Nude hippies onstage in London may no longer raise eyebrows, but today’s directors and playwrights face a more challenging form of censorshipby John Nathan / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Hair, performed in London in 1969, announced a new theatrical era. But today naked hippies don’t make headlines
On 26th September 1968, Britain abandoned theatre censorship. After 231 years of making some of the barmiest decisions known to man, the lord chamberlain was stripped of his power to censor any play wishing to be licensed for public performance. The next day, the first Broadway production of the musical Hair opened in London. With its rock anthems and nude hippies, no show could have better illustrated that a new theatrical era had arrived.
As shown in the book Politics, Prudery and Perversions (Methuen Publishing, 2000), Nicholas de Jongh’s unmatched account of theatre censorship, the lord chamberlain’s office had long been a channel for fathoms-deep reserves of reactionary philistinism. No other outlook could have banned the phrase “up periscopes” from being used on stage because, in the view of the lord chamberlain’s comptrollers, more impressionable minds than theirs might be incited to “commit buggery.” Among the shows that were stifled at birth were surely some stinkers. Yet the list of banned plays also included works by Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Pirandello and Strindberg, while Beckett had to fight hard for his Godot.
Since then there has been an inexorable pushing back of the boundaries. In 1998, I followed two New York ladies of a certain age out of the auditorium after a performance of Mark Ravenhill’s breakthrough play Shopping and Fucking. We were all pretty subdued after watching the explicit portrayal of the life of a teenage rentboy. It is a play uncompromisingly explicit in its depiction of anal, oral and violent sex. The censor, who decades earlier had objected to the term “up periscopes,” would have spontaneously combusted. Yet the two New York ladies appeared almost unmoved by the shocking scenes. Eventually one said to the other, “Well, there wasn’t much shopping.”
This April, Hair returns to London in the form of a new Broadway production. It arrives schlepping a hat full of awards and free of the moralising that stage nudity once provoked. Ben Brantley’s New York Times notice praises Diane Paulus’s production for finding hitherto unfound emotional depths. Nudity is barely mentioned. So, in 2010, does Hair arrive in a Britain where playwrights and directors are free to write and direct what they like? Not quite.