HC Deb 16 April 1913 vol 51 cc2036-81

I beg to move, "That the attempt to maintain by means of antiquated legislation a legal distinction between a theatre and a music hall, and to differentiate between productions called stage plays and other dramatic performances, is unworkable; that the system of licensing stage plays before production in Great Britain, though not in Ireland, by means principally of the perusal of a manuscript should be abolished; and that, as regards stage exhibitions of whatever kind or wherever given, reliance should be placed on subsequent effective control."

I must apologise to the House for introducing a subject which I believe has not been debated in this House for nearly a century. But the submission I shall make is that we have neglected, and that by our neglect we have injuriously affected, an important element in our national life. Various picturesque descriptions have been applied from time to time to those who dwell in this Island. Patriots have pointed out that our distinctive function is to rule the waves. Enemies have said in anger that we are a nation of shopkeepers. But, on the whole, I think the most popular of our attributes, which pleases even the most aggressive of our Philistines, is that we are the country of Shakespeare. Surely it is not too much to ask for an hour or two after an interval of a hundred years for the consideration of the "drama's laws," which have recently been investigated by an important Committee! You cannot say that this subject is unworthy of the attention of Parliament, because Parliament, to my deep regret, has already given the subject its attention. That really is what all the trouble is about. Places of entertainment are regulated not by custom or by the common law, or by public opinion, or by police supervision. They are the field for definite and distinctive statutory enactment. Precisely as we have passed laws with regard to factories and refreshment houses, so we have spatch-cocked the theatre and the drama into the public general Acts. The only difference in this case is that we did it nearly 200 years ago, and we have been so astounded apparently at our own ineptitude that we have refused ever since to revise our efforts. The Acts are extremely old Acts. But they are not necessarily bad because they are old. I know many people who have a kind word even for Magna Charta. But the Home Secretary does not regulate biplanes and Zeppelins by enactments originally designed for sedan chairs, and I shall contend that the stage has outgrown its legislature.

There is a separate law for the theatre and a separate law for the music hall. Both laws are equally out of date, though for different reasons. For the purpose of clearness I am afraid I must ask the House to bear with me while I consider them for a moment or two separately. First of all, the case of music halls. At the time the Committee sat in 1909 music halls were regulated almost exclusively by an Act passed in 1751 for the purpose of dealing with disorderly houses. There are, as we all know, music halls and music halls; but, after all, places of entertainment visited by thousands of respectable citizens, many of which have presented works of high artistic merit—Bernhardt, Rejane, Shaw, Leoncavallo—are not really the proper subject-matter for the provisions of an Act no doubt usefully designed at the time that the Act was passed for the conduct of the tavern and for the suppression of the brothel. It is merely a question of date. Those places which were the subject-matter of this old Act are not the places which are regulated under those provisions in default of better provisions at the present time. The provisions, so far as they go, are sensible enough. They set up a simple system of control which anyone can understand, and I shall describe them a little in detail. The local authority licenses the places of entertainment once a year. If it does not like the way in which these places have been conducted, the licences can be withdrawn. Of course, in practice it does not come to that. A large London or provincial music hall is an immensely valuable property, and it would be disastrous to the proprietor if the licence were lost. On the other hand, the music hall is also a very valuable milch cow for the local authority. Large rates are levied upon it, and the local authority certainly does not desire to see it stand empty. There is therefore a mutual check. The proprietor does not defy the local authority for fear of his licence. The local authority does not sub- ject the music hall to factious persecution out of regard for the ratepayers. I doubt if any dispute has ever been pushed to the point of withdrawing a licence. What happens is this: the manager as a rule does not present objectionable performances, but, if he does, an officer of the local authority makes a remonstrance. The manager, knowing that he holds his licence at the pleasure of those who are advising him, either withdraws or modifies his performance. That is a practical system which has worked, by common consent, remarkably well.

Let the House observe that this is a licensing of buildings, but it is not a specific licensing of individual performances in those buildings. The thousands of songs, for instance, which are sung in hundreds of music halls are not previously submitted in manuscript to any outside body. There is nothing, I believe, to prevent the London County Council from requiring an examination of songs previous to the production, but in point of fact they do not do so. Universal compulsory censorship or licensing of performances in music halls does not form a part of the Act of 1751. Interference takes place as and when required if anything seems to be amiss. Why, then, is the Act of 1751 insufficient? It is insufficient because the licence granted under it is too limited in scope. It does not cover the performances which actually take place. The music hall licence must be one confined to music and dancing. It was intended to rule out in these buildings the performance of what used to be called the legitimate drama. Stage plays, from "Hamlet" to the one-act farce, are forbidden territory to the tavern and its successor the music hall. Legislation designed originally to protect the vested interests of the two patent theatres continues in force, and at the time the Committee sat in 1909 every single stage play given in a music hall was a definite legal offence, not because they were open to any objection—they were frequently by far the best part of the performance—but simply because the performance of any entertainment not coming under the head of music and dancing was outside the intention of the licence.

I now turn to the control of the theatres. For the first time we enter here into the presence of the Lord Chamberlain. It must be clearly understood that Parliament only gave him cognisance of the par- and the special class of entertainment designated a stage play. How did he first come upon the scene? The early history of his functions is a little vague. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Lord Chamberlain or the Master of Revels, as Court Officials acting under the Royal prerogative without Parliamentary authority, exercised a certain supervision. But in 1737 prerogative was replaced by a definite Statute providing what is called the Censorship. To what high-minded Puritan do we owe this law? It proceeded from that fastidious moralist, Sir Robert Walpole. But in the interest of historical accuracy one is bound to add that it was not mainly designed for the promotion of morality. It was wrung from the personal necessities of the Minister. Walpole is a great figure in our history. I was largely brought up on Walpole. He was my father's favourite statesman. But even he admitted that Walpole had certain public and private failings. Walpole was not a prude, and his administration, not to put too fine a point upon it, was notoriously corrupt. People had the bad taste to say so openly. Fielding satirised upon the stage the venality of Walpole's satellites, and Walpole did not like it. It inconvenienced him. It limited his freedom of action. He desired to buy his Members of Parliament in peace. It is acknowledged by his biographer that he dare not suppress Fielding's play because that course would have been extremely unpopular. He thought it better to take steps of a more general kind and to put the responsibility upon somebody else, the Lord Chamberlain, an officer who from that day to this has never been accountable in the ordinary way to this House, and in order to avoid the inconvenience of having to try a man before convicting him to suppress the play before its birth. The Act, in a word, empowered the Lord Chamberlain to require the production of the manuscripts of stage plays and to keep off the stage those which he did not like. He subsequently appointed what is now called an Examiner of Plays to assist him. That, taken briefly, is the Act of 1737. It was passed rapidly and without serious opposition, if one excepts a notable protest by Lord Chesterfield which is still one of the acknowledged models of British oratory. It met, I am prepared to admit, the general wishes of the House of Commons. Yes, but what was that contemporary opinion? In 1737 the House of Commons suppressed free speech upon the stage. If you turn to Parliamentary history you will see that the very next year they resolved that it was a high indignity for any printer to presume to give any account of the proceedings of the House, and this Resolution, we are told, was also passed without a single dissentient voice. The Parliament which censored plays equally forbad the publication of its own debates.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ellis Griffith) may tell me that this is ancient history—it is, and that the Act of 1737 is repealed. That, I believe, is technically true. A Parliamentary Committee sat and reported upon it in 1832. Our ancestors, with that alacrity which to some extent we have inherited, took ten years to consider that report, and they legislated in 1843. The Theatres Act of that year is now the principal Act which governs the stage. It substantially re-enacted the masterpiece of Walpole. So much for its provisions. Again, I must ask the House to consider two dates, and to consider opinion then and opinion now. The House in 1909, at the suggestion of the Prime Minister and on the Motion of the Government, appointed another Committee to review the Theatres Act of 1843. It was presided over by my right hon. Friend, who is now the Postmaster-General (Mr. Herbert Samuel) and who was even then a Member of the Cabinet. His report—the chairman's report—which recommended drastic changes is a State paper. which I think I may say, without any exaggeration, will be of permanent interest to the historian. It deals with the fundamentals of toleration, brilliantly but not rhetorically. It is a sober reasoned argument of the limits of permissible autocracy, of the necessary bounds within which free subjects may demand to live. My right hon. Friend will forgive me if I put it in this way in order to bring out the historical point of view, and I only do it for that purpose. What if my right hon. Friend had lived in 1843, possessed of the same ability and animated by the same lofty and liberal conceptions of human thought and of human activities? He could never have written that report. He could never have served upon that Committee, because, I believe, he could not have been a Member of this House. The door would have been bolted upon him, because he did not profess the religion of Sir Robert Walpole. I hope that is not an offensive historical analogy.

