"Appendix II: 'The Nation' on 'Blanco Posnet'" by Lady Augusta Persse Gregory (1852-1932)
We have often spoken in these columns of the condition of the British drama and the various ways of mending it. But there is one of its features, or, rather, one of its disabilities, as to which some present decision must clearly be taken. That is the power of the Censorship to warp it for evil, and to maim it for good. There can be no doubt at all that this is the double function of the Lord Chamberlain and his office. The drama that they pass on and therefore commend to the people is a drama that is always earthly, often sensual, and occasionally devilish; the drama which they refuse to the people is a drama that seeks to be truthful, and is therefore not concerned with average sensual views of life, and that might, if it were encouraged, powerfully touch the neglected spheres of morals and religion. As to the first count against the Censorship there is and can be no defence. Habemus confitentem reum. The man who would pass Dear Old Charlie would pass anything. He has bound himself to tolerate the drama of Wycherley and Congreve, of which it is a fairly exact and clever revival, [Page 268] suited to modern hypocrisy as to ways of expression, but equally audacious in its glorification of lying, adultery, mockery, and light-mindedness.
The case on the other count is, we think, sufficiently made out by the Censor's refusal to license Mr. Bernard Shaw's one-act play, The Showing-up of Blanco Posnet. It is fair to the Censor to explain the grounds of his refusal. Mr. Shaw has been good enough to let the editor of this paper see a copy both of his drama and of the official letter refusing a "license for representation" unless certain passages were expunged. There were two such passages. On the second Mr. Shaw assures us that no difficulty could have occurred. It raised a question of taste, on which he was willing to meet Mr. Redford's views. It seems to us outspoken rather than gross, but as it was not the subject of controversy we dismiss it, and recur to the critical point on which Mr. Shaw, considering–and, in our view, rightly considering–that the heart and meaning of his play were at issue, refused to give way. In order that we may explain the quarrel, it is necessary to give some slight sketch of the character and intention of The Showing-up of Blanco Posnet. We suggest as the simplest clue to its tone and atmosphere that it reproduces in some measure the subject and the feeling of Bret Harte's Luck of Roaring Camp. It depicts a coarse and violent society, governed by emotions and crude wants rather than by principles and laws, a society of drunkards, lynchers, duellists at sight, and, above all, horse-stealers–in other words, a world of convention- [Page 269] ally bad men, liable to good impulses. The "hero" is something of a throw-back to Dick Dudgeon, of the Devil's Disciple; that is to say, he is reckless and an outcast, who retains the primitive virtue of not lying to himself.
The scene of the play is a trial for horse-stealing. Blanco is a nominal–not a real–horse-stealer, that is to say, he has committed the sin which a society of horsemen does not pardon. He has run away with the Sheriff's horse, believing it to be his brother's, and taking it on account of a fraudulent settlement of the family estate. A man of his hands, he has yet allowed himself to be tamely captured and brought before a jury of lynchers. Why? Well, he has been upset, overtaken, his plan of life twisted and involved out of all recognition. On his way with the horse, a woman met him with a child dying of croup. She stopped him, thrust the sick child on to the horse, and "commandeered" it for a ride to the nearest doctor's. The child has thrust its weak arms round his neck, and with that touch all the strength has gone out of him. He gives up the horse and flies away into the night, covering his retreat from this new superior force with obscene curses, and surrendering, dismounting, dazed, and helpless, to the Sheriff when the posse comitatus catches him.
Thenceforward two opposing forces rend him, and make life unintelligible and unendurable while they struggle for his soul. Dragged into the Sheriff's court, he is prepared to fight for his neck with the rascals who sit in judgment on him, to lie against them, and to [Page 270] browbeat them. Unjust and filthy as they are, he will be unjust and filthy too. But then there was this apparition of the child. What did it mean? Why has it unmanned him? And here it seems to him that God has at once destroyed and tricked him, for the child is dead, and yet his life is forfeit to these brutes. The situation–this sketch of a sudden, ruthless, unintelligible interference with the lives of men–though apparently unknown to the Censor, will be familiar to readers of the Bible and of religious poetry and prose, and Mr. Shaw's treatment of it could only offend either the non-religious mind or the sincerely, but conventionally, pious man who is so wrapt up in the emotional view of religion that its sterner and deeper moralities escape him. The literary parallels will at once occur. Browning chooses the subject in Pippa Passes, and in the poem in which he describes how the strong man who had hemmed in and surrounded his enemy suddenly found himself stayed by the "arm that came across" and saved the wretch from vengeance. Ibsen dwells on this divine thwarting and staying power in Peer Gynt, and it is, of course, the opening theme of the Pilgrim's Progress. As it presents itself to a coarse and reckless, but sincere, man he deals with it in coarse but sincere language–the language which the Censor refuses to pass. Here is the offending passage, which occurs in a dialogue between Blanco and his drunken hypocrite of a brother:–
"BLANCO: Take care, Boozy. He has n't finished [Page 271] with you yet. He always has a trick up his sleeve.
