THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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23 posts categorized "Writing"

17 September 2019

Bogle-L’Ouverture publishing house

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In October 1968 the activist and author Walter Rodney, returning from the Congress of Black Writers and Artists in Canada, was declared persona non grata by the government of Jamaica.  He was banned from resuming his teaching position at the University of the West Indies.  In Kingston, students and other activists participated in what became known as the Rodney Riots, and there was considerable activity amongst Caribbean communities in the UK and the US.  Out of that struggle, the publishing house Bogle-L’Ouverture was founded in London by Jessica and Eric Huntley.  2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of their first publication, a collection of Rodney’s lectures entitled The Groundings with my Brothers

Cover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter RodneyCover of The Groundings with my Brothers by Walter Rodney - Artwork for cover design ©  Errol Lloyd

Named for the leaders of the Morant Bay Rebellion and the Haitian Revolution, Bogle-L’Ouverture, alongside New Beacon (founded 1966) and Alison & Busby (founded 1967), soon became an integral part of progressive independent publishing in London.  Their publications provided a space for radical black thought to be distributed and read in the UK.  In 1972, Bogle-L'Ouverture published one of the key early post-colonial texts in Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.

Cover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter RodneyCover of How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney - work in copyright

The Huntleys founded the Bogle-L'Ouverture Bookshop in West London in 1974, and the space became a key venue for political meetings, talks and readings.  In 1980, following Rodney’s assassination in Guyana, the bookshop was renamed in his honour.  The physical space of the bookshop mirrored the fact that Bogle-L’Ouverture was an example of community publishing in the true sense, with publications often financed by friends of the Huntleys, and collaboration central to their work.  It was out of this sense of collective struggle that The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books was established by Bogle-L’Ouverture, New Beacon and Race Today.  There were twelve Book Fairs held between 1982 and 1995 and they were intended, as John La Rose stated, 'to mark the new and expanding phase of the growth of radical ideas and concepts, and their expression in literature, music, art, politics and social life'.

Programme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm XProgramme of International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books 1985 featuring photograph of Malcolm X - work in copyright

The programmes from each of the twelve book fairs have all been reprinted in A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited.  Looking through them one is made aware of what important and creative accomplishments these events were.  Yet, rather than evoking nostalgia, the editors hoped to offer inspiration for others to act.  Indeed, longstanding publishers such as Hansib, Karnak House and Karia Press were founded in the wake of New Beacon and Bogle-L’Ouverture, and Peepal Tree sold their first publication, Rooplall Monar’s Backdam People (1985) at the book fair.  More recently, innovative publishing concerns such as Own It!, Jacaranda, and Flipped Eye have also begun to build on the tradition established by the Huntleys more than half a century ago.  Yet their legacy extends beyond the publishing world – the Huntley archives are held the London Metropolitan Archives, which since 2006 has hosted an annual conference reflecting on their life and work.

Laurence Byrne
Curator, Printed Heritage Collections

Further reading:
Andrews, Margaret Doing nothing is not an option: the radical lives of Eric & Jessica Huntley, Middlesex, Krik Krak, 2014 [YK.2015.a.1141]
Sarah White, Roxy Harris & Sharmilla Beezmohun (eds). A Meeting of the Continents: The International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books – Revisited, London: New Beacon Books/George Padmore Institute, 2005 [m05/.29879]

 

27 August 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 3: George Street

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George Street (1867-1936) became Examiner of Plays in 1914.  Street was already a published journalist, critic and novelist.  He wrote summaries of every play he read leaving behind a valuable historic record of the topics that were of most concern to the censor at the time.  Chief among these concerns was the increasing discussion of women’s rights and sexual autonomy in plays submitted for licensing.

Photograph of George Street from Evening Standard 1914Photograph of George Street  from Evening Standard 1 January 1914  - copyright Evening Standard

Maternity was written by Eugène Brieux and translated by Charlotte Shaw.  The play examined the theme of choice in parenthood and voiced the grievances of a woman expected to continue having children.  The result was the woman’s death during an abortion.  This ending prompted the examiner to consider whether it was useful to license the play, as it would serve as a warning to women, but he decided against this stating:
‘I do not think this play can be justified as useful propaganda…the subject of abortion has not so far been allowed on our stage, and is not so treated, in my opinion as to serve a useful purpose..’