Since that date taxes on knowledge, hindrances to the free circulation of ideas, have been swept away. The repeal of the Paper Duty, the cheapening of the Press, free education, the abolition of Parliamentary and university tests, wider franchise are milestones on the road. The whole tendency of the time has been to give full range to thought and to make orthodoxy depend upon conviction and not upon compulsion. At the end of years close knit with many sided reform, the work of both parties in the State, we find a single absurd survival of the days of the Penal Laws, the veto of the Lord Chamberlain over the drama of the world. The present Bishop of Winchester—even my hon. Friend on the Front Bench will not wholly neglect the opinions of prelates when they are against Establishment—stated in evidence that he would not desire to interfere with the treatment on the stage, quite free and bold, what may be called moral questions. The report of the Samuel Committee, a mixed assemblage of Lords and Commons, a jury of ten ordinary men holding almost every possible opinion, dismisses in a sentence the whole philosophy of dramatic censorship. Let me give their conclusion in a single paragraph which was adopted with unanimity. They say:— A censorship with a power of veto before production is open to grave objection. Secret in its operation, subject to no effective control by public opinion, its effect can hardly fail to be to coerce into conformity with the conventional standards of the day dramatists Who may be seeking to amend them. These standards are not absolute. It is an axiom underlying all our legislation that only through the toleration of that which one age thinks to be an error, can the next age progress further in the pursuit of truth. They said in effect that this veto should be abolished, and that the Lord Chamberlain should no longer be able to prevent the performance of a play. Without regard to the exact terms of my Motion, which I may say are not verbally inspired, I do ask the House at this stage to accept that general conclusion of the Committee. It is not only a statement of principle, but it is based upon definite evidence. The limitation of dramatic output involved in the censorship is not imaginary. If I had the time this general proposition could be amplified and documented. Plays of high value are refused, or what is even worse, they are pruned and trimmed until the author would rather lose his work than be judged by the Censor's version. Author after author of standing and reputation stated that the existence of a dramatic censorship was a definite deterrent to new and original work being put upon the stage. Men preferred to keep their best ideas, their boldest treatment for a novel rather than a play. The system of prior licensing may be right or it may be wrong. I think, of course, that it is wrong, but, at any rate, I would argue it to this point. It is perfectly obvious that if you are going to have a system of prior licensing, you must proceed upon some kind of principle. You must necessarily have some specific indication of what form the official point of view constitutes offence. You want, indeed, a kind of schedule of prospective permissibility. I may be told precisely the same kind of argument applies to control after production. I suggest that a far simpler problem confronts an authority which interferes after a public performance. It has the guidance of definite experience. The officer charged with the duty will be able to say, "Well, the public hissed, the people walked out of the theatre, a dozen newspapers have condemned the play as scurrilous or improper, or they have singled out an incident as undesirable. If I interfere I have, at any rate, something to go upon." I will quote again a sentence from the Report, where it is pointed out that:— With dramas of a certain class, it is only after performance and by reference to their effect upon the audience that a final opinion as to their propriety can be reached. But the case is wholly different when the officer is invited to pronounce judgment in advance, to anticipate evils which may never occur, and not merely to put his opinion against the judgment of all other persons whatsoever, but to create a situation by the exercise of his veto which will effectually preclude a public judgment from ever being pronounced. This is a subject which may interest few or many, but it is really a vital principle of public administration, because it raises the whole question of the proper limits of discretionary power. It is perfectly true that there are certain rules. But they are simply invented by the Lord Chamberlain for his own guidance from time to time. They are about as coherent and consistent as the unassisted ethics of the child who says to herself, "I won't pull nurse's hair, but I will tease my canary." There was a rule, for instance, that scriptural characters were barred. Mr. Brookfield's predecessor, Mr. Colman, ruled that it was not permissible for a gentleman to call a lady an angel, because an angel is a scriptural character—"a celestial being authorised to intervene in terrestial affairs." That is perfectly serious. The House will find it in the evidence given before the Committee of 1832. These things remain a tradition, and they are acted upon. The opera, "Samson and Delila," was vetoed for years, and then it was allowed suddenly and without explanation. The same thing applies to "Salome." "Everyman," containing the character of the Deity, was performed. "The Miracle," containing the character of the Virgin, was seen by tens of thousands of people. On the other hand, a play called "Bethelehem," by Mr. Housman, was refused. It is sheer chaos. These rules are altered from day to day. No one knows where they are. The unfortunate author is never able to know what he will be able to produce. There is a rule against living persons being represented on the stage. It is notoriously and habitually broken. You cannot control the matter before production. You cannot arrive at a right conclusion by simply reading the manuscript. No obligation rests on the Lord Chamberlain to give any reason for vetoing the play. He can refuse to reconsider his decision or that of his predecessor. His clerk, the Examiner, will not, unless he likes, resubmit the play. In one case where a manager wrote in to ask for a play to be reconsidered, the Examiner would not even return an answer in the form in which it would have been returned by a second division clerk. He merely returned the letter endorsed in one corner, "Surely you are aware that I have already refused to licence this play"—G. A. R., thus claiming for the Examiner of Plays the power of veto, which, We were told by no less important and competent a witness than the Speaker of the House of Commons, was a power which belonged to the Lord Chamberlain alone.

That play was "Mrs. Warren's Profession," by Bernard Shaw. It happens to have been produced within the last week—last Thursday—in Glasgow. I was myself present at a performance of it in London. How comes it that an unlicensed play can be presented? It is done by a league or society, a frankly bogus club, which will not take money at the door, but which will admit anyone to membership, on payment of 6d., in addition to the price of a seat. And so the working of our marvellous legislation is, firstly, the Lord Chamberlain vetoes a public performance, and, secondly, the manager gives what is humourously called a private performance, which apparently protects him from public interference. Anyone can read this play; hundreds of people have seen it here, and tens of thousands have seen it in Germany and America. The society which produced it in Glasgow has for its president the right hon. the Lord Provost of the City. Three professors and a minister of religion are on the committee. Its reception by the audience was enthusiastic. The Press notices which I have read are a compound of praise for the play, and contempt for the Censor. "The play," says the "Glasgow Herald," "contains no sentence to make a Puritan blush." Another paper, "The Glasgow Times," speaks of "The anachronism of the censorship ".…. If 'Mrs. Warren's Profession' had a waltz melody introduced it would pass the Censor." "The Glasgow Record" said:— If the British censorship subserved some high moral end, there might be found some to defend it, but nobody in his right mind believes it does. … There is no pandering to vice in 'Mrs. Warren's Profession,' but who can say the same of many of these extravaganzas of modern times, which hare been licensed. The success of much of the modern entertainment lies in its insidious suggestion. These are the things that prosper by order of the Censor's office. Any work that seeks to disrobe vice of its mantle, and to indulge in moralising aims, is taboo. I will read a few sentences from the "Westminster Gazette," for I am anxious to argue this matter on the ground of ordinary popular opinion. The "Westminster Gazette" said:— One is merely left in wonder at the officialism which permits salaciousness in almost any extreme, so long Ls its framework is light, and the spirit in which it is approached flippant, and at the same time condemns as immoral and dangerous plays such as this. The truth is, of course, that 'Mrs. Warren's Profession' is as moral as a sermon with more than average character and understanding in it. I will only add, if you are going to protect the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, you will really have to re-establish a censorship over the Press, and if you are going to defend this particular proscription, I can only recommend the Treasury Bench to undertake at once the prosecution of the Lord Provost of the City of Glasgow for his impudent evasion of the law. I will not labour these various inconsistencies, because I am extremely anxious to give an opportunity to my hon. Friends, and especially to the hon. Member for Central Hull, who has some facts to relate to the House of his own experience. Before I sit down I would only put this point to my right hon. Friend and to the Under-Secretary. I do suggest that after a study of the evidence before that Committee there is surely a primâ facie case for a modern workable Statute. That the point which I really want to consider. It would be impertinent for me to go into details; I merely say that it should provide a single uniform licence for theatres and music halls subject to an effective control of actual performances. There should be no silly compulsion to submit manuscripts, and there should be no power of veto until there has been an actual public production. My right hon. Friend will agree those are the main governing recommendations of the Committee. I would only add this: That precisely as Lord Mansfield said that— the liberty of the Press consists in printing without any previous licence subject to the consequences of the law'… so I contend that on the stage you may preserve both law and liberty, while you abolish licence. Offenders will be faced either with legal process, or with the control of a central authority after production, or the control of a local authority after production; but we shall have got rid of what the" Law and Custom of the Constitution" calls— A quaint survival"… that is, the censorship. Study in the argument of Milton, the narrative of Macaulay, the commentary of Anson or of Erskine May how newspapers were once prohibited and all writers fettered, as are dramatists to-day. You will find the censorship of the Press defended then, precisely as is now the censorship of the stage. Macaulay described the vote of the House of Commons in 1695, which freed the Press, as doing more for liberty and civilisation than the Great Charta or the Bill of Rights:— Some weak men had imagined that religion and morality stood in need of a licenser. From the day on which the emancipation of our literature was accomplished, the purification of our literature began. That purification was effected, not by the intervention of senates or magistrates, but by the opinion of the great body of educated Englishmen before whom good and evil were set, and who were left free to make their choice. That is the policy which, fortified by precedent, emboldened by experience, with a deep personal conviction of its necessity, its virtue, and its wisdom, I commend to this House for acceptance to-day. I beg to Move.


I beg to second the Motion. After the very admirable review, both legal and historical, not only admirable, but brief and detailed, of the hon. Member, there is very little for further speakers to do than to back the case which has been put. The only reason I rise is that perhaps it may be useful for one who takes an entirely different political view of history to show that it is possible for parallel lines to cross occasionally from one point to another, and that in fact, that it is quite possible for anybody, no matter how conservative they may be in their ideas, no matter how reactionary they may be in their ideas, to support this Resolution, because personally, I shall be very jealous of interfering with any formality, or any traditional course of conduct that in any way gives people a reminiscence of history, or in any way brings back to people's minds old manners and old customs, or in any way tends to link up the present and the past. Any change with regard to the King's Maundy or the Bluecoat boys' dress or the attire of His Majesty's judges, I should be prepared to resist, not only with passion but, I am sure the House will believe, with sincerity. But in this particular change which is advocated there is no thing of beauty that is threatened, there is no thing of any particular meaning that is threatened, and there is not even a moderate sinecure going to be abolished. The only tradition of which it can possibly remind people is a tradition with which every Tory-minded person would be very glad to do away, that is, the tradition of weak tyranny and an old tradition of weak hypocrisy. The arguments fall into two very distinct heads—there is the case of the clashing of the playhouse and the music hall, and the case of the Censor. I will take the playhouse versus the music hall question first. If a distinction is made between a legitimate dramatic play and another kind of dramatic entertainment fit to be produced in the music hall, I submit to the House that must be bad for the art of play writing itself, because it introduces a new convention.

