Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama

The Theatres Act ended the centuries-old practice of governmental censorship of the British stage and in particular removed the authority to conduct such censorship from the office of the Lord Chamberlain of the United Kingdom.

Summary of Event

Censorship of drama in England began in the sixteenth century as a means of ensuring that no pro-Catholic propaganda crept into scripts, England having officially embraced the Reformation. A secondary purpose was to control the influence of actors, whose morals and religious views generally were suspect. The latter attitude would linger at least through the nineteenth century. Theatres Act, British (1968)
Censorship;United Kingdom
[kw]Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama (July 26, 1968)
[kw]Censorship of British Drama, Theatres Act Ends (July 26, 1968)
[kw]Drama, Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British (July 26, 1968)
Theatres Act, British (1968)
Censorship;United Kingdom
[g]Europe;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
[g]United Kingdom;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
[c]Theater;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 26, 1968: Theatres Act Ends Censorship of British Drama[09860]
Strauss, George R. (Baron Strauss of Vauxhall)
Cobbold, Cameron Fromanteel
Trevelyan, John

The role of the Lord Chamberlain, the chief officer of the royal household, as censor dates from 1737. In that year, Sir Robert Walpole Walpole, Sir Robert , the chief political figure and head of government, responded to the political satire Satire of Henry Fielding by securing passage of a new censorship law. Until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain had absolute power to determine what appeared on stage. Other than his staff of readers, he had no regular outside advice, and there was no appeal of his decisions. George Bernard Shaw reacted by saying that the Lord Chamberlain “robs, insults, and suppresses me as if he were the Czar of Russia.”

Although never popular with intellectuals, journalists, and other writers, censorship did not become a matter of public debate until the late 1950’s. There were at that time in Great Britain a number of barriers to artistic development, including lingering puritanism enforced by government censorship, limited public and private patronage, and the growth of television as home entertainment. In 1959, Penguin Books decided to publish an unexpurgated edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Lady Chatterley’s Lover (Lawrence)[Lady Chatterleys Lover] (1928). Penguin’s decision to publish Lawrence’s book was a calculated challenge to the barrier of government censorship.

The particularly active Lord Chamberlain of the day, Lord Scarborough Scarborough, Lord , brought a court case—one of his options in the situation—against Penguin Books. The defense introduced a series of experts to assert the literary and artistic value of the book, and the prosecutor made a fool of himself by asking jury members if the book were one they would want their servants to read. Although Mr. Justice Byrne, who presided, made his prejudices clear when addressing the jury, the decision to acquit came in three hours.

The publication of the much more explicit Last Exit to Brooklyn
Last Exit to Brooklyn (Selby) (1964) by Hubert Selby, Jr., soon followed, but censorship continued. The Lady Chatterley’s Lover decision had no immediate dramatic impact, but it did move Britain toward long-term easing of restrictions on expression. The question of censorship was to become a part of the series of retreats from Victorian policies that marked the 1960’s.

The decade of the 1960’s produced a new cultural tone that was a rejection of the establishment’s somewhat staid and puritanical outlook. A series of reforms took place, particularly after the advent of a Labour Party government under Harold Wilson Wilson, Harold in 1964. Abortion became relatively easily obtainable, along with contraceptive materials and advice. Adult homosexuality was legalized, and restrictions on divorce were eased significantly. A woman’s right to an equal share of family property in case of a marital breakup was established, and the principle (if not the practice) of equal pay was legislated. There was, then, a clear trend toward giving people more personal freedom.

Censorship, however, continued despite the attack on it in the late 1950’s. Changing tastes made for some changes in what was acceptable, giving an appearance of more tolerance, but overt sexual activity and serious attacks on British and allied political figures both remained forbidden. The American play Macbird, Macbird (Garson) a savage attack on President Lyndon B. Johnson, was denied access to the London stage by Cameron Fromanteel Cobbold, Lord Cobbold, Lord Chamberlain from 1963 to 1971.

The cinema was less restricted. Harold Pinter’s play The Caretaker
Caretaker, The (Pinter) (1960) did not measure up to the Lord Chamberlain’s standards, but a film version was released in 1964 without trouble. The secretary of the British Board of Film Censors British Board of Film Censors , a private agency, was John Trevelyan, formerly director of education for Westmorland County. Trevelyan was inclined to regard nudity and depiction of sexual activity, if actually germane to the plot line, as acceptable.

He also was more tolerant of satire than was the Lord Chamberlain. The latter did show some flexibility, however. After the film version of The Caretaker was released, the story was resubmitted for presentation on stage and was cleared without difficulty. The playwright credited Lord Cobbold’s reversal entirely to Trevelyan’s position regarding the film.

Even as official policy seemed to become increasingly liberal, the principle of censorship came increasingly into question. A joint committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons was appointed to study the matter. The committee’s report, presented in 1967, recommended that censorship be ended. This did not, however, make the question of censorship a high priority with the government. The legislation was left to be a private member’s bill. The introduction of such bills, given limited time at the ends of sessions in the House of Commons, is determined by a lottery that selects which members of the House of Commons will have an opportunity to bring forward their proposals.

Fortunately, George R. Strauss (later to be created a life peer as Baron Strauss), who favored legislation ending censorship of the theater, got a lucky draw and was able to introduce such a bill. Heated debate followed introduction of the bill. Among other things, Conservatives sought to protect the monarchy by forbidding any portrayal of a head of state, or possibly that of any living person, without his or her permission. Strauss jeered that in the past the Lord Chamberlain had banned W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s The Mikado: Or, The Town of Titipu (1885), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession (pb. 1898), Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), and Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955).