In 1923, Street refused a licence for a play entitled Married Love.  This was a fictional adaption of Marie Stopes’ book of the same name.  The play explored themes of sexual satisfaction within marriage.  The play was quickly refused with this damning conclusion:

Play Report rejecting Married Love, calling it unnecessarily disgustingPlay Report for Married Love, 1923, LR 1923/9 Noc

Shortly after the submission of Married Love, Stopes submitted a play entitled Our Ostriches (initially named The Ostriches) under her own authorship.  The play considered the merits of birth control and advocated for women to have more agency in deciding how many children to have.

Cover of Our OstrichesCover of Our Ostriches, 1923, Add MS 68822 L Noc

Street deemed the play less aggressive in its views than other plays and actually recommended it for licence with certain omissions.   However, the Lord Chamberlain was less sympathetic and he refused it a licence.

Anniversary by Frederick Witney presented a different problem to the censor.  The play was an honest portrayal of a woman on the day of her divorce considering her past and present loves.  It was candid in its female-centred view of an intimate relationship.  Street refused its licence on the basis that:
‘its general freedom of discussion and intimacies are more than is generally allowed on the English stage’.

The play entitled Alone offered another perspective on female desire.  Authored by Marion Norris, it was a rewrite of the banned novel The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall.

Description of the Protagonist based on the character of Stephen in The Well of Loneliness Description of the Protagonist based on the character of Stephen in The Well of Loneliness 1930, Add MS 68834 B Noc

Alone was refused a licence because of its lesbian theme, but not before Street summarised the anxieties of his age with this statement:
‘I think people are indifferent to the abnormality in women with which it deals until it becomes aggressive…’.

These plays all faced censorship because their content presented women’s sexuality or agency in an affirmative rather than submissive way.  Despite George Street’s best efforts, such themes could not be hidden from view and women continued to make their voices heard on the stage.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968, Volume 1 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2003)
Lord Chamberlain Play’s, Licence Refused: Add MS 68816 - 68850
Lord Chamberlain Plays Reports, Licence Refused: Original Reference LR 1903- LR 1949

The Theatre Censors Part 1: George Colman

The Theatre Censors Part 2: William Bodham Donne

 

22 August 2019

Are women more faithful than men? An Eighteenth-Century Couple Discuss the Differences between the Sexes

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In two slim volumes of collected love letters recently catalogued by the British Library (Add MS 89402), a young couple in the mid-eighteenth century discuss their private lives, family news and, above all, their love for one another.  Written between 1758-1762, the couple’s initial correspondence display a certain caution and reveal the discreet nature of their courtship; but over time their letters become longer and more intimate, eventually detailing plans for their wedding.  Though purposefully kept anonymous, the correspondents have now been identified as Francis Smyth (1737-1809) and Mary Plumer (1741-1824).

Yet, whilst they were deeply in love, Mary and Francis did not always agree – especially when it came to the subject of male fidelity.

Cover of volume 2 of Francis Smyth and Mary Plumer’s love lettersCover of volume 2 of Francis Smyth and Mary Plumer’s love letters. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

In the spring of 1762, Francis and Mary discussed the differences between the sexes – particularly in relation to their faithfulness.  In a playful but sincere manner, the couple discussed the nature of courtship and cases of ‘jilting’, each mentioning friends who had sadly suffered heartbreak.  The exchange began after Francis detailed how a fellow student at Cambridge had been rejected by a woman who took a fancy to another man:
'I have much to tell you of my intimates in College, in the love way I have many stories but one I will tell you…a friend of mine has had a passion for a very pretty Lady for many years, & had the happiness of meeting with the kindest return to his Love. They had many meetings & were as much engaged to all appearance as two people could be…[but] about a week ago a new Lover offered, she accepted him, & discarded the old one without any concern, who is at present as unhappy as can be'.
    (Letter 25, F. Smyth to Mary Plumer, 31 March 1762)
 

Detail from a letter from Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer  31 March 1762Detail from a letter from Francis Smyth to Mary Plumer, 31 March 1762. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

Though sympathetic to this young man’s upset, Mary protested that men were more inclined to be “false” than women:
' I am sorry for your friend’s disappointment, & to hear that there are such Women in the world, but for one of our Sex that are false, there are thousands of yours'.
    (Letter 26, M. Plumer to F. Smyth, 2 April 1762)

Francis was dismayed by Mary’s generalisation about the unfaithfulness of men:
'I find we must still dispute! How could you blame the men as you do! to knock them down by thousands to one frail female is what I must resent!'
    (Letter 27, F. Smyth to Mary Plumer, 4 April 1762)

Yet Mary was unconvinced and remained sceptical:
'I find you are obliged to take up arms in defence of the thousand poor men I knocked down (as you term it) don’t you believe there are Male jilts as well as female? I cannot say I can complain of the inconstancy of your sex to myself…but I have felt for my friends…[and] I will have done with this disagreeable subject... '
    (Letter 28, M. Plumer to F. Smyth, 5 April 1762)

With that the matter ended.
  Detail from a letter from Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth  31 March 1762Detail from a letter from Mary Plumer to Francis Smyth, 31 March 1762. Add MS 89402/2 Noc

Despite having differences of opinion regarding the faithfulness of men, Mary and Francis remained loyal to each other and were married six months later at St. Martin’s in the Fields on 26 October 1762.