Conventions may have some justification when they are the result of some old artistic formula for which people have some adequate reason, such as the reason for the conventions in the Chinese play, or for the soliloquy or for the chorus, but if there is introduced an entirely new convention which has nothing to do with the play or the writing of plays, I submit they will have a bad effect on the art of play-writing in this country. The convention introduced here is a most absurd one. It is that no matter what dramatic entertainment is going to be performed in the music hall, it must be preceded by six other items in the programme. A man juggling with balls, a dog performing, a lady dancing in nothing but beads, a cinematograph show, or a negro entertainment, or something of that kind. It is absurd that these six items should be forced into the entertainment merely because another dramatic performance is taking place elsewhere. It is bad for the public, because the public get things they do not want to see and which people do not want to show them, and the managers are influenced by financial considerations, and considerations of time and space. It is a very ridiculous rule. It would be very absurd, supposing one said that at one theatre you may only sing, at another you may only have operas, at another only tragedies, at another only comedies, and at another only farces. All that would be admittedly absurd, and it is even more absurd to say that at one theatre you can act "Romeo and Juliet," while at another you could only have the balcony scene because you have dancing, juggling, and performing dogs. I think this absurd situation was never intended to arise when the legislation which has produced this situation became law. It is a matter of common knowledge that a music hall and theatre were two utterly different places, just as much as a theatre differed from a Punch and Judy show, and just as regulations were made for Punch and Judy shows, others were made for the music hall and others for the theatre; but it was no intention of anybody who made those rules to keep these two forms of entertainment apart. They never foresaw that one would vary from the other, and if they had foreseen that they would have accepted the situation and not forced them to come apart, as they are at present, because it is not in the public interest or in the interest of public morals that they should be particularly kept apart. Therefore I submit that for the separation there is no defence at all, because it was not the intention of people originally to prevent them from coming together, and there is no public interest served in keeping them apart.

But with regard to the Censor, that perhaps is a matter of a wholly different set of considerations. I know there is a body of opinion in this country which sym- pathises with the existence of a Censor, and I am not ashamed to admit that I once formed part of that body, but at the same time I was very surprised, when I did write a play, to find that these draconic regulations which I formerly admired fell with crushing weight upon my own head. It happened that I wrote a play and, to my astonishment, it was refused the necessary imprimatur, and subsequently—this is the astonishing part—the same play, with all the things that were objected to left in it, was acted at a school before 100 boys, their sisters and parents, and twenty-five clergymen. Of course, I felt at first I must be rather a depraved person, but afterwards I felt myself justified by the performance, which resulted in no scandal whatever. I do not think one should be indignant about that, because it is only natural. If we made no allowance whatever for bias or personal prejudice or caprice on the part of the Censor, I submit that a person or body of people who are trying to do this work of censoring plays are pursuing something so intangible and so elusive that they are bound to fall into an absurdity sooner or later. All censoring is difficult. Censoring books is possible. The Church to which I belong censors books on theology, but there is a basis of dogma upon which to do it, and even then there are results which people do not like. Voltaire and Milton eventually got into the same boat of Trinitarianism. But there is always a basis of dogma, and people know what they are doing. They do not draw the line themselves. The line is drawn for them. They can apply some test. In censoring news in time of war you have the fact that you want no information to go to the enemy and only good information to go to your own side, so as not to have any alarm or despondency amongst your troops. But even that results in absurdities, as I saw in South Africa. For instance, it was understood that a paper called the "Bloemfontein Post" was not to publish news which would be likely to cause alarm and despondency amongst the troops. One day I saw in that paper, "Dastardly attempt of the Boers to wreck an express train frustrated by a ganger." That looked very well, but when one looked into the facts of the case the ganger had gone down the line on his trolley and had been blown up by a mine instead of the express. That is the sort of ridiculous result that you get. In the same way there is the censuring of political pamphlets. I remember at Smyrna, in the time of the ex-Sultan Abdul Hamid, there was a very strict censorship of all pamphlets, and the censor got hold of a Turkish translation of the New Testament. He read it through, and said it was all right except in one part where a certain Paulus was writing inflammatory letters to the people in the district of Ephesus.

These are the kind of absurdities that people get into when they have a logical basis to work on. But in censoring plays there is absolutely no basis that I can see at all. If one is attempting to stop blasphemy or sedition or riot or indecency, there are laws to prevent that all along the line, but the Censor is being asked to prevent these crimes being committed by reading a type-written copy of the play, with perhaps none of the real stage directions in it at all. It is notorious in the theatrical profession that an actor-manager very often cannot tell, even after the play has been in rehearsal for a long time, whether a certain situation is going to make people laugh or cry or to drive them out of the place or send them to sleep. If a professional who has been years at the job does not know what the effect is going to be upon the people after seeing it in rehearsal, how is it possible for the Censor to say what is going to scandalise people and what is not? There is one historic instance which was given me by the late Professor J. W. Clark, which has a great bearing upon this particular case. When the play of "Robert Macaire" was rewritten, I think in 1834, by Le Maitre, it was produced in Paris, and the actor who took the part thought the play was doomed to hopeless failure. He decided at the last minute to take an entirely different reading of the main character. That is one side of the story. The other was that Louis Phillippe at that time had the most rigid censorship of anything published in the Press or on the stage that had to do with politics. The actor took the part contrary to the author's meaning, and the audience, contrary to the actor's meaning, thought the part was a caricature of the King, and Louis Phillippe was known as Robert Macaire from that time forth.

9.0 P.M.

If it is impossible first of all for a Censor to see anything dangerous in it, if it is impossible for the author to see what the play is going to be like, and for the actor to know what effect it will have on the public, the position of the Censor is really almost impossible. The Censor is asked to say from the typewritten copy what the play is going to be like, when he does not know the gags, does not know the business, and does not know what the orchestra is going to do—all these little touches may have their bearing on what is going forward—and above all, being human, he has not got that sense of what the feelings of a particular crowd at a given moment, under given conditions, will be. I suggest that the position which the Censor, or the persons who censor plays, have to fill is impossible for anyone or any body of men to carry out. If it is a question of blasphemy, or sedition, or riot, or indecency, managers of theatres ought to take the same risks that journalists do when they produce newspapers. Of course, I know it is no doubt true that there is a certain idea abroad that people who write plays or people who act, or people, who have anything to do with the stage, are such depraved rogues and vagabonds that they have no sense of decency whatever, and would not know black from white. That is not a view that anyone would care to confess he held, though I have no doubt it is held, and at the same time it must be admitted that anyone who upholds the present order of things must be assumed to hold that view or something very like it. I submit that there are great evils attendant upon the present order of things, evils to morals and to taste. Because there is a Censor there are no fewer immoral plays produced in this country, but there is a certain conventional immorality. If a French Palais Royale farce is translated into English, the discarded mistress is always spoken of as an actress. Everyone knows what is meant. The result is identically the same. In the same way you may speak of politicians on the stage apparently if you wear an outrageous wig and a red nose, but you must not treat politics seriously. Another very serious point of view is that this sham standard of immorality that we have now on the stage is that it is a matter of notoriety that adultery may be treated as a joke, but not as a crime on the stage.

With regard to religious questions, the anomalies are almost incredible. I believe that Father Benson wrote a play, and that it was a beautiful and harmless little thing which could not have given offence to any one. At the time that play was censored I was at His Majesty's Theatre, and saw interpolated into a performance of Richard II. the administration of the Last Sacrament to John O'Gaunt. There was nothing in the performance that any Doctor of Divinity had any right to object to. The Censor did not know that it was going on. He only knew that Richard II. was being acted at that time. When we come to Shakespeare, is that great dramatic author to be censored, and are we going to make ourselves ridiculous in the eyes of the whole world? If you censor his plays, you must leave out his clowns, his bawds and procurors. If you do not censor Shakespeare, you must allow these characters to speak their words. Is this House going to allow it? If these things are to be said, is Bernard Shaw's cow-boy to be put to silence for saying something that would hardly shock anybody, coming from such a man, under such circumstances, in such a situation? Again, there is no doubt that the whole of this system of censoring plays has produced a system in England which is a kind of secret indecency—indecency by implication and by silence, and innuendo has been brought absolutely to a fine art. By the system of censorship we have now evil plays which have obtained a notoriety they never would have obtained before, and on account of that they are produced in some other English-speaking places as interesting plays which have been censored in England. On the other hand, undoubtedly quite evil plays have obtained sanction in England, and because the Censor has passed them public opinion is content to remain silent. It works out in this way: Pernicious writers exercise their whole ingenuity to dodge the Censor, and see how far they can go to get past him, and then see how much they can put in, while, on the other hand, honest writers are harassed at every step, and wonder whether some catch phrase does not destroy the labour of months and cause great monetary sacrifice as well. Personally, I think, if one sums it up, the case stands in this way. So far as the music hall argument is concerned, I think that to keep the two forms of entertainment divided is a nuisance for which there is no excuse whatever. So far as the Censor is concerned, I submit that his existence now as a bulwark against false taste is an absurd and arbitrary convention, and prevents the law and public opinion from destroying those evil things which they loathe.


I am sure the House will congratulate itself upon having heard to-night two very brilliant speeches from hon. Gentlemen who are not merely Members of Parliament for whom we have great respect, but writers of plays—a distinction not very common in this Assembly. My hon. Friend (Mr. Harcourt) was fortunate enough to escape the censorship of the Censor. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Mr. Mark Sykes) was less fortunate, but I think it was better to have the approval of twenty-five clergymen than the censure of one Lord Chamberlain. From the two speeches we have heard to-night one would think that the matter was very easy, but I am going to submit to the House that the matter is not quite so easy of solution as the hon. Gentleman would have us believe. The hon. Gentleman opposite told us that when he was in the rank of common men he was quite willing to accept the judgment of the Censor, but when he joined the rank of authors, and joined the rank of unlicensed authors, he began to change his views. He believed there was much more to be said for his play than the Censor would admit. I do not complain of that attitude. It was very human, and, although he said he was rather a believer in reaction, his reactionary feeling received a severe shock from which it never recovered when a licence was refused for his new-born play.

