Author's Preface


This little play is really a religious tract in dramatic
form. If our silly censorship would permit its performance,
it might possibly help to set right-side-up the perverted
conscience and re-invigorate the starved self-respect of our
considerable class of loose-lived playgoers whose point of honor
is to deride all official and conventional sermons. As it is, it
only gives me an opportunity of telling the story of the Select
Committee of both Houses of Parliament which sat last year to
enquire into the working of the censorship, against which it was
alleged by myself and others that as its imbecility and
mischievousness could not be fully illustrated within the limits
of decorum imposed on the press, it could only be dealt with by a
parliamentary body subject to no such limits.


Few books of the year 1909 can have been cheaper and more
entertaining than the report of this Committee. Its full title is
APPENDICES. What the phrase "the Stage Plays" means in this title
I do not know; nor does anyone else. The number of the Bluebook
is 214.

How interesting it is may be judged from the fact that it
contains verbatim reports of long and animated interviews between
the Committee and such witnesses as W. William Archer, Mr.
Granville Barker, Mr. J. M. Barrie, Mr. Forbes Robertson, Mr.
Cecil Raleigh, Mr. John Galsworthy, Mr. Laurence Housman, Sir
Herbert Beerbohm Tree, Mr. W. L. Courtney, Sir William Gilbert,
Mr. A. B. Walkley, Miss Lena Ashwell, Professor Gilbert Murray,
Mr. George Alexander, Mr. George Edwardes, Mr. Comyns Carr, the
Speaker of the House of Commons, the Bishop of Southwark, Mr.
Hall Caine, Mr. Israel Zangwill, Sir Squire Bancroft, Sir Arthur
Pinero, and Mr. Gilbert Chesterton, not to mention myself and a
number of gentlemen less well known to the general public, but
important in the world of the theatre. The publication of a book
by so many famous contributors would be beyond the means of any
commercial publishing firm. His Majesty's Stationery Office sells
it to all comers by weight at the very reasonable price of three-
and-threepence a copy.


It was pointed out by Charles Dickens in Little Dorrit, which
remains the most accurate and penetrating study of the genteel
littleness of our class governments in the English language, that
whenever an abuse becomes oppressive enough to persuade our party
parliamentarians that something must be done, they immediately
set to work to face the situation and discover How Not To Do It.
Since Dickens's day the exposures effected by the Socialists have
so shattered the self-satisfaction of modern commercial
civilization that it is no longer difficult to convince our
governments that something must be done, even to the extent of
attempts at a reconstruction of civilization on a thoroughly
uncommercial basis. Consequently, the first part of the process
described by Dickens: that in which the reformers were
snubbed by front bench demonstrations that the administrative
departments were consuming miles of red tape in the correctest
forms of activity, and that everything was for the best in the
best of all possible worlds, is out of fashion; and we are in
that other phase, familiarized by the history of the French
Revolution, in which the primary assumption is that the country
is in danger, and that the first duty of all parties,
politicians, and governments is to save it. But as the effect of
this is to give governments a great many more things to do, it
also gives a powerful stimulus to the art of How Not To Do Them:
that is to say, the art of contriving methods of reform which
will leave matters exactly as they are.

The report of the Joint Select Committee is a capital
illustration of this tendency. The case against the censorship
was overwhelming; and the defence was more damaging to it than no
defence at all could have been. Even had this not been so, the
mere caprice of opinion had turned against the institution; and a
reform was expected, evidence or no evidence. Therefore the
Committee was unanimous as to the necessity of reforming the
censorship; only, unfortunately, the majority attached to this
unanimity the usual condition that nothing should be done to
disturb the existing state of things. How this was effected may
be gathered from the recommendations finally agreed on, which are
as follows.

1. The drama is to be set entirely free by the abolition of the
existing obligation to procure a licence from the Censor before
performing a play; but every theatre lease is in future to be
construed as if it contained a clause giving the landlord power
to break it and evict the lessee if he produces a play without
first obtaining the usual licence from the Lord Chamberlain.

2. Some of the plays licensed by the Lord Chamberlain are so
vicious that their present practical immunity from prosecution
must be put an end to; but no manager who procures the Lord
Chamberlain's licence for a play can be punished in any way for
producing it, though a special tribunal may order him to
discontinue the performance; and even this order must not be
recorded to his disadvantage on the licence of his theatre, nor
may it be given as a judicial reason for cancelling that licence.

3. Authors and managers producing plays without first obtaining
the usual licence from the Lord Chamberlain shall be perfectly
free to do so, and shall be at no disadvantage compared to those
who follow the existing practice, except that they may be
punished, have the licences of their theatres endorsed and
cancelled, and have the performance stopped pending the
proceedings without compensation in the event of the proceedings
ending in their acquittal.

4. Authors are to be rescued from their present subjection to an
irresponsible secret tribunal which can condemn their plays
without giving reasons, by the substitution for that tribunal of
a Committee of the Privy Council, which is to be the final
authority on the fitness of a play for representation; and this
Committee is to sit in camera if and when it pleases.

5. The power to impose a veto on the production of plays is to be
abolished because it may hinder the growth of a great national
drama; but the Office of Examiner of Plays shall be continued;
and the Lord Chamberlain shall retain his present powers to
license plays, but shall be made responsible to Parliament to the
extent of making it possible to ask questions there concerning
his proceedings, especially now that members have discovered a
method of doing this indirectly.

And so on, and so forth. The thing is to be done; and it is not
to be done. Everything is to be changed and nothing is to be
changed. The problem is to be faced and the solution to be
shirked. And the word of Dickens is to be justified.


Let me now tell the story of the Committee in greater detail,
partly as a contribution to history; partly because, like most
true stories, it is more amusing than the official story.

All commissions of public enquiry are more or less intimidated
both by the interests on which they have to sit in judgment and,
when their members are party politicians, by the votes at the
back of those interests; but this unfortunate Committee sat under
a quite exceptional cross fire. First, there was the king. The
Censor is a member of his household retinue; and as a king's
retinue has to be jealously guarded to avoid curtailment of the
royal state no matter what may be the function of the particular
retainer threatened, nothing but an express royal intimation to
the contrary, which is a constitutional impossibility, could have
relieved the Committee from the fear of displeasing the king by
any proposal to abolish the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain.
Now all the lords on the Committee and some of the commoners
could have been wiped out of society (in their sense of the word)
by the slightest intimation that the king would prefer not to
meet them; and this was a heavy risk to run on the chance of "a
great and serious national drama" ensuing on the removal of the
Lord Chamberlain's veto on Mrs Warren's Profession. Second, there
was the Nonconformist conscience, holding the Liberal Government
responsible for the Committee it had appointed, and holding also,
to the extent of votes enough to turn the scale in some
constituencies, that the theatre is the gate of hell, to be
tolerated, as vice is tolerated, only because the power to
suppress it could not be given to any public body without too
serious an interference with certain Liberal traditions of
liberty which are still useful to Nonconformists in other
directions. Third, there was the commercial interest of the
theatrical managers and their syndicates of backers in the City,
to whom, as I shall shew later on, the censorship affords a cheap
insurance of enormous value. Fourth, there was the powerful
interest of the trade in intoxicating liquors, fiercely
determined to resist any extension of the authority of
teetotaller-led local governing bodies over theatres. Fifth,
there were the playwrights, without political power, but with a
very close natural monopoly of a talent not only for play-writing
but for satirical polemics. And since every interest has its
opposition, all these influences had created hostile bodies by
the operation of the mere impulse to contradict them, always
strong in English human nature.


The only one of these influences which seems to be generally
misunderstood is that of the managers. It has been assumed
repeatedly that managers and authors are affected in the same way
by the censorship. When a prominent author protests against the
censorship, his opinion is supposed to be balanced by that of
some prominent manager who declares that the censorship is the
mainstay of the theatre, and his relations with the Lord
Chamberlain and the Examiner of Plays a cherished privilege and
an inexhaustible joy. This error was not removed by the evidence
given before the Joint Select Committee. The managers did not
make their case clear there, partly because they did not
understand it, and partly because their most eminent witnesses
were not personally affected by it, and would not condescend to
plead it, feeling themselves, on the contrary, compelled by their
self-respect to admit and even emphasize the fact that the Lord
Chamberlain in the exercise of his duties as licenser had done
those things which he ought not to have done, and left undone
those things which he ought to have done. Mr Forbes Robertson and
Sir Herbert Tree, for instance, had never felt the real
disadvantage of which managers have to complain. This
disadvantage was not put directly to the Committee; and though
the managers are against me on the question of the censorship, I
will now put their case for them as they should have put it
themselves, and as it can be read between the lines of their
evidence when once the reader has the clue.

The manager of a theatre is a man of business. He is not an
expert in politics, religion, art, literature, philosophy, or
law. He calls in a playwright just as he calls in a doctor, or
consults a lawyer, or engages an architect, depending on the
playwright's reputation and past achievements for a satisfactory
result. A play by an unknown man may attract him sufficiently to
induce him to give that unknown man a trial; but this does not
occur often enough to be taken into account: his normal course is
to resort to a well-known author and take (mostly with misgiving)
what he gets from him. Now this does not cause any anxiety to Mr
Forbes Robertson and Sir Herbert Tree, because they are only
incidentally managers and men of business: primarily they are
highly cultivated artists, quite capable of judging for
themselves anything that the most abstruse playwright is likely
to put before them, But the plain sailing tradesman who must be
taken as the typical manager (for the West end of London is not
the whole theatrical world) is by no means equally qualified to
judge whether a play is safe from prosecution or not. He may not
understand it, may not like it, may not know what the author is
driving at, may have no knowledge of the ethical, political, and
sectarian controversies which may form the intellectual fabric of
the play, and may honestly see nothing but an ordinary "character
part" in a stage figure which may be a libellous and
unmistakeable caricature of some eminent living person of whom he
has never heard. Yet if he produces the play he is legally
responsible just as if he had written it himself. Without
protection he may find himself in the dock answering a charge of
blasphemous libel, seditious libel, obscene libel, or all three
together, not to mention the possibility of a private action for
defamatory libel. His sole refuge is the opinion of the Examiner
of Plays, his sole protection the licence of the Lord
Chamberlain. A refusal to license does not hurt him, because he
can produce another play: it is the author who suffers. The
granting of the licence practically places him above the law; for
though it may be legally possible to prosecute a licensed play,
nobody ever dreams of doing it. The really responsible person,
the Lord Chamberlain, could not be put into the dock; and the
manager could not decently be convicted when he could procure in
his defence a certificate from the chief officer of the King's
household that the play was a proper one.


The censorship, then, provides the manager, at the negligible
premium of two guineas per play, with an effective insurance
against the author getting him into trouble, and a complete
relief from all conscientious responsibility for the character of
the entertainment at his theatre. Under such circumstances,
managers would be more than human if they did not regard the
censorship as their most valuable privilege. This is the simple
explanation of the rally of the managers and their Associations
to the defence of the censorship, of their reiterated resolutions
of confidence in the Lord Chamberlain, of their presentations of
plate, and, generally, of their enthusiastic contentment with the
present system, all in such startling contrast to the
denunciations of the censorship by the authors. It also explains
why the managerial witnesses who had least to fear from the
Censor were the most reluctant in his defence, whilst those whose
practice it is to strain his indulgence to the utmost were almost
rapturous in his praise. There would be absolute unanimity among
the managers in favor of the censorship if they were all simply
tradesmen. Even those actor-managers who made no secret before
the Committee of their contempt for the present operation of the
censorship, and their indignation at being handed over to a
domestic official as casual servants of a specially disorderly
kind, demanded, not the abolition of the institution, but such a
reform as might make it consistent with their dignity and
unobstructive to their higher artistic aims. Feeling no personal
need for protection against the author, they perhaps forgot the
plight of many a manager to whom the modern advanced drama is so
much Greek; but they did feel very strongly the need of being
protected against Vigilance Societies and Municipalities and
common informers in a country where a large section of the
community still believes that art of all kinds is inherently


It may now be asked how a Liberal government had been persuaded
to meddle at all with a question in which so many conflicting
interests were involved, and which had probably no electoral
value whatever. Many simple simple souls believed that it was
because certain severely virtuous plays by Ibsen, by M. Brieux,
by Mr Granville Barker, and by me, were suppressed by the
censorship, whilst plays of a scandalous character were licensed
without demur. No doubt this influenced public opinion; but those
who imagine that it could influence British governments little
know how remote from public opinion and how full of their own
little family and party affairs British governments, both Liberal
and Unionist, still are. The censorship scandal had existed for
years without any parliamentary action being taken in the matter,
and might have existed for as many more had it not happened in
1906 that Mr Robert Vernon Harcourt entered parliament as a
member of the Liberal Party, of which his father had been one of
the leaders during the Gladstone era. Mr Harcourt was thus a
young man marked out for office both by his parentage and his
unquestionable social position as one of the governing class.
Also, and this was much less usual, he was brilliantly clever,
and was the author of a couple of plays of remarkable promise. Mr
Harcourt informed his leaders that he was going to take up the
subject of the censorship. The leaders, recognizing his
hereditary right to a parliamentary canter of some sort as a
prelude to his public career, and finding that all the clever
people seemed to be agreed that the censorship was an anti-
Liberal institution and an abominable nuisance to boot, indulged
him by appointing a Select Committee of both Houses to
investigate the subject. The then Chancellor of the Duchy of
Lancaster, Mr Herbert Samuel (now Postmaster-General), who had
made his way into the Cabinet twenty years ahead of the usual
age, was made Chairman. Mr Robert Harcourt himself was of course
a member. With him, representing the Commons, were Mr Alfred
Mason, a man of letters who had won a seat in parliament as
offhandedly as he has since discarded it, or as he once appeared
on the stage to help me out of a difficulty in casting Arms and
the Man when that piece was the newest thing in the advanced
drama. There was Mr Hugh Law, an Irish member, son of an Irish
Chancellor, presenting a keen and joyous front to English
intellectual sloth. Above all, there was Colonel Lockwood
to represent at one stroke the Opposition and the average popular
man. This he did by standing up gallantly for the Censor, to
whose support the Opposition was in no way committed, and by
visibly defying the most cherished conventions of the average man
with a bunch of carnations in his buttonhole as large as a
dinner-plate, which would have made a Bunthorne blench, and which
very nearly did make Mr Granville Barker (who has an antipathy to
the scent of carnations) faint.