Their love letters can now be read in full at the British Library.

Violet Horlick
Kings College, London.

Further reading:
Sally Holloway, The Game of Love in Georgian England: Courtship, Emotions, and Material Culture (Oxford: OUP, 2019)

 

31 July 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 2: William Bodham Donne

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William Bodham Donne became Examiner of Plays in 1857.  He officially assumed the role after the death of John Mitchell Kemble, but Donne had already been examining plays on his behalf since 1849.  Donne was dedicated to his job and took time to publish his thoughts on theatre in his Essays on the Drama.  In this collection, he deplored what he saw as a fall in standards in contemporary drama.

Photograph of William Bodham DonneWilliam Bodham Donne from William Bodham Donne and his friends ed. Catherine B Johnson (London, 1905)  Noc

Chief among his concerns was the celebration of the petty criminal on-stage.  He believed that productions involving such criminal characters as Oliver Twist and Jack Sheppard would inspire the working classes into a life of crime.  With this in mind, Donne was quick to refuse licences to plays in this tradition.

Jack Sheppard adaptions were endlessly popular and this had been an issue of contention even for Donne’s predecessor.  Kemble had sought to ban these productions in 1844, but they kept on arriving on Donne’s desk.  This version by Sydney French was refused a licence without explanation in Donne’s Day Book.

Front page of 'Jack Sheppard' by Sydney French Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, 1868, Add MS 53069 T  Noc

In 1853, Donne refused a licence to a play entitled, Wrath’s Whirlwind, because of its rebellious content. From the entry in the Day Book 1852-1864, we can see that the Lord Chamberlain agreed with Donne’s action against the playscript. In particular, he mentions the setting of the saloons, which ‘have a tendency to lower the morals and excite the passions of the classes who frequent these places’.

Front page of 'Wrath’s Whirlwind'Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, 1853, Add MS 52942 U  Noc

Another example of a play that did not make it past the censor is The Blood Spot by William Suter.  Suter had a habit of depicting the felon on stage.  His titles included Dick Turpin, The Robbers of the Pyrenees and The Felon’s Bond, but these were inoffensive enough to pass the censor.  The Blood Spot, however, seems to pushed Donne a little too far, and he scrawled his dismissal across the front of the manuscript.

Front page of 'The Blood Spot'Lord Chamberlain’s Plays, 1858, Add MS 52974 J  Noc

With these contentious plays out of the public eye, Donne could feel he had done his best to protect the morals of British theatre audiences, but as a man of detail there was little he would not consider suppressing for the sake of the nation.  A good example is his objection noted in the Day Book 1866-1870 concerning the play Faust in a Fog.  He stipulated the play could be produced, so long as long as the ‘Can-Can dance was excluded from the Bills’.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
William Bodham Donne, Essays on the Drama (London: John. W. Parker & Son, 1858)
J. R. Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)
Add MS 42865- 43038, Plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's Office for licensing under the provisions of the Acts regulating the performance of stage plays
Add MS 53702-53708, Chamberlain’s Office Day Books. Registers of plays received in the Lord Chamberlain’s office

 

25 July 2019

Decorating the East India Company's records

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One of my favourite items from the East India Company archives is currently on display in the British Library exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark.  It is a volume of official minutes from the Court of Directors 1657 to 1665, and it is special because a bored or creative clerk has added drawings or decorations to some of the headings to enliven the usual plain format.

This is the entry being shown in the exhibition – is it a hawk?

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 20 February 1662/63  IOR/B/26 f.296 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 20 February 1662/63 Noc

Here are some other examples of his handiwork, starting with a bird which looks like a cross between a pheasant and a dodo.

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 8 April 1663 IOR/B/26 f.303 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 8 April 1663 Noc

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 14 January 1662/63IOR/B/26 f.288v Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 14 January 1662/63 Noc

Page from Court of Directors' Minutes 13 April 1663IOR/B/26 f.305 Minutes of the East India Company Court of Directors 13 April 1663 Noc

It appears that the clerk was told to stop embellishing the minutes as there are letters prepared for decoration but left unfilled.  I haven’t been able to discover the identity of our artist.  Until 1666 East India Company Secretaries employed their own clerks who weren’t on the official payroll and it seems likely our man fell into this category.