"ELDER DANIELS: Oh, is that the way to speak of the Ruler of the Universe–the great and almighty God?
"BLANCO: He 's a sly one. He 's a mean one. He lies low for you. He plays cat and mouse with you. He lets you run loose until you think you 're shut of Him; and then when you least expect it, He 's got you.
"ELDER DANIELS: Speak more respectful, Blanco–more reverent.
"BLANCO: Reverent! Who taught you your reverent cant? Not your Bible. It says, 'He cometh like a thief in the night'–aye, like a thief–a horse-thief. And it's true. That 's how He caught me and put my neck into the halter. To spite me because I had no use for Him–because I lived my own life in my own way, and would have no truck with His 'Don't do this,' and 'You must n't do that,' and 'You 'll go to hell if you do the other.' I gave Him the go-bye, and did without Him all these years. But He caught me out at last. The laugh is with Him as far as hanging goes."
Now, let us first note the incapacity of the critic of such an outburst as this to think in terms of the dramatic art–to divine the état d'âme of the speaker, and to recognise the method, and, within bounds, the idiosyncracy of the playwright. But having regard to all that the Censor has done and all that he has left un- [Page 272] done, let us also mark his resolve to treat as mere blasphemy on Mr. Shaw's part the artist's endeavour to depict a rough man's first consciousness of a Power that, selecting Blanco as it selected Paul and John Bunyan, threatens to drag him through moral shame and physical death, if need be, to life, and not to let him go till He has wrought His uttermost purpose on him. Mr. Shaw naturally makes Blanco talk as an American horse-stealer would talk. But how does Job talk of God, or the Psalmist, or the Author of the Parables? Nearly every one of Blanco Posnet's railings can be paralleled from Job. Listen to this:–
"The tabernacles of robbers prosper, and they that provoke God are secure, into whose hand God bringeth abundantly.
"He removeth away the speech of the trusty, and taketh away the understanding of the aged.
"He taketh the heart of the chief of the people of the earth and causeth them to wander in a wilderness where there is no way.
"They grope in the dark without light, and He maketh them to stagger like a drunken man.
. . . . . . .
"Know now that God hath overthrown me, and hath compassed me with His net.
"He hath fenced up my way that I cannot pass, and He hath set darkness in my paths.
"He hath destroyed me on every side, and I am gone: and mine hope hath He removed like a tree." [Page 273]
Is this blasphemy? Is not Mr. Shaw's theme and its expression a reflection of Job's, save that in the one case a bad man speaks, and in the other a good one? If the answer is that these subjects, these moral and religious relationships, must not be treated on the stage, then we reply first that the Censor is grossly inconsistent, for he did not veto the entire play, but only that passage which most clearly revealed its meaning; secondly, that the licensing of Everyman, and of Mr. Jerome's The Third Floor Back, where God appears, not merely as an influence on the lives of men, but as a man, sitting at their table and sharing their talk, forbids such an hypothesis; and thirdly, that if Mr. Redford holds this view, he is convicted of opening the drama to horrible mockery of life and sensual trifling with it, and closing it to those close questionings of its purpose, which constitute the main theme of all serious playwrights from Æschylus to Ibsen. That Mr. Shaw could have consented to the omission of the passage we have quoted was out of the question. It is vital. The entire play turns on it. For when the woman comes into court and tells her story, it is seen that the leaven which works in Blanco's mind has leavened the lump; that the prostitute who is for swearing away his life cannot speak, that the ferocious jury will not convict, and the unjust judge will not sentence.
Mr. Shaw had, therefore, to fight for his play, and the Censor has to come into the open and face the music; to reveal his theory of the British drama, and illustrate his continual practice of it; which is to warn [Page 274] off the artist and the preacher, and to clear the path for the scoffer and the clown.
LETTER FROM W. G. BERNARD SHAW TO LADY GREGORY AFTER THE PRODUCTION OF "BLANCO POSNET"
DEAR LADY GREGORY:
Now that the production of Blanco Posnet has revealed the character of the play to the public, it may be as well to clear up some of the points raised by the action of the Castle in the matter.
By the Castle, I do not mean the Lord Lieutenant. He was in Scotland when the trouble began. Nor do I mean the higher officials and law advisers. I conclude that they also were either in Scotland, or preoccupied by the Horse Show, or taking their August holiday in some form. As a matter of fact the friction ceased when the Lord Lieutenant returned. But in the meantime the deputies left to attend to the business of the Castle found themselves confronted with a matter which required tactful handling and careful going. They did their best; but they broke down rather badly in point of law, in point of diplomatic etiquette, and in point of common knowledge.
First, they committed the indiscretion of practically conspiring with an English official who has no jurisdiction in Ireland in an attempt to intimidate an Irish theatre.
