something far more drastic than anything that the present censorship has done. The Government are neutral on the matter, and, so far as I am concerned, I regretfully think that, if the Bill goes to a Division, those difficulties which I have pointed out are so great that I should not be justified in voting for the Bill, but that is a personal opinion
I agree with much that has been said by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I certainly agree with him that the censorship, even of the Lord Chamberlain's office, is very much preferable to any political censorship, because political censorship is not only a grave abuse in itself, but leads, ultimately, as recent experiences on the Continent have proved, to the death of good literature and art. I also agree with him that the hon. Members who sponsored the Bill did not deal much with the details of the Bill itself. The hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith), not unnaturally, treated the House as a sort of theatre, and kindly gave us a first-class entertainment, but he really did not argue the Bill at all. Similarly my hon. Friend the Member for Devon-port (Mr. Foot) was, as usual, eloquent and persuasive, rhetorically illogical and irrelevant, and wholly delightful. He could not have impressed me less or pleased me more than he did this morning.
I also agree with my right hon. Friend when he points out that the supporters of this Bill have not given any indication as to what is to take the place of the Lord Chamberlain's office in the event of its disappearance. Censorship might be irksome and inconvenient; it is sometimes mistaken and exasperating. But all laws, and all controls and regulations are often irksome, inconvenient, mistaken and exasperating, though most people will agree that they are necessary in our complex society. We can abolish the Lord Chamberlain's office tomorrow, but we must not deceive ourselves into believing that we shall thereby automatically abolish censorship. I am afraid that if we did abolish it, we might get something in its place more obnoxious that we have at the moment. There is the danger that we might get bodies, unofficial, perhaps, like local watch committees, so-called purity leagues, or groups of old women and goose-necked cranks who are less capable of judging the stage than the Lord Chamberlain.
Nevertheless, in spite of the weaknesses of the Bill, I feel I must support it, and, in the event of a Division, I would certainly follow the hon. Member for Ashford and my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport into the Lobby for the following rather simple reasons. The Home Secretary made the point—and rather a good one too—that nothing has been said about what would take the place of the office of the Lord Chamberlain. But that is not a valid argument, because, if we are agreed that a thing is bad, and have the opportunity of abolishing it, we should abolish it, even though we do not know at this precise moment what is going to take its place.
The second simple reason which compels me to support the Bill is that, no matter what may be said in support of censorship—and I believe that a great deal can be said in support of censorship; in many cases it is a very necessary thing —I do not feel that anything can be said in favour of a censorship which is exercised by one or two individuals in an arbitrary manner, who publish their judgments and do not have to give the reasons for so publishing them. No one can possibly support that kind of censorship.
It is rather astonishing that the hon. Member for South Belfast (Mr. Gage), who is a native of Dublin, should choose his examples so unfortunately, because, in the South of Ireland, there is no censorship of stage plays. This Bill, which I understand he supports, and about which he just spoke in his usual eloquent and persuasive manner, would be quite unnecessary in Eire.
I should hate to arrogate to myself the duties of Mr. Speaker, but I must inform the hon. Gentleman that we are not discussing the censorship of books. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I prefer to keep to the matter before the House. At the moment, we are discussing the censorship of plays which, I repeat, is non-existent in Eire. [An HON. MEMBER: "What about the Index?"] I should like to say a word about the Index Expurgatorious. It is probably the most well-known and most savagely attacked censorship in the world, but the Congregation of the Holy Office which publishes the Index, does not consist only of one or two individuals whose names are unknown to the general public. It is a very large body of theological experts, which arrives at a decision after a long period of judgment and which, in every case, publishes in detail the reasons why this or that book is forbidden. It is very different from the office of the Lord Chamberlain.
The hon. Gentleman realises, of course, that the Index is an enormous asset to authors, and that they love to get their books on to it because there is such an enormous sale for them afterwards?
That, of course, is not a reflection on the Congregation of the Holy Office, but on the rather low taste of certain groups of readers, just as someone said this afternoon that everyone ran to see certain plays in America precisely because they had been banned here. Surely, the hon. Gentleman is not going to support the taste of those people?
What he has to do with it I do not know. Shaw was never placed on the Index in his life; he was placed on the Lord Chamberlain's list in England, but not on the Index Expurgatorius by the people in Rome. If there is any one person who has dominated this Debate more than anyone else, it is this gentleman. He is not here, though he is a politician. Although he was never a Member of this House, I think he was at one time a member of a local council. The arguments of his which have been read to the House have been most compelling, because Shaw, the greatest of all living dramatists, is following a tradition of a country which has given so many great dramatists to English literature—Sheridan, Farquahar, Oscar Wilde, J. M. Synge—whose anniversary occurs today—Sean O'Casey, and others. I am quite certain that all those people would support this Bill and, that being so, who am I to oppose it?
When the Home Secretary sat down, I breathed a sigh of relief because I thought he had put in very apt phrases a great many of my own views on this matter. But there are one or two smaller points I wish to introduce into this Debate because they are important. I cannot help recalling the first time that I met a playwright. On that occasion, she was lamenting the fact that she had just had a play turned down by the Lord Chamberlain on the ground that it was improper in the third act, and she could not see why. I hope that lady has now had the matter explained to her because I think it important that we should all bear in mind today that the Lord Chamberlain's office is always prepared to discuss plays with the writers of the plays. It is very important that if we are to have that form of censorship at all, authors should be able to discuss with the people rejecting their works the reasons for such rejection.
I believe that one of the questions we have to decide in this House is whether or not it is ever right to restrict freedom. As was pointed out in the extract from the report which the Home Secretary read this morning, there is a very great deal of difference between the written word and the performed drama. I believe that any form of censorship on writing is abhorrent to us all. I believe that even if writing does get down to the depths of pornography, it is still better that it should be quite unfettered rather than that we should begin to limit it. I believe that very strongly indeed, and I shall always oppose any form of censorship on writing.
What is essential, however, is we should make up our minds whether we can give that amount of freedom to the drama. I believe we cannot, because, as that report stated, there are many ways in which the action can be worse than the words which are spoken, and the way in which they are spoken, the way in which the sentence is spoken, the innuendo, the inflexion of the voice and the look on the face.
