Arnold Bennett’s 1918 play The Title is very much a play of the War years, but is not a play about the War.
Written at the time when Bennett had an important role at the Ministry of Information, as Director of Propaganda for France, I see the play as one of the ways in which Bennett asserted a measure of independence and distanced himself from his political masters, since it is about the abuse of the honours system. Lloyd George is never mentioned, but the finger is obviously pointing in his direction in speeches like:
Only the simple-minded believe that Honours are given to honour. Honours are given to save the life of the Government. Hence the Honours List. Examine the Honours List and you can instantly tell how the Government feels in its inside. When the Honours List is full of rascals, millionaires, and—er—chumps, you may be quite sure that the Government is dangerously ill.
Perhaps the most cutting comments are those about:
Ullivant, munitions manufacturer. [….] By the simple means of saying that the cost price of shells was eighteen shillings and ninepence each, whereas it was in fact only ten shillings and ninepence, Mr. Joshua Ullivant has made a fortune of two million pounds during the war. He has given a hundred thousand to the Prince of Wales’s Fund, a hundred thousand to the Red Cross, and a hundred thousand to the party funds. Total net profit on the war, one million seven hundred thousand pounds, not counting the peerage which is now bestowed upon him, and which it must be admitted is a just reward for his remarkable business acumen.
The story of the play concerns Culver, a decent man who despises what the honours system has become. He is offered a title, but thinks that this is only because the government wants a few honest names among the rogues:
I’m offered a baronetcy because I’m respectable; I’m decent; and at the last moment they thought the List looked a bit too thick—so they pushed me in. One of their brilliant afterthoughts!… No damned merit about the thing, I can tell you!
His wife finds the idea of an honour far more attractive, however, and comical plots and counter-plots soon ensue.
The play was a considerable critical and box-office success. The Times review records that ‘the audience was unmistakably delighted with the whole entertainment.’
Bennett seems to have been steering a crafty course this side of political acceptability, so, since I was visiting London last week, I thought it would be interesting to see what the theatrical censor in the Lord Chamberlain’s office thought about it.
The archive is in the British Library. The script, bound with a dozen other plays of 1918, was ready for me in the Manuscript Room. Unlike many scripts in the archive, it was neatly typed, obviously a professional job. The comments that the reader (G.S.Street in this instance) sent to the Lord Chamberlain were fuller than usual.
This is a light and more or less sparkling comedy of a very topical kind. A point for consideration is if some of it be not a little too topical.
The subject of the play was sensitive, but not one that could be officially objected to:
Attacks on the alleged sale and degradation of honours are frequent in the newspapers and in ordinary talk, and satire on that subject cannot of course be kept from the stage – even if it were desirable. General talk of that sort may pass. But I have marked passages where it is rather extreme.
The passage about Ullivant quoted above was one that caused concern, but the reader considered that ‘That can hardly be interfered with.’ Possibly he means that the censor must not be seen to be silencing criticism of profiteers.
Culver had mentioned two other recently ennobled scoundrels. One had written “a historical sketch, with many circumstantial details, of the political origins of the present Government.” Bennett’s audience would have picked this up as a reference to the behind-the-scenes plotting that preceded the fall of Asquith and the installation of Lloyd George. “For his forbearance in kindly consenting to withold publication until the end of the war” Bush had been honoured.
Another character is described more obscurely: “Mr. James Brill, to use the language of metaphor, possessed a pistol, which pistol he held point blank at the head of the Government. The Government has thought it wise to purchase Mr. James Brill’s pistol.” Is this maybe a reference to some Trades Union leader who has agreed not to use the strike weapon during wartime? The question is left sufficiently vague for the audience to invent their own possibilities. The censor felt that these two characterisations “go rather far, especially the latter” but:
Personally I should not interfere, as it is tolerably vague, and the whole piece is designedly very light and more or less absurd, but the point may be considered.
He also noted that “The Harmsworth family and its titles is glanced at in Act I p 6, but I think that fair satire.”
One other small point attracted a comment. When Culver’s son and daughter (both anti-titles) are trying to persuade Mrs Culver to change her mind, the son (soon to be eighteen) uses what he thinks is his clinching argument: if she won’t do what they want, he will volunteer for the Flying Corps rather than the safer Siege Artillery: “If you really want to shorten my life, all you have to do is to stick to that bally baronetcy.” The censor noted: ‘This is certainly an unsympathetic touch”, but did not remove the line.
Street’s comments were passed upward to Ernest Bendall, a more senior Reader of Plays. He added his comments:
I have glanced through this play, and have read carefully the passages to which Mr Street has drawn attention. The attack on the gainers of ill-gotten honours is certainly lacking in urbanity: but I do not see that it goes beyond the bounds of familiar and legitimate satire.
The treatment of the subject is too vague in its violence to be libellous: and no one needs put on this particular cap unless he thinks it fits him.
Later, Bendall added another note:
I have looked through this again and find no mention of the King in connection with the granting of honours. The innuendo is that the head of the Government may have to be practically bribed by title-seekers.
Since the King was officially the fount of honour and awarder of titles, the subject would be very sensitive to an Office who took the protection of the Royal family from adverse comment very seriously. (At the start of the War, the censors had been initially unwilling to allow caricatured versions of the Kaiser to be shown on the English stage. He was, after all, the grandson of Queen Victoria. Pressure of public opinion , however, had soon made the officials change their collective mind.)
This collection of comments does indeed show that Bennett was treading close to significant sensitivities when writing this play. The fact that it survived uncut shows, I think, that he had a very nicely tuned sense of how far it was possible to go without incurring official displeasure.
It’s a good play, despite some wild but jolly improbabilities in the last act. Could it be revived today, by the Orange Tree or Finborough, perhaps? Just possibly, I’d say, in these days of Lords reform and dodgy expenses claims, and of Lord Black, Lord Archer and Sir Jimmy Savile.