Strauss urged that the bill be passed. He argued that “The present archaic, illogical and indefensible system of stage censorship . . . [has been] tolerated for too long. We are the only democratic and freedom-loving country in the world that has a censor.” On February 24, 1968, the bill passed by voice vote, without, despite the vigorous debate, any recorded dissent. It went to committee, where it might have been altered fundamentally, but it was not. The Theatres Act became law on July 26, 1968. According to its terms, two months later the reign of the Lord Chamberlain as censor officially came to an end.


Passage of the Theatres Act immediately prevented one struggle over censorship. James Vernor Vernor, James , a London producer, had proposed staging the rock musical Hair
Hair (Ragni, Rado, and MacDermot) (1968), which includes liberal use of profanity and a brief nude scene. He submitted the script to Lord Cobbold, and it was returned marked “Unacceptable.” A process of negotiation was expected, during which the producer and censor would seek agreement about changes required to allow the script to be granted a license.

After the Theatres Act was passed, Vernor postponed the opening of Hair until late September. Although he insisted that this decision was made more for artistic reasons than to avoid censorship, Vernor did not deny that he was happy to be free of the Lord Chamberlain’s oversight. The critical and popular reaction to the play was quite mixed and certainly suggested that English theatergoers would not be uniformly offended by either vulgarity or nudity.

There was, however, some concern about the long-term effect of the legislation even among theater managers and producers. The problem was that Strauss’s bill did allow for prosecution in some situations. First, any citizen who regarded the content of a play as libelous could seek redress in the courts. Second, the attorney general might prosecute if, in his or her opinion, a script “tended to deprave and corrupt people likely to attend.” Those who would be held responsible in the case of such prosecution were concern that the threat of legal action would prove to be as restrictive as was the censor, or even more so. They had been protected from suit when a script had been licensed by the Lord Chamberlain.

Three months after the lifting of censorship, the concerns about the threat of prosecution had the possibility of being proven valid. On December 21, 1968, Rolf Hochhuth’s play Soldaten: Nekrolog auf Genf
Soldiers (Hochhuth) (1967; Soldiers: An Obituary for Geneva, 1968) opened in London. The script intimated that Winston Churchill Churchill, Winston
[p]Churchill, Winston;representation in Soldiers had been involved in the death of Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski in 1943. As head of the Polish government-in-exile, Sikorski had been vigorously anticommunist. According to the play’s script, his attitude had endangered the Anglo-Soviet alliance against Nazi Germany.

The play premiered to critical and popular acclaim, but Winston Churchill, Sir Winston’s grandson, asserted that it was an “infamous libel” against his illustrious ancestor. Churchill dismissed as spurious or as suppression of historical truth claims that evidence to support the charge was under lock and key for fifty years. Although many people insisted the charges were ambiguous, others previously had thought the work to be libelous. It had been rejected by the Lord Chamberlain unless written permission were to be obtained from survivors of all those portrayed. The controversy, bitter and lingering, was still making news a year later. It did not, however, keep the play from the London stage or result in any reduction in the freedom established by the Theatres Act.

The Theatres Act of 1968 was part of a wave of progressive change in the late 1960’s. It opened the London stage to a variety of experimental drama that never could have been performed there previously. English arts, known since William Shakespeare’s day for dramatic excellence, were given greater freedom to experiment and to explore previously forbidden topics. They did so, and despite occasional problems such as that concerning Soldiers, the Theatres Act was a successful reform with, it seems, implications beyond the stage. Although it did not directly affect the cinema, censorship of that medium was greatly reduced after the act was passed, apparently as a response to the success of the uncensored theater. Theatres Act, British (1968)
Censorship;United Kingdom

Further Reading

  • Childs, David. Britain Since 1945: A Political History. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979. An excellent survey of politics that is important for setting the Theatres Act in the context of policies of the Labour government of the day. Although more interested in politics than in fine arts, Childs does not ignore the latter.
  • Marwick, Arthur. British Society Since 1945. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1982. Written by one of the preeminent scholars in the field, this volume is an important source for anyone studying British society. The chapter on culture in the 1960’s is a stimulating essay on the decline of Victorian attitudes.
  • Morgan, Kenneth O. The People’s Peace: British History, 1945-1989. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A recognized expert on the Labour Party, Morgan has created a work that is scholarly and readable. He does a good job of tracing the development of reform generally, and of censorship particularly, through the 1960’s.
  • Nicholson, Steve. The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968. 2 vols. to date. Exeter, Devon, England: University of Exeter Press, 2003-2005. The first two volumes (covering 1900-1952) in a projected three-volume set delving into the twentieth century censorship of the British stage. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Shellard, Dominic, Steve Nicholson, and Miriam Handley. The Lord Chamberlain Regrets . . . : A History of British Theatre Censorship. London: British Library, 2004. History of the office of the Lord Chamberlain and its function as the arbiter of taste, propriety, and decency from 1824 to 1968. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Thomas, Donald. A Long Time Burning: The History of Literary Censorship in England. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969. Thomas traces questions regarding censorship in England from the fifteenth century. In his long, comprehensive volume, he looks at motivations for, methods of, and reform of censorship. Although his examples are sometimes obscure, his general points are clear.
  • Williamson, Bill. The Temper of the Times: British Society Since World War II. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1990. As suggested by the title, this book is an attempt to address the attitudes of the British in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is a difficult task and has not, in this case, been accomplished with complete success. The book is, however, a valuable look at the social scene in the 1960’s.

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