The House of Lords then proceeded to its selection. As
fashionable drama in Paris and London concerns itself almost
exclusively with adultery, the first choice fell on Lord Gorell,
who had for many years presided over the Divorce Court. Lord
Plymouth, who had been Chairman to the Shakespear Memorial
project (now merged in the Shakespear Memorial National Theatre)
was obviously marked out for selection; and it was generally
expected that the Lords Lytton and Esher, who had taken a
prominent part in the same movement, would have been added. This
expectation was not fulfilled. Instead, Lord Willoughby de Broke,
who had distinguished himself as an amateur actor, was selected
along with Lord Newton, whose special qualifications for the
Committee, if he had any, were unknown to the public. Finally
Lord Ribblesdale, the argute son of a Scotch mother, was thrown
in to make up for any shortcoming in intellectual subtlety that
might arise in the case of his younger colleagues; and this
completed the two teams.


In England, thanks chiefly to the censorship, the theatre
is not respected. It is indulged and despised as a department of
what is politely called gaiety. It is therefore not surprising
that the majority of the Committee began by taking its work
uppishly and carelessly. When it discovered that the contemporary
drama, licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, included plays which
could be described only behind closed doors, and in the
discomfort which attends discussions of very nasty subjects
between men of widely different ages, it calmly put its own
convenience before its public duty by ruling that there should be
no discussion of particular plays, much as if a committee on
temperance were to rule that drunkenness was not a proper subject
of conversation among gentlemen.


This was a bad beginning. Everybody knew that in England the
censorship would not be crushed by the weight of the
constitutional argument against it, heavy as that was, unless it
were also brought home to the Committee and to the public that it
had sanctioned and protected the very worst practicable examples
of the kind of play it professed to extirpate. For it must be
remembered that the other half of the practical side of the case,
dealing with the merits of the plays it had suppressed, could
never secure a unanimous assent. If the Censor had suppressed
Hamlet, as he most certainly would have done had it been
submitted to him as a new play, he would have been supported by a
large body of people to whom incest is a tabooed subject which
must not be mentioned on the stage or anywhere else outside a
criminal court. Hamlet, Oedipus, and The Cenci, Mrs Warren's
Profession, Brieux's Maternite, and Les Avaries, Maeterlinck's
Monna Vanna and Mr. Granville Barker's Waste may or may not be
great poems, or edifying sermons, or important documents, or
charming romances: our tribal citizens know nothing about that
and do not want to know anything: all that they do know is that
incest, prostitution, abortion, contagious diseases, and nudity
are improper, and that all conversations, or books, or plays in
which they are discussed are improper conversations, improper
books, improper plays, and should not be allowed. The Censor may
prohibit all such plays with complete certainty that there will
be a chorus of "Quite right too" sufficient to drown the protests
of the few who know better. The Achilles heel of the censorship
is therefore not the fine plays it has suppressed, but the
abominable plays it has licensed: plays which the Committee
itself had to turn the public out of the room and close the doors
before it could discuss, and which I myself have found it
impossible to expose in the press because no editor of a paper or
magazine intended for general family reading could admit into his
columns the baldest narration of the stories which the Censor has
not only tolerated but expressly certified as fitting for
presentation on the stage. When the Committee ruled out this part
of the case it shook the confidence of the authors in its
impartiality and its seriousness. Of course it was not able to
enforce its ruling thoroughly. Plays which were merely
lightminded and irresponsible in their viciousness were
repeatedly mentioned by Mr Harcourt and others. But the really
detestable plays, which would have damned the censorship beyond
all apology or salvation, were never referred to; and the moment
Mr Harcourt or anyone else made the Committee uncomfortable by a
move in their direction, the ruling was appealed to at once, and
the censorship saved.


It was part of this nervous dislike of the unpleasant part of its
business that led to the comic incident of the Committee's sudden
discovery that I had insulted it, and its suspension of its
investigation for the purpose of elaborately insulting me back
again. Comic to the lookers-on, that is; for the majority of the
Committee made no attempt to conceal the fact that they were
wildly angry with me; and I, though my public experience and
skill in acting enabled me to maintain an appearance of
imperturbable good-humor, was equally furious. The friction began
as follows.

The precedents for the conduct of the Committee were to be found
in the proceedings of the Committee of 1892. That Committee, no
doubt recognizing the absurdity of calling on distinguished
artists to give their views before it, and then refusing to allow
them to state their views except in nervous replies to such
questions as it might suit members to put to them, allowed Sir
Henry Irving and Sir John Hare to prepare and read written
statements, and formally invited them to read them to the
Committee before being questioned. I accordingly prepared such a
statement. For the greater convenience of the Committee, I
offered to have this statement printed at my own expense, and to
supply the members with copies. The offer was accepted; and the
copies supplied. I also offered to provide the Committee with
copies of those plays of mine which had been refused a licence by
the Lord Chamberlain. That offer also was accepted; and the books
duly supplied.


As far as I can guess, the next thing that happened was that some
timid or unawakened member of the Committee read my statement and
was frightened or scandalized out of his wits by it. At all
events it is certain that the majority of the Committee allowed
themselves to be persuaded to refuse to allow any statement to be
read; but to avoid the appearance of pointing this expressly at
me, the form adopted was a resolution to adhere strictly to
precedent, the Committee being then unaware that the precedents
were on my side. Accordingly, when I appeared before the
Committee, and proposed to read my statement "according to
precedent," the Committee was visibly taken aback. The Chairman
was bound by the letter of the decision arrived at to allow me to
read my statement, since that course was according to precedent;
but as this was exactly what the decision was meant to prevent,
the majority of the Committee would have regarded this hoisting
of them with their own petard as a breach of faith on the part of
the Chairman, who, I infer, was not in agreement with the
suppressive majority. There was nothing for it, after a somewhat
awkward pause, but to clear me and the public out of the room and
reconsider the situation IN CAMERA. When the doors were opened
again I was informed simply that the Committee would not hear my
statement, but as the Committee could not very decently refuse my
evidence altogether, the Chairman, with a printed copy of my
statement in his hand as "proof," was able to come to the rescue
to some extent by putting to me a series of questions to which no
doubt I might have replied by taking another copy out of my
pocket, and quoting my statement paragraph by paragraph, as
some of the later witnesses did. But as in offering the
Committee my statement for burial in their bluebook I had made a
considerable sacrifice, being able to secure greater publicity
for it by independent publication on my own account; and as,
further, the circumstances of the refusal made it offensive
enough to take all heart out of the scrupulous consideration with
which I had so far treated the Committee, I was not disposed to
give its majority a second chance, or to lose the opportunity
offered me by the questions to fire an additional broadside into
the censorship. I pocketed my statement, and answered the
questions VIVA VOCE. At the conclusion of this, my examination-
in-chief, the Committee adjourned, asking me to present myself
again for (virtually) cross-examination. But this cross-
examination never came off, as the sequel will shew.


The refusal of the Committee to admit my statement had not
unnaturally created the impression that it must be a scandalous
document; and a lively demand for copies at once set in. And
among the very first applicants were members of the majority
which had carried the decision to exclude the document. They had
given so little attention to the business that they did not know,
or had forgotten, that they had already been supplied with copies
at their own request. At all events, they came to me publicly and
cleaned me out of the handful of copies I had provided for
distribution to the press. And after the sitting it was intimated
to me that yet more copies were desired for the use of the
Committee: a demand, under the circumstances, of breath-bereaving
coolness. At the same time, a brisk demand arose outside the
Committee, not only among people who were anxious to read what I
had to say on the subject, but among victims of the craze for
collecting first editions, copies of privately circulated
pamphlets, and other real or imaginary rarities, and who will
cheerfully pay five guineas for any piece of discarded old
rubbish of mine when they will not pay four-and-sixpence for this
book because everyone else can get it for four-and-sixpence too.


The day after the refusal of the Committee to face my statement,
I transferred the scene of action to the columns of The Times,
which did yeoman's service to the public on this, as on many
other occasions, by treating the question as a public one without
the least regard to the supposed susceptibilities of the Court on
the one side, or the avowed prejudices of the Free Churches or
the interests of the managers or theatrical speculators on the
other. The Times published the summarized conclusions of my
statement, and gave me an opportunity of saying as much as it was
then advisable to say of what had occurred. For it must be
remembered that, however impatient and contemptuous I might feel
of the intellectual cowardice shewn by the majority of the
Committee face to face with myself, it was none the less
necessary to keep up its prestige in every possible way, not only
for the sake of the dignity and importance of the matter with
which it had to deal, and in the hope that the treatment of
subsequent witnesses and the final report might make amends for a
feeble beginning, but also out of respect and consideration for
the minority. For it is fair to say that the majority was never
more than a bare majority, and that the worst thing the Committee
did--the exclusion of references to particular plays--was
perpetrated in the absence of the Chairman.

I, therefore, had to treat the Committee in The Times very much
better than its majority deserved, an injustice for which I now
apologize. I did not, however, resist the temptation to hint,
quite good-humoredly, that my politeness to the Committee had
cost me quite enough already, and that I was not prepared to
supply the members of the Committee, or anyone else, with extra
copies merely as collectors' curiosities.


Then the fat was in the fire. The majority, chaffed for its
eagerness to obtain copies of scarce pamphlets retailable at five
guineas, went dancing mad. When I presented myself, as requested,
for cross-examination, I found the doors of the Committee room
shut, and the corridors of the House of Lords filled by a
wondering crowd, to whom it had somehow leaked out that something
terrible was happening inside. It could not be another licensed
play too scandalous to be discussed in public, because the
Committee had decided to discuss no more of these examples of the
Censor's notions of purifying the stage; and what else the
Committee might have to discuss that might not be heard by all
the world was not easily guessable.

Without suggesting that the confidence of the Committee was in
any way violated by any of its members further than was
absolutely necessary to clear them from suspicion of complicity
in the scene which followed, I think I may venture to conjecture
what was happening. It was felt by the majority, first, that it
must be cleared at all costs of the imputation of having procured
more than one copy each of my statement, and that one not from
any interest in an undesirable document by an irreverent author,
but in the reluctant discharge of its solemn public duty; second,
that a terrible example must be made of me by the most crushing
public snub in the power of the Committee to administer. To throw
my wretched little pamphlet at my head and to kick me out of the
room was the passionate impulse which prevailed in spite of all
the remonstrances of the Commoners, seasoned to the give-and-take
of public life, and of the single peer who kept his head. The
others, for the moment, had no heads to keep. And the fashion in
which they proposed to wreak their vengeance was as follows.


I was to be admitted, as a lamb to the slaughter, and allowed to
take my place as if for further examination. The Chairman was
then to inform me coldly that the Committee did not desire to
have anything more to say to me. The members were thereupon
solemnly to hand me back the copies of my statement as so much
waste paper, and I was to be suffered to slink away with what
countenance I could maintain in such disgrace.

But this plan required the active co-operation of every member of
the Committee; and whilst the majority regarded it as an august
and impressive vindication of the majesty of parliament, the
minority regarded it with equal conviction as a puerile
tomfoolery, and declined altogether to act their allotted parts
in it. Besides, they did not all want to part with the books. For
instance, Mr Hugh Law, being an Irishman, with an Irishman's
sense of how to behave like a gallant gentleman on occasion, was
determined to be able to assure me that nothing should induce him
to give up my statement or prevent him from obtaining and
cherishing as many copies as possible. (I quote this as an
example to the House of Lords of the right thing to say in such
emergencies). So the program had to be modified. The minority
could not prevent the enraged majority from refusing to examine
me further; nor could the Chairman refuse to communicate that
decision to me. Neither could the minority object to the
secretary handing me back such copies as he could collect from
the majority. And at that the matter was left. The doors were
opened; the audience trooped in; I was called to my place in the
dock (so to speak); and all was ready for the sacrifice.


Alas! the majority reckoned without Colonel Lockwood. That hardy
and undaunted veteran refused to shirk his share in the scene
merely because the minority was recalcitrant and the majority
perhaps subject to stage fright. When Mr Samuel had informed me
that the Committee had no further questions to ask me with an
urbanity which gave the public no clue as to the temper of the
majority; when I had jumped up with the proper air of relief and
gratitude; when the secretary had handed me his little packet of
books with an affability which effectually concealed his dramatic
function as executioner; when the audience was simply
disappointed at being baulked of the entertainment of hearing Mr
Robert Harcourt cross-examine me; in short, when the situation
was all but saved by the tact of the Chairman and secretary,
Colonel Lockwood rose, with all his carnations blazing, and gave
away the whole case by handing me, with impressive simplicity and
courtesy, his TWO copies of the precious statement. And I believe
that if he had succeeded in securing ten, he would have handed
them all back to me with the most sincere conviction that every
one of the ten must prove a crushing addition to the weight of my
discomfiture. I still cherish that second copy, a little blue-
bound pamphlet, methodically autographed "Lockwood B" among my
most valued literary trophies.

An innocent lady told me afterwards that she never knew that I
could smile so beautifully, and that she thought it shewed very
good taste on my part. I was not conscious of smiling; but I
should have embraced the Colonel had I dared. As it was, I turned
expectantly to his colleagues, mutely inviting them to follow his
example. But there was only one Colonel Lockwood on that
Committee. No eye met mine except minority eyes, dancing with
mischief. There was nothing more to be said. I went home to my
morning's work, and returned in the afternoon to receive the
apologies of the minority for the conduct of the majority, and to
see Mr Granville Barker, overwhelmed by the conscience-stricken
politeness of the now almost abject Committee, and by a powerful
smell of carnations, heading the long list of playwrights who
came there to testify against the censorship, and whose
treatment, I am happy to say, was everything they could have

After all, ridiculous as the scene was, Colonel Lockwood's
simplicity and courage were much more serviceable to his
colleagues than their own inept coup de theatre would have been
if he had not spoiled it. It was plain to every one that he had
acted in entire good faith, without a thought as to these
apparently insignificant little books being of any importance or
having caused me or anybody else any trouble, and that he was
wounded in his most sensitive spot by the construction my Times
letter had put on his action. And in Colonel Lockwood's case one
saw the case of his party on the Committee. They had simply been
thoughtless in the matter.

