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A Censorship Caper in Committee


Harley Granville Barker, Lena Ashwell, George Bernard Shaw, Herbert Samuel, Speaker Lowther, George Redford & the mysterious Lord Chamberlain!!!


Committee on Censorship – Front Cover, 1909, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/33

At the turn of the 20th century British theatre was suffering from a censoring overload. The 1736 Theatre Licensing Act made the Lord Chamberlain censor-in-chief and since then his office held sway over what was deemed acceptable for public consumption hence the term ‘If he thinks fit’. The Edwardian age saw a new breed of dramatist emerge more politicised than their forefathers ready to challenge this established status quo. By 1909 their campaign for change saw letters sent to The Times and petitions sent to the King. It was inevitable that Parliament would have to mediate. Thus, a Joint Committee on Censorship was formed in the summer of that year bringing the opposing parties together to find a compromise.

This blog will examine the proceedings from both sides of the curtain through the eyes of its main characters, some of whom were treading the boards on an unfamiliar stage. But would it be their time to shine?

Image of handwritten parchment document
Theatre Licensing Act, 1736,  Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1736/10G2n31

The Play is the Thing

Harley Granville Barker was theatre’s bright young thing. As manager of the Court Theatre (later known as the Royal Court) he sought to bring a taste of European modernism to his audience. Away from the stage Barker and actor wife, Lillian McCarthy were the ‘golden couple’ of the London scene but some questioned whether he was all style and no substance. He answered these critics when he wrote Waste but to his dismay the Lord Chamberlain’s Office refused it a licence. This was because of a controversial plot involving a married woman’s affair with a Conservative politician that covered the theme of backstreet abortions. Barker decided to lead a protest to abolish the present censorship laws and in August 1909 he faced the Committee with a proverbial axe to grind. Waste was very much the elephant in the room and when the Parliamentarians went for the jugular he made this statement, ‘ I think you have no right to represent vice upon the stage unless you are prepared also to represent the consequences that vice entails.’ When further probed if the Censor prevented the development of English drama Barker answered in the affirmative adding the caveat of referencing the arbitrary nature of the whole pretence.

Review: Barker flourished when discoursing with sympathetic Liberals such as Chairman, Herbert Samuel and Committee member Robert Harcourt. But when faced with a traditionalist such as Lord Willoughby-de-Broke he somewhat floundered and was seemingly painted as a metropolitan dilletante whose morally suspect productions could prove a corruptive influence if let loose on the rest of the country.

Typed document on off-white paper
Shaw to Samuel letter, July 1909, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/33

Behind the Lines

Some very famous names graced the Committee including amongst others J.M. Barrie, Bram Stoker and John Galsworthy. But the star of the show was George Bernard Shaw the nation’s greatest playwright and sole survivor of the 1892 Censorship debates. On the second day he gave evidence with much anticipation about how he would perform under questioning. After an early exchange he suggested to Herbert Samuel that a memoranda he drafted for the occasion be passed to the Committee to read before continuing. For this request the room was cleared as the drama intensified. When business resumed Shaw’s play Mrs Warren’s Profession that dealt with prostitution fell under the spotlight. But there was a feeling of anti-climax as Shaw grew frustrated with the level of scrutiny and the hearing just petered out. Robert Harcourt inquired whether Shaw wished to continue his evidence the following week, but he never returned. In a letter sent to Samuel later that day he vented his spleen calling the Committee members ‘poor lambs,’ then adding, ‘I had not only to keep my temper but to keep my good humour as some of the questions put to me were trivial and impertinent’. His lack of respect for the politicians defending the Lord Chamberlain was highlighted by this comment, ‘any member of a Parliamentary Committee could be so childish as to suppose that is possible to pull a pugilist’s nose without provoking a little exhibition of his powers of self-defence'.

Review: Back in 1892 legendary thespian Henry Irving had also presented a written memoranda to Committee but to no avail. So, what made Shaw make the same gesture beggars’ belief setting the tone for what turned out to be a damp squid of a sitting. As the letter shows it had not been a good day in the office and this was an ominous sign for the theatricals.


All the Chamberlain’s Men

There was one absentee at the Committee hearings that of the Lord Chamberlain himself. The present incumbent was Viscount Althorp not a theatre-buff by any stretch but that wasn’t a pre-requisite for the post. His most illuminating distinction was a vast number of foreign decorations bestowed on him including the Order of the Rising Sun of Japan. Maintaining a smokescreen, he sent in his ‘dog of war’ George Redford to face the music. Being Examiner of Plays at the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Redford was already persona non grata to the capital’s dramatists and now there was no hiding place. Earlier that year Robert Harcourt and Alfred Mason had sponsored a Parliamentary bill to abolish the Lord Chamberlain’s Office that never passed the Second Reading stage. Both men led the charge referencing blasphemy in Restoration plays and the hidden politics found in music hall and pantomime, but Redford maintained a resolute defence. The short shrift of his answers was akin to ‘pleading the fifth’ as this example highlights;

Alfred Mason: Do you remember a play called Josephine?

