I was in London (Boris’s London!) again on Wednesday and before going to Major Barbara had time for a short session with the some of the Lord Chamberlain’s papers at the British Library. One of the best plays of the twenties is J.R. Ackerley’s Prisoners of War – I wish some enterprising producer would revive it.
It is about a group of British officers in Switzerland, prisoners of war, but paroled on their honour not to go back to Britain or to take any further part in the war. They hang around a dull resort feeling useless and frustrated, and getting on one another’s nerves. The play is based on Ackerley’s own experience, and was at least partly written while he was a prisoner. The play is a tautly-written study of the tensions between the men, and is striking for its picture of the intense and rocky relationship between the main character, Captain Conrad, and a flashy and unstable young man with whom he is clearly in love. The edition that I own is in a Methuen collection of Gay Plays, and the homosexual implications are definitely evident to a modern reader. They were less evident in 1925. The play was originally put on – as often happened with serious plays at the time – for a single Sunday performance by the “Three Hundred Club”. This was run by a lady called Mrs Whitworth, who wanted to give a chance to plays that might not otherwise receive a performance. She had read and liked the play, but when it was in rehearsal she became alarmed. There were rumours that this was a “homosexual play” and she received requests for club membership from people she did not know and did not like the sound of. She re-read the play, and was horrified when she saw it in the new, sinister light. In particular she wanted to cut an episode where Conrad strokes his friend’s hair. She was worried that the play would disgust the lady subscribers to the “Three Hundred Club.” She demanded cuts and changes, but Ackerley stood his ground, pointing out that she had read the play several times without realising its implications, and that her lady subscribers would be in the same state of innocence. Prisoners of War was given its Sunday night performance, and was very successful, gaining excellent reviews. Nigel Playfair took it up, and wanted to do a full-scale production at the Playhouse Theatre. The Sunday night club performance had been classed as a private one, and had therefore not required approval from the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Now the script had to be submitted to the censor. The editor of the Methuen Gay Plays volume writes:
I guess that the only reason The Prisoners of War, with its (to us) blatantly homosexual theme, was allowed to be performed was due partly to the topicality of the predicament of the young soldiers, and partly that the Lord Chamberlain… was a clueless, old dodderer.
Was he? Since the editor wrote those words, the censor’s reports have become available to researchers at the British Library, so I took a look at what the Lord Chamberlain’s reader, G.S.Street, had to say about the play. He starts by acknowledging its success in the club performance, and registering his own reaction:
The play was received by a chorus of praise when it was produced recently by the “Three Hundred Club”. It is certainly a strong and moving work; it is also one of the most painful plays I have ever read.
His summary of the play is accurate, though his vocabulary is tinged with the values of the time:
the play is a study of the deterioration in character and mentality due to inactivity and hopelessness. It is far too highly charged for the average; the men are mostly of the inferior types, but given their qualities the development is grimly logical. Jealousies and animosities pervade the play. Captain Conrad, the central figure, has formed a sentimental sort of friendship with 2nd Lieut Grayle, a caddish young man…
His report shows that he was greatly impressed by the play, and moved by it. The tone of the report is very different from the superior attitude that he adopts towards most commercial plays of the time:
As is usual with a play of any subtlety a mere narration of what happens gives little idea of it. The strength of this one is in its sense of inevitability and the accuracy with which every incident and speech moves it towards its end.
He comes to the sensitive issue of homosexuality, and clearly the appreciative reviews for the club performance have influenced his judgement:
There is no suggestion in the eulogies I read in the press of any unfitness in the play for public representation, nor do I see any. The sentimental friendships and jealousies between the officers have no sinister suggestion in any coarser sense. The play is dreadfully painful but that is all.
I don’t think that that is the reaction of a “clueless old dodderer”. He has recognised the homosexual implication, has satisfied himself that it is presented without coarseness, and is reassured because the club production had not drawn adverse comment. Above all, he is impressed by the quality of the play. Maybe he turns a blind eye to what in another work might have been unacceptable? He did require “some modifications.” As usual, oaths were cut (“Christ!”, “Jesus!”) and he wanted an assurance that Conrad’s fit would not be presented in too horrible a way. He also required that references to “male virginity” should be cut. Playfair, the producer, replied, pointing out that the character’s sexual inexperience was an essential point in the play. Eventually they came to an acceptable compromise by replacing mention of “virginity” with talk of “chastity”. So that is how the censor operated when dealing with a sensitive issue in 1925. I don’t think he comes out of it too badly, actually.