Crop from a page in the Lord Chamberlain's report about A Taste Of Honey

Homosexuality, censorship and British drama during the 1950s and 1960s

By the end of the 1950s, playwrights had gained new freedoms to represent homosexual characters and themes on the British stage. Greg Buzwell charts the impact of the Wolfenden Report and Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey on the Lord Chamberlain’s strict censorship policy.

Up until August 1968, when theatre censorship was abolished, all plays intended for public performance in the United Kingdom had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for examination and licensing. This was a legal requirement under the Licensing Act of 1737 and the Theatres Act of 1843. The original purpose of the legislation was to control what was being said about the government in the country’s theatres, but by the late 19th century the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was in effect the custodian of moral standards on the stage. Its values were largely conservative, Christian and pro-establishment. Plays found to be indecent, offensive, blasphemous, calculated to inspire crime or vice, likely to impair relations with foreign powers or cause a breach of the peace could be banned outright, or have their licence withheld until rewrites had been submitted.

Theatre censorship was particularly strict concerning the representation of homosexuality. The mid-20th century, however, ushered in a turning point. Although homosexual acts between men remained a criminal offence in England and Wales until 1967, the subject of homosexuality was rarely out of the news throughout the 1950s. With this increased level of discussion and media coverage, public attitudes began to change – and so did the censorship policy of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. By the end of the decade, playwrights had gained new freedoms to represent homosexual characters and themes on the stage.

Programme for A Taste of Honey at Wyndham's Theatre, 1959

Photograph of Murray Melvin as Geof and Frances Cuka as Jo in a scene from A Taste of Honey at Wyndham's Theatre, 1959

A Taste of Honey, premiering in 1958, was one of the first plays to benefit from a shift in the Lord Chamberlain's censorship policy. This photograph shows Murray Melvin as Geof, a gay student, and Frances Cuka as Jo.

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The 1950s

For decades, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office officially maintained a complete ban on the discussion of homosexuality and the depiction of gay men and women on stage. In practice, the ban was not quite watertight. Playwrights found ways of hinting at a character’s sexuality that the Lord Chamberlain did not always recognise. In stage directions playwrights drew on gay stereotypes – for example, describing a male character as ‘sensitive’, ‘artistic’ or ‘flamboyant and well-dressed’ – to tip-off directors and actors that a character held homosexual desires. At the same time, the decadent antics of the ‘Bright Young Things’ – a group of bohemian socialites from 1920s London – had done much to blur gender boundaries with their flamboyant clothes, outrageous ‘anything goes’ parties and their embrace of androgyny. As a result dramatists could ‘get away’ with writing characters that appeared dandyish or foppish and yet who, for those in the know, were readily identifiable as gay men and women.

Nevertheless, the ban was largely effective. Many leading playwrights during the first half of the 20th century – including Noël Coward, W Somerset Maugham and Terence Rattigan, none of whom were heterosexual – wrote their plays in the shadow of Oscar Wilde and the fate that had befallen him following his conviction in 1895 for committing acts of 'gross indecency'. It was simply too risky to write plays with openly gay themes. Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea (1952), to take one example, was conceived as a play about a doomed homosexual affair, inspired by Rattigan’s relationship with his lover Kenneth Morgan. Knowing this would never get past the censor, Rattigan eventually wrote the drama around a heterosexual relationship – something that raises questions about just how many plays started life as meditations upon gay experience, only to be altered to escape the censor’s condemnation.

Newspaper interview with Terence Rattigan about his marital status

'Three men who can't find the right girl' by Elizabeth Parsons, newspaper interview with Terence Rattigan about his marital status

Terence Rattigan concealed his homosexuality in public and was regarded by the press as a highly eligible bachelor. This article questions why he had not yet found a wife.

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Earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

Front cover from the earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, labelled ‘Version No 2 Handed to Binkie 19.12.50'

This is the earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea which Terence Rattigan submitted to theatre producer Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont in December 1950. By this point Rattigan had moved way from his original idea of a play about a homosexual affair. In this version Rattigan is in the process of improving the last act of the play which was criticised for being over-written and too long.