There are two branches of this Resolution. The first is the separation of the theatre on the one side from the music hall on the other; and the second is with respect to what shall be the control exercised over productions either in the theatre or the music hall. With regard to the former subject, it turns out that so far back as 1842 the dramatic authors of that time were very anxious to emphasise this separation between the theatre on the one hand and the music hall on the other. But one must be perfectly frank, and say that there has been a great change in the music hall since that time. The two institutions have approximated one to the other, and, although my hon. Friend talks of antiquated legislation, I would remind him that it is only early Victorian after all, and I should not have thought that he would have called anything antiquated which was post-Plantagenet. But, although there have been changes since 1842, it must not be forgotten that there have also been changes in the law applicable to the two institutions since then. In January, 1912—or, at any rate, at a recent date — there was an agreement arrived at by consent between the theatre managers and the music-hall proprietors. A compromise was arrived at, and within the limits of that compromise things have gone on very well. I think there is a good deal to be said for it. It may be illogical and indefensible in theory, but workable it is, and I think if my hon. Friend would consult those engaged in the business of theatres and music halls, he would find I that theatrical managers, music-hall proprietors, actors, and the writers themselves, are agreed and are content with the compromise now in existence. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am speaking subject to correction, but my information is that, at any rate, there is in the main satisfaction with the working of the compromise which was arrived at. The Joint Committee in 1909 found, and rightly found, that there ought to be one licence for both these classes of entertainment. I think that is a position nobody can quarrel with, and when the proper time comes no doubt legislation will take that form, and the two classes of houses will be put on the same footing. May I refer to what is the substance of this discussion, namely, what is contained in the last two branches of this Resolution? The Mover and Seconder put two propositions before the House. They first of all want to abolish the censorship, and to substitute in its place effective control. That is really the issue the House has to decide upon to-night.

A great many inquiries have been held on this subject. There were Committees in 1832, 1853, 1862, 1866, and 1892. All these Committees decided in favour of retaining the censorship. Then there was the Committee in 1909 of which the hon. Member behind me was a most distinguished Member. It contained five Members of the House of Lords and five Members of the House of Commons. My hon. Friend has quoted from its report. There is more to be quoted than he quoted, though he is perfectly entitled to select his own quotation; but the House must not think that that Committee was in favour of the unconditional abolition of the censorship. This Resolution does suggest an unconditional abolition of the censorship. This Committee of 1909 went into the matter very carefully and had a great number of witnesses before it, and it recommended on page 12 that the office of Examiner of Plays should be continued. They say— We conclude that the producers of plays should have access, prior to the production, to public authority, which should be empowered to licence plays as suitable for performance. The House will see that this modifies the conclusion which my hon. Friend has suggested to the House in the quotations which he has placed before it. Lord Gorell in 1909 put the substance of this Resolution before that Joint Committee, and the only support he got was that of my hon. Friend. There were two who voted for it, Lord Gorell and my hon. Friend. Six other members of the Committed voted against it. So really, when the House is asked to support a Resolution of this kind, I think, without expressing any opinion of mine at all, that it should bear in mind that this Joint Committee appointed for this specific purpose, having heard a great deal of evidence both for and against by a majority of six to two came to the conclusion that this Resolution was not a practicable way of dealing with the situation.


My hon. Friend is dealing very fairly with me, but may I give what I consider the salient words of the Chairman in the Report on page 11:— It should be optional to submit a play for licence and legal to perform an unlicensed play, whether it has been submitted or not.


Yes, they say, after being very much pressed to do so, that if anybody wants to perform a play he should have the safeguard for his own protection of coming to the Lord Chamberlain and asking for a licence, but if he likes he may take the risk of saying, "I do not want to come to you for a licence; I have such confidence in my play that I will not ask you; I will submit to whatever penalty may come afterwards, if there is any." It is equally true, after the interruption of the hon. Member, that the substance of this Resolution was put in an affirmative form before the Committee by Lord Gorell, and seconded by my hon. Friend, and beyond that it got no further support on the Joint Committee. When that Joint Committee, having gone into the matter for a great many weeks, came to that decision, it is not all plain sailing, and it requires a little consideration before we allow ourselves to be carried away by the eloquence of the two hon. Members who have just addressed the House. Who are the people who ought to be consulted in a matter of this kind? First of all, the public. As far as I am able to gauge the opinion of the public, they are not greatly concerned about this matter. They have maintained a very discreet attitude, both one way or the other, and they have kept perfectly calm in the face of to-night's Debate. So I do not think that the public at the present moment are concerned very much about this question. Then there are the managers of the theatres. They are against the abolition of the Censorship. I can quite understand that they should be.


It protects them from prosecution.


I should have thought that that was a very good reason why they should be. I know that it is the practice to speak rather discouragingly of the managers who get their thousands of pounds for these productions, but why should not the man who invests his capital in a production go to some authority before he incurs all this expenditure, and say, "Do you mind reading this and telling me whether it is fit for performance or not?" Does not the hon. Member think that this is a reasonable safeguard? I speak now as a friend of capitalists, if I may. I do not speak as an author. I submit to the House that when a manager spends a large sum of money on the production of a play it is a reasonable safeguard to be able to go to some authority and say, "This is the play which is going to be performed in my theatre, and before I incur all this expenditure I should be very much obliged if you can tell me whether this is a play which you can license for production." I think that the argument of the hon. Gentleman opposite has this point, that, as he says, it is rather conventional, and what is right one day is wrong another. I quite agree with that. But on this point I think that the manager of a theatre is entitled to come for some safeguard before producing a play. With regard to the actors, I understand that they are all in favour of the censorship of plays. Sir Charles Wyndham said:— I cannot recall to mind any manager who is in favour of interfering with the system which at present exists. We are all for letting well alone. It is only from a few authors, including the hon. Gentleman opposite, that objections are heard. I think that I am right in stating to the House that the main objection to the censorship, comes from authors, and, of course, it is quite right that it should. We expect it to come from authors. They are writing plays, and they naturally want to write what they like, and they want it produced in the form in which they do write it, and some of them say, "Here we are, writers, authors. Why should we submit what we write to the superior criticism of a man who is no better perhaps than ourselves, and perhaps not so good, although he is a Member of the House Of Lords—the Lord Chamberlain?"

May I say what has been done in this respect? What takes place is this: The manuscript is sent in, and it is read by the two readers. It is then sent to the Comptroller and the Lord Chamberlain. That was to be the whole process. But since 1910—I hope the hon. Gentleman's play was sent to the Lord Chamberlain before 1910—there is a new system, under which I am sure his play would have escaped censure. What happens is this. If the Lord Chamberlain and the Comptroller have any doubt—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had a personal interview with the Lord Chamberlain—the Lord Chamberlain asks the author and the manager to come and see him, so that by conversation the whole matter might possibly be amicably arranged. When alleged objectionable sentences are pointed out, in a vast number of cases there is not the slightest difficulty in coming to an arrangement. To show what takes place, I may mention that in the year 1912 there were 1,281 plays licensed, and only eight were refused the licence. In this year, up to date, 176 have been licensed, and only one refused the licence. Since 1910, if the Lord Chamberlain, the Comptroller and the readers have any doubt about a play, it is submitted to the advisory committee. Before a play is refused a licence it is submitted to a committee consisting of five members—two Members of this House, both eminent lawyers, one sitting on that side of the House and one on this, one Member for Dublin University and one representing the Keighley Division; the others are Sir Walter Raleigh, who is one of the greatest critics of the age—I do not think there will be any dispute about that—Sir Squire Bancroft, and the Comptroller. These five members read the play, and I am authorised to tell the House that in no case since this committee has been appointed has their decision been objected to in any way, and what they have decided upon the merits has been adhered to. That is a step in the right direction.

The author will say, "Why should I submit my work to one man, who may be guided by his sentiments and caprices?" But, before a licence is refused, the play goes to this committee of five members, and I submit to the House that it would be very difficult to get a more competent tribunal than those five gentlemen. It seems to me that there are really only two logical propositions—the one is to have no control and the other is to have control. I can understand no control, though my hon. Friend does not go so far as that. But directly you go in for control, then let us think what it comes to. The control can either come beforehand or afterwards—before the play is produced, or after it is produced. I should have thought that it would save both time and money to come beforehand. If the Lord Chamberlain said to the manager and author, "You go away; I do not want to see you before you spend thousands of pounds and risk your capital. I will send somebody to see whether your play is right or wrong, and in the meantime, you had better go and spend your money." That might recommend itself to brother barristers of mine, but it does not recommend itself to the capitalist, who has to spend his money on the production of the play. What does subsequent control come to? You get the decision of one man, and the effective control comes after the play has been produced. I wonder whose duty it would be to say anything about the matter at all. What happens? If a policeman were sent, he would take shorthand notes and make a transcript of them, and go to the police station at night and give his report to the inspector, who, amongst his midnight pursuits, would read the play.


How does it work in the case of music halls at the present time?


