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.