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A letter from Brigadier Sir Norman Gwatkin, Assistant Comptroller in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, reveals the prevailing attitude that playwrights such as Rattigan were up against:

The Lord Chamberlain is frequently urged to pass plays on homosexuality on the plea that the airing of that particular vice and its usual attendant disasters would have a cathartic affect. The majority of his advisors, however, advise against the licensing of such plays and, undoubtedly, those who wish to produce them have their eyes more on the box-office than on moral uplift.[1]

Censorship wasn’t just aimed at serious dramas. The Lord Chamberlain requested rewrites for Jack Taylor’s 1954 comedy World of Women, commenting ‘Cut the business of the two male ballet dancers. It’s bound to be effeminate’ and ‘Omit “I thought you were a gentleman’s gentleman”’.[2] Paranoia, and the feeling that playwrights were attempting to sneak something unspeakably vulgar past the censor, also dictated policy. For example, Earle Couttie’s 1956 naval farce Something about a Sailor fell into trouble because of its reference to a missile nicknamed ‘The Creeper’ which attacked its enemy from the rear.

Changing attitudes

In the late 1950s, the Lord Chamberlain’s Office began to alter its stance. The event which brought this about was the publication in 1957 of the Report of the Departmental Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution – better known as the Wolfenden Report.

Wolfenden Report, 1957

Front cover of the 'Report of the Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution' AKA the Wolfenden Report, dated 1957 (c) British Library Board

The Wolfenden Report recommended that 'homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should be no longer a criminal offence'.

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Considerable discussion on the subject of homosexuality took place in Britain in the 1950s. The government had launched a crackdown on both prostitution and homosexual offences as part of a campaign against a perceived decline in traditional moral values. The arrest of individuals such as Alan Turing, who had played a major role in breaking the German Enigma code during World War Two, the actor John Gielgud and the journalist Peter Wildeblood were just a few of the high-profile cases brought against gay men. The number of arrests also rose rapidly. Over 2000 prosecutions were brought against gay men in 1954 as opposed to fewer than 300 in the whole of the second half of the 1930s. Given the scale of the issue and the growing sympathy for those against whom accusations were being made, the government set up a committee in 1954, chaired by Lord Wolfenden, to look into the laws relating to prostitution and homosexuality. The resulting report recommended the decriminalization of homosexuality on the grounds that, ‘It is not, in our view, the function of the law to intervene in the private life of citizens or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour’. Given the prevailing illiberal attitudes in the press and in government, this was a surprising and bold conclusion.

Following the publication of the Wolfenden Report, the policy towards the censorship of plays featuring gay characters and dealing with homosexual themes was relaxed. One of the first plays to benefit from this new approach was Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958). Delaney wrote the play as a response to Terence Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme (1958), a play which contained hints of a homosexual relationship but presented in such an opaque fashion as to be almost unnoticeable. As Kenneth Tynan commented in his review of Rattigan’s play, the central male character has ‘been keeping company with a male choreographer, but give the devil his due, Master Terence knows his Lord Chamberlain well enough to keep that relationship platonic’.[3] Delaney intended to be more direct with her portrayal of a gay man.

The Lord Chamberlain’s initial report on A Taste of Honey, from May 1958, admitted that it was ‘a surprisingly good play’ but raised numerous doubts as to whether it could be granted a licence. In particular the character of Geof, a gay student, was a cause for concern: ‘Geof has the reputation of being a pervert – and he confesses that there is a little flame to the immense amount of smoke’.[4] The Assistant Comptroller in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Norman Gwatkin, was less enthusiastic, commenting, ‘I’ve read it and think it revolting’, adding, ‘If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on’.[5] The play walked a knife-edge between being granted a licence and being banned. Here was a play in which one of the characters talked openly about his homosexuality and in which he was presented as a rounded character who was deserving of empathy rather than as someone to be pitied, despised or else doomed to a horrible fate. After one or two cuts the play was granted a licence. This would have been inconceivable prior to the publication of the Wolfenden Report and the subsequent campaigns for a reform of the laws relating to homosexuality.