The Company Secretary at this time was John Stanyan.  His brother Laurence was employed as his salaried assistant.  The Stanyans faced difficult challenges during their time in office.  In 1665 plague spread through London: Laurence stayed to deal with Company business whilst John was given permission to go the country.  Laurence was rewarded with a gratuity of £50 for remaining in town at a time of ‘great mortality’.  The following year, John helped to organise operations when East India House in Leadenhall Street and Company goods were threatened with destruction during the Great Fire of London.

In December 1666 John Stanyan was dismissed by the East India Company. The directors discovered that he had carried out private trade in prohibited goods, and had advised the Company’s overseas merchants on how to maximise their personal trading profits to the detriment of the Company.  He had also written disparagingly of the Court and its orders.  Laurence Stanyan was sacked in May 1677 for private trading, and for copying letters with confidential information written by his brother.

Settlement of John Stanyan’s affairs took years – he was still negotiating with the Court in 1671.  He secured the post of Principal Registrar of the Consistory Court in Gloucester, presumably through his wife’s father, John Pritchett, who was the Bishop there.  Since the work in Gloucester could be carried out by a deputy, John enjoyed the life of a country gentleman in Harefield Middlesex.

Laurence also prospered, becoming Commissioner of the Revenue, settling in Monken Hadley near Barnet.  His son Abraham became a diplomat and MP.

But I wonder what became of our artistic scribe?

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

 

18 July 2019

How old are you Miss Nightingale?

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Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) was the famous nursing reformer, who improved conditions in the war hospitals of the Crimea during her time there (1854-56).  Patrolling the wards at night, she became known as the ‘Lady with the lamp’.  On returning to England, she continued her good work, using statistics as a useful tool.

Photograph of Florence NightingaleFlorence Nightingale by Henry Hering, copied by Elliott & Fry 1950s (late 1856-1857) NPG x82368 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

Dr William Farr (1807-1883) was a statistician and epidemiologist, who shared her passion for public health and statistics. They wrote to each other extensively for 20 years, from 1857 to 1877.  The British Library holds this correspondence in three volumes (Add MS 43398-43400).
 
One of the topics they discussed was the 1861 UK Census, in which Dr Farr was heavily involved.  They discussed the practicalities of collecting data;  for example, would landlords complete the census forms on behalf of their tenants?  The implication was that landlords would have to find out, or invent, potentially sensitive personal details such as age.  Florence joked that she must fill her own form in, as nothing would induce her to declare the age of her cats to her landlord.

There were columns to declare ‘Condition’ (we would now call it ‘marital status’), ‘Rank, Profession, or Occupation’, ‘Where Born’, and one asking ‘Whether Blind, or Deaf-and-Dumb’.  Florence believed there should be a column for ‘the number of sick people in each house and their Diseases’ and that the census should include details of ‘cellar and basement dwellings’ and ‘back to back houses’.

Florence lived at 30 Old Burlington Street, nominally part of a vast hotel but containing private family suites of rooms for long-term tenants, rather than overnight guests.  On census morning, Sunday 7 April, a junior hotel employee (‘fac-totum’) asked her to write her age, and that of her maid, on a bit of paper.  Outraged, she choked back her initial answer and, with admirable restraint, tried to ascertain the truth from ‘this person’.  It appeared the hotel was withholding forms from the resident families, instructing a staff member to fill them in, presumably using his imagination in the absence of accurate information.  They must have thought it amusing to knock on the door of the famous Florence Nightingale to ask her age.  Thankfully, Dr Farr had supplied Florence with her own specimen form, which she duly completed ‘fully & accurately’.

The incident is much better described in her own words, in this three-page letter:

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861

Letter from Florence Nightingale to Wiliam Farr 9 April 1861Add MS 43399, ff. 10-12. Letter from Florence Nightingale to Farr 9 April 1861

Farr’s two replies of 12 April acknowledged her ‘shabby treatment’ from the ‘somewhat brutal’ proprietor of the Burlington, saying hotels were the weak point when collecting returns and ‘something… must be done’ before the next census in 1871.  He passed her letter to his superior, Major Graham, who wrote Florence an unsatisfactory reply which entirely missed the point.

Here is the 1861 Census entry for Florence Nightingale and her housekeeper Mary Bratby (aged 40 and 48 respectively):

Entry for Florence Nightingale 1861 census

The 100-year embargo on access to censuses means that no-one listed would have seen their entry, but Florence Nightingale must have been confident that hers was correct!