I agree. I thought my hon. Friend might make that intervention. The great proof of the value of the Lord Chamberlain's office lies in the fact that we seldom have any troubles of that kind. I should say that it is because the Lord Chamberlain's office has exercised a very valuable discretion, and has exercised its authority wisely and well in the past, that we so seldom get any objections on the lines suggested. I appreciate that once the manuscript is passed, the Lord Chamberlain does not come into the matter. I believe it is essential that the Lord Chamberlain's office should exercise that power, and I personally believe that it has been done extremely well in the past.
I was interested in the speech of the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. G. Jeger), because he indicated that he would go a great deal further than this Bill goes. That is a matter about which one should be very cautious. I am most anxious that we should leave well alone if it really is well, and we should be very cautious that when we do something we do not lead on to other things which are far removed from what the reformers would wish. I believe that if we take away censorship altogether there is a great danger that we shall inject into the theatre a political antagonism which does not exist at the moment, and I hope never will.
I think there is a great danger that we may have people with violent opinions making sure that certain plays get produced. They may be able to arrange it with the manager who may be of the same political feeling. As soon as that happens we shall have exactly the same thing happening from the opposite point of view. Then the theatre will be a chamber where the most violent political dramas are put on, and as a result we shall simply increase all the watch committees and various other societies which have been mentioned during the Debate, and the activities of those people will be increased. We shall make the life of the theatre quite intolerable, and as a result we shall have to impose a far stricter censorship than we have had in the past.
I am still bearing in mind the point which I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford, that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Surely, the record has shown that we have not had the state of affairs I have described. I maintain that we have not had it very largely because the Lord Chamberlain's office has exercised these powers wisely.
The Lord Chamberlain's office would not dream of imposing any restriction on a play because it was political. That factor would not come into the purview of that office.
The Home Secretary referred to the question of foreign relations being affected. My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Waterloo (Captain Bullock) mentioned that point in his speech. It is undesirable that we should have a wave of Communist productions and I maintain that if we do have a wave of Communist productions, we shall have a wave of productions deliberately directed against Communism. As soon as we have that, the theatre will become an intolerable place for writers, authors, actors and everybody concerned. I am most anxious that that should not happen.
Would not the hon. and gallant Gentleman agree that from the point of view of foreign relations, it would be possible under the rules of the present censorship to have pro-Communist plays in this country but not anti-Communist plays?
I believe that there are degrees in everything, and it is the question of degree that I am talking about.
The Lord Chamberlain's office certainly has the power to ask for the amendment of a play which it is believed will provoke a foreign State, and I believe it is quite right that the Lord Chamberlain should do that. We have heard this morning from the Home Secretary that the Lord Chamberlain can always go to the Foreign Office and discuss the matter with the Foreign Secretary. I am glad the right hon. Gentleman said what he did about the effort of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford in a previous Parliament, because I certainly believe that this is not a matter which should ever depend on what party is in power. I am glad that he denied what the hon. Member for Devon-port (Mr. Foot) said when he quoted from Mr. Shaw to the effect that the Lord Chamberlain's office was a political appointment.
If we are to have a completely free theatre we shall have to do one of two things. Either we shall have to disestablish the Church of England, or we shall have to cease taxing the theatre in any way. I personally believe that that will lead us into vast controversies which will cause a great deal of unnecessary upset, certainly at the present time, and I believe for a very long time in the future. Therefore, I should have thought that it was better to leave well alone, provided one is satisfied that it is well. I am satisfied that the present situation is well, and I do not want to see it upset. I sincerely believe that if this Bill ever becomes an Act, we shall be endangering the freedom of the theatre, because it is inevitable that the abuses which would at once be brought about would, in the end, call for a far more stringent form of censorship than exists today. For that reason I ask that this Bill be rejected.
As an aged dramatist, almost as old as Mr. Shaw, I hope I may say a few words. I was most reluctant to intervene in this Debate, because I do not really agree with my hon. and honoured Friends the other two dramatists who have supported this Bill. I am most reluctant to split in public, the Union, but certain things have
been said which make it my duty to say what little I know about the subject. I must say that I agree with a lot of what has been said by the Home Secretary and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Major Legge-Bourke). It seems to me that the chief supporters of this Bill have not really established the major premises of their Long Title which states that the Bill is:
to exempt the theatre from restrictions upon freedom of expression in excess of those applicable to other forms of literature.
I cannot accept that that is a proper comparison. As the poet Horace said in a work called Ars Poetica—"You must not have Medea killing her babies on the stage," whatever might be said about that unfortunate episode in a book or a newspaper. It is quite obvious why. May I put it in a crude sense? In a novel I can write: "Jane and John, intoxicated by the sparkling air, the sunshine and the sea, suddenly in the exhilaration of Spring flung off their clothes, danced about the sands and plunged into the sea." That is all right for a novel. Jane and John might have been a married couple. Even if they were not a married couple, I should not be prosecuted for writing that in a book. But if I turned that into stage direction in a stage play, the Lord Chamberlain would be most unlikely to give me a licence and if it were produced, there would probably be heavy penalties, whatever the authority, imposed upon those who produced it. Books and stage productions are not the same thing, and should be, and always will be, subject to different rules.
This is shown by Clause 4 which places upon stage production limitations which are quite alien to the production of books and newspapers. There is nothing to prevent me writing a book about the Abdication or the dramatic life of some statesman who has recently died. That has been put in, I know, to comfort people like me, who had misgivings on the point. But it shows that hon. Members who introduced this Bill are not going to exempt the stage from all limitations as they say in the Long Title.
I never saw a copy of the Bill until it came out on Tuesday. I am not complaining about that Clause. I welcome the intention of it, though, by the way, it makes no distinction between George V and Hitler. I am simply maintaining that it illustrates my point that there is a distinction between the stage and literature. I think that we have to make some distinction. Whatever may be put in a Bill, I think that we shall find that there will be some distinctive control which will apply to the theatre and which is not applicable and will not apply to books and newspapers.