The hon. Member is not asking for information; he seeks to put me in a difficulty. What happens in music halls is that if a stage play is produced they require a licence from the Lord Chamberlain, just as a theatre does. If a play is produced at a music hall within the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain, a licence has to be obtained for that play to be produced. How are you to put effective control into operation? There may be some suspicion about a play, and the manager or author is summoned before the magistrate. What is the kind of evidence you get? It is admitted there is no principle to guide the magistrate. What happens? The policeman will read his report, and then I suppose there will be a series of experts in morality on the one side, and a series of experts in the other direction on the other side. One will say, "This is a very improper piece, and its tendency is to corrupt the people who hear it." On the other side, the expert might say, "Do not talk about conventional morality. The morality of to-day is the immorality of to-morrow, and the immorality of to-morrow is the morality of the day after." Then at the end of all this evidence, who is the judge? The magistrate. You therefore come to the censorship under another name, at the very end of the whole performance, and after all the expense has been incurred. I think it is very difficult for us, in all the circumstances, to come to a decision on this question, but what I have to put to the House on behalf of the Government is that no legislation on this subject would be justified unless there was a general demand for it. The theatrical profession is very smartly divided. Theatrical managers, owners of theatres, and actors in the main are for the censorship. There is no doubt that a very brilliant body of authors and playwrights are against it. The authors, of course, are in the minority, as they always expect to be; if they were not in the minority, their whole position would be gone. As long as they are in a minority I do not think they can quite expect the House to pass legislation for a minority, however brilliant and in hostility to the majority, however less brilliant that majority may be. It might be said, why do you not legislate upon the Report of the Joint Committee of which my right hon. Friend was Chairman? My hon. Friend will not have that. The Report of that Committee, as I have said, was by six to two against the substance of this Resolution.


As my hon. Friend asks me, I only put down what I thought was the simpler solution of Lord Gorell, though I quite agree there was, as is usual, a compromise adopted. May I quote this particular sentence in the Report, which I think would go a long way to meeting my views. That sentence is:— It should be optional to submit a play for licence and legal to perform an unlicensed play, whether it has been submitted or not. Do the Government accept that?


The point is that there is such diversity of opinion among experts that it is very difficult as yet in the present situation to know on what lines you could legislate. The sentence my hon. Friend has quoted no doubt was the opinion of the Committee, but he himself did not adopt that when he was a Member of the Committee. As far as this Resolution is concerned, no doubt it is a second best, but he must remember that even then he was in a distinct minority. The theatrical profession of this country whose capital and labour are involved in this profession are against the abolition of the Censorship. It is only a minority of authors and playwrights who very vehemently ask for that abolition. We should be chary before we commit ourselves to a proposal of this kind. I am informed that a great many even of the authors would prefer the compulsory Censorship plus a court of arbitration rather than the proposals of the Joint Committee.




My hon. Friend will find it in the "Era," a paper with which he is much more acquainted than I am, and I have no doubt he will recognise it as an authority more than I do—except on this occasion. With these divided counsels prevailing, and when we know that the theatrical profession, which are mainly interested, are so severely divided on this point, and when we remember—and I think this is a cardinal point—there is a very languid public in face of this proposal, I do not think the House will be surprised to know that we are not in a position now here to legislate on a question upon which there is really so much division of opinion. In order to obtain guidance, the Government is anxious to listen to this Debate and to leave the decision to the unfettered discretion of the House, and if, as a result of this Debate or otherwise, any proposals are brought forward which will really obtain the substantial consent of the theatrical profession or of the public generally, they will be very glad to consider those proposals carefully and sympathetically, and, when opportunity occurs, to found legislation upon any such proposals as will have regard to the interests of the community generally.


I am reluctant to take part in this Debate after the very brilliant speeches we had from the Mover and Seconder of this Resolution, but I must say, if I had any doubt as to the wisdom of having a Censor of plays, that doubt is removed by the speech I have heard from the Under-Secretary. I have had some little experience with this matter, but I should like to-night to approach it with a certain aloofness. I have known cases where there had been a great expenditure of money and rehearsals had gone on for three or four weeks, and in which, after that, a breathless acting manager has rushed back on to the stage to the producer and asked him, "Have you sent the manuscript to the Censor?" It has been, I should think, the last thing thought about in connection with the production. I know time after time the precious manuscript has had to be sent to Great Cumberland Street, and sometimes two or three letters have been sent asking that there might be no great delay and that the production of the play be not postponed by not having the licence sent down in time. It is the Censor that has brought that about. Managers accept plays ninety-nine times out of a hundred without thinking of what the Censor will say. It is only when a man comes along with new ideas, and wants to go deeper into some great subject, that you begin to think, as a manager, whether the Censor will licence the play. I object to that restriction on the art. I want to know who can support a system which gives to any man or to any five men such tremendous power as to decide what is and what is not fit for you or me to see. Is he a censor of the morals of men and women or a censor of the morals of children? If he is to pick and choose plays for men and women to see without their sensibilities being shocked, then I say that he performs his work, or has done so in the past, very badly indeed. If it is a matter of picking and choosing plays for children, then I think that can be done in quite another way. Plays for children are performed at Christmas time, and I do not think we have ever had the name of the Censor brought into connection with them. The part of the matter that has been brought before the House which interested me very deeply was that of giving to anyone the power to judge of a play by merely reading the manuscript. I have in my-personal experience read hundreds of plays, and I consider that the art of reaching a play is one that takes years and years to cultivate. I know that the reader of plays, when he has perhaps to read, we will say, three or four plays per week, has a very difficult task to apply his fresh intelligence upon each manuscript and to do it justice.

Would the House try to imagine the position of the Censor, who perhaps has in one season 100 or 150 plays to review. How tedious the whole matter becomes! He cannot do justice to each manuscript as he goes along. To put into the hands of the Censor a manuscript which perhaps he does not feel inclined to read, when he feels that he must get on as he has such a mass of work to get through, is fair neither to the author nor to the public. It only goes to show, when we look at the matter from this standpoint, how it is that French farces can be passed and plays of Maeterlinck banned. To show the difference between our system and the systems that obtain abroad, may I take one of Maeterlinck's plays—"Mona Vanna"? I was deeply interested in "Mona Vanna" as soon as it was published in this country, and hoped that it would pass the Censor and have a public production here. Hon. Members know, of course, that the licence was withheld. Shortly afterwards I went to Germany, and I heard when in Munich that the Comedy House were rehearsing "Mona Vanna." I asked that I might be privileged to watch some of the rehearsals. As it was to be produced in a week or two, I determined to stay and witness the first performance of the play, because I wanted to see what kind of audience would assemble to see in Germany a play that had been banned in London. "Mona Vanna" I consider to be a great piece of dramatic art. I stood in the vestibule of the Comedy House in Munich from the time the doors opened until a minute or two before the rising of the curtain. What did I see? Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters down to the age of twelve or ten, coming along to witness this work of Maeterlinck's. I went into the lobby again when the play was over, and watched the audience disperse. No one was shocked; no one left the theatre; no mother took out her child, not even in the middle of the second act. That really was a commentary upon the position here in England. I am bound to say that if "Mona Vanna" had been licensed here a very similar thing would have taken place, with the exception perhaps that the sons and daughters would have been a little older than those who assembled at the performance in Munich.

Further, I cannot understand why it is possible here in this country to licence Wagner. It is because, as a rule, the words are sung in German and the vast majority of the people who go do not know Wagner's poems? Why, on the other hand, could not "Parsifal" be licensed here? I went years ago to a performance of "Parsifal" at Bayreuth. I shall never forget the first performance there. I have attended great religious ceremonies in different parts of the world, but I never in my life saw an audience so moved by the marvellous music drama as they were on that occasion. Would it be bad for the morals of the people of England to have a great, wonderful performance of "Parsifal" here? I think it would lift the plane of culture in this country enormously. The Seconder of the Motion referred to Shakespeare. I wish to point to the difference between the way Shakespeare is played in Germany, where they are unfettered, and the way it is done in this country. I have never seen in "Romeo and Juliet" the scene between Lady Capulet, Juliet, and the nurse. If I want to see that scene I have to go to Germany to see it, and around me there I find members of different academies, schools, and societies, young people, students. The same is true with regard to many other scenes from Shakespeare. They boast in Vienna that they have performed every one of Shakespeare's plays, including "Troilus and Cressida" and "Measure for Measure." Why are we in London not to see these plays? Not because the Censor would censor a Shakespearean play, nor would he I think debar any particular scene in Shakespeare from being acted. But because of the whole sense of restriction that the Censor has brought about, managers themselves when they are considering the production of a Shakespearean play have to emasculate the whole force of the drama itself time and time again, and cut out essential scenes, until sometimes one is made to think that perhaps the managers themselves do not wholly understand why Shakespeare wrote the scenes. This is bad not only upon the people, and particularly young people, but upon the dramatist.

I have not had much experience, but I can imagine some dramatists whom I know to-day sitting down to work. They do not go about it as they used to in the old times—think out the situations first, and then make what we used to call a cardboard play. The dramatist chooses his characters, lets them assemble in his mind, an0000d then through the clash of temperament lets them work out their action and their situations. While this process, which is so dear to the true dramatist, is going on, must he be haunted all the time with the thought that the actions of these people must be governed by what the Censor will think of the play when it is finished? It is impossible under such conditions for a man who really wants to do justice to his characters, and the actions that are consequent upon the clash of character to make a play that is going to be of any worth at all. In these few rambling remarks I want particularly to throw out the suggestion that it is impossible for a man to decide by merely reading a manuscript how that manuscript is going to be treated in rehearsal and by the actors. My hon. Friend stated that the Censor was a benign personage who, when he came to an Act that he could not pass, sent for the actor-manager and the author, and pointed to this word here and that sentence there. What a simple matter it would be if it was only a word here and a sentence there. How obdurate would be the author, who would say "No, I want every 'if,' 'and' and 'but' in my play." The serious thing is not an accidental word or sentence; it is the subject, the character. Sometimes when you take away something that the Censor objects to you emasculate a character. Very often if the Censor were to hear the artist-actor speak that sentence or word in the production he would say "How stupid I was. How different it is when it is spoken and acted."