I hope nobody will suppose that this in any way exonerates them.
When people accept public service for one of the most vital
duties that can arise in our society, they have no right to be
thoughtless. In spite of the fun of the scene on the surface, my
public sense was, and still is, very deeply offended by it. It
made an end for me of the claim of the majority to be taken
seriously. When the Government comes to deal with the question,
as it presumably will before long, I invite it to be guided
by the Chairman, the minority, and by the witnesses according to
their weight, and to pay no attention whatever to those
recommendations which were obviously inserted solely to
conciliate the majority and get the report through and the
Committee done with.

My evidence will be found in the Bluebook, pp. 46-53. And here is
the terrible statement which the Committee went through so much
to suppress.




I am by profession a playwright. I have been in practice since
1892. I am a member of the Managing Committee of the Society of
Authors and of the Dramatic Sub-Committee of that body. I have
written nineteen plays, some of which have been translated and
performed in all European countries except Turkey, Greece, and
Portugal. They have been performed extensively in America. Three
of them have been refused licences by the Lord Chamberlain. In
one case a licence has since been granted. The other two are
still unlicensed. I have suffered both in pocket and reputation
by the action of the Lord Chamberlain. In other countries I have
not come into conflict with the censorship except in Austria,
where the production of a comedy of mine was postponed for a year
because it alluded to the part taken by Austria in the Servo-
Bulgarian war. This comedy was not one of the plays suppressed in
England by the Lord Chamberlain. One of the plays so suppressed
was prosecuted in America by the police in consequence of an
immense crowd of disorderly persons having been attracted to the
first performance by the Lord Chamberlain's condemnation of it;
but on appeal to a higher court it was decided that the
representation was lawful and the intention innocent, since when
it has been repeatedly performed.

I am not an ordinary playwright in general practice. I am a
specialist in immoral and heretical plays. My reputation has been
gained by my persistent struggle to force the public to
reconsider its morals. In particular, I regard much current
morality as to economic and sexual relations as disastrously
wrong; and I regard certain doctrines of the Christian religion
as understood in England to-day with abhorrence. I write plays
with the deliberate object of converting the nation to my
opinions in these matters. I have no other effectual incentive to
write plays, as I am not dependent on the theatre for my
livelihood. If I were prevented from producing immoral and
heretical plays, I should cease to write for the theatre, and
propagate my views from the platform and through books. I mention
these facts to shew that I have a special interest in the
achievement by my profession of those rights of liberty of speech
and conscience which are matters of course in other professions.
I object to censorship not merely because the existing form of it
grievously injures and hinders me individually, but on public


In dealing with the question of the censorship, everything
depends on the correct use of the word immorality, and a careful
discrimination between the powers of a magistrate or judge to
administer a code, and those of a censor to please himself.

Whatever is contrary to established manners and customs is
immoral. An immoral act or doctrine is not necessarily a sinful
one: on the contrary, every advance in thought and conduct is by
definition immoral until it has converted the majority. For this
reason it is of the most enormous importance that immorality
should be protected jealously against the attacks of those who
have no standard except the standard of custom, and who regard
any attack on custom--that is, on morals--as an attack on
society, on religion, and on virtue.

A censor is never intentionally a protector of immorality. He
always aims at the protection of morality. Now morality is
extremely valuable to society. It imposes conventional conduct on
the great mass of persons who are incapable of original ethical
judgment, and who would be quite lost if they were not in
leading-strings devised by lawgivers, philosophers, prophets and
poets for their guidance. But morality is not dependent on
censorship for protection. It is already powerfully fortified
by the magistracy and the whole body of law. Blasphemy,
indecency, libel, treason, sedition, obscenity, profanity, and
all the other evils which a censorship is supposed to avert, are
punishable by the civil magistrate with all the severity of
vehement prejudice. Morality has not only every engine that
lawgivers can devise in full operation for its protection, but
also that enormous weight of public opinion enforced by social
ostracism which is stronger than all the statutes. A censor
pretending to protect morality is like a child pushing the
cushions of a railway carriage to give itself the sensation of
making the train travel at sixty miles an hour. It is immorality,
not morality, that needs protection: it is morality, not
immorality, that needs restraint; for morality, with all the dead
weight of human inertia and superstition to hang on the back of
the pioneer, and all the malice of vulgarity and prejudice to
threaten him, is responsible for many persecutions and many

Persecutions and martyrdoms, however, are trifles compared to the
mischief done by censorships in delaying the general march of
enlightenment. This can be brought home to us by imagining what
would have been the effect of applying to all literature the
censorship we still apply to the stage. The works of Linnaeus and
the evolutionists of 1790-1830, of Darwin, Wallace, Huxley,
Helmholtz, Tyndall, Spencer, Carlyle, Ruskin, and Samuel Butler,
would not have been published, as they were all immoral and
heretical in the very highest degree, and gave pain to many
worthy and pious people. They are at present condemned by the
Greek and Roman Catholic censorships as unfit for general
reading. A censorship of conduct would have been equally
disastrous. The disloyalty of Hampden and of Washington; the
revolting immorality of Luther in not only marrying when he was a
priest, but actually marrying a nun; the heterodoxy of Galileo;
the shocking blasphemies and sacrileges of Mohammed against the
idols whom he dethroned to make way for his conception of one
god; the still more startling blasphemy of Jesus when he declared
God to be the son of man and himself to be the son of God, are
all examples of shocking immoralities (every immorality shocks
somebody), the suppression and extinction of which would have
been more disastrous than the utmost mischief that can be
conceived as ensuing from the toleration of vice.

These facts, glaring as they are, are disguised by the
promotion of immoralities into moralities which is constantly
going on. Christianity and Mohammedanism, once thought of and
dealt with exactly as Anarchism is thought of and dealt with
today, have become established religions; and fresh immoralities
are prosecuted in their name. The truth is that the vast majority
of persons professing these religions have never been anything
but simple moralists. The respectable Englishman who is a
Christian because he was born in Clapham would be a Mohammedan
for the cognate reason if he had been born in Constantinople. He
has never willingly tolerated immorality. He did not adopt any
innovation until it had become moral; and then he adopted it, not
on its merits, but solely because it had become moral. In doing
so he never realized that it had ever been immoral: consequently
its early struggles taught him no lesson; and he has opposed the
next step in human progress as indignantly as if neither manners,
customs, nor thought had ever changed since the beginning of the
world. Toleration must be imposed on him as a mystic and painful
duty by his spiritual and political leaders, or he will condemn
the world to stagnation, which is the penalty of an inflexible


This must be done all the more arbitrarily because it is not
possible to make the ordinary moral man understand what
toleration and liberty really mean. He will accept them verbally
with alacrity, even with enthusiasm, because the word toleration
has been moralized by eminent Whigs; but what he means by
toleration is toleration of doctrines that he considers
enlightened, and, by liberty, liberty to do what he considers
right: that is, he does not mean toleration or liberty at all;
for there is no need to tolerate what appears enlightened or to
claim liberty to do what most people consider right.
Toleration and liberty have no sense or use except as
toleration of opinions that are considered damnable, and
liberty to do what seems wrong. Setting Englishmen free to marry
their deceased wife's sisters is not tolerated by the people who
approve of it, but by the people who regard it as incestuous.
Catholic Emancipation and the admission of Jews to parliament
needed no toleration from Catholics and Jews: the toleration they
needed was that of the people who regarded the one measure as a
facilitation of idolatry, and the other as a condonation
of the crucifixion. Clearly such toleration is not clamored
for by the multitude or by the press which reflects its
prejudices. It is essentially one of those abnegations of passion
and prejudice which the common man submits to because uncommon
men whom he respects as wiser than himself assure him that it
must be so, or the higher affairs of human destiny will suffer.

Such admission is the more difficult because the arguments
against tolerating immorality are the same as the arguments
against tolerating murder and theft; and this is why the Censor
seems to the inconsiderate as obviously desirable a functionary
as the police magistrate. But there is this simple and tremendous
difference between the cases: that whereas no evil can
conceivably result from the total suppression of murder and
theft, and all communities prosper in direct proportion to such
suppression, the total suppression of immorality, especially
in matters of religion and sex, would stop enlightenment,
and produce what used to be called a Chinese civilization until
the Chinese lately took to immoral courses by permitting railway
contractors to desecrate the graves of their ancestors, and their
soldiers to wear clothes which indecently revealed the fact that
they had legs and waists and even posteriors. At about the same
moment a few bold Englishwomen ventured on the immorality of
riding astride their horses, a practice that has since
established itself so successfully that before another generation
has passed away there may not be a new side-saddle in England or
a woman who could use it if there was.


Accordingly, there has risen among wise and far-sighted men a
perception of the need for setting certain departments of human
activity entirely free from legal interference. This has nothing
to do with any sympathy these liberators may themselves have with
immoral views. A man with the strongest conviction of the Divine
ordering of the universe and of the superiority of monarchy to
all forms of government may nevertheless quite consistently and
conscientiously be ready to lay down his life for the right of
every man to advocate Atheism or Republicanism if he believes in
them. An attack on morals may turn out to be the salvation of the
race. A hundred years ago nobody foresaw that Tom Paine's
centenary would be the subject of a laudatory special article in
The Times; and only a few understood that the persecution of his
works and the transportation of men for the felony of reading
them was a mischievous mistake. Even less, perhaps, could they
have guessed that Proudhon, who became notorious by his essay
entitled "What is Property? It is Theft" would have received,
on the like occasion and in the same paper, a respectful
consideration which nobody would now dream of according to Lord
Liverpool or Lord Brougham. Nevertheless there was a mass of
evidence to shew that such a development was not only possible
but fairly probable, and that the risks of suppressing liberty of
propaganda were far greater than the risk of Paine's or
Proudhon's writings wrecking civilization. Now there was no such
evidence in favor of tolerating the cutting of throats and the
robbing of tills. No case whatever can be made out for the
statement that a nation cannot do without common thieves and
homicidal ruffians. But an overwhelming case can be made out for
the statement that no nation can prosper or even continue to
exist without heretics and advocates of shockingly immoral
doctrines. The Inquisition and the Star Chamber, which were
nothing but censorships, made ruthless war on impiety and
immorality. The result was once familiar to Englishmen, though of
late years it seems to have been forgotten. It cost England a
revolution to get rid of the Star Chamber. Spain did not get rid
of the Inquisition, and paid for that omission by becoming a
barely third-rate power politically, and intellectually no power
at all, in the Europe she had once dominated as the
mightiest of the Christian empires.


But the large toleration these considerations dictate has limits.
For example, though we tolerate, and rightly tolerate, the
propaganda of Anarchism as a political theory which embraces all
that is valuable in the doctrine of Laisser-Faire and the method
of Free Trade as well as all that is shocking in the views of
Bakounine, we clearly cannot, or at all events will not, tolerate
assassination of rulers on the ground that it is "propaganda
by deed" or sociological experiment. A play inciting to such an
assassination cannot claim the privileges of heresy or
immorality, because no case can be made out in support of
assassination as an indispensable instrument of progress. Now it
happens that we have in the Julius Caesar of Shakespear a play
which the Tsar of Russia or the Governor-General of India would
hardly care to see performed in their capitals just now. It is an
artistic treasure; but it glorifies a murder which Goethe
described as the silliest crime ever committed. It may quite
possibly have helped the regicides of 1649 to see themselves, as
it certainly helped generations of Whig statesmen to see them, in
a heroic light; and it unquestionably vindicates and ennobles a
conspirator who assassinated the head of the Roman State not
because he abused his position but solely because he occupied it,
thus affirming the extreme republican principle that all kings,
good or bad, should be killed because kingship and freedom cannot
live together. Under certain circumstances this vindication and
ennoblement might act as an incitement to an actual assassination
as well as to Plutarchian republicanism; for it is one thing to
advocate republicanism or royalism: it is quite another to make a
hero of Brutus or Ravaillac, or a heroine of Charlotte Corday.
Assassination is the extreme form of censorship; and it seems
hard to justify an incitement to it on anti-censorial principles.
The very people who would have scouted the notion of prohibiting
the performances of Julius Caesar at His Majesty's Theatre in
London last year, might now entertain very seriously a proposal
to exclude Indians from them, and to suppress the play completely
in Calcutta and Dublin; for if the assassin of Caesar was a hero,
why not the assassins of Lord Frederick Cavendish, Presidents
Lincoln and McKinley, and Sir Curzon Wyllie? Here is a strong
case for some constitutional means of preventing the performance
of a play. True, it is an equally strong case for preventing the
circulation of the Bible, which was always in the hands of our
regicides; but as the Roman Catholic Church does not hesitate to
accept that consequence of the censorial principle, it does not
invalidate the argument.

Take another actual case. A modern comedy, Arms and The Man,
though not a comedy of politics, is nevertheless so far
historical that it reveals the unacknowledged fact that as the
Servo-Bulgarian War of 1885 was much more than a struggle between
the Servians and Bulgarians, the troops engaged were officered by
two European Powers of the first magnitude. In consequence,
the performance of the play was for some time forbidden in
Vienna, and more recently it gave offence in Rome at a moment
when popular feeling was excited as to the relations of Austria
with the Balkan States. Now if a comedy so remote from political
passion as Arms and The Man can, merely because it refers to
political facts, become so inconvenient and inopportune that
Foreign Offices take the trouble to have its production
postponed, what may not be the effect of what is called a
patriotic drama produced at a moment when the balance is
quivering between peace and war? Is there not something to be
said for a political censorship, if not for a moral one? May not
those continental governments who leave the stage practically
free in every other respect, but muzzle it politically, be
justified by the practical exigencies of the situation?