If I am right, the question is: What should the control be? I have had a very long experience of the theatre, perhaps longer than most hon. Members, and I have had experience of at least two Lord Chamberlains. I have had the honour to write the words for, I think, 12 full-length musical pieces, two straight plays,—both failures—and four or five short pieces. That is, I have troubled the Lord Chamberlain about 18 times. I am disturbed to hear of the troubles and delays that have occurred to more distinguished authors than myself, like Mr. Housman and Mr. Shaw. But I have had trouble over only two lines in the thousands of words which I, trembling have taken to St. James's Palace; and neither of those two lines was mine. One was a line spoken in this House by that dear old fellow, the late Jack Jones. Lady Astor in one of her speeches had said, "I cannot understand how you men can do such awful things to your stomachs." Jack Jones came in afterwards—hon. Members may perhaps remember the contours of his stomach—and said "As for stomachs, I tell the hon. and noble Lady that I will lay my stomach against hers any day." In a play called "Big Ben," I had a character who held similar views to those of Lady Astor. When the play went to the censor, I had altered that line" to, "I will set my stomach against yours any day." That was the only line to which the Lord Chamberlain objected.
But the Lord Chamberlain is not a horrid ogre. The gentlemen in his department do not simply say, "Out with this line." They sit there and think "How can I help these people?" They are the most kind. considerate, helpful people in the world. In this case the Lord Chamberlain's department wrote and said, "We do not like the line 'I will set my stomach against yours any day,'" and suggested that the line should read, "I will bet my stomach against yours." I thought that it did not seem to make a great deal of sense, but I was touched by the courtesy and consideration of the examiners department. We kept it in. That line got a laugh every night. That is the only time that I had any trouble with them.
Now, after all, there are other objections to plays besides indecency, sedition, obscenity, blasphemy and all the rest of it. Again if I may refer to the play "Big Ben"—and the House will not think me unduly personal—that was a musical play in which there were four or five scenes in the precincts of this House. There was a musical debate in the Chamber of the House of Commons, a thing which had never been done before. Sir William Gilbert never got further than Palace Yard. Almost at the close of our rehearsals, Charles Cochran, the producer, who had been very ill and worried, said to me, as we were judging the dresses of the young ladies in the chorus, "My God, I never sent this play to the censor!" My blood ran cold. £17,000 or £15,000 had been spent on the production of that play. Mr. Speaker was not shown but the Serjeant at Arms was roughly treated. The play was at once rushed off to the Lord Chamberlain. Back it came within one or two days at the most, and the only comment was on the line about the stomach to which I have already drawn the attention of the House. I can tell hon. Members that that was a great relief to our feelings. After all, there might have been questions of Privilege and all that sort of thing.
Now, supposing there had been no Lord Chamberlain. Supposing we had started in Manchester, and the Manchester authority had heard that there were scenes in the play which brought in the Chamber of the House of Commons and that the Speaker's voice was heard and the Serjeant at Arms was involved, and all that sort of thing, they might have thought "This is a play about which we have to be rather careful. We must write to the Speaker and to the Lord Great Chamberlain, and so on." In that case, I think that we were very lucky indeed to have an authority like the Lord Chamber- lain in touch with Mr. Speaker, who had a very fair judgment of what was right, instead of having the kind of miscellaneous authorities which, as has been pointed out, we might have, if we cut this censorship away.
It is all very well to say that, "The stage must have complete freedom"; it will not have complete freedom. What form the new control would take we can cannot tell. I would rather have the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain than any voluntary censorship, such as the film censorship. The theatre people, have said that they may have to institute something like that. Whether they can do it legally I do not know. I only know that the film censor has always been a Catholic, and therefore he has always refused to allow a book of mine called "Holy Deadlock" to be filmed. There is nothing indecent in it: indeed, the whole point of it is that no adultery takes place from first to last, but because it is about divorce it cannot be done. If anyone wanted to make a stage-play about it, there would be no difficulty, I am sure, with the Lord Chamberlain.
There may be other forms of control, for Nature allows a vacuum, and if we take away the licence of the Lord Chamberlain which is not merely a hallmark but a passport throughout the whole country, you may get something much worse. Once that is taken away we shall have everyone popping up as a Censor. Local authorities will begin to think they ought to keep their eyes open. All the societies which are being kept quiet at the moment will be popping up and saying, "Is this not a case where we ought to assert ourselves?" Private citizens may start prosecutions. I am most reluctant to be hostile towards this Bill, but I am afraid of all these things. We shall have the local authorities saying, "Look here, we must get new powers." There is a grave danger of having something which is less kind, less considerate and less swift, which is a very important point. Sir Charles Cochran and his colleagues can now go to the office and say, "This is what I want to do," and the Lord Chamberlain says, "So long as you do it this way, it is all right." There is consideration, kindness and anxiousness to please, which we are unlikely to get from any other form of control that may take its place.
Reference has been made to the United States. But look what happened about the play by Sartre called "Respectful" or "Respectable Prostitute." It was licensed by the Lord Chamberlain and had a successful run at Hammersmith, and is now, I believe, successfully on tour. But what happened in the United States? There was a frightful row in that land of freedom, and such protects were made in one city that the whole tour was cancelled. Over here, under the Royal Censor, the play has been performed and is still, I believe, being successfully performed. Another great advantage is, the Lord Chamberlain being a Royal officer, we cannot have Questions in this House about his conduct. That is of course a very great advantage. The moment that goes all sorts of unsuitable things will be let loose in this House.
My goodness, we shall have Questions every day, like "Will the right hon. Gentleman get the public prosecutor to censor a play of particular obscenity by the junior Burgess for Oxford University?" I shall be asking Questions why the only three funny lines in my play have been cut out by the Birmingham City Council when in Hull they were received with honour and glory? With the greatest reluctance, because I like the Union to be together, I am opposed to this Bill. It may be that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy) may be able to persuade me to keep out of the "No" Lobby, but at the moment I am heart and soul with the Home Secretary in his opinions. I hope, therefore, that this Bill, without any prejudice to the very glorious things that have been said about freedom, will be rejected.
I must apologise for having unavoidably missed the first two speeches in support of this Bill and the first two speeches in opposition. I must also make the unusual confession that at the moment I have not finally made up my mind into which Lobby I shall go.
