Homosexuality, Censorship and the British Stage
As Pride month draws to a close we take a look at the censorship of Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the problems the censoring authorities had with its overt references to homosexuality.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof stands as one of Tennessee Williams’ best-loved plays. The play’s first performances on Broadway in 1955 met with popular and critical acclaim and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that same year. Problems arose, however, when the play was prepared for production in England where it faced censorship at the hands of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which was responsible for licensing all plays performed on the British stage. Concerned at its content, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office sought to excise all swear words and references to homosexuality from the play.
Passages marked in blue pencil by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office were deemed inappropriate for public performance. Here the Examiner of Plays objects to the play’s swear words. British Library, Add MS 68871.
The Stage Licensing Act of 1737 (reinforced by the Theatres Act of 1843) required that all plays intended for public performance in Great Britain had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for examination and licensing. Plays were submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office and were checked by an Examiner of Plays. The Examiner recommended whether a licence for performance should be granted or not and any content that was considered inappropriate was cut. All cuts and amendments were made in blue pencil by the Examiners. Any play could be banned and the Lord Chamberlain did not need to provide a reason for his decision. This process of censoring plays in Great Britain lasted from 1737 until 1968 when the law was repealed.
Set in the Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof examines the complicated relationships among members of Big Daddy Pollitt's family – particularly between Brick and his wife Cat. Themes such as truth and falsehood, life and death, relationships and sexuality are explored throughout the play and it was this last, dealing with sexuality, that caused the Lord Chamberlain’s Office most concern.
At the heart of the play is Brick, a troubled man who has become an alcoholic following the death of his friend, Skipper. Brick’s family struggle to maintain functional relationships in the wake of his despair, whilst Brick’s wife, recognises the possibility that her husband may have had a romantic attachment to Skipper.
It was still a criminal offence to be gay in the United Kingdom in 1955 and the Lord Chamberlain’s Office cut all references to Brick’s homosexuality. The cuts removed much of the depth and complexity in the relationship between Brick and Skipper and as a result Tennessee Williams rejected the amendments, forcing the Lord Chamberlain's Office to refuse a licence for the play to be performed.
Yet, whilst the Lord Chamberlain’s Office could ban a play from public performance, it had no jurisdiction over private performances which could take place in ‘private’ theatres often established as club theatres where access was granted to audiences who paid a nominal subscription to the club. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was first performed ‘privately’ in Britain for The New Watergate Club at The Comedy Theatre in January 1958. Founded with the intention of staging plays without censorship, the club boasted 64,000 members at the time of the play’s premiere and helped undermine the authority of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office enabling plays with LGBTQ content to be performed uncensored.
The Comedy Theatre, now The Harold Pinter Theatre, where The New Watergate Club put on the first British performance of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof despite the Lord Chamberlain’s ban. Image CC BY 3.0 from Wikipedia
Daniel Brass, King’s College, London, and Alexander Lock, Curator Modern Archives and Manuscripts