Zoe Stansell
Manuscripts Reference Specialist

Further reading:
British Library Add MS 43398-43400 Letters from Farr to Nightingale are originals in his handwriting. Nightingale letters to Farr are typewritten copies (originals are in the Wellcome Library, ref: MS. 5474).

These are part of the large BL Florence Nightingale Archive, containing over 300 volumes.
Add MS 43393-43403, 45750-45849, 47714-47767, 68882-68890

 

04 July 2019

The Theatre Censors Part 1: George Colman

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Stage productions had been censored since the Tudor era but the Stage Licensing Act of 1737 established a procedure of theatre censorship overseen by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain.  Most of the work was carried out by an official reader, the Examiner of Plays.

The Examiner of Plays wielded a substantial amount of power. The theatre was a powerful means of communication and the censors decided the limits of creative licence, often influenced by their own moral, religious and political leanings.

The British Library’s collection of manuscripts for plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for licensing begins in 1824 when playwright and theatre manager George Colman was appointed Examiner of Plays.

Portrait of George Colman the YoungerGeorge Colman the Younger, unknown artist, early 19th century NPG D16212 © National Portrait Gallery, London NPG CC By

Colman was particularly concerned by political themes in plays, dictated, in part, by the tumultuous times in which he was working.  The government wished to repress radical reformist politics and passed new laws meting out harsher punishments for publishing blasphemous and seditious works.  Colman was quick to deny authors the chance to show their plays if he deemed them politically dangerous.

We can see how tough Colman was by his reaction to Mary Russell Mitford’s play, Charles the First, when it was submitted to him in 1825.

First folio of Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First  Add MS 42873, f.415. First folio of Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First 

If we look at the entry in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office Day Book we can see that the play was refused a licence.

Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First is refused a licence Add MS 53702, Lord Chamberlain’s Office Day Books, 1824-1852 - Mary Russell Mitford’s play Charles the First is refused a licence

Although, Mitford believed her play to be a favourable portrait of King Charles I, it was refused a licence.  Colman wrote to the Lord Chamberlain:  ‘…Charles the First (of England) – brings, instantly to mind the violent commotions & catastrophes of that unhappy Monarch’s reign…the piece abounds (blasphemously, I think) with Scriptural allusions & quotations, & invoked over & over again, by hypocrites, & regicides’.

Extract from Colman's letter to Lord ChamberlainAdd MS 42873, f.408

As the threat of revolution was in the air, Colman deemed Mitford’s representation of the execution of a King far too dangerous to allow on stage.  The Lord Chamberlain agreed.  Colman’s reply to the theatre owner was casually dismissive: ‘I have less regret in communicating this intelligence as I think you might have anticipated it’.

Mitford’s response to her censor showed that Colman had already threatened to censor her next project: ‘I shall not now meddle with Henry the Second – especially as I believe that I perceive the reason which induces you to think the subject is a bad one’.

Mary Russell Mitford’s letter to ColmanAdd MS 42873, f.413

Mitford realised that themes of conflict and betrayal against authority were never going to pass the censor and so decided not to pursue her project, exercising self-censorship.  Colman’s reputation as a harsh judge meant that authors often chose not to test him, as it was likely they would fail to receive a play licence. 

To the dismay of many playwrights, Colman continued to hold the office of Examiner of Plays until his death in 1836.  Until the end, he proved dedicated to his cause and many playwrights after Mitford were refused the right to produce their plays.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further reading:
J. R. Stephens, The Censorship of English Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980)
Add MS 42865- 43038, Plays submitted to the Lord Chamberlain's Office for licensing under the provisions of the Acts regulating the performance of stage plays
Add MS 53702-53708, Chamberlain’s Office Day Books. Registers of plays received in the Lord Chamberlain’s office

 

27 June 2019

Homosexuality, Censorship and the British Stage

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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.

Front cover of the copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1955. Front cover of the copy of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office in 1955. British Library, Add MS 68871.

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 deemed inappropriate for public performancePassages 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.   

Passages marked in blue pencil by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office objecting to the play’s references to homosexualityPassages marked in blue pencil by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office objecting to the play’s references to homosexuality. British Library, Add MS 68871.

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.

Passages marked in blue pencil by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office objecting to the play’s references to homosexuality Passages marked in blue pencil by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office objecting to the play’s references to homosexuality, despite their importance to the play as a whole. British Library, Add MS 68871.

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 TheatreThe 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