The answer is that a pamphlet, a newspaper article, or a
resolution moved at a political meeting can do all the mischief
that a play can, and often more; yet we do not set up a permanent
censorship of the press or of political meetings. Any journalist
may publish an article, any demagogue may deliver a speech
without giving notice to the government or obtaining its licence.
The risk of such freedom is great; but as it is the price of our
political liberty, we think it worth paying. We may abrogate
it in emergencies by a Coercion Act, a suspension of the Habeas
Corpus Act, or a proclamation of martial law, just as we stop the
traffic in a street during a fire, or shoot thieves at sight if
they loot after an earthquake. But when the emergency is past,
liberty is restored everywhere except in the theatre. The Act of
1843 is a permanent Coercion Act for the theatre, a permanent
suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act as far as plays are
concerned, a permanent proclamation of martial law with a single
official substituted for a court martial. It is, in fact, assumed
that actors, playwrights, and theatre managers are dangerous and
dissolute characters whose existence creates a chronic state of
emergency, and who must be treated as earthquake looters are
treated. It is not necessary now to discredit this assumption. It
was broken down by the late Sir Henry Irving when he finally
shamed the Government into extending to his profession the
official recognition enjoyed by the other branches of fine art.
To-day we have on the roll of knighthood actors, authors, and
managers. The rogue and vagabond theory of the depravity of the
theatre is as dead officially as it is in general society; and
with it has perished the sole excuse for the Act of 1843 and
for the denial to the theatre of the liberties secured, at
far greater social risk, to the press and the platform.

There is no question here of giving the theatre any larger
liberties than the press and the platform, or of claiming larger
powers for Shakespear to eulogize Brutus than Lord Rosebery has
to eulogize Cromwell. The abolition of the censorship does not
involve the abolition of the magistrate and of the whole civil
and criminal code. On the contrary it would make the theatre more
effectually subject to them than it is at present; for once
a play now runs the gauntlet of the censorship, it is
practically placed above the law. It is almost humiliating
to have to demonstrate the essential difference between a censor
and a magistrate or a sanitary inspector; but it is impossible to
ignore the carelessness with which even distinguished critics of
the theatre assume that all the arguments proper to the support
of a magistracy and body of jurisprudence apply equally to a

A magistrate has laws to administer: a censor has nothing but his
own opinion. A judge leaves the question of guilt to the jury:
the Censor is jury and judge as well as lawgiver. A magistrate
may be strongly prejudiced against an atheist or an anti-
vaccinator, just as a sanitary inspector may have formed a
careful opinion that drains are less healthy than cesspools; but
the magistrate must allow the atheist to affirm instead of to
swear, and must grant the anti-vaccinator an exemption
certificate, when their demands are lawfully made; and in cities
the inspector must compel the builder to make drains and must
prosecute him if he makes cesspools. The law may be only the
intolerance of the community; but it is a defined and limited
intolerance. The limitation is sometimes carried so far that a
judge cannot inflict the penalty for housebreaking on a burglar
who can prove that he found the door open and therefore made only
an unlawful entry. On the other hand, it is sometimes so vague,
as for example in the case of the American law against obscenity,
that it makes the magistrate virtually a censor. But in the main
a citizen can ascertain what he may do and what he may not do;
and, though no one knows better than a magistrate that a single
ill-conducted family may demoralize a whole street, no magistrate
can imprison or otherwise restrain its members on the ground that
their immorality may corrupt their neighbors. He can prevent any
citizen from carrying certain specified weapons, but not from
handling pokers, table-knives, bricks or bottles of corrosive
fluid, on the ground that he might use them to commit murder or
inflict malicious injury. He has no general power to prevent
citizens from selling unhealthy or poisonous substances, or
judging for themselves what substances are unhealthy and what
wholesome, what poisonous and what innocuous: what he CAN do is
to prevent anybody who has not a specific qualification from
selling certain specified poisons of which a schedule is kept.
Nobody is forbidden to sell minerals without a licence; but
everybody is forbidden to sell silver without a licence. When the
law has forgotten some atrocious sin--for instance, contracting
marriage whilst suffering from contagious disease--the magistrate
cannot arrest or punish the wrongdoer, however he may abhor his
wickedness. In short, no man is lawfully at the mercy of the
magistrate's personal caprice, prejudice, ignorance,
superstition, temper, stupidity, resentment, timidity, ambition,
or private conviction. But a playwright's livelihood, his
reputation, and his inspiration and mission are at the personal
mercy of the Censor. The two do not stand, as the criminal and
the judge stand, in the presence of a law that binds them both
equally, and was made by neither of them, but by the
deliberative collective wisdom of the community. The only law
that affects them is the Act of 1843, which empowers one of them
to do absolutely and finally what he likes with the other's work.
And when it is remembered that the slave in this case is the man
whose profession is that of Eschylus and Euripides, of Shakespear
and Goethe, of Tolstoy and Ibsen, and the master the holder of a
party appointment which by the nature of its duties practically
excludes the possibility of its acceptance by a serious statesman
or great lawyer, it will be seen that the playwrights are
justified in reproaching the framers of that Act for having
failed not only to appreciate the immense importance of the
theatre as a most powerful instrument for teaching the nation how
and what to think and feel, but even to conceive that those who
make their living by the theatre are normal human beings with
the common rights of English citizens. In this extremity of
inconsiderateness it is not surprising that they also did not
trouble themselves to study the difference between a censor and a
magistrate. And it will be found that almost all the people who
disinterestedly defend the censorship today are defending him on
the assumption that there is no constitutional difference between
him and any other functionary whose duty it is to restrain
crime and disorder.

One further difference remains to be noted. As a magistrate grows
old his mind may change or decay; but the law remains the same.
The censorship of the theatre fluctuates with every change in the
views and character of the man who exercises it. And what this
implies can only be appreciated by those who can imagine what the
effect on the mind must be of the duty of reading through every
play that is produced in the kingdom year in, year out.


What may be called the high political case against censorship as
a principle is now complete. The pleadings are those which have
already freed books and pulpits and political platforms in
England from censorship, if not from occasional legal
persecution. The stage alone remains under a censorship of a
grotesquely unsuitable kind. No play can be performed if the Lord
Chamberlain happens to disapprove of it. And the Lord
Chamberlain's functions have no sort of relationship to
dramatic literature. A great judge of literature, a farseeing
statesman, a born champion of liberty of conscience and
intellectual integrity--say a Milton, a Chesterfield, a Bentham--
would be a very bad Lord Chamberlain: so bad, in fact, that his
exclusion from such a post may be regarded as decreed by natural
law. On the other hand, a good Lord Chamberlain would be a
stickler for morals in the narrowest sense, a busy-body, a man to
whom a matter of two inches in the length of a gentleman's sword
or the absence of a feather from a lady's head-dress would be a
graver matter than the Habeas Corpus Act. The Lord Chamberlain,
as Censor of the theatre, is a direct descendant of the King's
Master of the Revels, appointed in 1544 by Henry VIII. To keep
order among the players and musicians of that day when they
performed at Court. This first appearance of the theatrical
censor in politics as the whipper-in of the player, with its
conception of the player as a rich man's servant hired to amuse
him, and, outside his professional duties, as a gay, disorderly,
anarchic spoilt child, half privileged, half outlawed, probably
as much vagabond as actor, is the real foundation of the
subjection of the whole profession, actors, managers, authors
and all, to the despotic authority of an officer whose business
it is to preserve decorum among menials. It must be remembered
that it was not until a hundred years later, in the reaction
against the Puritans, that a woman could appear on the English
stage without being pelted off as the Italian actresses were. The
theatrical profession was regarded as a shameless one; and it is
only of late years that actresses have at last succeeded in
living down the assumption that actress and prostitute are
synonymous terms, and made good their position in respectable
society. This makes the survival of the old ostracism in the Act
of 1843 intolerably galling; and though it explains the
apparently unaccountable absurdity of choosing as Censor of
dramatic literature an official whose functions and
qualifications have nothing whatever to do with literature, it
also explains why the present arrangement is not only criticized
as an institution, but resented as an insult.


There is another reason, quite unconnected with the
Susceptibilities of authors, which makes it undesirable that a
member of the King's Household should be responsible for the
character and tendency of plays. The drama, dealing with all
departments of human life, is necessarily political. Recent
events have shown--what indeed needed no demonstration--that it
is impossible to prevent inferences being made, both at home and
abroad, from the action of the Lord Chamberlain. The most talked-
about play of the present year (1909), An Englishman's Home, has
for its main interest an invasion of England by a fictitious
power which is understood, as it is meant to be understood, to
represent Germany. The lesson taught by the play is the danger of
invasion and the need for every English citizen to be a soldier.
The Lord Chamberlain licensed this play, but refused to license a
parody of it. Shortly afterwards he refused to license another
play in which the fear of a German invasion was ridiculed. The
German press drew the inevitable inference that the Lord
Chamberlain was an anti-German alarmist, and that his opinions
were a reflection of those prevailing in St. James's Palace.
Immediately after this, the Lord Chamberlain licensed the play.
Whether the inference, as far as the Lord Chamberlain was
concerned, was justified, is of no consequence. What is important
is that it was sure to be made, justly or unjustly, and extended
from the Lord Chamberlain to the Throne.


There is another objection to the Lord Chamberlain's censorship
which affects the author's choice of subject. Formerly very
little heed was given in England to the susceptibilities of
foreign courts. For instance, the notion that the Mikado of Japan
should be as sacred to the English playwright as he is to the
Japanese Lord Chamberlain would have seemed grotesque a
generation ago. Now that the maintenance of entente cordiale
between nations is one of the most prominent and most useful
functions of the crown, the freedom of authors to deal with
political subjects, even historically, is seriously
threatened by the way in which the censorship makes the King
responsible for the contents of every play. One author--the
writer of these lines, in fact--has long desired to dramatize the
life of Mahomet. But the possibility of a protest from the
Turkish Ambassador--or the fear of it--causing the Lord
Chamberlain to refuse to license such a play has prevented the
play from being written. Now, if the censorship were abolished,
nobody but the author could be held responsible for the play.
The Turkish Ambassador does not now protest against the
publication of Carlyle's essay on the prophet, or of the English
translations of the Koran in the prefaces to which Mahomet is
criticized as an impostor, or of the older books in which he is
reviled as Mahound and classed with the devil himself. But if
these publications had to be licensed by the Lord Chamberlain it
would be impossible for the King to allow the licence to be
issued, as he would thereby be made responsible for the opinions
expressed. This restriction of the historical drama is an
unmixed evil. Great religious leaders are more interesting
and more important subjects for the dramatist than great
conquerors. It is a misfortune that public opinion would not
tolerate a dramatization of Mahomet in Constantinople. But to
prohibit it here, where public opinion would tolerate it, is an
absurdity which, if applied in all directions, would make it
impossible for the Queen to receive a Turkish ambassador without
veiling herself, or the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's to display
a cross on the summit of their Cathedral in a city occupied
largely and influentially by Jews. Court etiquet is no doubt an
excellent thing for court ceremonies; but to attempt to impose it
on the drama is about as sensible as an attempt to make everybody
in London wear court dress.


In the above cases the general question of censorship is
separable from the question of the present form of it. Every one
who condemns the principle of censorship must also condemn the
Lord Chamberlain's control of the drama; but those who approve of
the principle do not necessarily approve of the Lord Chamberlain
being the Censor ex officio. They may, however, be entirely
opposed to popular liberties, and may conclude from what has been
said, not that the stage should be made as free as the church,
press, or platform, but that these institutions should be
censored as strictly as the stage. It will seem obvious to them
that nothing is needed to remove all objections to a censorship
except the placing of its powers in better hands.

Now though the transfer of the censorship to, say, the Lord
Chancellor, or the Primate, or a Cabinet Minister, would be much
less humiliating to the persons immediately concerned, the
inherent vices of the institution would not be appreciably less
disastrous. They would even be aggravated, for reasons which do
not appear on the surface, and therefore need to be followed with
some attention.

It is often said that the public is the real censor. That this is
to some extent true is proved by the fact that plays which are
licensed and produced in London have to be expurgated for the
provinces. This does not mean that the provinces are more strait-
laced, but simply that in many provincial towns there is only one
theatre for all classes and all tastes, whereas in London there
are separate theatres for separate sections of playgoers; so
that, for example, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree can conduct His
Majesty's Theatre without the slightest regard to the tastes of
the frequenters of the Gaiety Theatre; and Mr. George Edwardes
can conduct the Gaiety Theatre without catering in any way for
lovers of Shakespear. Thus the farcical comedy which has
scandalized the critics in London by the libertinage of its jests
is played to the respectable dress circle of Northampton
with these same jests slurred over so as to be imperceptible by
even the most prurient spectator. The public, in short, takes
care that nobody shall outrage it.

But the public also takes care that nobody shall starve it, or
regulate its dramatic diet as a schoolmistress regulates the
reading of her pupils. Even when it wishes to be debauched, no
censor can--or at least no censor does--stand out against it. If
a play is irresistibly amusing, it gets licensed no matter what
its moral aspect may be. A brilliant instance is the Divorcons of
the late Victorien Sardou, which may not have been the naughtiest
play of the 19th century, but was certainly the very naughtiest
that any English manager in his senses would have ventured to
produce. Nevertheless, being a very amusing play, it passed the
licenser with the exception of a reference to impotence as a
ground for divorce which no English actress would have ventured
on in any case. Within the last few months a very amusing comedy
with a strongly polygamous moral was found irresistible by the
Lord Chamberlain. Plenty of fun and a happy ending will get
anything licensed, because the public will have it so, and the
Examiner of Plays, as the holder of the office testified before
the Commission of 1892 (Report, page 330), feels with the public,
and knows that his office could not survive a widespread
unpopularity. In short, the support of the mob--that is, of the
unreasoning, unorganized, uninstructed mass of popular
sentiment--is indispensable to the censorship as it exists to-
day in England. This is the explanation of the toleration by the
Lord Chamberlain of coarse and vicious plays. It is not long
since a judge before whom a licensed play came in the course of a
lawsuit expressed his scandalized astonishment at the licensing
of such a work. Eminent churchmen have made similar protests.
In some plays the simulation of criminal assaults on the stage
has been carried to a point at which a step further would have
involved the interference of the police. Provided the treatment
of the theme is gaily or hypocritically popular, and the ending
happy, the indulgence of the Lord Chamberlain can be counted on.
On the other hand, anything unpleasing and unpopular is
rigorously censored. Adultery and prostitution are tolerated and
even encouraged to such an extent that plays which do not deal
with them are commonly said not to be plays at all. But if any of
the unpleasing consequences of adultery and prostitution--for
instance, an UNSUCCESSFUL illegal operation (successful ones are
tolerated) or venereal disease--are mentioned, the play is
prohibited. This principle of shielding the playgoer from
unpleasant reflections is carried so far that when a play was
submitted for license in which the relations of a prostitute
with all the male characters in the piece was described as
"immoral," the Examiner of Plays objected to that passage, though
he made no objection to the relations themselves. The Lord
Chamberlain dare not, in short, attempt to exclude from the stage
the tragedies of murder and lust, or the farces of mendacity,
adultery, and dissolute gaiety in which vulgar people delight.
But when these same vulgar people are threatened with an
unpopular play in which dissoluteness is shown to be no
laughing matter, it is prohibited at once amid the vulgar
applause, the net result being that vice is made delightful
and virtue banned by the very institution which is
supported on the understanding that it produces exactly
the opposite result.