George Redford: I cannot say that I do

Alfred Mason: It was put into an evening bill at the Comedy Theatre about May 1906?

George Redford: It was by Barrie I know. But I do not remember it.

Team Lord Chamberlain was boosted by the support of one of Parliament’s most powerful figures, the Speaker of the House, James Lowther. His belief was that the Lord Chamberlain like the Speakership and the Lord Chancellor were ‘untouchables’ within the political establishment so had to be protected. Due to his esteemed title even, Herbert Samuel had to pay deference allowing Lowther to manoeuvre the dialogue to a more favourable position for the Lord Chamberlain’s cause. Unlike Redford he went on the offensive stating, ‘I think that a play of immoral tendency can do much harm with these things said in public and laughed at night after night’. In the summing-up the final question put to him was, ‘Then your view would be to maintain the distinction that exists at present?’ he responded, ‘Yes, I’m rather old fashioned perhaps’.

Review: I’m sure George Redford got a big pat on the back from Viscount Althorp after a match-winning defensive performance that refused to play ball. At the other end of the spectrum Speaker Lowther showed the members of his House present who is the boss.


Siren’s Song

Despite a balance of sexes within the theatre only one woman gave evidence to the Censorship Committee. Lena Ashwell was quite the polymath as an actor, producer, theatre manager and activist. After a successful acting career, she took over the Kingsway Theatre where she produced ‘suffrage plays’ such as Diana of Dobson’s adapted from the Cicely Hamilton novel. In 1908 she co-founded the Actresses Franchise League who became a regular feature at suffragette demonstrations. In the same period, she challenged the ‘matinee hats’ rule resulting in women theatre-goers being able to remove their hats inside any venue. In front of the Committee she took a more pragmatic stance than her idealistic contemporaries. Addressing the complexities of the censorship issue and the dangers of not sustaining some semblance of control. When asked, ‘Do you believe that some form of censorship is desirable?’ her reply was. ‘Yes, otherwise we are in the hands of the plain men of the street, the Philistines’. In an exchange with Robert Harcourt she made light of American jurisdiction where a lack of a censorship board left the dramatist vulnerable to criminal charges under state obscenity laws.  For example, she referred to British actress Olga Nethersole being arrested in the States for her performance in Clyde Fitch’s Sappho for ‘violating public decency’. Though she gave the opinion that the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was still relevant she did pre-warn them that ‘there is a new school of drama of enormous ideas that the censor will not stop’.

Review: Ashwell’s independent spirit shone in a short but memorable cameo. Refuting the party line by taking a nuanced analysis to the subject as shown in her use of the USA as a case study. Despite the brilliance of her contribution it would have been nice to have had more female perspectives.

Lena Ashwell’s Committee sitting date, 1909, Parliamentary Archives, SAM/A/33

Nothing Changed

On the 24th September after twelve sitting days the gaslights were extinguished in the Committee Room and then they waited…. Six weeks later the silence was broken as a mammoth report was published that ultimately went with the script. They decided that ‘to seek a licence for a play will remain the rule’ but under a new categorized system;

A play would not be granted a licence if it was considered…

  1. To be indecent
  2. To contain offensive personalities
  3. To represent the stage in an invidious manner
  4. Do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence
  5. Calculated to conduce to crime or vice
  6. Calculated to impair friendly relations with any foreign power
  7. Calculated to cause a breach of the peace.

Journalist John Palmer who had followed the Committee throughout described the report as ‘one of the most chaotic and puzzling volumes that has ever been offered to the public’. While Herbert Samuel wrote cryptically on the back of his copy, ‘the censorship in July was examined by one irritable person who was easily offended’.  In another recommendation they stressed that an unlicensed play could fall foul of the Director of Public Prosecutions and consequent appeals may require the involvement of the dreaded Attorney General. This fear mongering sought to give the impression to the stage community that the Lord Chamberlain’s Office may be the lesser of two evils. For the regional theatre managers who unlike the celebrated playwrights were never in favour of change this was a victory for their job security. There has always been the suggestion that King Edward VII used his regal prerogative to have the final say in the abolition argument in respect of the historically close alignment of a Lord Chamberlain to the Royal Household. As the dust settled it was quite clear that the Lord Chamberlain’s Office had lived to censor another day.

Review: So, freedom of theatrical expression remained in limbo for the time being. The following decades saw two World Wars take place and the modern censorship debate was off the agenda. But as the sixties dawned a new clarion call could be heard. But that’s for next time….



SAM/A/33: Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship), 1909

SAM/A/33: Correspondence between Herbert Samuel & George Bernard Shaw - 1909

Banned! A Review of Theatrical Censorship in Britain – Richard Findlater

The Lord Chamberlain Regrets – A History of British Theatre Censorship – Dominic Shellard & Steve Nicholson

The Cambridge History of British Theatre Volume 3 edited by Baz Kershaw

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