No. I was about to inform the House of the matters I have in mind in order that the hon. Member for Eton and Slough (Mr. Levy) may have a chance to convert me, if he has formidable reasons to give in support of his point of view. I have very little doubt that had I heard the speech of the hon. Member for Davenport (Mr. Foot) I should have heard eloquent references to "Areopigitica" and to a brilliant preface, which I have not read for many years but still remember, by Mr. Bernard Shaw. There was a time when I should have had no hesitation whatever in supporting this Measure. I think, however, that the considerations that have been put forward by the Home Secretary, almost the last of the Victorian Liberals in this House, and by the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert) are considerations of very great importance.
It is quite obvious, as was pointed out by the junior Burgess and by the Home Secretary in his reference to the report of the joint Select Committee, that there is no chance whatever for a considerable period, whether we pass this Bill or not, of giving the same complete freedom to stage performances as might be given, and in the view of most of us ought to be given, to literature. As was pointed out by the junior Burgess, Clause 4 is a complete admission of that. Clause 4 was put in for very good reasons, I have no doubt, and the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith), in a very witty interruption, explained one of them. Nevertheless, the Clause is a complete negation of the long Title of the Bill. The House should appreciate the significance of that. Whatever else happens about stage plays, there is no chance, under this Bill or any other, of stage plays having exactly the same freedom as is accorded to books and is commended in that very great work, "Areopagitica."
If some censorship is inevitable, we are driven to considering what will be the sequel to the abolition of the present system. I want the hon. Member for Eton and Slough to satisfy me that the sequel to the abolition of the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain will be something that those who accept the general argument of liberty will prefer to the existing system. I think all the evidence at the moment is that it will be a good deal worse. I am not suggesting for one moment that in the course of years the Lord Chamberlain has not made decisions which almost all Members would consider blunders. I am quite satisfied that on various occasions he has made blunders. But, on the whole, the evidence is that he is generally ahead of public opinion rather than behind it, and I include in public opinion, public opinion on those numerous important topics mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary.
In contrast to that, what has been the experience of other censorships? The censorship of films in this country was mentioned by the junior Burgess. The censorship of films in the United States which, I believe—and, again, I speak subject to correction—is a voluntary censorship imposed by the industry, very much the sort of thing which might be the sequel to this Measure, produces fantastically idiotic results. Of all the censorships on which ridicule can be poured, I cannot think of any that could really vie with the censorship of films as imposed in the United States. There are one or two arguments with which I have not been very much impressed. The question of relations with foreign Powers is, I think, one which tends to be exaggerated. The only case I can remember arising under the censorship was the ban for some time of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Mikado," which I thought to be rather ridiculous. I quote that case as a rather absurd example of censorship.
I do not wish to detain the House long, and I will summarise the argument; it is quite clear that there is no chance whatever of the same freedom for stage plays as is possible for literature. This is admitted by an express Clause in the Bill as it now stands. The question the House has to consider is whether we are better off with the censorship, such as it is, of the Lord Chamberlain, or such censorship as may be imposed if this Bill is carried into law. The extent of the evil caused by the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain is known; where he has made a blunder it has generally been a blunder which, after a few years, has been corrected. I think that the speed with which blunders are corrected is nowadays more rapid. The censorship I fear as the sequel to passing this Bill is that which has been imposed on
the cinema industry in various countries by the trade itself, and which is infinitely worse, from the point of view of every lover of freedom, than the censorship exercised by the Lord Chamberlain. Having said that, I can assure the hon. Member who is to sum up the case for the Bill that I will listen to his speech with a mind which, subject to the considerations mentioned in my speech, is still open.
I quite agree that some silly mistakes have been made by our censorship. For instance, Members may recall that some years ago there was a play called "Secrets of the Harem," about which the Turkish Embassy protested to the Lord Chamberlain. Those who were producing the play were ordered to alter the title. They did so, and it became" 'Secrets——'by the author of the banned play 'Secrets of the Harem'." That reduced the whole thing to a farce.
I listened to the speeches of the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot), and thought that theirs was a rather strange alliance. The hon. Member for Ashford spoke as if he regretted that it was not possible to produce post-Restoration plays. I may be mistaken, but I thought I detected that note of regret in his voice. It may have been due to filial piety on his part. My hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, who is known for the audacity of some of his writings and speeches, rather surpassed himself, I thought, when he claimed Puritans or Roundheads as supporters of the Bill. Most of the denunciation of the Restoration stage came from Puritan sources, and they were met with the reply, "You did not hesitate to cut off the head of the King. What right have you to protest about this?"
The hon. Member for Ashford mentioned Jeremy Collier, whose rebuke checked the excesses of Restoration plays. His protest came not from a Puritan, but from one who had the courage—I am not saying whether I agree; I am not sure that I do—to be a non-juror in the reign of William III. I thoroughly enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member, but I think we must consider what would be the situation if the Bill were passed. It would still be within the purview of local licensing authorities to attach conditions before allowing plays to be performed. The London County Council recently got into trouble because of the way in which they tried to check excesses in a play imported from America—and there have been several such undesirable imports. The Bill says that a licence can be revoked if a playhouse is run as a disorderly house. The interpretations of "disorderly house" are many. A theatre might be held to be a disorderly house if a play was put on advocating the views of Sir Oswald Mosley. There are people in this country who would see that the house was very disorderly—those who were rebuked by Members on both Front Benches earlier this week. Of course, I am well aware that the other interpretation of "disorderly house" means a brothel, but I think it would be difficult to bring proof.
What is required throughout the country is evenness of administration. The authority of which I have the honour to be a member—and in spite of the hopes of some Members opposite I still hope to be a member on 7th April—the London County Council, has striven for many years to keep clean the houses which it is its duty to license for plays. Other bodies are perhaps not so strict as the L.C.C. The words "freedom" and "liberty" have been invoked in this Debate. Let us remember the words of Madame Roland:
O liberty! liberty! how many crimes are committed in thy name!
In some place there have been varying interpretations of liberty. Much as we might disagree with censorship—and, in theory, I disagree entirely—we must consider whether abolition of censorship would not land us in worse difficulties. Because I believe it would, I completely agree with the hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), and I regret that I was not present to hear the witty and learned speech of the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert).