Now comes the question, Why is our censorship, armed as it is
with apparently autocratic powers, so scandalously timid in the
face of the mob? Why is it not as autocratic in dealing with
playwrights below the average as with those above it? The answer
is that its position is really a very weak one. It has no direct
co-ercive forces, no funds to institute prosecutions and recover
the legal penalties of defying it, no powers of arrest or
imprisonment, in short, none of the guarantees of autocracy. What
it can do is to refuse to renew the licence of a theatre at which
its orders are disobeyed. When it happens that a theatre is about
to be demolished, as was the case recently with the Imperial
Theatre after it had passed into the hands of the Wesleyan
Methodists, unlicensed plays can be performed, technically in
private, but really in full publicity, without risk. The
prohibited plays of Brieux and Ibsen have been performed in
London in this way with complete impunity. But the impunity is
not confined to condemned theatres. Not long ago a West End
manager allowed a prohibited play to be performed at his theatre,
taking his chance of losing his licence in consequence. The
event proved that the manager was justified in regarding the risk
as negligible; for the Lord Chamberlain's remedy--the closing of
a popular and well-conducted theatre--was far too extreme to be
practicable. Unless the play had so outraged public opinion as to
make the manager odious and provoke a clamor for his exemplary
punishment, the Lord Chamberlain could only have had his revenge
at the risk of having his powers abolished as unsupportably

The Lord Chamberlain then has his powers so adjusted that he is
tyrannical just where it is important that he should be tolerant,
and tolerant just where he could screw up the standard a little
by being tyrannical. His plea that there are unmentionable depths
to which managers and authors would descend if he did not prevent
them is disproved by the plain fact that his indulgence goes as
far as the police, and sometimes further than the public, will
let it. If our judges had so little power there would be no law
in England. If our churches had so much, there would be no
theatre, no literature, no science, no art, possibly no England.
The institution is at once absurdly despotic and abjectly weak.


Clearly a censorship of judges, bishops, or statesmen would not
be in this abject condition. It would no doubt make short work of
the coarse and vicious pieces which now enjoy the protection of
the Lord Chamberlain, or at least of those of them in which the
vulgarity and vice are discoverable by merely reading the prompt
copy. But it would certainly disappoint the main hope of its
advocates: the hope that it would protect and foster the higher
drama. It would do nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it would
inevitably suppress it more completely than the Lord Chamberlain
does, because it would understand it better. The one play of
Ibsen's which is prohibited on the English stage, Ghosts, is far
less subversive than A Doll's House. But the Lord Chamberlain
does not meddle with such far-reaching matters as the tendency of
a play. He refuses to license Ghosts exactly as he would refuse
to license Hamlet if it were submitted to him as a new play. He
would license even Hamlet if certain alterations were made in it.
He would disallow the incestuous relationship between the King
and Queen. He would probably insist on the substitution of some
fictitious country for Denmark in deference to the near relations
of our reigning house with that realm. He would certainly make it
an absolute condition that the closet scene, in which a son, in
an agony of shame and revulsion, reproaches his mother for her
relations with his uncle, should be struck out as unbearably
horrifying and improper. But compliance with these conditions
would satisfy him. He would raise no speculative objections to
the tendency of the play.

This indifference to the larger issues of a theatrical
performance could not be safely predicated of an enlightened
censorship. Such a censorship might be more liberal in its
toleration of matters which are only objected to on the ground
that they are not usually discussed in general social
conversation or in the presence of children; but it would
presumably have a far deeper insight to and concern for the real
ethical tendency of the play. For instance, had it been in
existence during the last quarter of a century, it would have
perceived that those plays of Ibsen's which have been licensed
without question are fundamentally immoral to an altogether
extraordinary degree. Every one of them is a deliberate act of
war on society as at present constituted. Religion, marriage,
ordinary respectability, are subjected to a destructive exposure
and criticism which seems to mere moralists--that is, to persons
of no more than average depth of mind--to be diabolical. It is no
exaggeration to say that Ibsen gained his overwhelming reputation
by undertaking a task of no less magnitude than changing the mind
of Europe with the view of changing its morals. Now you cannot
license work of that sort without making yourself responsible for
it. The Lord Chamberlain accepted the responsibility because
he did not understand it or concern himself about it. But what
really enlightened and conscientious official dare take such a
responsibility? The strength of character and range of vision
which made Ibsen capable of it are not to be expected from any
official, however eminent. It is true that an enlightened censor
might, whilst shrinking even with horror from Ibsen's views,
perceive that any nation which suppressed Ibsen would presently
find itself falling behind the nations which tolerated him
just as Spain fell behind England; but the proper action to take
on such a conviction is the abdication of censorship, not the
practise of it. As long as a censor is a censor, he cannot
endorse by his licence opinions which seem to him dangerously

We may, therefore, conclude that the more enlightened a
censorship is, the worse it would serve us. The Lord Chamberlain,
an obviously unenlightened Censor, prohibits Ghosts and licenses
all the rest of Ibsen's plays. An enlightened censorship would
possibly license Ghosts; but it would certainly suppress many of
the other plays. It would suppress subversiveness as well as what
is called bad taste. The Lord Chamberlain prohibits one play by
Sophocles because, like Hamlet, it mentions the subject of
incest; but an enlightened censorship might suppress all the
plays of Euripides because Euripides, like Ibsen, was a
revolutionary Freethinker. Under the Lord Chamberlain, we can
smuggle a good deal of immoral drama and almost as much coarsely
vulgar and furtively lascivious drama as we like. Under a college
of cardinals, or bishops, or judges, or any other conceivable
form of experts in morals, philosophy, religion, or politics, we
should get little except stagnant mediocrity.


There is, besides, a crushing material difficulty in the way of
an enlightened censorship. It is not too much to say that the
work involved would drive a man of any intellectual rank mad.
Consider, for example, the Christmas pantomimes. Imagine a judge
of the High Court, or an archbishop, or a Cabinet Minister, or an
eminent man of letters, earning his living by reading through the
mass of trivial doggerel represented by all the pantomimes which
are put into rehearsal simultaneously at the end of every year.
The proposal to put such mind-destroying drudgery upon an
official of the class implied by the demand for an enlightened
censorship falls through the moment we realize what it implies
in practice.

Another material difficulty is that no play can be judged by
merely reading the dialogue. To be fully effective a censor
should witness the performance. The mise-en-scene of a play is as
much a part of it as the words spoken on the stage. No censor
could possibly object to such a speech as "Might I speak to you
for a moment, miss"; yet that apparently innocent phrase has
often been made offensively improper on the stage by popular low
comedians, with the effect of changing the whole character and
meaning of the play as understood by the official Examiner. In
one of the plays of the present season, the dialogue was that of
a crude melodrama dealing in the most conventionally correct
manner with the fortunes of a good-hearted and virtuous girl. Its
morality was that of the Sunday school. But the principal
actress, between two speeches which contained no reference to her
action, changed her underclothing on the stage? It is true that
in this case the actress was so much better than her part that
she succeeded in turning what was meant as an impropriety into
an inoffensive stroke of realism; yet it is none the less clear
that stage business of this character, on which there can be no
check except the actual presence of a censor in the theatre,
might convert any dialogue, however innocent, into just the sort
of entertainment against which the Censor is supposed to protect
the public.

It was this practical impossibility that prevented the London
County Council from attempting to apply a censorship of the Lord
Chamberlain's pattern to the London music halls. A proposal to
examine all entertainments before permitting their performance
was actually made; and it was abandoned, not in the least as
contrary to the liberty of the stage, but because the executive
problem of how to do it at once reduced the proposal to
absurdity. Even if the Council devoted all its time to witnessing
rehearsals of variety performances, and putting each item to the
vote, possibly after a prolonged discussion followed by a
division, the work would still fall into arrear. No committee
could be induced to undertake such a task. The attachment of an
inspector of morals to each music hall would have meant an
appreciable addition to the ratepayers' burden. In the face
of such difficulties the proposal melted away. Had it been pushed
through, and the inspectors appointed, each of them would have
become a censor, and the whole body of inspectors would have
become a police des moeurs. Those who know the history of such
police forces on the continent will understand how impossible it
would be to procure inspectors whose characters would stand the
strain of their opportunities of corruption, both pecuniary
and personal, at such salaries as a local authority could be
persuaded to offer.

It has been suggested that the present censorship should be
supplemented by a board of experts, who should deal, not with the
whole mass of plays sent up for license, but only those which the
Examiner of Plays refuses to pass. As the number of plays which
the Examiner refuses to pass is never great enough to occupy
a Board in permanent session with regular salaries, and as casual
employment is not compatible with public responsibility, this
proposal would work out in practice as an addition to the duties
of some existing functionary. A Secretary of State would be
objectionable as likely to be biased politically. An
ecclesiastical referee might be biassed against the theatre
altogether. A judge in chambers would be the proper authority.
This plan would combine the inevitable intolerance of an
enlightened censorship with the popular laxity of the Lord

The judge would suppress the pioneers, whilst the Examiner of
Plays issued two guinea certificates for the vulgar and vicious
plays. For this reason the plan would no doubt be popular; but it
would be very much as a relaxation of the administration of the
Public Health Acts accompanied by the cheapening of gin would be


On the occasion of a recent deputation of playwrights to the
Prime Minister it was suggested that if a censorship be
inevitable, provision should be made for an appeal from the Lord
Chamberlain in cases of refusal of licence. The authors of this
suggestion propose that the Lord Chamberlain shall choose one
umpire and the author another. The two umpires shall then elect a
referee, whose decision shall be final.

This proposal is not likely to be entertained by constitutional
lawyers. It is a naive offer to accept the method of arbitration
in what is essentially a matter, not between one private
individual or body and another, but between a public offender and
the State. It will presumably be ruled out as a proposal to refer
a case of manslaughter to arbitration would be ruled out. But
even if it were constitutionally sound, it bears all the marks
of that practical inexperience which leads men to believe that
arbitration either costs nothing or is at least cheaper than law.
Who is to pay for the time of the three arbitrators, presumably
men of high professional standing? The author may not be able:
the manager may not be willing: neither of them should be called
upon to pay for a public service otherwise than by their
contributions to the revenue. Clearly the State should pay. But
even so, the difficulties are only beginning. A licence is seldom
refused except on grounds which are controversial.

The two arbitrators selected by the opposed parties to the
controversy are to agree to leave the decision to a third party
unanimously chosen by themselves. That is very far from being a
simple solution. An attempt to shorten and simplify the passing
of the Finance Bill by referring it to an arbitrator chosen
unanimously by Mr. Asquith and Mr. Balfour might not improbably
cost more and last longer than a civil war. And why should the
chosen referee--if he ever succeeded in getting chosen--be
assumed to be a safer authority than the Examiner of Plays? He
would certainly be a less responsible one: in fact, being
(however eminent) a casual person called in to settle a single
case, he would be virtually irresponsible. Worse still, he would
take all responsibility away from the Lord Chamberlain, who is at
least an official of the King's Household and a nominee of the
Government. The Lord Chamberlain, with all his shortcomings,
thinks twice before he refuses a licence, knowing that his
refusal is final and may promptly be made public. But if he
could transfer his responsibility to an arbitrator, he would
naturally do so whenever he felt the slightest misgiving, or
whenever, for diplomatic reasons, the licence would come more
gracefully from an authority unconnected with the court. These
considerations, added to the general objection to the principle
of censorship, seem sufficient to put the arbitration expedient
quite out of the question.





It must not be concluded that the uncompromising abolition of all
censorship involves the abandonment of all control and regulation
of theatres. Factories are regulated in the public interest; but
there is no censorship of factories. For example, many persons
are sincerely convinced that cotton clothing is unhealthy; that
alcoholic drinks are demoralizing; and that playing-cards are the
devil's picture-books. But though the factories in which cotton,
whiskey, and cards are manufactured are stringently regulated
under the factory code and the Public Health and Building Acts,
the inspectors appointed to carry out these Acts never go to a
manufacturer and inform him that unless he manufactures woollens
instead of cottons, ginger-beer instead of whiskey, Bibles
instead of playing-cards, he will be forbidden to place his
products on the market. In the case of premises licensed for the
sale of spirits the authorities go a step further. A public-house
differs from a factory in the essential particular that whereas
disorder in a factory is promptly and voluntarily suppressed,
because every moment of its duration involves a measurable
pecuniary loss to the proprietor, disorder in a public-house may
be a source of profit to the proprietor by its attraction for
disorderly customers. Consequently a publican is compelled to
obtain a licence to pursue his trade; and this licence lasts
only a year, and need not be renewed if his house has been
conducted in a disorderly manner in the meantime.