That brings me at once to this point. How absurd is the system that permits the miss at school or the boy at a public school to take a novel as at present. A boy is put into possession of what is in the novel that will appeal to his senses by reading perhaps one of our best journals, possibly on the schoolmaster's table; there is the critique written boldly, giving in a sentence what the novel contains. The boys say, "I should like to read that." He gets it; he takes it up to his room, and he reads it in secret—I know that that is going on all the time—he can gloat over it; he can take a sentence and read it over and over again, particularly the sentence that has been referred to. He can read it over a dozen times. But he goes to the play once, and he sees the whole thing in action, probably with the objectionable sentences or the objectionable words, and he has forgotten them by the time the curtain comes down. It is preposterous that you should have one system for literature and another system for the drama. I shall not take up more time, but I do speak for those men who to-day are wanting to infuse some new life into our drama. Dear me! we have only got to look back a few years at the agitation which took place in this country when "Ghosts" was performed. I remember the first performance of "Ghosts" in New York. I watched it with William Dean Howells and Albert Steinberg, who was then the chief critic of the "New York Herald." Steinberg was one of the finest intelligences that I ever came across. When I met him that night, he said, "I have just read "Ghosts." I asked him, "What do you think of it?" He replied, "It is a very bad play; it will not act." When we came out of the theatre afterwards, that fine intelligence had to admit that the play was a very fine one, and a great acting play. If Steinberg could make such a mistake at that time, what mistake could be made by such men as we pick to be Censors? It is not right or fair to the dramatist that after years and years of work he should have to submit his work to a Censor who might be in ill-humour, attacked by dyspepsia, or sick and disgusted at having to read day after day manuscripts of various kinds, and probably have his property wholly destroyed. Let the House think for the moment of all the work that is preparatory to a play like Ibsen's "Emperor and Galilean." I need not refer to the quarrel with history. Look at it as a piece of dramatic work. Consider the years he was passing it in his mind; his journey to Rome; the great care he took in research; the selection of his characters; and the bringing of them altogether; then the giving to us of this wonderful work of art. By the process we condemn, the world runs the risk of having one great masterpiece less. We want to encourage the drama here. We want to have a broad view. We want the minds of the public raised to a higher plane of culture and refinement. We cannot possibly do it so long as you put restrictions on people and their work.


Into this very interesting Debate I wish to bring, so far as I can, a personal experience. I would say first to the Under-Secretary for the Home Department that I live in a country where there is no Censor. We, in Ireland, get on without any. The only thing that does happen in Ireland is that sometimes a play that has been licensed by the Censor here, and that has been passed by the public, comes to Ireland where there is no Censor, and it finds itself hissed off the stage. I am prepared to say, from our experience in Ireland, that every single difficulty and danger which the Under-Secretary has put before us is imaginary and illusory. After all, there is the possibility of a play being hissed off the stage, and prosecuted by the police, but that does not deter managers from putting upon the stage even plays such as have been spoken of. The manager of a theatre will no doubt, for his own interest, take the same course that his publisher takes; he will not go looking for trouble. At the present time, the Censorship really is a convenience for those who want to sail near the wind. Everybody knows it. Managers know it. I suppose that is one of the reasons why the Under-Secretary defends it. Let me consider some of the existing facts of the situation. In the first place, I should like to congratulate the hon. Gentleman, who is not, now in the House, on having raised this subject again, because there is no doubt that by a ventilation of it, something has been attained. That much emerged from the speech of the Under-Secretary. We are not in the same position as we were three or four years ago, and if the hon. Gentleman above the Gangway escaped the Censor at that time I am bound to say, though he did not tell us by what process he did it, I suspect him of having written a play on a scriptural subject. [An HON. MEMBER: "No, it was not that."] Then it was worse than I anticipated. Somebody has got to write plays. If this particular form of art is to be put under restriction imposed upon no other form, at least it is reasonable that we should have the task given to a man who is a cultured and educated man. We have the satisfaction of knowing that we have a Censor at present who really knows, by experiment, how far it is wise to go in the way of indelicacy. That ought to be a great advantage from a certain point of view to the censorship. But, after all, this question is not merely one of indelicacy. I wonder if the House realises how far the absurdities of the thing go. It is fair to say that some absurdities are apparently being done away. A short time ago there was prohibited on the English stage the play, "Edipus Rex." On the same ground Shelley's "Cenci" could have been prohibited. The production of Milton's "Samson Agonistes" has been prohibited by the Censor, and I think it is probable that now that play might be permitted, because I understand that the Censor has given a licence—and I am delighted to hear it—to a dramatised version of the Book of Job, which was some time ago produced in London. There is still the fact that a play before it can be played for a licence has got to have a theatre found for it. I would like the House to consider for a moment how that affects the question of a play, which up to the present time has been tabooed like Mr. Housman's "Bethlehem," which was tabooed simply because it dealt with a scriptural subject. I think it is quite clear that for that class of play there is a public demand. Take, for instance, the play "Eagerheart," produced some six or eight years ago. I understand that that play has been given at least 100 representations, and has been played to something like 100,000 persons. That passed by a mere fluke, because there is no doubt that we are describing the mental process of getting a licence.

10.0 P.M.

No human being could explain why "Eagerheart" was licensed and "Bethlehem" was prohibited. It passes my comprehension. There are other plays that are seeking for licence. You cannot apply for a licence. Let me state to the House to produce your play in. You can only submit your play after you have taken a hall and gone to considerable expense, unless it is to be produced by an ordinary theatre, and that up to the present is a considerable prohibition even to applying for a licence. Let me state to the House how the matter works out. I happened to be associated with two plays in the last couple of years. I was interested in them as works of art; other people were interested in them from a religious point of view. At any rate, they were under the patronage of bishops. The first was under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury, and it was produced at the University of London. Before it was produced the University of London was threatened with prosecution because of some technical breach of the law, because all these plays can only be produced by evasion of the law, and it seems to me unpleasant that you cannot produce a play which the Archbishop of Canterbury wants to see produced without a technical evasion of the law. The first time the play was given it was a great artistic success, and I under- stand that many people were as moved by it as people might be by a great sermon or a great service in a church.

Then it was proposed to produce another play at the University of London, but the university was not going for a second time to expose itself to the threats of prosecution, and what was the result? The only place in London where you could produce a scriptural subject under the patronage of the Archbishop of Canterbury was the National Sporting Club. I do not want to say a word against the National Sporting Club. They have a beautiful hall, and they are very civil people to deal with, but many people thought that that atmosphere was not congenial to this form of art, and even at the National Sporting Club we were again threatened with prosecution because of some technical breach of the law. Really I hope all this kind of absurdity will be swept away. The Lord Chamberlain has the matter absolutely in his own hands, and he can sweep away all this absurd matter of tabooing plays on Scriptural subjects, and he can make sure that plays shall not be debarred from licence merely because the authors choose their subjects from the same scope and range as Racine chose to write his "Esther" for performance in girls' schools. I think perhaps, it is worth while to add a consideration upon that matter.

There has been only one great school of drama in the world and that is the Greek tragic drama. These people made their drama out of stories that were part of their religion and familiar to everybody. They carried with them the association and atmosphere of moral ideas. The equivalent to that from modern English dramatists can only be found in the story of the Bible and the Old Testament. All that atmosphere, all that inherent association is open to the poet and to the novelist if he wishes to use it, and is open to anybody but the dramatist. A friend of mine some time ago wanted to write a play upon the subject of David. The friend I speak of was then writing the best verse written since Tennyson was in his prime. If he wrote a play upon the story of David, it would be worthless because it would not have been licenceds. The result was he twisted the story and maimed and manacled it for the stage, and the result was failure. I think the Censor robbed English literature in that sense of a masterpiece. It seems to me that the only thing the censorship has done is harm. If you want to get your work on the stage you have to pass an arbitrary and irresponsible tribunal. Everybody knows that people are inclined to treat the novel as a worn out form of art, and would gladly turn to the stage but for the difficulties with which we are confronted, and for what use is it that you set up this barrier? I say if you want to decide for yourself what the censorship is worth, you have only to compare the novel of to-day which has no censorship with the play of to-day. It seems to me clear that of the two forms of literature, the novel, from the moral point of view, stands infinitely higher. The modern play is limited practically to the sexual appeal. In the novel you get a much wider range of interest and you may get work purely of an intellectual character. Plays which could shock nobody, shock the Censor, because they make him stop and think. There are a great many people in the world who say that they do not want to be asked to think when they go to the theatre, that they only want to be amused. It is perfectly right that they should be amused, but what I say is that other people who go to the theatre in the same spirit as an artist goes to a picture gallery to keep his faculties alive and alert and to stimulate thought, ought to have the right to see plays they want to see, while leaving other people to be provided for as they always are amply provided for already.


I desire to give one or two reasons why I intend to vote against the Motion of the hon. Gentleman opposite. I firmly believe that the abolition of the censorship would be offensive to the taste of many people and would be a menace to the morality of a large number. I am fully aware that if the hon. Gentleman who moved this Resolution and my hon. Friend below me thought that their proposal would have such an effect they would not ask the House to adopt it, but even the hon. Member for Montrose has admitted that there is considerable danger attached to the production of plays, but he has suggested that the remedy should be in suppression after evil had been manifested. We who support the censorship believe that it would be better to prevent that outrage on good feeling and morality from being produced. In other words, my action is dictated by the principle that prevention is better than cure. The one object of censorship should be to protect people from the influence of the production of immoral plays, and on the whole I think it has operated very beneficially in promoting that object. The hon. Member for Montrose said that free subjects demand liberty. To follow out that principle to its full etxent, would be an argument against all laws for the protection of the subject which we are constantly putting into effect. What are our sanitary laws for? To prevent disease. Does anyone believe that by the promotion of sanitary laws we are guilty of an unreasonable interference with the liberty of the subject? The object and purport of the Censor is to prevent immoral plays being placed before the public. Quite recently we were engaged—successfully, I am glad to say—in dealing with the white slave traffic. The object in that case was prevention rather than cure, and on the same principle I hope the House will hesitate before taking the retrograde step of doing away with this reasonable protection to prevent immorality and the production of plays offensive to the taste of the people. I shall vote against this Resolution because I am convinced it would be strongly resented by the majority of the people of this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] That is a matter of opinion. I think the Under-Secretary was quite right in pointing to the fact that there has been no strong agitation in favour of the alteration which has been proposed to-night, and I therefore strongly protest against it. I believe the change suggested would be offensive to the taste of a large number of the people of this country, and it would menace morality, more especially of the younger classes who would come under the baneful influence of some of the plays that would be produced. There are many pure-minded persons who attend the theatre who would resent an immoral play, but, on the other hand, we know there are a large number who would glory in the immorality of the play. You cannot in every case trust to the judgment of the theatre-goer as to the desirability of plays being produced or not. The hon. Member for Montrose says his remedy is to suppress plays after they have been proved to be objectionable, and even there he admits the presence of a great danger. Again, in this case, prevention is better than cure, and it is better to have a censorship and prevent the public being injured by the production of immoral and indecent plays.