I think everybody connected with the theatrical profession, with the possible exception, of course, of the managers, and everybody who feels deeply on this old question of free speech will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. E. P. Smith) not only for his skill in choosing a lucky number in the Ballot, but for utilising it so profitably and presenting his case so well today. I am very gratified and encouraged by the reception which this Bill has received in this House during this Debate, particularly its principle. Such hon. Members as have expressed doubt about it have expressed their doubts mainly on one ground, namely, that we know how the censorship at present works, but we do not know how e absence of a censor will work. I shall try to face up to that problem during the course of what I have to say. The junior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris) said he agreed with this Bill in principle, but there were occasions when the practicalities of the matter had to be taken into account.
I did not say I agreed with the principle. I said that I agreed with the Hone Secretary that we had to have regard to the practical considerations and not the purely academic ones.
To me that does not seem to be a very substantial correction. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman still said what I said he said—that there were occasions when the practicalities of the matter must override what he called the theory or what I call the principle. The Home Secretary added to this proposition that there were occasions when one must b mare of logic and reason. I know that reason can indeed be dangerous, and principle can sometimes be inconvenient. But if this House were to adopt the position that it is above principle and indifferent to reason, quite clearly it would not be to very much purpose that we should continue this or any other Debate. I propose, therefore, to proceed on the assumption that the ideal of the unreasonable and unprincipled man is not uniformly held in the House and to address myself to the problem in the light of both those notions, just as though they were neither old-fashioned nor discredited.
On the question of reason, the hon. and gallant Gentleman the Member for Waterloo (Captain Bullock), who seconded the Amendment, said he liked the Lord Chamberlain. He did not give any reason for liking him, and let me say—
If I may correct the hon. and gallant Gentleman, the reasons he gave were not for liking the Lord Chamberlain in preference to any other form of censor, but merely because in his view the Lord Chamberlain did not operate badly as a censor. I think that is a fair representation of what the hon. and gallant Gentleman said.
I should like to say straight away that anything I have to say or, indeed, the purpose of this Bill, is not prompted by any criticism of the present Lord Chamberlain and his staff. On the contrary, it is true—and I have as long an experience of this as my hon. Friend the junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert)—that the office as at present operated works in a civilised and tolerant manner. The argument is not against the personnel, but against the ridiculous position in which the personnel inevitably finds itself, because it is invited to make objective judgments in a field where only subjective judgments are possible.
Not many years ago we had a some-what analogous situation, which I am glad to say was very quickly brought to an end. Three praiseworthy and well-meaning old gentlemen were called together in a committee and given the impossible task of trying to draw up two lists of plays, one of which was labelled "Partly educational" and the other "Not partly educational." Needless to say it was not very long before those three well-meaning gentlemen acquired the sobriquet of "The three blind mice." But if any of us were put into the same position and asked to accomplish a similarly ridiculous feat, we would be bound to make ourselves look similarly ridiculous.
Although during the course of the afternoon it has been possible to point to fantastic blunders made by the Lord Chamberlains at St. James's Palace, none of us could do better; some of us might do worse. Mistakes will inevitably follow from the position in which he finds himself. If the Lord Chamberlain from time to time covers himself in ridicule, it is not really he who covers himself with ridicule but we who have put him into that ridiculous position.
To come back to the hon. and gallant Member for Waterloo, why particularly should these particular functions be fathered upon the Lord Chamberlain? I took the trouble to look up the "Encyclopædia Britannica" to find out exactly what were his other and main functions, to which this one is subsidiary. I found that
the Lord Chamberlain first is responsible for the necessary arrangements connected with State ceremonies, such as coronations, Royal marriages, christenings and funerals. He examines the claims of those who desire to be presented at Court.
It may be from this that he secures his training in the art of censorship.
It is also part of his duty to conduct the Sovereign to and from his carriage. The Bedchamber, the Privy Chamber, the Presence Chamber, the Wardrobe, the Housekeeper's Room and the Guardroom are under the Lord Chamberlain's Department. He is in charge of a large number of appointments, such as those of Royal physicians, tradesmen, etcetera.
It seems to me that the qualifications which may fit a man admirably to conduct a Sovereign to and from his carriage are not necessarily immediately connected with the qualifications which might entitle him to be an arbiter of the arts. I say this tentatively, because the difficulty is that we do not know what those qualifications should be.
The reason why we do not know what those qualifications should be is because we do not know—and this has emerged in this Debate and from every Select Committee that has sat on the subject—what the Censor is for. One of the most embarrassing passages in the entertaining Blue Book, which recorded the evidence given before the joint Select Committee of 1909, is the passage wherein the unfortunate Censor of the time was cross-examined by a number of very astute men, including the present Lord Samuel, in an attempt to find out what he himself thought he was for. It emerged—I am not exaggerating, because it can be checked and looked up in the report—in point of fact that he had not the faintest idea what his job was. He had no terms of reference, his functions were nebulous and he did not even know how he came to get the job. The only suggestion he could make was that he happened to have been a personal friend of his immediate predecessor.
I am sorry I have not the exact quotation, but they are defined in words so nebulous that they can only confuse rather than help the poor man. Such phrases as "good manners and the preservation of decorum and—
But not very precise ones. The preservation of good manners and decorum are phrases which not only the hon. Member but even a practising lawyer might have some difficulty in defining.
I agree that there is a general idea in all our heads of what the purpose of the censorship is. I would say that the Censor is there to ensure that a sensitive public is not allowed to see things which will do it more harm than good and is only allowed to see things which will do it more good than harm. The man who has to decide that has to decide something.
If he has to make decisions of that kind it requires not only that he should be able to look into the hearts of men, but also that he should be privy to the unforeseeable concatenation of cause and effect, which is one of the aspects of eternity. In other words it requires that he should have the omniscience of the Almighty. Now whenever we decide to instal somebody into the position of the Almighty, we must not be surprised if we encounter a certain difficulty in finding a candidate with the necessary qualifications.
I have looked up the qualifications of the present incumbent of the office of Lord Chamberlain and I note that his qualifications, among others, are that he is a director of Barclays Bank, an ex-Chancellor of the Primrose League and a member of the Turf Club; all of them estimable things in their way, but none of them, perhaps, quite achieving the level which I have previously predicated. It may be argued that, after all he is the headpiece and that the main body of the work is done by his Examiner. That, of course, is quite true. And the qualifications of Examiners have been many and various. One was newspaper man, one a bank manager, one a dramatic critic, another was a not very successful pornographic playwright, and so on. But I repeat that whether these are or are not the right qualifications is something which is really quite impossible to decide, because there is no such thing as the right qualifications.
