“Black ‘Ell” and the censor

Last week I mentioned D Company and Black ‘Ell, the 1916 plays by Miles Malleson that were published by Henderson at The Bomb Shop. The shop was raided, and the military authorities, invoking the Defence of the Realm Act, confiscated all copies.
This week I called up a folder of the Lord Chamberlain’s papers from the depths of the British Library,to see what the censor made of Black ‘Ell when, having been republished, it was submitted for a performance licence in 1926. There is a folder of correspondence about the play that is quite revealing about official attitudes and practices in the twenties.
The reader was G.S.Street, who wrote:

When this play, with “D Company” by the same author, was published in 1916 the volume was confiscated by the authorities under the Defence of the Realm Act as a calumny on the British Soldier. It does not appear if they thought both plays equally blameable. The volume is now reprinted.

The report summarises the play, describing Harold, the soldier who:

expresses – violently and hysterically – his hatred of the war, his sense that the enemy had the same feeling and views as our own men, his wish that statesmen and journalists could be made to fight themselves, his determination not to go back.

Street goes on to comment:

I can quite understand the book being confiscated in 1916 and of course a licence for the play would have been out of the question. Obviously it would have tended to discourage recruiting. But it seems to me now that the War has been over for eight years the matter is quite different. Harold is abnormally hysterical, but many young men as a result of their horrible experiences did think and talk much as he did – except in the determination not to go back – and I do not think that putting one of them on stage now could do any harm. The views expressed have become a commonplace in many quarters and it is a question whether it would not be an undue restriction of the freedom of the theatre to forbid the expression of them there. Any violence of expression I think justified by the emotional condition of the speaker.

Given the history of the play I cannot of course advise the Lord Chamberlain to licence it without reading it himself, but for the reasons given above I am in favour of a licence.

The Lord Chamberlain replied:

I quite understand that this play could not be permitted on stage when it was first published in 1916. Conditions have so altered in the ten years that have since elapsed that I personally do not consider its production in 1926 would have any harmful effect.
In view however of the action taken by Order of the Military Authorities in 1916, I think the War Office should be consulted privately on the subject and if they have no objection the play can be licenced.
The best course would be for the Comptroller to send the play privately to Sir Herbert Creedy on my behalf, and ask him to have the question examined. He could be told at the same time that in my opinion the objections taken to the play now appear to be out of date.

The Comptroller (who was Colonel the Hon Sir George Crichton, K.C.V.O) sent the play to the War Office, and received this reply from Sir Herbert Creedy, K.C.B, K.C.V.O.:

My dear Crichton,
We have looked at the play which you sent me with your letter of the 22nd ultimo, and though it may be regarded as belonging to the category of “defeatist” literature, I do not think there are any military grounds on which we could advise the Lord Chamberlain to withhold his licence.
I quite agree with Lord Cromer that the objections to the play are now out of date.

And so the play was licenced for performance at the Little Theatre, Leeds, on November 24th, 1926. I don’t know what sort of a reception it got.

I’m interested by what this correspondence shows about the official desire to seem liberal and reasonable – but only when it was quite safe to be so.

One Comment

  1. Posted March 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    fantabo job. well done xo


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