Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Phillpotts censorship drama!

Cold Comfort Watchett Hill Farm, setting of The Secret Woman

Kevin Dixon, at the always interesting Torquay's Other History section of The People's Republic of South Devon, recently mentioned Eden Phillpotts' 1912 spat with the Lord Chamberlain over the dramatisation of his Dartmoor-based tragic melodrama The Secret Woman: Torquay’s Other History: Eden Phillpotts upsets the Censors.

I'd heard about this before, but never bothered to chase up the details. A spot of background: inthe UK, censorship of theatre by the Lord Chamberlain's office came about with the Licensing Act 1737, a piece of political gaming to suppress criticism of Robert Walpole's government. The Lord Chamberlain's power were reduced in the Theatres Act 1843 to censorship of plays not " fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace", and this was the situation that still applied in 1912.

 Anyhow, the Lord Chamberlain refused permission for the staging of The Secret Woman unless a few sentences were altered; Phillpotts, on a point of principle, refused to give in. Most accounts describe it thus far, but don't elaborate. However, I just found the details in the 1924 book The Place of Eden Phillpotts in English Peasant Drama by Charles William Meadowcroft.
What were these passages to which the Chamberlain objected? It was impossible to find out without writing to Mr. Phillpotts and he has kindly furnished me with the passages in dispute. These thoroughly support Mr. Phillpotts in the position he took at the time.

The censored passages in The Secret Woman show, as Phillpotts says, that only principle was involved and that the passages themselves were nothing out of the way except in the pudding mind of the authorities.

The passages are as follows:-

p. 31
"I saw the two of them thicken into one" [deletion]

p. 36
"The way of a man's body
My flesh and blood's a bit too much for you"—to—"a bit too much for me sometimes."

Act IV p. 72 (bottom)
"I only nursed my flesh" to end of sentence [I only nursed my flesh an' kept it plump an' sweet for him]
It all seems pretty trivial even by the standards of the time, but Phillpotts digging his heels in turned it into a Cause. The allegedly controversial nature of the content was countersunk by the cryptic references to it in a House of Commons question:
Mr. LYNCH asked the grounds on which leave was refused to Mr. Eden Philpotts to produce a play entitled "The Secret Woman"?
Mr. McKENNA [Home Secretary] Leave has not been refused to produce the play "The Secret Woman." On consideration, and after consulting his Advisory Board, the Lord Chamberlain licensed this play to the manager of the Kingsway Theatre on the 5th instant, subject to the elimination of five short passages, which were considered objectionable.
Mr. LYNCH Will the right hon. Gentleman, for the benefit of the Members of this House, kindly read those passages which were struck out as objectionable?
Mr. McKENNA I shall be very happy to show the passages in question to any Member of the House privately, but I should be most unwilling to read out in public passages of so objectionable a character.
- Hansard, HC Deb 19 February 1912 vol 34 cc286-7 286
A group of respected writers wrote a letter to Times, of which the gist was the following:
"We, Mr Phillpotts's fellow-writers, have read this play, and find it to be the conscientious work of an artist doing his best in his own way. . . . To our mind the play is worthy work, such as a stage of high aims should ever be ready to welcome, and we feel a warm indignation over the stigma cast by the Lord Chamberlain upon an author whom his fellow-writers and the English-speaking world generally have for many years held in admiration and esteem. Never in all these years of novel- writing has a word been breathed by any responsible person or paper against his fair fame ; but the moment he has the ambition to write a play in the same spirit that inspired his novels he is at the mercy of an official who knows no better than to serve him thus. "

Mr Phillpotts is the victim to-day, but of course it may be any of us to-morrow. Many of us have never written plays, though most of us would like to do so. There is not perhaps another field so fine in the England of to-day for a man or woman of letters, but all the other literary fields are free. This one alone has a blind bull in it.

" We who sign this letter may be otherwise engaged ; some of us may be old and done, and no longer matter. Our chance has gone by. But there are men and women who are coming — are they also to be warned off? Can we strike no blow for the young ?