The theatre presents the same problem as the public-house in
respect to disorder. To begin with, a theatre is actually a place
licensed for the sale of spirits. The bars at a London theatre
can be let without difficulty for 30 pounds a week and upwards.
And though it is clear that nobody will pay from a shilling to
half a guinea for access to a theatre bar when he can obtain
access to an ordinary public-house for nothing, there is no law
to prevent the theatre proprietor from issuing free passes
broadcast and recouping himself by the profit on the sale of
drink. Besides, there may be some other attraction than the sale
of drink. When this attraction is that of the play no objection
need be made. But it happens that the auditorium of a theatre,
with its brilliant lighting and luxurious decorations, makes a
very effective shelter and background for the display of fine
dresses and pretty faces. Consequently theatres have been used
for centuries in England as markets by prostitutes. From the
Restoration to the days of Macready all theatres were made use of
in this way as a matter of course; and to this, far more than to
any prejudice against dramatic art, we owe the Puritan formula
that the theatre door is the gate of hell. Macready had a hard
struggle to drive the prostitutes from his theatre; and since his
time the London theatres controlled by the Lord Chamberlain have
become respectable and even socially pretentious. But some of the
variety theatres still derive a revenue by selling admissions to
women who do not look at the performance, and men who go to
purchase or admire the women. And in the provinces this state of
things is by no means confined to the variety theatres. The real
attraction is sometimes not the performance at all. The theatre
is not really a theatre: it is a drink shop and a prostitution
market; and the last shred of its disguise is stripped by the
virtually indiscriminate issue of free tickets to the men. Access
to the stage is so easily obtained; and the plays preferred by
the management are those in which the stage is filled with young
women who are not in any serious technical sense of the word
actresses at all. Considering that all this is now possible at
any theatre, and actually occurs at some theatres, the fact that
our best theatres are as respectable as they are is much to their
credit; but it is still an intolerable evil that respectable
managers should have to fight against the free tickets and
disorderly housekeeping of unscrupulous competitors. The dramatic
author is equally injured. He finds that unless he writes plays
which make suitable sideshows for drinking-bars and brothels, he
may be excluded from towns where there is not room for two
theatres, and where the one existing theatre is exploiting
drunkenness and prostitution instead of carrying on a legitimate
dramatic business. Indeed everybody connected with the theatrical
profession suffers in reputation from the detestable tradition of
such places, against which the censorship has proved quite

Here we have a strong case for applying either the licensing
system or whatever better means may be devized for securing the
orderly conduct of houses of public entertainment, dramatic or
other. Liberty must, no doubt, be respected in so far that no
manager should have the right to refuse admission to decently
dressed, sober, and well-conducted persons, whether they are
prostitutes, soldiers in uniform, gentlemen not in evening
dress, Indians, or what not; but when disorder is stopped,
disorderly persons will either cease to come or else reform their
manners. It is, however, quite arguable that the indiscriminate
issue of free admissions, though an apparently innocent and good-
natured, and certainly a highly popular proceeding, should expose
the proprietor of the theatre to the risk of a refusal to renew
his licence.


All this points to the transfer of the control of theatres from
the Lord Chamberlain to the municipality. And this step is
opposed by the long-run managers, partly because they take it for
granted that municipal control must involve municipal censorship
of plays, so that plays might be licensed in one town and
prohibited in the next, and partly because, as they have no
desire to produce plays which are in advance of public opinion,
and as the Lord Chamberlain in every other respect gives more
scandal by his laxity than trouble by his severity, they find in
the present system a cheap and easy means of procuring a
certificate which relieves them of all social responsibility, and
provides them with so strong a weapon of defence in case of a
prosecution that it acts in practice as a bar to any such
proceedings. Above all, they know that the Examiner of Plays is
free from the pressure of that large body of English public
opinion already alluded to, which regards the theatre as the
Prohibitionist Teetotaller regards the public-house: that is, as
an abomination to be stamped out unconditionally. The managers
rightly dread this pressure more than anything else; and they
believe that it is so strong in local governments as to be a
characteristic bias of municipal authority. In this they are no
doubt mistaken. There is not a municipal authority of any
importance in the country in which a proposal to stamp out the
theatre, or even to treat it illiberally, would have a chance of
adoption. Municipal control of the variety theatres (formerly
called music halls) has been very far from liberal, except in the
one particular in which the Lord Chamberlain is equally
illiberal. That particular is the assumption that a draped figure
is decent and an undraped one indecent. It is useless to point to
actual experience, which proves abundantly that naked or
apparently naked figures, whether exhibited as living pictures,
animated statuary, or in a dance, are at their best not only
innocent, but refining in their effect, whereas those actresses
and skirt dancers who have brought the peculiar aphrodisiac
effect which is objected to to the highest pitch of efficiency
wear twice as many petticoats as an ordinary lady does, and seldom
exhibit more than their ankles. Unfortunately, municipal
councillors persist in confusing decency with drapery; and both in
London and the provinces certain positively edifying performances
have been forbidden or withdrawn under pressure, and replaced by
coarse and vicious ones. There is not the slightest reason to
suppose that the Lord Chamberlain would have been any more
tolerant; but this does not alter the fact that the municipal
licensing authorities have actually used their powers to set up a
censorship which is open to all the objections to censorship in
general, and which, in addition, sets up the objection from which
central control is free: namely, the impossibility of planning
theatrical tours without the serious commercial risk of having the
performance forbidden in some of the towns booked. How can this be


The problem is not a difficult one. The municipality can be
limited just as the monarchy is limited. The Act transferring
theatres to local control can be a charter of the liberties of
the stage as well as an Act to reform administration. The power
to refuse to grant or renew a licence to a theatre need not be an
arbitrary one. The municipality may be required to state the
ground of refusal; and certain grounds can be expressly declared
as unlawful; so that it shall be possible for the manager to
resort to the courts for a mandamus to compel the authority to
grant a licence. It can be declared unlawful for a licensing
authority to demand from the manager any disclosure of the nature
of any entertainment he proposes to give, or to prevent its
performance, or to refuse to renew his licence on the ground that
the tendency of his entertainments is contrary to religion and
morals, or that the theatre is an undesirable institution, or
that there are already as many theatres as are needed, or that
the theatre draws people away from the churches, chapels, mission
halls, and the like in its neighborhood. The assumption should be
that every citizen has a right to open and conduct a theatre, and
therefore has a right to a licence unless he has forfeited that
right by allowing his theatre to become a disorderly house, or
failing to provide a building which complies with the regulations
concerning sanitation and egress in case of fire, or being
convicted of an offence against public decency. Also, the
licensing powers of the authority should not be delegated to any
official or committee; and the manager or lessee of the theatre
should have a right to appear in person or by counsel to plead
against any motion to refuse to grant or renew his licence. With
these safeguards the licensing power could not be stretched to
censorship. The manager would enjoy liberty of conscience as far
as the local authority is concerned; but on the least attempt on
his part to keep a disorderly house under cover of opening a
theatre he would risk his licence.

But the managers will not and should not be satisfied with these
limits to the municipal power. If they are deprived of the
protection of the Lord Chamberlain's licence, and at the same
time efficiently protected against every attempt at censorship by
the licensing authority, the enemies of the theatre will resort
to the ordinary law, and try to get from the prejudices of a jury
what they are debarred from getting from the prejudices of a
County Council or City Corporation. Moral Reform Societies,
"Purity" Societies, Vigilance Societies, exist in England and
America for the purpose of enforcing the existing laws against
obscenity, blasphemy, Sabbath-breaking, the debauchery of
children, prostitution and so forth. The paid officials of these
societies, in their anxiety to produce plenty of evidence of
their activity in the annual reports which go out to the
subscribers, do not always discriminate between an obscene
postcard and an artistic one, or to put it more exactly, between
a naked figure and an indecent one. They often combine a narrow
but terribly sincere sectarian bigotry with a complete ignorance
of art and history. Even when they have some culture, their
livelihood is at the mercy of subscribers and committee men who
have none. If these officials had any power of distinguishing
between art and blackguardism, between morality and virtue,
between immorality and vice, between conscientious heresy and
mere baseness of mind and foulness of mouth, they might be
trusted by theatrical managers not to abuse the powers of the
common informer. As it is, it has been found necessary, in order
to enable good music to be performed on Sunday, to take away
these powers in that particular, and vest them solely in the
Attorney-General. This disqualification of the common informer
should be extended to the initiation of all proceedings of a
censorial character against theatres. Few people are aware of the
monstrous laws against blasphemy which still disgrace our statute
book. If any serious attempt were made to carry them out, prison
accommodation would have to be provided for almost every educated
person in the country, beginning with the Archbishop of
Canterbury. Until some government with courage and character
enough to repeal them comes into power, it is not too much to
ask that such infamous powers of oppression should be kept in
responsible hands and not left at the disposal of every bigot
ignorant enough to be unaware of the social dangers of
persecution. Besides, the common informer is not always a
sincere bigot, who believes he is performing an action of signal
merit in silencing and ruining a heretic. He is unfortunately
just as often a blackmailer, who has studied his powers as a
common informer in order that he may extort money for refraining
from exercising them. If the manager is to be responsible he
should be made responsible to a responsible functionary. To be
responsible to every fanatical ignoramus who chooses to prosecute
him for exhibiting a cast of the Hermes of Praxiteles in his
vestibule, or giving a performance of Measure for Measure, is
mere slavery. It is made bearable at present by the protection
of the Lord Chamberlain's certificate. But when that is no longer
available, the common informer must be disarmed if the manager
is to enjoy security.


The general case against censorship as a principle, and the
particular case against the existing English censorship and
against its replacement by a more enlightened one, is now
complete. The following is a recapitulation of the propositions
and conclusions contended for.

1. The question of censorship or no censorship is a question of
high political principle and not of petty policy.

2. The toleration of heresy and shocks to morality on the stage,
and even their protection against the prejudices and
superstitions which necessarily enter largely into morality and
public opinion, are essential to the welfare of the nation.

3. The existing censorship of the Lord Chamberlain does not only
intentionally suppress heresy and challenges to morality in their
serious and avowed forms, but unintentionally gives the special
protection of its official licence to the most extreme
impropriety that the lowest section of London playgoers will
tolerate in theatres especially devoted to their entertainment,
licensing everything that is popular and forbidding any attempt
to change public opinion or morals.

4. The Lord Chamberlain's censorship is open to the special
objection that its application to political plays is taken to
indicate the attitude of the Crown on questions of domestic and
foreign policy, and that it imposes the limits of etiquet on the
historical drama.

5. A censorship of a more enlightened and independent kind,
exercised by the most eminent available authorities, would prove
in practice more disastrous than the censorship of the Lord
Chamberlain, because the more eminent its members were the less
possible it would be for them to accept the responsibility for
heresy or immorality by licensing them, and because the many
heretical and immoral plays which now pass the Lord Chamberlain
because he does not understand them, would be understood and
suppressed by a more highly enlightened censorship.

6. A reconstructed and enlightened censorship would be armed with
summary and effective powers which would stop the evasions by
which heretical and immoral plays are now performed in spite of
the Lord Chamberlain; and such powers would constitute a tyranny
which would ruin the theatre spiritually by driving all
independent thinkers from the drama into the uncensored
forms of art.

7. The work of critically examining all stage plays in their
written form, and of witnessing their performance in order to see
that the sense is not altered by the stage business, would, even
if it were divided among so many officials as to be physically
possible, be mentally impossible to persons of taste and

8. Regulation of theatres is an entirely different matter from
censorship, inasmuch as a theatre, being not only a stage, but a
place licensed for the sale of spirits, and a public resort
capable of being put to disorderly use, and needing special
provision for the safety of audiences in cases of fire, etc.,
cannot be abandoned wholly to private control, and may therefore
reasonably be made subject to an annual licence like those now
required before allowing premises to be used publicly for music
and dancing.

9. In order to prevent the powers of the licensing authority
being abused so as to constitute a virtual censorship, any Act
transferring the theatres to the control of a licensing authority
should be made also a charter of the rights of dramatic authors
and managers by the following provisions:

A. The public prosecutor (the Attorney-General) alone should have
the right to set the law in operation against the manager of a
theatre or the author of a play in respect of the character of
the play or entertainment.

B. No disclosure of the particulars of a theatrical entertainment
shall be required before performance.

C. Licences shall not be withheld on the ground that the
existence of theatres is dangerous to religion and morals, or on
the ground that any entertainment given or contemplated is
heretical or immoral.

D. The licensing area shall be no less than that of a County
Council or City Corporation, which shall not delegate its
licensing powers to any minor local authority or to any official
or committee; it shall decide all questions affecting the
existence of a theatrical licence by vote of the entire body;
managers, lessees, and proprietors of theatres shall have the
right to plead, in person or by counsel, against a proposal to
withhold a licence; and the licence shall not be withheld except
for stated reasons, the validity of which shall be subject to the
judgment of the high courts.

E. The annual licence, once granted, shall not be cancelled or
suspended unless the manager has been convicted by public
prosecution of an offence against the ordinary laws against
disorderly housekeeping, indecency, blasphemy, etc., except in
cases where some structural or sanitary defect in the building
necessitates immediate action for the protection of the public
against physical injury.

F. No licence shall be refused on the ground that the proximity
of the theatre to a church, mission hall, school, or other place
of worship, edification, instruction, or entertainment (including
another theatre) would draw the public away from such places into
its own doors.



On the facts mentioned in the foregoing statement, and in my
evidence before the Joint Select Committee, no controversy arose
except on one point. Mr. George Alexander protested vigorously
and indignantly against my admission that theatres, like public-
houses, need special control on the ground that they can profit
by disorder, and are sometimes conducted with that end in view.
Now, Mr. Alexander is a famous actor-manager; and it is very
difficult to persuade the public that the more famous an actor-
manager is the less he is likely to know about any theatre except
his own. When the Committee of 1892 reported, I was considered
guilty of a perverse paradox when I said that the witness who
knew least about the theatre was Henry Irving. Yet a moment's
consideration would have shown that the paradox was a platitude.
For about quarter of a century Irving was confined night after
night to his own theatre and his own dressing-room, never seeing
a play even there because he was himself part of the play;
producing the works of long-departed authors; and, to the extent
to which his talent was extraordinary, necessarily making his
theatre unlike any other theatre. When he went to the provinces
or to America, the theatres to which he went were swept and
garnished for him, and their staffs replaced--as far as he came
in contact with them--by his own lieutenants. In the end, there
was hardly a first-nighter in his gallery who did not know more
about the London theatres and the progress of dramatic art than
he; and as to the provinces, if any chief constable had told him
the real history and character of many provincial theatres, he
would have denounced that chief constable as an ignorant libeller
of a noble profession. But the constable would have been right
for all that. Now if this was true of Sir Henry Irving, who did
not become a London manager until he had roughed it for years in
the provinces, how much more true must it be of, say, Mr. George
Alexander, whose successful march through his profession has
passed as far from the purlieus of our theatrical world as the
king's naval career from the Isle of Dogs? The moment we come to
that necessary part of the censorship question which deals with
the control of theatres from the point of view of those who know
how much money can be made out of them by managers who seek to
make the auditorium attractive rather than the stage, you find
the managers divided into two sections. The first section
consists of honorable and successful managers like Mr. Alexander,
who know nothing of such abuses, and deny, with perfect sincerity
and indignant vehemence, that they exist except, perhaps, in
certain notorious variety theatres. The other is the silent
section which knows better, but is very well content to be
publicly defended and privately amused by Mr. Alexander's
innocence. To accept a West End manager as an expert in theatres
because he is an actor is much as if we were to accept the
organist of St. Paul's Cathedral as an expert on music halls
because he is a musician. The real experts are all in the
conspiracy to keep the police out of the theatre. And they are so
successful that even the police do not know as much as they

The police should have been examined by the Committee, and the
whole question of the extent to which theatres are disorderly
houses in disguise sifted to the bottom. For it is on this point
that we discover behind the phantoms of the corrupt dramatists
who are restrained by the censorship from debauching the stage,
the reality of the corrupt managers and theatre proprietors
who actually do debauch it without let or hindrance from
the censorship. The whole case for giving control over
theatres to local authorities rests on this reality.