The real basis of most of the opposition this afternoon has been the argument that, although the present system may be unreasonable and even ridiculous, in some way it works. That is the argument which has been planted in the minds of hon. Members by a circular from the managers' association. But perhaps those not connected with the stage were not fully aware that this circular was from the managers alone, who were not, of course, entitled, as their circular implies, to speak on behalf of the entire theatrical industry. The phrase "theatrical industry" "is, in fact, a new thing, introduced, no doubt, as a result of association with my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien). It used to be an art. The thought may conceivably very well have passed the managers' minds that to control in this arbitrary way an industry might be less offensive to our susceptibilities than to control an art, and, of course, in that they are perfectly right.
Let us examine this claim that "it works," which was raised by the hon. and learned junior Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss) and other hon. Members. Let me say, first of all, that that is the defence of censorship in Russia. It was also the defence of censorship by Mussolini and by Hitler. It has always been the defence of censorship that it works; let there be no mistake about that. And it is perfectly true that there is one sense in which it always does work. It is always true that there is less friction and life goes more smoothly when only one man's opinion is allowed to prevail and in that sense it does work. But does it work well?
If we really think that censorship works better than free speech, why are we not clamouring to extend the boon to other fields of creative activity? That is the logic of it. I am sorry if I am logical—I suppose I have to apologise for it— but surely that is the inevitable logic of the situation and it is inescapable logic. If that is really what we mean, that is what we should be doing and we could do it, moreover, without overworking the present Lord Chamberlain. There are, after all, other functionaries of the Royal Household.
I jotted down a tentative allocation as a kind of working hypothesis. Novelists, for example, might be put under the supervision and control of the Crown Equerry, historians could be under the Keeper of the Privy purse, philosophers under the Master of the Horse, poets under the Hereditary Grand Almoner, journalists under the Coroner to the Royal Household—I cannot help thinking that he may have some time on his hands—preachers could come under the Mistress of the Robes and politicians under the chief Lady of the Bedchamber. I have omitted musicians and painters and scientists. No doubt they would soon be clamouring to be relieved of the burden of freedom and independence, once this example is launched, but I daresay they could be fixed up too.
This argument that it works is supposed to present a dialectical dilemma, because to rebut it involves one in the necessity of proving a negative. We are involved in the difficult problem of trying to prove that it does not work, but so strong is the case against censorship that for once it is possible to show even that. It works and it works well only if we believe that the plays of great creative writers should be destroyed or mutilated at the whim of a bank manager and that other great writers should be deterred from writing for the stage at all.
We have heard mentioned today the names of a number of eminent writers. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) has said they have been largely, but by no means entirely, writers of the past. The reason for that is not very difficult. It always was and must be so; because the venerable names are inevitably more than 25 years old. If at the time when Ibsen was being put into the ashcan, anyone had raised the problem, as indeed they did, there was not an immediate sense of the ridiculous for the simple reason that at that time Ibsen had not achieved a venerable status. But, in addition to those names, I took the precaution of making a list, by no means an exhaustive list but merely a random list, of names of people who I personally happen to remember as having suffered censorship.
I am referring to censorship since 1737, since the present system was inaugurated. Here is the list: Aristophanes, Sophocles, Shakespeare, Gay, Fielding, James Thomson, Miss Mitford of all people, who was censored by George Coleman the Younger, of all people; and, coming to more modern times, Tolstoy, Wilde, Laurence Housman, W. S. Gilbert, Shelley, Sudermann, Shaw, Brieux, George Moore, Pirandello, Edward Garnett, Schnitzler, Gilbert Murray, Gantillon, Eugene O'Neill, Ernst Toiler, Eden Phillpotts, Evelyn Waugh, Van Druten, J. E. Flecker, Maeterlinck, Granville Barker and many others. That is a formidable list. It is really no use trying to diminish the matter by converting it into terms of statistics. To say that it is merely 1½ per cent. who have been destroyed does not mean that that 1½ per cent. cannot include names such as those I have read out. It did.
Do I understand that the sponsors of the Bill are demanding in society, completely unfettered licence and liberty. and are forgetting that other institutions and persons in our community, such as, for example, the trade union movement, while enjoying a tremendous amount of liberty compared with that which they had 100 years ago, are still limited in their exercise of liberty, and rightly so?
Is the hon. Member aware that we are talking not about trade unions but art, and that in countries like Belgium, where there is no censorship, there is a high proportion of good plays?
I would remind the hon. Member that there is a considerable amount of art in trade unionism. I understand that we are dealing with liberty and the liberty of the subject.
I am driven to the conclusion by this intervention of my hon. Friend that he must be dissatisfied, and perhaps reasonably so, with his first speech, though I am bound to say that he has not done very much better the second time.
I was calling the attention of the House to a number of writers, whom I think all of us would agree to be eminent writers, who have suffered in this way at the hands of arbitrary censorship. It would be possible to compile a comparable list, and it would be entertaining to do so, but it would perhaps be unfair, of the names of those men who had done the censoring. Had I read out such a list of names, most of them either not remembered at all or remembered solely in connection with those great men whom they had condemned to the waste paper basket, there would be no doubt in the mind of any Member of this House whether the proprieties and the care of our society were better entrusted to those in the victims' list than to those in the executioners' list.
The junior Burgess for Oxford University (Sir A. Herbert) recounted to us his happy personal experiences in connection with the Censors. I am bound to say that seemed to me a little less than relevant to our Debate because, after all, I have listened to every word in the Debate and I have heard nobody advance the proposition that every play was always censored; and the fact that the hon. Member happens to be among the fortunate majority who has not been censored, does not seem to me a very convincing argument to those of us who are attempting to protect the unfortunate minority. It is true that he had suffered some mutilation but, being apparently of a very docile and amenable nature with everybody except myself, he described that mutilation as welcome amendments and he apparently is gratified and proud to find himself in collaboration with the Lord Chamberlain. But surely he will admit that there are other authors, and there have always been other authors, no less distinguished than he, who persist in the English and characteristically artistic, stubborn egotism which prefers to go to its destruction in its own way rather than achieve salvation under the tutelage of some outside body or person.