Lord Chamberlain's report and correspondence about A Taste Of Honey

First page from the Lord Chamberlain's typescript report on Shelagh Delaney's A Taste Of Honey, outlining the play and showing the reader's opinions about the play

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Manuscript of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney

Page 36 from a typescript draft of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney, showing dialogue between Jo and Geof in Act 1 Scene 2

This page of playful dialogue captures the friendship and tenderness between Geof and Jo.

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After A Taste of Honey

The change in policy that helped A Taste of Honey receive a licence was expressed in a memo dated 31 October 1958 by the then-Lord Chamberlain, Lawrence Roger Lumley, the 11th Earl of Scarborough. The memo comments:

For some time the subject of homosexuality has been so widely debated, written about and talked about, that it is no longer justifiable to continue the strict exclusion of this subject from the Stage. I do not regret the policy of strict exclusion which has been continued up to now, and I think it has been to the public good.[6]

Lumley continues, ‘Licences will continue to be refused for plays which are exploitations of the subject rather than contributions to the problem’. In one of several specific points, he adds, ‘We would not allow a homosexual character to be included if there were no need for such inclusion’. In other words, it wasn’t permissible for a gay man or woman to feature in a play unless their sexuality was relevant for a specific purpose.

This grudgingly tolerant attitude towards homosexuality was maintained by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office until the role of theatre censor was abolished by the Theatres Act 1968. Even so, plays such as Joe Orton's Loot (1965) and John Osborne's A Patriot for Me (1965) ran into problems. The latter features a ball in which the participants wear drag, something that was seen as too sexually transgressive to be presented on stage. The reader’s report for the play concluded:

This is a serious but not a good play about homosexuality but though we have had plays on the subject which have received a licence, Mr. Osborne’s overweening conceit and blatant anti-authoritarianism causes him to write in a deliberately provocative way. He almost never misses a chance to be offensive[7]

The play was refused a licence, although it was staged at the Royal Court Theatre which was forced to change from a public theatre to a private member’s club in order to circumvent the law. Another example, perhaps, of the Lord Chamberlain’s waning powers when the refusal of a licence could be deftly sidestepped.

Within three years the Lord Chamberlain’s role as a theatre censor was over, allowing theatres to stage any plays they wished. From that point on the battle for dramatists wishing to portray homosexual characters and themes was not to get their plays past the censor, but to have them accepted by audiences and the general public. The legal case for reform had gained momentum, but full equality and the campaign to change attitudes and opinions still lay ahead. Lesbian or bisexual women, who faced multiple discrimination, have seen slower and fundamentally different progress. It was not until the 1970s that dramas by or about gay women began to emerge, and to this day they remain underrepresented on the mainstream British stage.

[1] Letter from Norman Gwatkin to the Home Office, 12 May 1955. Quoted in Steve Nicholson, The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968. Volume Three – The Fifties (University of Exeter Press, 2011).

[2] Jack Taylor, World of Women, 1954, LCP Correspondence 7238.

[3] The Observer (11 May 1958).

[4] Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey, 1958, LCP Correspondence 1017.

[5] Shelagh Delaney, A Taste of Honey, 1958, LCP Correspondence 1017.

[6] Internal minute circulated in the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for comment, 31 October 1958. Found with John Osborne, A Patriot for Me, LR 1964.

[7] John Osborne, A Patriot for Me, LR 1964.

  • Greg Buzwell
  • Greg Buzwell is Curator of Contemporary Literary Archives at the British Library. He has co-curated three major exhibitions for the Library – Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination; Shakespeare in Ten Acts and Gay UK: Love, Law and Liberty. His research focuses primarily on the Gothic literature of the Victorian fin de siècle. He has also edited and introduced collections of supernatural tales by authors including Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Edgar Allan Poe and Walter de la Mare.

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