I am afraid on the present occasion I find myself in op- position to my hon. Friend the Member for Tavistock. I rise to support the Resolution before the House. I speak on this subject with some little practical experience, and certainly with considerable enthusiasm for the great profession of the stage. I could not help thinking, when I heard my hon. Friend who has just sat down say that the presence of the Censor will save the people from offence, he is entirely ignoring the force of the fact that the public opinion of the British people has never in the long history of our country approved of immoral or degrading performances on the public stage. I attach enormous weight to the opinion of the British public. I attach still greater weight to the great and overwhelming safeguard which exists in the fact that those licensed houses have annually to apply for a licence for the performance of stage plays, and that if a manager allows indecent or immoral or degraded plays to be produced on his stage the magistrates in whom we have placed, and I think rightly placed, the power, may withhold the licence on the ground that the house has not been properly conducted, just as we to-day withhold a licence for a public house if those in authority find that the house is not to the public advantage. The Under-Secretary told us that this question was not so easy as it appeared, but what he really meant was that the answer to the Resolution was not so easy as it appeared. I must confess that while much impressed with his ingenuity, I thought he spoke on very inadequate instructions and very little knowledge of his case. He drew a graphic and, I think, an utterly ridiculous picture of what would happen if the position of the censorship was ended. He said, "You would send your policeman into the theatre with their pocket-books ready to make shorthand notes of the play which was being acted, and if they thought there was a case against the management of the theatre on the ground that the play was indecent, then they would go and report to that effect." What nonsense! I ventured to interrupt the hon. Gentleman and to ask him, "Do you do that to-day in music halls?" Then the hon. Gentleman gave us a wonderful insight into the lack of knowledge with which he came to the House, because his answer was, "We do not do it in music halls, because stage plays which are produced in music halls have to pass the Censor." My only answer to that is, "It is not true." The hon. Gentleman who speaks for the Government to-night really does not know his case. He is entirely ignorant of the fact that I can go with my manuscript to-morrow to a music-hall manager, and he can produce it without first submitting it to the Lord Chamberlain for approval. Why should there be that distinction. It is a distinction to which attention is drawn in the Resolution before the House, because the hon. Member's Motion protests against the distinction which is made between the theatre and the music hall.

The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Mr. Herbert Samuel)

The hon. Member is mistaken.


The right hon. Gentleman has consulted officials, but I can assure him that it is a fact that plays which the Censor never sees are produced in music halls day after day.


Not in London.


The jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain extends all over England as regards the ordinary stage play, and, if I understand the right hon. Gentleman rightly, it does not extend beyond London as regards a music hall. If that is so, surely my argument is just as logical, and surely the answer of the Under-Secretary is just as illogical. If that is so—and with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman's advisers I am still inclined to doubt it—why in the name of common sense, if I write a stage play, should I have to take it to the Censor to be approved before I can produce it in Liverpool, whereas if I write a play for production in a music hall in Liverpool, I have no need to submit it to the Censor at all. That is the case which the right hon. Gentleman, after consulting with his colleagues, puts to the House, and if he does the House the honour of summing up this Debate, I ask him to justify that anachronism. The Under-Secretary also refrained from answering another point in the Amendment which calls attention to the distinction which is made between Ireland and England. I ask a representative of the Government to tell us on what logical basis it can be said a playwright who produces a play in an English theatre must get it passed by the Censor before it can be played, while a playwright who writes for an Irish theatre can say, "We do not care a snap of the finger whether the Censor approves the play or not." These are questions which surely those in authority must answer before they ask the House to follow them into the Division Lobby. It is surely amazing that the hon. Member who spoke for the Government carefully avoided dealing with these two vital points to which the Resolution calls attention.

The hon. Gentleman has told us that the theatrical profession, as a whole, is against the proposals in this Amendment. He cited the evidence of one distinguished actor. I do not consider that in any way conclusive because that distinguished actor is also a manager, and every manager is determined to do everything he can to cling to the protection which the Government, under our present system, gives to him. I do not value the opinion of the manager at all. He is in an entirely false position. He can produce a play and introduce into it any gags or any business, however indecent—perhaps I am putting it too high when I say however indecent, but business and gags certainly suggestive and sometimes indecent—and he knows he is safeguarded in practice against prosecution and against risk to his licence because he has the protection which the Censor has given him in passing his play. I must, therefore, under these circumstances, attach very little weight to the opinion of theatrical managers. I agree that they are in clover, and I ask the House to attach little importance to those who are protected by this present system, and rather to apply its mind to the hardships of the author who has spent months, and even years, in producing a play which, when it has been produced, has secured the approval of literary people and acknowledged experts, but which, nevertheless, has been banned by the Censor because of some sentence or some part which he disapproves. The Censor will disapprove a play, if I write one, in which I make the Under-Secretary the principal figure, and with the aid of the perruquier and the make-up produce, as near as possible, the classical features of the hon. Gentleman on the stage at Drury Lane. The Censor will stop such a play, but I can go to the Empire and produce a stage play in which the hon. Member will perform all sorts of antics entirely foreign to him perhaps; nevertheless, I can produce him in a manner which would be infinitely more offensive to him and to his friends. The Censor says it is not desirable to put prominent public persons on to the stage, but it can be done in the music halls without interference from the Censor, or without giving offence to anybody, because the British public have never approved of offensive representations of their public men in stage plays. Another example occurs to me. I remember a play, written not very long ago, in which the principal characters were George IV. and Queen Caroline. I cannot remember the name of the author or the name of the play.


"Pains and Penalties."


I am obliged to the hon. Member. I remember that he called attention to the matter at the time by a question in this House. That play was refused. I have not read it, but I understand it was a play with considerable good qualities in it. It was refused on the ground that it might give offence to Royalty now living. You can pick up your newspapers of to-day and find in them articles quoted from newspapers of 100 years ago, upon which there is no censorship, and in which you will find things infinitely more repugnant to living Royalty than you would find in any stage play refused by the Censor. Our present system is indefensible. I am not criticising the findings of the "Council of Five," I am not asking whether they read the play which the majority of them refuse, I am not questioning whether the methods whereby our present system is carried out are right or wrong—I say the whole principle is wrong. It is wrong and indefensible that you should differentiate as you do between the music hall and the theatre, that you should allow a person to write a book which you do not censor until it is in print and finished, and that you should say to the man who writes a play, "You shall not produce it until we approve of it." I believe that if we abolish this ridiculous censorship on stage plays that we shall be in an infinitely stronger position, and that we shall encourage playwrights. You would encourage playwrights to write their very best, regardless of the fact that there is a Censor with a blue pencil in his hand who might make many alterations in an author's play, You would place the responsibility upon the owner of the theatre who produces the play, who has to apply for his licence every year before he can produce a play, and I believe that with that great safeguard in itself, together with the, perhaps, still greater safeguard which public opinion has ever given us in this country, you will find that the proposals in this Resolution, if carried out, will be a great advance and give greater liberty and greater justice to all authors. I believe it will tend to elevate the whole atmosphere of stage plays, whether in the theatre or the music hall. Our present system is an anachronism; it was worn out many years ago. I am glad the hon. Member opposite (Mr. Robert Harcourt) and my hon. Friend (Mr. Mark Sykes) have raised this question. I am glad the Government have advanced so far that they are prepared to leave it to the unfettered judgment of the House, and I ask every Member of the House who has heard this Debate to support this Motion merely as a protest against the present ridiculous system, and as evidence of the fact that it is time we took some steps to fall into line with other great civilised countries. If the House adopts the Motion it will be a message to the Government of the day that it is time an end was put to the present anachronism.


It is a somewhat odd commentary on the speech made by the Under-Secretary, who said that public opinion was not behind the Motion, that with one single exception every speech made by private Members of the House has been in support of the Motion. The only speech in opposition to it was that of the hon. Member for the Tavistock Division (Sir J. Spear), with regard to which many of us will feel much sympathy, and I confess I should vote with him against the proposal if I thought that the censorship served, in the least degree, to carry out what he desires. It is because I feel that it does not do that, but is actually mischievous, that I am speaking on behalf of the Motion to-night.

Most hon. Members who have spoken have had some special claim to do so, either as being more or less connected with the stage or as dramatic authors, and they therefore may perhaps be considered to have, if not an axe to grind, at any rate a little interest. I can claim to speak with no bias whatever, except that of an ordinary man who goes to a theatre, and who likes to be sure that when he goes to the theatre and takes his children he can see a decent and clean entertainment, and that, I submit, is what we do not get under the present censorship, and it is a dangerous situation when we have a censorship which does not carry out what it professes, and when we have to lean upon such a broken reed as the censorship has proved in the past. We are indeed better with mere police supervision, which certainly works most admirably across the Irish Channel. It is by no means difficult for anyone who wishes to do so to find immoral plays being given in theatres in London, and it never has been. Plays of immoral tendency are quite easy to see, but you have not to go to the societies that perform unlicensed plays to see them. I have seen many performances of unlicensed plays given by the Stage Society, but I have never yet seen an immoral one while I have seen many plays I should have blushed to take my family to, flaunting the approval of the censorship on the stage of the public theatres which are under the control of the Lord Chamberlain. The only thing that seems to ban a play under the censorship as we have seen it in recent years is that it treats a serious moral problem in a serious way. If you want to see some of the deepest problems of life treated seriously by a great French dramatist, if you want to see "Maternité" or other great plays, the only place that is open to their production is the highly sympathetic atmosphere of the National Sporting Club.