I would say that mutilation of script is the second count which every hon. Member ought to bear in mind when we discuss this question of censorship. It is quite preposterous that Mr. Snook or Lord Tomkin should be entitled to rewrite the work of Flecker, of Shaw, or Granville Barker or others on pain that, if they do not accept the collaboration, then their whole work cannot be performed at all. Surely that is quite an intolerable situation.
The third way in which censorship works so injuriously and so indefensibly was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for the Devonport division of Plymouth (Mr. Foot) in a most brilliant, and I thought moving, speech seconding the Bill. It is an indubitable fact that distinguished authors are deterred from writing for the stage. It is hard to calculate the destructive effect of censorship in that sense because we do not know the unborn children. Lord Chesterfield, at the time the Act was under discussion, predicted that it "would prevent men of a generous and free spirit from writing plays." That has proved to be too pessimistic a generalisation. A few men of free and generous spirit have penetrated and succeeded in writing for our theatre.
But there is concrete evidence—and here again I am able by good fortune to prove a negative—of the fact that important and cons derable writers have been deterred. For example, Tolstoy, when he was invited by an English manager to extend his playwriting activities, replied to the effect that he was deterred by the existence and the inconvenience of censorship. W. L. Courtney said that if Ibsen had been born in this country them would be no doubt at all that he would never have been able to develop as a dramatist; and Joseph Conrad, who felt extremely strongly on this theme, reminded us of a comment made by the eminent French critic Jules Le Maitre—and this is perhaps unusual for critics—who had once said that every time he criticised a p
The Censor has no such inhibitions. John Galsworthy, round about the time of the Joint Select Committee, took it upon himself to put this very question to half a dozen or so of his most eminent colleagues, including Thomas Hardy, Henry James and H G. Wells. They agreed that the censorship did act upon them as a deterrent, and they agreed mostly in extremely violent language. Arnold Bennett, as hon. Members may remember, said that he would never even
attempt to write for the stage with the same thoroughness and the same emotional force as he wrote his novels, for the simple reason that it would be a waste of time. Even Sir James Barrie, who had as little to fear from the censorship as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University, was unwontedly vigorous on this question. He said:
I feel strongly that censorship makes our drama a more puerile thing in the life of the nation than it ought to be, and it is a stigma on all who write plays.
It works, does it? Yes, indeed: it works steadily and inexorably towards the impoverishment of our theatre.
There is, of course, one other sense in which it may be argued that the censorship works. I cannot remember which hon. Member it was who made the point, but somebody said that after all, there was no great lobbying, there was no agitation, the country was quiet, there were no parades and, therefore, presumably it works.
May I interrupt the hon. Member? I agree with a great deal of his speech. I did not make the point to which he has just referred. The point I am anxious for him to meet is the one I made that the present censorship worked better than the form of censorship which I thought would be the sequel to the passage of this Bill. I hope that he will deal with that point.
I certainly shall deal with that point. But first I am seeking to deal with other hon. Members who said that it worked all right as it was. This is claimed because there is no agitation. Of course, when the Act was first imposed there was very serious agitation. There were riots in the theatre. The first play licensed by the Lord Chamberlain was booed off the stage and, at a subsequent performance the audience was surprised to notice that the Lord Chamberlain had taken rather more drastic measures to ensure that the fare which he prescribed for the London public should in fact be digested. When the curtain went up, an astonished audience noticed that the play was to be performed between two lines of Grenadiers in single file with fixed bayonets. Needless to say, as I am proud to record, the reaction of that English audience in 1737 was to boo all the louder. It is recorded that a shower of peanuts was flung upon the stage and when some of the unfortunate company attempted to dance, a contemporary historian commented that this shower of peanuts "made capering very unsafe."
That, of course, was 200 years ago, and the riots continued for a while; indeed, the agitation has never completely abated to this day, but it is impossible to not for 200 years. However, if that is to be the argument, it is not really a very tenable one. Indeed I should like to use it the other way round. One of the most insidious aspects of authoritarianism is precisely that one ceases to riot; the time comes when one becomes accustomed to one's chains. After 200 years, I think it is to the credit of our country that this agitation still persists.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intervened in what I thought was a very helpful way when he declared that the Government were neutral and had no intention whatever of indicating in which direction hon. Members should vote. He himself made certain purely technical criticisms, which I shall try to meet, but which in any case can be met on the Committee stage, and which, in fact, were nothing but helpful. First of all, I want to meet the point, which was also made by the hon. and learned Member for the Combined English Universities (Mr. H. Strauss), that there was a danger, if our Bill went through in its present form, that there would be an increase of interference by local Watch Committees and others. We were alert to this danger when we came to draft the Bill, and I may say in passing that the particular point made by my right hon. Friend does not seem to square very well with the subsequent point which he made, namely, that there was not sufficiently easy access to the law for people who wanted to object. It seems to me that in one phrase he is saying that the play is too open to interference, and in the other that it is too little open to interference.
I am reluctant to prevent the hon. Member from talking out his Bill, but I would point out that I put the position the other way round. I said that it was necessary to secure access to the courts directly and that that would involve the question of local discrimination.
I honestly do not think that my right hon. Friend still has put it the other way round. It is the same thing. If he says that there ought to be access, he is saying that the present Bill does not offer sufficient access, which is precisely what I said he said.
But it does not seem to affect the question of consistency, whether the chronology of the pronouncement is one way or the other. It does not affect the matter. Now if we look at the Bill, we see that there has been an attempt to meet this. We had first-rate legal advice, and we were assured that, in fact, at least the second point was met. There is no danger, I suggest, from excessive interference by local busy-bodies who are not local authorities, unless we do precisely what, I understand, my right hon. Friend recommends us to do—remove the Clause which makes it obligatory to consult a judge in chambers. The reason why that Clause was put in was precisely to prevent the objections which my right hon. Friend mentioned.