The persistent notion that a theatre is an Alsatia where the
king's writ does not run, and where any wickedness is possible in
the absence of a special tribunal and a special police, was
brought out by an innocent remark made by Sir William Gilbert,
who, when giving evidence before the Committee, was asked by
Colonel Lockwood whether a law sufficient to restrain impropriety
in books would also restrain impropriety in plays. Sir William
replied: "I should say there is a very wide distinction between
what is read and what is seen. In a novel one may read that
'Eliza stripped off her dressing-gown and stepped into her bath'
without any harm; but I think if that were presented on the stage
it would be shocking." All the stupid and inconsiderate people
seized eagerly on this illustration as if it were a successful
attempt to prove that without a censorship we should be unable to
prevent actresses from appearing naked on the stage. As a matter
of fact, if an actress could be persuaded to do such a thing (and
it would be about as easy to persuade a bishop's wife to appear
in church in the same condition) the police would simply arrest
her on a charge of indecent exposure. The extent to which this
obvious safeguard was overlooked may be taken as a measure of the
thoughtlessness and frivolity of the excuses made for the
censorship. It should be added that the artistic representation
of a bath, with every suggestion of nakedness that the law as to
decency allows, is one of the most familiar subjects of scenic
art. From the Rhine maidens in Wagner's Trilogy, and the bathers
in the second act of Les Huguenots, to the ballets of water
nymphs in our Christmas pantomimes and at our variety theatres,
the sound hygienic propaganda of the bath, and the charm of the
undraped human figure, are exploited without offence on the stage
to an extent never dreamt of by any novelist.


Another hare was started by Professor Gilbert Murray and Mr.
Laurence Housman, who, in pure kindness to the managers, asked
whether it would not be possible to establish for their
assistance a sort of King's Proctor to whom plays might be
referred for an official legal opinion as to their compliance
with the law before production. There are several objections to
this proposal; and they may as well be stated in case the
proposal should be revived. In the first place, no lawyer with
the most elementary knowledge of the law of libel in its various
applications to sedition, obscenity, and blasphemy, could answer
for the consequences of producing any play whatsoever as to which
the smallest question could arise in the mind of any sane person.
I have been a critic and an author in active service for thirty
years; and though nothing I have written has ever been prosecuted
in England or made the subject of legal proceedings, yet I have
never published in my life an article, a play, or a book, as to
which, if I had taken legal advice, an expert could have assured
me that I was proof against prosecution or against an action for
damages by the persons criticized. No doubt a sensible solicitor
might have advised me that the risk was no greater than all men
have to take in dangerous trades; but such an opinion, though it
may encourage a client, does not protect him. For example, if a
publisher asks his solicitor whether he may venture on an edition
of Sterne's Sentimental Journey, or a manager whether he may
produce King Lear without risk of prosecution, the solicitor will
advise him to go ahead. But if the solicitor or counsel consulted
by him were asked for a guarantee that neither of these works was
a libel, he would have to reply that he could give no such
guarantee; that, on the contrary, it was his duty to warn his
client that both of them are obscene libels; that King Lear,
containing as it does perhaps the most appalling blasphemy that
despair ever uttered, is a blasphemous libel, and that it is
doubtful whether it could not be construed as a seditious libel
as well. As to Ibsen's Brand (the play which made him popular
with the most earnestly religious people) no sane solicitor would
advise his client even to chance it except in a broadly
cultivated and tolerant (or indifferent) modern city. The lighter
plays would be no better off. What lawyer could accept any
responsibility for the production of Sardou's Divorcons or Clyde
Fitch's The Woman in the Case? Put the proposed King's Proctor in
operation to-morrow; and what will be the result? The managers
will find that instead of insuring them as the Lord Chamberlain
does, he will warn them that every play they submit to him is
vulnerable to the law, and that they must produce it not only on
the ordinary risk of acting on their own responsibility, but at
the very grave additional risk of doing so in the teeth of an
official warning. Under such circumstances, what manager would
resort a second time to the Proctor; and how would the Proctor
live without fees, unless indeed the Government gave him a salary
for doing nothing? The institution would not last a year, except
as a job for somebody.


The proposal is still less plausible when it is considered that
at present, without any new legislation at all, any manager who
is doubtful about a play can obtain the advice of his solicitor,
or Counsel's opinion, if he thinks it will be of any service to
him. The verdict of the proposed King's Proctor would be nothing
but Counsel's opinion without the liberty of choice of counsel,
possibly cheapened, but sure to be adverse; for an official
cannot give practical advice as a friend and a man of the world:
he must stick to the letter of the law and take no chances. And
as far as the law is concerned, journalism, literature, and the
drama exist only by custom or sufferance.


This leads us to a very vital question. Is it not possible to
amend the law so as to make it possible for a lawyer to advise
his client that he may publish the works of Blake, Zola, and
Swinburne, or produce the plays of Ibsen and Mr. Granville
Barker, or print an ordinary criticism in his newspaper, without
the possibility of finding himself in prison, or mulcted in
damages and costs in consequence? No doubt it is; but only by a
declaration of constitutional right to blaspheme, rebel, and deal
with tabooed subjects. Such a declaration is not just now within
the scope of practical politics, although we are compelled to act
to a great extent as if it was actually part of the constitution.
All that can be done is to take my advice and limit the necessary
public control of the theatres in such a manner as to prevent its
being abused as a censorship. We have ready to our hand the
machinery of licensing as applied to public-houses. A licensed
victualler can now be assured confidently by his lawyer that a
magistrate cannot refuse to renew his licence on the ground that
he (the magistrate) is a teetotaller and has seen too much of the
evil of drink to sanction its sale. The magistrate must give
a judicial reason for his refusal, meaning really a
constitutional reason; and his teetotalism is not such a reason.
In the same way you can protect a theatrical manager by ruling
out certain reasons as unconstitutional, as suggested in my
statement. Combine this with the abolition of the common
informer's power to initiate proceedings, and you will have gone
as far as seems possible at present. You will have local control
of the theatres for police purposes and sanitary purposes without
censorship; and I do not see what more is possible until we get a
formal Magna Charta declaring all the Categories of libel and the
blasphemy laws contrary to public liberty, and repealing and
defining accordingly.


Yet we cannot mention Magna Charta without recalling how useless
such documents are to a nation which has no more political
comprehension nor political virtue than King John. When Henry
VII. calmly proceeded to tear up Magna Charta by establishing the
Star Chamber (a criminal court consisting of a committee of the
Privy Council without a jury) nobody objected until, about a
century and a half later, the Star Chamber began cutting off the
ears of eminent XVII. century Nonconformists and standing them in
the pillory; and then the Nonconformists, and nobody else,
abolished the Star Chamber. And if anyone doubts that we are
quite ready to establish the Star Chamber again, let him read the
Report of the Joint Select Committee, on which I now venture to
offer a few criticisms.

The report of the Committee, which will be found in the bluebook,
should be read with attention and respect as far as page x., up
to which point it is an able and well-written statement of the
case. From page x. onward, when it goes on from diagnosing the
disease to prescribing the treatment, it should be read with even
greater attention but with no respect whatever, as the main
object of the treatment is to conciliate the How Not To Do It
majority. It contains, however, one very notable proposal, the
same being nothing more or less than to revive the Star Chamber
for the purpose of dealing with heretical or seditious plays and
their authors, and indeed with all charges against theatrical
entertainments except common police cases of indecency. The
reason given is that for which the Star Chamber was created by
Henry VII: that is, the inadequacy of the ordinary law. "We
consider," says the report, "that the law which prevents or
punishes indecency, blasphemy and libel in printed publications
[it does not, by the way, except in the crudest police cases]
would not be adequate for the control of the drama." Therefore
a committee of the Privy Council is to be empowered to suppress
plays and punish managers and authors at its pleasure, on the
motion of the Attorney-General, without a jury. The members of
the Committee will, of course, be men of high standing and
character: otherwise they would not be on the Privy Council. That
is to say, they will have all the qualifications of Archbishop

Now I have no guarantee that any member of the majority of the
Joint Select Committee ever heard of the Star Chamber or of
Archbishop Laud. One of them did not know that politics meant
anything more than party electioneering. Nothing is more alarming
than the ignorance of our public men of the commonplaces of our
history, and their consequent readiness to repeat experiments
which have in the past produced national catastrophes. At all
events, whether they knew what they were doing or not, there can
be no question as to what they did. They proposed virtually that
the Act of the Long Parliament in 1641 shall be repealed, and the
Star Chamber re-established, in order that playwrights and
managers may be punished for unspecified offences unknown to the
law. When I say unspecified, I should say specified as follows
(see page xi. of the report) in the case of a play.

(a) To be indecent.

(b) To contain offensive personalities.

(c) To represent on the stage in an invidious manner a living
person, or any person recently dead.

(d) To do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence.

(e) To be calculated to conduce to vice or crime.

(f) To be calculated to impair friendly relations with any
foreign power.

(g) To be calculated to cause a breach of the peace.

Now it is clear that there is no play yet written, or possible to
be written, in this world, that might not be condemned under one
or other of these heads. How any sane man, not being a professed
enemy of public liberty, could put his hand to so monstrous a
catalogue passes my understanding. Had a comparatively definite
and innocent clause been added forbidding the affirmation or
denial of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the country would
have been up in arms at once. Lord Ribblesdale made an effort to
reduce the seven categories to the old formula "not to be fitting
for the preservation of good manners, decorum, or the public
peace"; but this proposal was not carried; whilst on Lord
Gorell's motion a final widening of the net was achieved by
adding the phrase "to be calculated to"; so that even if a play
does not produce any of the results feared, the author
can still be punished on the ground that his play is "calculated"
to produce them. I have no hesitation in saying that a committee
capable of such an outrageous display of thoughtlessness and
historical ignorance as this paragraph of its report implies
deserves to be haled before the tribunal it has itself proposed,
and dealt with under a general clause levelled at conduct
"calculated to" overthrow the liberties of England.


Still, though I am certainly not willing to give Lord Gorell the
chance of seeing me in the pillory with my ears cut off if I can
help it, I daresay many authors would rather take their chance
with a Star Chamber than with a jury, just as some soldiers would
rather take their chance with a court-martial than at Quarter
Sessions. For that matter, some of them would rather take their
chance with the Lord Chamberlain than with either. And though
this is no reason for depriving the whole body of authors of the
benefit of Magna Charta, still, if the right of the proprietor of
a play to refuse the good offices of the Privy Council and to
perform the play until his accusers had indicted him at law, and
obtained the verdict of a jury against him, were sufficiently
guarded, the proposed committee might be set up and used for
certain purposes. For instance, it might be made a condition of
the intervention of the Attorney-General or the Director of
Public Prosecutions that he should refer an accused play to the
committee, and obtain their sanction before taking action,
offering the proprietor of the play, if the Committee thought
fit, an opportunity of voluntarily accepting trial by the
Committee as an alternative to prosecution in the ordinary course
of law. But the Committee should have no powers of punishment
beyond the power (formidable enough) of suspending performances
of the play. If it thought that additional punishment was called
for, it could order a prosecution without allowing the proprietor
or author of the play the alternative of a trial by itself. The
author of the play should be made a party to all proceedings
of the Committee, and have the right to defend himself in person
or by counsel. This would provide a check on the Attorney-General
(who might be as bigoted as any of the municipal aldermen who are
so much dreaded by the actor-managers) without enabling the
Committee to abuse its powers for party, class, or sectarian
ends beyond that irreducible minimum of abuse which a popular
jury would endorse, for which minimum there is no remedy.

But when everything is said for the Star Chamber that can be
said, and every precaution taken to secure to those whom it
pursues the alternative of trial by jury, the expedient still
remains a very questionable one, to be endured for the sake of
its protective rather than its repressive powers. It should
abolish the present quaint toleration of rioting in theatres. For
example, if it is to be an offence to perform a play which the
proposed new Committee shall condemn, it should also be made an
offence to disturb a performance which the Committee has not
condemned. "Brawling" at a theatre should be dealt with as
severely as brawling in church if the censorship is to be taken
out of the hands of the public. At present Jenny Geddes may throw
her stool at the head of a playwright who preaches unpalatable
doctrine to her, or rather, since her stool is a fixture, she may
hiss and hoot and make it impossible to proceed with the
performance, even although nobody has compelled her to come to
the theatre or suspended her liberty to stay away, and although
she has no claim on an unendowed theatre for her spiritual
necessities, as she has on her parish church. If mob censorship
cannot be trusted to keep naughty playwrights in order, still
less can it be trusted to keep the pioneers of thought in
countenance; and I submit that anyone hissing a play permitted by
the new censorship should be guilty of contempt of court.