But happily for the future of the drama and of literature, the censorship, though it may be wrong, is also futile, and not only is that so, but it always must be so. Some 200 years ago an attempt was made, with which I think the hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Spear) would perhaps have sympathised, to suppress stage plays altogether, and it lasted for a few years, with the result that, following the Puritan suppression of plays, came the Restoration drama, which ever since has been a byword for impropriety and for everything that is undesirable. This censorship has been bad for the theatre, it has been bad for literature, and it has also been bad for morality. If we had had this censorship applied not only to the theatre, but to art and literature, much of the greatest work that has been produced in this country would have been impossible. To give only one example, had it been applied to art as it is applied now to the drama, at least we should have had no Hogarth, but I should think some of the old Italian masters would come under the ban of the Censor because they represented Scriptural subjects. The drama sometimes escapes by what I may call a side wind because, happily, this futility of the censorship extends so far that it is not retrospective, and while a number of morality plays have been ruled to be ineligible for public performance, the censorship has, happily for literature, happily for the theatre, been unable to prevent the performance of that highly improper play, "Everyman." My objection to the censorship is on other grounds than these. It not only does not do what it professes to do, but it does not even profess to cover the ground. It is obviously a ridiculous thing that one or two, or, if you like, twenty men with different views should profess to be able to censor what is written for the stage by merely reading the manuscript, and without knowing how the play will appear when it is produced. I remember a play being hissed off the stage because it was not considered decent. It was hissed off the stage because of one particular action which took place on the stage, and which could not be read in the manuscript. When that can occur it is ridiculous to rely on such a censorship. There is another and even graver objection. Not only is it futile and partial, but it is liable to the very grave abuse which has been touched upon by the hon. Member for Warrington (Mr. Harold Smith). It is one of the greatest objections. It enables managers who so desire to sail much nearer the wind than they would do if they had not the censorship, which makes it almost impossible for any local authority to prosecute them for the indecency, immorality, or undesirability of the pieces they present. The very fact that a manager can go before a Court, and say that the play has been passed by the Lord Chamberlain, is primâ facie evidence that there can be no objection to it. I submit that that is an undesirable power to place in the hands of managers, who may be unscrupulous. They may think it desirable that the censorship should be retained. But that is no reason why, in the interest of the public, it should be retained. It is a matter for the public interest, and the public interest by no means coincides with the interests of managers or theatre proprietors.

It may be asked if we abolish the censorship what we are going to put in its place. I answer with confidence that for many years music halls have gone on satisfactorily under police supervision, and the fear of being prosecuted for anything improper is enough for the managers of those places not subject to the censorship. There is no censorship over picture palaces and dances. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes."] At any rate, there is no Lord Chamberlain's censorship as there is over stage plays. Obviously there cannot be. Dances to which objection is often taken cannot be censored. To prevent anything improper happening, by far the best check is the fear of prosecution following in the case of performances which can be made the subject of prosecution at music halls. It is equally possible to keep theatre managers in check by police prosecutions. The fact is that the censorship fails for many reasons. First of all, it does not attempt to cover the whole ground, and it fails to suppress when it does condemn, because stage performances which have been condemned by the Censor have been given under a thin veil by private societies at the National Sporting Club and other places. The censorship generally condemns the wrong play, and gives immunity to what should be suppressed. It checks the literary and artistic development of the drama, because you cannot put these things in fetters. It puts a financial burden on dramatic authors who have to submit to the censorship. I hold that it serves no useful purpose except one. It serves to bring a certain amount of occupation to one or two gentlemen, who, I have no doubt, are very distinguished indeed in their own line, but whose line is neither morality nor literature.


I rise to suggest very briefly a compromise. The Under-Secretary said that he wished in this Debate to gauge the opinion of the House. I would suggest that the Mover of the Amendment would accept what is practically the proposal which united the Select Committee, but I do not propose to move it unless by consent. I would suggest that the second sentence of the Resolution should be amended so as to read "that the system of the compulsory licensing of stage plays before production in Great Britain should be abolished." Those who dislike the present system do not object to licensing if it is optional licensing and not compulsory licensing. One does not object to a manager being able to get the imprimatur of the Lord Chamberlain as an insurance against control by the local authority. Now, of course, the censorship is absolutely compulsory and without the approval of the Lord Chamberlain a play cannot be produced at all in Great Britain. The Under-Secretary stated that the majority of the theatrical profession were against abolition. If he had said that the majority were against complete abolition of the censorship I think that he would have been perfectly right. The reason that they are against complete abolition as contrasted to merely optional censorship is that they are very naturally afraid of municipal control. They do not want to spend large sums on expensive productions and then find that the local council, in the case of a touring company perhaps, has a right to come in and veto the performance. But they would not object to the censorship if it was only optional, and if such optional censorship would give an absolute immunity against subsequent interference on the part of a faddy local authority in any part of the country.

The Under-Secretary advanced as an argument in favour of the present system the number of plays that have been allowed in contrast to the number that have been disallowed. That is no argument, because one cannot tell on that basis the number of good plays which were made absolutely banal and worthless. The present system is all at one with our educational system in the theory of making every generation see everything through the same spectacles as the previous generation, instead of trying to strike out new ideas, and it makes any progress of thought as difficult as possible, just the same as We see in education, that of the verbal infallibility, a verbal inspiration is given to the opinions of the day and everybody else has got to be poured into the same mould. That is very bad, not only for education, but for every form of thought, and especially for literature, and the great question is that this system does not in any way prevent vulgarity or raise the standard of production or of taste. Its only result is to put literature into a strait-jacket. I think that one of the most discreditable results of the present system of censorship is that the only tragedy by a modern British writer which is ever heard of outside the British Isles had to be written in French, because it was known to be impossible under the present system of censorship in England. Other writers who might be capable of such masterpieces as that of Oscar Wilde are not able to write anything but their own tongue, and they necessarily are driven into other forms of art, such as writing novels, instead of enriching the national drama. I want to hear the opinion of the right hon. Gentleman who presided over the Committee, and I will not move my Amendment without the consent of the House, but I would beg them to give consent to this Amendment, of the original Resolution, because if they did so I believe they would bring into the same Lobby those who wish to free the drama from its present fetters without inflicting an injustice upon the man who wishes to venture upon the cost of production.


The Under-Secretary for the Home Department has frequently used the weapons of which he is master, the weapons of wit and sarcasm and paradox, to attack established and vested interests. To-night he used those same weapons in defence of an established and vested interest. Though we admire his nimble wit, I do not think we were impressed with the strength of the case that he put forward. There was no single argument which he used in defence of the existing system, even in its modified form, which could not be put forward in support of a censorship of art or of literature. The hon. Gentleman asked us to consider the attitude of various interests which were affected in this matter of the censorship of plays, and he first mentioned the attitude of the public. He dismissed the attitude of the public almost with a word. He stated that the public take no interest in the question. But in dealing with the attitude of the public surely the Under-Secretary should have pointed out what the public loss would be under the present arrangements—what the public lose by the fact that the greatest and the most original thinkers and writers would no longer use, under the present system, the play as the medium for the expression of their thoughts. Therefore an intellectual, literary, and moral loss would fall upon the nation as the result of the present system. The Under-Secretary referred to the attitude of the managers of theatres, who, he said, were in favour of the retention of the censorship. But the hon. Gentleman must be reminded that one reason of that attitude is that the existence of the censorship of plays, so far from preserving us from the vulgar, the indelicate, and the improper plays, has given us those plays, and in a certain degree and to a certain extent standardised those plays. So that we can well understand the anxiety of those who are responsible for the production of those plays to be assured, before producing them, that they may sail as close to the wind as possible. I was especially interested to listen to my hon. Friend's description of how the new system would work, and I thought, if he will forgive me, that it was a somewhat grotesque picture he gave of policemen visiting the performances of plays and taking down the words and reporting upon them at midnight to their superior officers. What is the answer to my hon. Friend's remarks in that connection. The answer surely is this, that when at present a play is suppressed we do not have the opportunity of judging at all, and there is no standard of any authority to which to appeal; but if the censorship were abolished we should at least be able to see the play, and have the appeal of public opinion that came from the production of the play, and at least have the opinion of responsible critics and responsible newspapers. I venture to suggest if the ordinary criminal law is sufficient in the case of painting and in the case of books, that surely the ordinary law also is sufficient in the case of plays. Finally, I should like to point out that when the Under-Secretary was complaining—I do not mean in an unfriendly sense—that the Motion brought forward by the hon. Member did not represent the decision of the Select Committee over which the Postmaster-General presided, the Under-Secretary himself threw over not only the Resolution moved to-night, but also the Report of the Select Committee, and proceeded not only to state the case against the acceptance of the principle of the Resolution, but also the case against the acceptance of the considered judgment, which took the form of a compromise of the Select Committee. I trust my hon. Friend will forgive me for saying so, but I was profoundly disappointed…


I did not say a word about the Report of the Committee. I quoted the Report of the Committee as showing the diversity of opinion there was and how difficult it was to legislate upon a matter on which there was that diversity of opinion.


I only want to point out that the Under-Secretary's argument which related to what would follow the system of the abolition of the prior licence of a play was an argument directed against the Report of the Select Committee. I accordingly support the Motion.

Question put, and agreed to.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.