William Archer. Henry James.
J. M. Barrie. Jerome K. Jerome.
R. C. Carton. George Moore.
Joseph Conrad. Gilbert Murray.
Arthur Quiller-Couch. John Masefield.
W. L. Courtney. Alfred Noyes.
Arthur Conan Doyle. Arthur Wing Pinero.
John Galsworthy. Elizabeth Robins.
Frederic Harrison. G. Bernard Shaw.
Anthony Hope Hawkins. Alfred Sutro.
Maurice Hewlett. H. G. Wells.
W. H. Hudson. I. Zangwill."

- quoted from Censorship in England (Fowell, Frank; Palmer, Frank, 1913, Internet Archive ID censorshipinengl00foweuoft)
Thomas Hardy, interestingly, declined to be a signatory. Michael Millgate says in his 2001 book Thomas Hardy's Public Voice: The Essays, Speeches, And Miscellaneous Prose: "He thought The Secret Woman undistinguished as a play, the changes demanded by the Lord Chamberlain easy to accommodate, and the letter of protest overstated". Nevertheless, the play attracted attention as a data point in an ongoing censorship debate at the time, and a telling one because when it was staged uncut as a free performance, nobody could even pinpoint the problem.
When the play was actually produced at a private performance in February 191 2, it met with a good reception, and the critics were unable to discover what the objectionable lines might have been. The Times wrote : " No one who obtains an invitation in the hope of finding prurience or blasphemy will be paid for his trouble '; and another journal stated, absolute truth, " that the average playgoer, after hearing the piece, would admit that he failed to guess which were the passages in question, or to recollect any one of them." There are in the play passages of healthy passion and of broad farmyard humour, without which the characters could not possibly have been true to life, and the Censor probably took offence at these passages because they were not couched in drawing-room periphrases. After all, to expect an author to put the double-entendres of Mayfair into the mouths of Dartmoor is no more absurd than forbidding him to use the word " thighs," as Colman did, on the ground of indecency.
- Censorship in England [ibid]
Steve Nicholson's The Censorship of British Drama, 1900-1968 - Volume 1: 1900-1932 (University of Exeter Press, 2005) sheds further light on the background. It seems heels were being dug in on both sides of the debate, as Sir Douglas Dawson, Comptroller of the Lord Chamberlain's Department (who seems to have been a military-aristocratic control freak) viewed it as part of a conspiracy by disgruntled authors to bring down the whole censorship system. He'd advised the pro-censorship MP Sir Edward Carson, for instance:
There are four or five authors whose plays have been rejected in the last ten years, and four or five MPs who I hear are disappointed authors. These eight or ten people are on the warpath to abolish the censor.
- Censorship in England [ibid]
Dawson's no-compromise view prevailed. But the ban was rescinded in 1922, when the then Lord Chamberlain, the 8th Duke of Atholl, found nothing to worry about. His view on the "thicken into one" sentence, for instance, was:
Any one who has been in the mist on a hill and has seen two objects making towards each other and meeting can easily understand this phrase, and I do not for one moment accept the interpretation which appears to be put on it.
- quoted in The Censorship of British Drama, 2005, ibid.
The whole institution of stage censorship in the UK was abolished under the Theatres Act 1968.

The Secret Woman (Eden Phillpotts, New York / Macmillan, 1905, Internet Archive ID secretwoman01philgoog).
The Secret Woman; a play in five acts (Eden Phillpotts, New York / Brentano's, 1914, Internet Archive ID secretwomanplayi01phil).

I've had a quick skim, and it seems "loam and lovechild" melodramatics of exactly the type satirised by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm. I'm coming round to the conclusion that Phillpotts, though he tends to be idolised in this part of the country as a regional author, was really not that good a writer. He's a bit like a Thomas Hardy clone, but in comparison to Hardy, I find his descriptive prose uncomfortably dense, his characters unmemorable, and his style overall rather impersonal, in a way that fails to engage my interest in either landscape or story.

- Ray

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