But what is most to be dreaded in a Star Chamber is not its
sternness but its sentimentality. There is no worse censorship
than one which considers only the feelings of the spectators,
except perhaps one which considers the feelings of people who do
not even witness the performance. Take the case of the Passion
Play at Oberammergau. The offence given by a representation of
the Crucifixion on the stage is not bounded by frontiers:
further, it is an offence of which the voluntary spectators
are guilty no less than the actors. If it is to be tolerated at
all: if we are not to make war on the German Empire for
permitting it, nor punish the English people who go to Bavaria to
see it and thereby endow it with English money, we may as well
tolerate it in London, where nobody need go to see it except
those who are not offended by it. When Wagner's Parsifal becomes
available for representation in London, many people will be
sincerely horrified when the miracle of the Mass is simulated on
the stage of Covent Garden, and the Holy Ghost descends in the
form of a dove. But if the Committee of the Privy Council, or the
Lord Chamberlain, or anyone else, were to attempt to keep
Parsifal from us to spare the feelings of these people, it would
not be long before even the most thoughtless champions of the
censorship would see that the principle of doing nothing that
could shock anybody had reduced itself to absurdity. No quarter
whatever should be given to the bigotry of people so unfit for
social life as to insist not only that their own prejudices and
superstitions should have the fullest toleration but that
everybody else should be compelled to think and act as they do.
Every service in St. Paul's Cathedral is an outrage to the
opinions of the congregation of the Roman Catholic Cathedral of
Westminster. Every Liberal meeting is a defiance and a challenge
to the most cherished opinions of the Unionists. A law to compel
the Roman Catholics to attend service at St. Paul's, or the
Liberals to attend the meetings of the Primrose League would be
resented as an insufferable tyranny. But a law to shut up both
St. Paul's and the Westminster Cathedral; and to put down
political meetings and associations because of the offence given
by them to many worthy and excellent people, would be a far worse
tyranny, because it would kill the religious and political life
of the country outright, whereas to compel people to attend the
services and meetings of their opponents would greatly enlarge
their minds, and would actually be a good thing if it were
enforced all round. I should not object to a law to compel
everybody to read two newspapers, each violently opposed to the
other in politics; but to forbid us to read newspapers at all
would be to maim us mentally and cashier our country in the ranks
of civilization. I deny that anybody has the right to demand more
from me, over and above lawful conduct in a general sense, than
liberty to stay away from the theatre in which my plays are
represented. If he is unfortunate enough to have a religion so
petty that it can be insulted (any man is as welcome to insult my
religion, if he can, as he is to insult the universe) I claim the
right to insult it to my heart's content, if I choose, provided I
do not compel him to come and hear me. If I think this country
ought to make war on any other country, then, so long as war
remains lawful, I claim full liberty to write and perform a play
inciting the country to that war without interference from the
ambassadors of the menaced country. I may "give pain to many
worthy people, and pleasure to none," as the Censor's pet phrase
puts it: I may even make Europe a cockpit and Asia a shambles: no
matter: if preachers and politicians, statesmen and soldiers, may
do these things--if it is right that such things should be done,
then I claim my share in the right to do them. If the proposed
Committee is meant to prevent me from doing these things whilst
men of other professions are permitted to do them, then I protest
with all my might against the formation of such a Committee. If
it is to protect me, on the contrary, against the attacks that
bigots and corrupt pornographers may make on me by appealing to
the ignorance and prejudices of common jurors, then I welcome it;
but is that really the object of its proposers? And if it is,
what guarantee have I that the new tribunal will not presently
resolve into a mere committee to avoid unpleasantness and keep
the stage "in good taste"? It is no more possible for me to do my
work honestly as a playwright without giving pain than it is for
a dentist. The nation's morals are like its teeth: the more
decayed they are the more it hurts to touch them. Prevent
dentists and dramatists from giving pain, and not only will our
morals become as carious as our teeth, but toothache and the
plagues that follow neglected morality will presently cause more
agony than all the dentists and dramatists at their worst
have caused since the world began.


Another doubt: would a Committee of the Privy Council really face
the risks that must be taken by all communities as the price of
our freedom to evolve? Would it not rather take the popular
English view that freedom and virtue generally are sweet and
desirable only when they cost nothing? Nothing worth having is to
be had without risk. A mother risks her child's life every time
she lets it ramble through the countryside, or cross the street,
or clamber over the rocks on the shore by itself. A father risks
his son's morals when he gives him a latchkey. The members of the
Joint Select Committee risked my producing a revolver and
shooting them when they admitted me to the room without having me
handcuffed. And these risks are no unreal ones. Every day some
child is maimed or drowned and some young man infected with
disease; and political assassinations have been appallingly
frequent of late years. Railway travelling has its risks;
motoring has its risks; aeroplaning has its risks; every advance
we make costs us a risk of some sort. And though these are only
risks to the individual, to the community they are certainties.
It is not certain that I will be killed this year in a railway
accident; but it is certain that somebody will. The invention
of printing and the freedom of the press have brought upon us,
not merely risks of their abuse, but the establishment as part of
our social routine of some of the worst evils a community can
suffer from. People who realize these evils shriek for the
suppression of motor cars, the virtual imprisonment and
enslavement of the young, the passing of Press Laws (especially
in Egypt, India, and Ireland), exactly as they shriek for a
censorship of the stage. The freedom of the stage will be abused
just as certainly as the complaisance and innocence of the
censorship is abused at present. It will also be used by writers
like myself for raising very difficult and disturbing questions,
social, political, and religious, at moments which may be
extremely inconvenient to the government. Is it certain that a
Committee of the Privy Council would stand up to all this as the
price of liberty? I doubt it. If I am to be at the mercy of a
nice amiable Committee of elderly gentlemen (I know all about
elderly gentlemen, being one myself) whose motto is the highly
popular one, "Anything for a quiet life" and who will make the
inevitable abuses of freedom by our blackguards an excuse for
interfering with any disquieting use of it by myself, then I
shall be worse off than I am with the Lord Chamberlain, whose
mind is not broad enough to obstruct the whole range of thought.
If it were, he would be given a more difficult post.


And here I may be reminded that if I prefer the Lord Chamberlain
I can go to the Lord Chamberlain, who is to retain all his
present functions for the benefit of those who prefer to be
judged by him. But I am not so sure that the Lord Chamberlain
will be able to exercise those functions for long if resort to
him is to be optional. Let me be kinder to him than he has been
to me, and uncover for him the pitfalls which the Joint Select
Committee have dug (and concealed) in his path. Consider how the
voluntary system must inevitably work. The Joint Select Committee
expressly urges that the Lord Chamberlain's licence must not be a
bar to a prosecution. Granted that in spite of this reservation
the licence would prove in future as powerful a defence as
it has been in the past, yet the voluntary clause nevertheless
places the manager at the mercy of any author who makes it a
condition of his contract that his play shall not be submitted
for licence. I should probably take that course without
opposition from the manager. For the manager, knowing that three
of my plays have been refused a licence, and that it would be far
safer to produce a play for which no licence had been asked than
one for which it had been asked and refused, would agree that it
was more prudent, in my case, to avail himself of the power of
dispensing with the Lord Chamberlain's licence. But now mark the
consequences. The manager, having thus discovered that his best
policy was to dispense with the licence in the few doubtful
cases, would presently ask himself why he should spend two
guineas each on licences for the many plays as to which no
question could conceivably arise. What risk does any manager run
in producing such works as Sweet Lavender, Peter Pan, The Silver
King, or any of the 99 per cent of plays that are equally neutral
on controversial questions? Does anyone seriously believe that
the managers would continue to pay the Lord Chamberlain two
guineas a play out of mere love and loyalty, only to create an
additional risk in the case of controversial plays, and to guard
against risks that do not exist in the case of the great bulk of
other productions? Only those would remain faithful to him who
produce such plays as the Select Committee began by discussing in
camera, and ended by refusing to discuss at all because they were
too nasty. These people would still try to get a licence, and
would still no doubt succeed as they do today. But could the
King's Reader of Plays live on his fees from these plays alone;
and if he could how long would his post survive the discredit of
licensing only pornographic plays? It is clear to me that the
Examiner would be starved out of existence, and the censorship
perish of desuetude. Perhaps that is exactly what the Select
Committee contemplated. If so, I have nothing more to say, except
that I think sudden death would be more merciful.


In the meantime, conceive the situation which would arise if a
licensed play were prosecuted. To make it clearer, let us imagine
any other offender--say a company promoter with a fraudulent
prospectus--pleading in Court that he had induced the Lord
Chamberlain to issue a certificate that the prospectus contained
nothing objectionable, and that on the strength of that
certificate he issued it; also, that by law the Court could do
nothing to him except order him to wind up his company. Some such
vision as this must have come to Lord Gorell when he at last
grappled seriously with the problem. Mr. Harcourt seized the
opportunity to make a last rally. He seconded Lord Gorell's
proposal that the Committee should admit that its scheme of an
optional censorship was an elaborate absurdity, and report that
all censorship before production was out of the question. But it
was too late: the volte face was too sudden and complete. It was
Lord Gorell whose vote had turned the close division which took
place on the question of receiving my statement. It was Lord
Gorell without whose countenance and authority the farce of the
books could never have been performed. Yet here was Lord Gorell,
after assenting to all the provisions for the optional
censorship paragraph by paragraph, suddenly informing his
colleagues that they had been wrong all through and that I had
been right all through, and inviting them to scrap half their
work and adopt my conclusion. No wonder Lord Gorell got only one
vote: that of Mr. Harcourt. But the incident is not the less
significant. Lord Gorell carried more weight than any other
member of the Committee on the legal and constitutional
aspect of the question. Had he begun where he left off--had he at
the outset put down his foot on the notion that an optional penal
law could ever be anything but a gross contradiction in terms,
that part of the Committee's proposals would never have come into


I do not, however, appeal to Lord Gorell's judgment on all
points. It is inevitable that a judge should be deeply impressed
by his professional experience with a sense of the impotence of
judges and laws and courts to deal satisfactorily with evils
which are so Protean and elusive as to defy definition, and which
yet seem to present quite simple problems to the common sense of
men of the world. You have only to imagine the Privy Council as
consisting of men of the world highly endowed with common sense,
to persuade yourself that the supplementing of the law by the
common sense of the Privy Council would settle the whole
difficulty. But no man knows what he means by common sense,
though every man can tell you that it is very uncommon, even in
Privy Councils. And since every ploughman is a man of the world,
it is evident that even the phrase itself does not mean what it
says. As a matter of fact, it means in ordinary use simply a man
who will not make himself disagreeable for the sake of a
principle: just the sort of man who should never be allowed to
meddle with political rights. Now to a judge a political right,
that is, a dogma which is above our laws and conditions our
laws, instead of being subject to them, is anarchic and
abhorrent. That is why I trust Lord Gorell when he is defending
the integrity of the law against the proposal to make it in any
sense optional, whilst I very strongly mistrust him, as I
mistrust all professional judges, when political rights are in


I must conclude by recommending the Government to take my advice
wherever it conflicts with that of the Joint Select Committee. It
is, I think, obviously more deeply considered and better
informed, though I say it that should not. At all events, I have
given my reasons; and at that I must leave it. As the tradition
which makes Malvolio not only Master of the Revels but Master
of the Mind of England, and which has come down to us from Henry
VIII., is manifestly doomed to the dustbin, the sooner it goes
there the better; for the democratic control which naturally
succeeds it can easily be limited so as to prevent it becoming
either a censorship or a tyranny. The Examiner of Plays should
receive a generous pension, and be set free to practise privately
as an expert adviser of theatrical managers. There is no reason
why they should be deprived of the counsel they so highly value.

It only remains to say that public performances of The Shewing-Up
of Blanco Posnet are still prohibited in Great Britain by the
Lord Chamberlain. An attempt was made to prevent even its
performance in Ireland by some indiscreet Castle officials in the
absence of the Lord Lieutenant. This attempt gave extraordinary
publicity to the production of the play; and every possible
effort was made to persuade the Irish public that the
performance would be an outrage to their religion, and to provoke
a repetition of the rioting that attended the first performances
of Synge's Playboy of the Western World before the most sensitive
and, on provocation, the most turbulent audience in the kingdom.
The directors of the Irish National Theatre, Lady Gregory and Mr.
William Butler Yeats, rose to the occasion with inspiriting
courage. I am a conciliatory person, and was willing, as I always
am, to make every concession in return for having my own way. But
Lady Gregory and Mr. Yeats not only would not yield an inch, but
insisted, within the due limits of gallant warfare, on taking the
field with every circumstance of defiance, and winning the battle
with every trophy of victory. Their triumph was as complete as
they could have desired. The performance exhausted the
possibilities of success, and provoked no murmur, though it
inspired several approving sermons. Later on, Lady Gregory and
Mr. Yeats brought the play to London and performed it under the
Lord Chamberlain's nose, through the instrumentality of the Stage

After this, the play was again submitted to the Lord Chamberlain.
But, though beaten, he, too, understands the art of How Not To Do
It. He licensed the play, but endorsed on his licence the
condition that all the passages which implicated God in the
history of Blanco Posnet must be omitted in representation. All
the coarseness, the profligacy, the prostitution, the violence,
the drinking-bar humor into which the light shines in the play
are licensed, but the light itself is extinguished. I need hardly
say that I have not availed myself of this licence, and do not
intend to. There is enough licensed darkness in our theatres
today without my adding to it.

14TH JULY 1910.

POSTSCRIPT.--Since the above was written the Lord Chamberlain has
made an attempt to evade his responsibility and perhaps to
postpone his doom by appointing an advisory committee, unknown to
the law, on which he will presumably throw any odium that may
attach to refusals of licences in the future. This strange and
lawless body will hardly reassure our moralists, who
object much more to the plays he licenses than to those
he suppresses, and are therefore unmoved by his plea that
his refusals are few and far between. It consists of two
eminent actors (one retired), an Oxford professor of literature,
and two eminent barristers. As their assembly is neither created
by statute nor sanctioned by custom, it is difficult to know what
to call it until it advises the Lord Chamberlain to deprive some
author of his means of livelihood, when it will, I presume,
become a conspiracy, and be indictable accordingly; unless,
indeed, it can persuade the Courts to recognize it as a new
Estate of the Realm, created by the Lord Chamberlain. This
constitutional position is so questionable that I strongly
advise the members to resign promptly before the Lord
Chamberlain gets them into trouble.

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