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The Censor of Plays

AN APPRECIATION--1907


A couple of years ago I was moved to write a one-act play--and I lived
long enough to accomplish the task. We live and learn. When the play
was finished I was informed that it had to be licensed for performance.
Thus I learned of the existence of the Censor of Plays. I may say
without vanity that I am intelligent enough to have been astonished by
that piece of information: for facts must stand in some relation to time
and space, and I was aware of being in England--in the twentieth-century
England. The fact did not fit the date and the place. That was my first
thought. It was, in short, an improper fact. I beg you to believe that
I am writing in all seriousness and am weighing my words scrupulously.

Therefore I don't say inappropriate. I say improper--that is: something
to be ashamed of. And at first this impression was confirmed by the
obscurity in which the figure embodying this after all considerable fact
had its being. The Censor of Plays! His name was not in the mouths of
all men. Far from it. He seemed stealthy and remote. There was about
that figure the scent of the far East, like the peculiar atmosphere of a
Mandarin's back yard, and the mustiness of the Middle Ages, that epoch
when mankind tried to stand still in a monstrous illusion of final
certitude attained in morals, intellect and conscience.

It was a disagreeable impression. But I reflected that probably the
censorship of plays was an inactive monstrosity; not exactly a survival,
since it seemed obviously at variance with the genius of the people, but
an heirloom of past ages, a bizarre and imported curiosity preserved
because of that weakness one has for one's old possessions apart from any
intrinsic value; one more object of exotic _virtu_, an Oriental
_potiche_, a _magot chinois_ conceived by a childish and extravagant
imagination, but allowed to stand in stolid impotence in the twilight of
the upper shelf.

Thus I quieted my uneasy mind. Its uneasiness had nothing to do with the
fate of my one-act play. The play was duly produced, and an
exceptionally intelligent audience stared it coldly off the boards. It
ceased to exist. It was a fair and open execution. But having survived
the freezing atmosphere of that auditorium I continued to exist,
labouring under no sense of wrong. I was not pleased, but I was content.
I was content to accept the verdict of a free and independent public,
judging after its conscience the work of its free, independent and
conscientious servant--the artist.

Only thus can the dignity of artistic servitude be preserved--not to
speak of the bare existence of the artist and the self-respect of the
man. I shall say nothing of the self-respect of the public. To the self-
respect of the public the present appeal against the censorship is being
made and I join in it with all my heart.

For I have lived long enough to learn that the monstrous and outlandish
figure, the _magot chinois_ whom I believed to be but a memorial of our
forefathers' mental aberration, that grotesque _potiche_, works! The
absurd and hollow creature of clay seems to be alive with a sort of
(surely) unconscious life worthy of its traditions. It heaves its
stomach, it rolls its eyes, it brandishes a monstrous arm: and with the
censorship, like a Bravo of old Venice with a more carnal weapon, stabs
its victim from behind in the twilight of its upper shelf. Less
picturesque than the Venetian in cloak and mask, less estimable, too, in
this, that the assassin plied his moral trade at his own risk deriving no
countenance from the powers of the Republic, it stands more malevolent,
inasmuch that the Bravo striking in the dusk killed but the body, whereas
the grotesque thing nodding its mandarin head may in its absurd
unconsciousness strike down at any time the spirit of an honest, of an
artistic, perhaps of a sublime creation.

This Chinese monstrosity, disguised in the trousers of the Western
Barbarian and provided by the State with the immortal Mr. Stiggins's plug
hat and umbrella, is with us. It is an office. An office of trust. And
from time to time there is found an official to fill it. He is a public
man. The least prominent of public men, the most unobtrusive, the most
obscure if not the most modest.

But however obscure, a public man may be told the truth if only once in
his life. His office flourishes in the shade; not in the rustic shade
beloved of the violet but in the muddled twilight of mind, where tyranny
of every sort flourishes. Its holder need not have either brain or
heart, no sight, no taste, no imagination, not even bowels of compassion.
He needs not these things. He has power. He can kill thought, and
incidentally truth, and incidentally beauty, providing they seek to live
in a dramatic form. He can do it, without seeing, without understanding,
without feeling anything; out of mere stupid suspicion, as an
irresponsible Roman Caesar could kill a senator. He can do that and
there is no one to say him nay. He may call his cook (Moliere used to do
that) from below and give her five acts to judge every morning as a
matter of constant practice and still remain the unquestioned destroyer
of men's honest work. He may have a glass too much. This accident has
happened to persons of unimpeachable morality--to gentlemen. He may
suffer from spells of imbecility like Clodius. He may . . . what might
he not do! I tell you he is the Caesar of the dramatic world. There has
been since the Roman Principate nothing in the way of irresponsible power
to compare with the office of the Censor of Plays.

Looked at in this way it has some grandeur, something colossal in the
odious and the absurd. This figure in whose power it is to suppress an
intellectual conception--to kill thought (a dream for a mad brain, my
masters!)--seems designed in a spirit of bitter comedy to bring out the
greatness of a Philistine's conceit and his moral cowardice.

But this is England in the twentieth century, and one wonders that there
can be found a man courageous enough to occupy the post. It is a matter
for meditation. Having given it a few minutes I come to the conclusion
in the serenity of my heart and the peace of my conscience that he must
be either an extreme megalomaniac or an utterly unconscious being.

He must be unconscious. It is one of the qualifications for his
magistracy. Other qualifications are equally easy. He must have done
nothing, expressed nothing, imagined nothing. He must be obscure,
insignificant and mediocre--in thought, act, speech and sympathy. He
must know nothing of art, of life--and of himself. For if he did he
would not dare to be what he is. Like that much questioned and
mysterious bird, the phoenix, he sits amongst the cold ashes of his
predecessor upon the altar of morality, alone of his kind in the sight of
wondering generations.

And I will end with a quotation reproducing not perhaps the exact words
but the true spirit of a lofty conscience.

"Often when sitting down to write the notice of a play, especially when I
felt it antagonistic to my canons of art, to my tastes or my convictions,
I hesitated in the fear lest my conscientious blame might check the
development of a great talent, my sincere judgment condemn a worthy mind.
With the pen poised in my hand I hesitated, whispering to myself 'What if
I were perchance doing my part in killing a masterpiece.'"

Such were the lofty scruples of M. Jules Lemaitre--dramatist and dramatic
critic, a great citizen and a high magistrate in the Republic of Letters;
a Censor of Plays exercising his august office openly in the light of
day, with the authority of a European reputation. But then M. Jules
Lemaitre is a man possessed of wisdom, of great fame, of a fine
conscience--not an obscure hollow Chinese monstrosity ornamented with Mr.
Stiggins's plug hat and cotton umbrella by its anxious grandmother--the
State.

Frankly, is it not time to knock the improper object off its shelf? It
has stood too long there. Hatched in Pekin (I should say) by some Board
of Respectable Rites, the little caravan monster has come to us by way of
Moscow--I suppose. It is outlandish. It is not venerable. It does not
belong here. Is it not time to knock it off its dark shelf with some
implement appropriate to its worth and status? With an old broom handle
for instance.

Joseph Conrad