It may be that the judge in chambers is not the ideal device. It has, in fact, worked extremely well in respect of newspapers, and I was waiting to hear why, in fact, it was not likely to work in this case. But there are alternatives. The thing could be placed, for instance, at the disposal of the Attorney-General. There are precedents for that, and we did, in fact, discuss it. But whether it be the Attorney-General, the Public Prosecutor, or the judge in chambers, we feel that there is some good reason for inserting a Clause which safeguards managers and authors against frivolous prosecution. If this is not the best way to do it, then it can be decided on the Committee stage how it should be done. But I suggest it it not an insuperable difficulty, and I am sure it is not beyond the ingenuity of lawyers.
I must deal with the point which has been made again and again—and made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—that there is a difference between what one reads in a book and what one sees on the stage, and that, therefore, there is need of different machinery for judging it. It is perfectly true, of course, that we can, without fear of prosecution or impropriety, read in the "News of the World," or in a novel, the recording of the fact that a rape took place, and it is quite true that we could not stage a rape in the theatre. But this is automatically provided for because the report of a rape in the "News of the World" is not subject to prosecution, whereas a rape staged in a London theatre automatically would be. We should not receive the same immunity, and no one suggested that we should. The Bill does not provide that; what it says is that we shall be under common law, and under nobody else.
It is important, I think, to make the point that indecency is not prevented by the present censorship, although my hon. Friend the Member for West Nottingham (Mr. O'Brien) argued that it was. Licences are an insurance against prosecution. With a certificate of the Lord
Chamberlain in his pocket, the theatre manager can carry on without any worry. I wish to allay the fears of those hon. Members who apprehend that the result of this Bill will be an increase in licence. In point of fact it is likely to have the opposite effect. The manager without the insurance of the Lord Chamberlain's certificate in his pocket is bound to be a great deal more careful than the manager who has got it.
I wish to end by reminding hon. Members that one of the great speeches on this subject was delivered by Lord Chesterfield. I would like to leave one short extract from that great speech in hon. Members' minds. He said:
If poets and players are to be restrained, let them be restrained as other subjects are, by the known laws of their country. If they offend let them be tried as every Englishman ought to be, by God and their country. Do not let us subject them to the arbitrary will and pleasure of any one man.
But that is just what his contemporaries did. That is the wrong, expressed with such beautiful concision, that was done that day. If today this Parliament, harassed by the stress of events as no other Parliament has been in peace-time, can take the time to right that wrong, it is a Parliament of which every one of us can be proud to have been a Member.
|Division No. 86.]||AYES||[3.36 p.m|
|Acland, Sir Richard||Ganley, Mrs C. S||Parker, J.|
|Allen, A C (Bosworth)||Greenwood, A W J (Heywood)||Piratin, P.|
|Ayles, W H||Guy. W. H||Reeves, J.|
|Ayrton Gould, Mrs. B||Haire, John E (Wycombe)||Ridealgh, Mrs. M.|
|Battley, J R.||Harris, F. W (Croydon, N.)||Robertson, Sir D. (Streatham)|
|Baxter, A B.||Hollis, M C||Robinson, K. (St. Pancras)|
|Bing, G. H C||Horabin, T. L||Royle, C.|
|Blackburn, A R||Jenkins, R. H.||Savory, Prof. D L.|
|Blenkinsop, A||Jones, P. Asterley (Hitchin)||Silverman, J. (Erdington)|
|Bossom, A C||Keeling, E H.||Smith, C (Colchester)|
|Bower, N.||Lever, N. H.||Smith, H. N (Nottingham, S.)|
|Boyd-Carpenter, J A||Lewis, A. W. J (Upton)||Snow, J. W|
|Braddock, T (Mitcham)||Lindsay, K. M. (Comb'd Eng Univ)||Stewart, Michael (Fulham, E)|
|Bramall, E A||Lipton, Lt.-Col. M||Stubbs, A. E|
|Brook, D (Halifax)||Mackay, R W. G. (Huts, N.W.)||Symonds, A. L.|
|Bruce, Maj D W T.||Mallalieu, E L. (Brigs)||Thomas, I O. (Wrekin)|
|Castle, Mrs B A||Mallalieu, J P. W. (Huddersfield)||Ungoed-Thomas, L.|
|Cooper, G||Marlowe, A. A H||Vernon, Maj. W F|
|Daines, P||Marsden, Capt A||Walkden, E|
|Delargy, H J.||Mellish, R. J.||Wallace, G D. (Chislehurat)|
|Digby, Simon Wingfield||Mellor, Sir J.||Warbey, W N.|
|Donovan, T.||Mitchison, G R||Williams, W R. (Heston)|
|Driberg, T E. N||Morley, R|
|Elliot, Lieut -Col. Rt. Hon Walter||Nicholls, H. R (Stratford)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Field, Capt W. J||Paget, R. T||Mr. E. P. Smith and|
|Freeman, J (Watford)||Palmer, A M F||Mr. Benn Levy.|
|Gage. C||pargiter, G A|
|Beamish, Maj. T V. H||Harris, H. Wilson (Cambridge Univ)||Roberts, H (Handsworth)|
|Berry, H||Harvey, Air-Gomdre, A V||Ross, Sir R D (Londonderry)|
|Clarke, Col. R. S.||Hastings, Dr. Somerville||Strauss, Henry (English Universities)|
|Conant, Maj. R. J. E||Herbert, Sir A. P||Stuart, Rt. Hon J. (Moray)|
|Crookshank, Capt Rt. Hon. H. F C.||Hulbert, Wing-Cdr. N J||Studholme, H. G|
|Crowder, Capt. John E.||Hynd, H (Hackney, C.)||Taylor, C S. (Eastbourne)|
|De la Bere, R.||Legge-Bourke, Maj E. A. H||Teeling, William|
|Dodds-Parker, A. D||McEntee, V La T||Wheatley, Colonel M J (Dorset, E.)|
|Drayson, G B.||Mackeson, Brig. H. R||Whiteley, Rt Hon W|
|Ede, Rt. Hon. J. C||Manningham-Buller, R. E.||Williams, Gerald (Tonbridge)|
|George, Maj. Rt. Hn. G Lloyd (P'ke)||Morrison, Maj. J. G. (Salisbury)||Young, Sir A S. L. (Partick)|
|Grimston, R. V.||Reed, Sir S. (Aylesbury)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Hannon, Sir P. (Moseley)||Renton, D.||Mr. O'Brien and Captain Bullock.|
Question put, and agreed to.