Second, they assumed that this official acts as the agent of the King, whereas, as Sir Harry Poland [Page 275] established in a recent public controversy on the subject, his powers are given him absolutely by Act of Parliament (1843). If the King were to write a play, this official could forbid its performance, and probably would if it were a serious play and were submitted without the author's name, or with mine.
Third, they assumed that the Lord Lieutenant is the servant of the King. He is nothing of the sort. He is the Viceroy: that is, he is the King in the absence of Edward VII. To suggest that he is bound to adopt the views of a St. James's Palace official as to what is proper to be performed in an Irish theatre is as gross a solecism as it would be to inform the King that he must not visit Marienbad because some Castle official does not consider Austria a sufficiently Protestant country to be a fit residence for an English monarch.
Fourth, they referred to the Select Committee which is now investigating the Censorship in London whilst neglecting to inform themselves of its purpose. The Committee was appointed because the operation of the Censorship had become so scandalous that the Government could not resist the demand for an inquiry. At its very first sitting it had to turn the public and press out of the room and close its doors to discuss the story of a play licensed by the official who barred Blanco Posnet; and after this experience it actually ruled out all particulars of licensed plays as unfit for public discussion. With the significant exception of Mr. George Edwards, no witness yet examined, even among those who have most [Page 276] strongly supported the Censorship as an institution, has defended the way in which it is now exercised. The case which brought the whole matter to a head was the barring of this very play of mine, The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet. All this is common knowledge. Yet the Castle, assuming that I, and not the Censorship, am the defendant in the trial now proceeding in London, treated me, until the Lord Lieutenant's return, as if I were a notoriously convicted offender. This, I must say, is not like old times in Ireland. Had I been a Catholic, a Sinn Feiner, a Land Leaguer, a tenant farmer, a labourer, or anything that from the Castle point of view is congenitally wicked and coercible, I should have been prepared for it; but if the Protestant landed gentry, of which I claim to be a perfectly correct member, even to the final grace of absenteeism, is to be treated in this way by the Castle, then English rule must indeed be going to the dogs. Of my position of a representative of literature I am far too modest a man to speak; but it was the business of the Castle to know it and respect it; and the Castle did neither.
Fifth, they reported that my publishers had refused to supply a copy of the play for the use of the Lord Lieutenant, leaving it to be inferred that this was done by my instructions as a deliberate act of discourtesy. Now no doubt my publishers were unable to supply a copy, because, as it happened, the book was not published, and could not be published until the day of the performance without forfeiting my American copyright, which is of considerable value. Private [Page 277] copies only were available; but if the holiday deputies of the Castle think that the Lord Lieutenant found the slightest difficulty in obtaining such copies, I can only pity their total failure to appreciate either his private influence or his public importance.
Sixth, they claimed that Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who highly values good understanding with the Dublin public, had condemned the play. What are the facts? Sir Herbert, being asked by the Select Committee whether he did not think that my play would shock religious feeling, replied point-blank, "No, it would heighten religious feeling." He announced the play for production at his theatre; the Censorship forced him to withdraw it; and the King instantly shewed his opinion of the Censorship by making Sir Herbert a Knight. But it also happened that Sir Herbert, who is a wit, and knows the weight of the Censor's brain to half a scruple, said with a chuckle when he came upon the phrase "immoral relations" in the play, "They won't pass that." And they did not pass it. That the deputy officials should have overlooked Sir Herbert's serious testimony to the religious propriety of the play, and harped on his little jest at the Censor's expense as if it were at my expense, is a fresh proof of the danger of transacting important business at the Castle when all the responsible officials are away bathing.
On one point, however, the Castle followed the established Castle tradition. It interpreted the patent (erroneously) as limiting the theatre to Irish plays. Now the public is at last in possession of the [Page 278] fact that the real protagonist in my play who does not appear in person on the stage at all, is God. In my youth the Castle view was that God is essentially Protestant and English; and as the Castle never changes its views, it is bound to regard the divine protagonist as anti-Irish and consequently outside the terms of the patent. Whether it will succeed in persuading the Lord Lieutenant to withdraw the patent on that ground will probably depend not only on His Excellency's theological views, but on his private opinion of the wisdom with which the Castle behaves in his absence. The Theatre thought the risk worth while taking; and I agreed with them. At all events Miss Horniman will have no difficulty in insuring the patent at an extremely reasonable rate.
In conclusion, may I say that from the moment when the Castle made its first blunder I never had any doubt of the result, and that I kept away from Dublin, in order that our national theatre might have the entire credit of handling and producing a new play without assistance from the author or from any other person trained in the English theatres. Nobody who has not lived, as I have to live, in London, can possibly understand the impression the Irish players made there this year, or appreciate the artistic value of their performances, their spirit, and their methods. It has been suggested that I placed Blanco Posnet at their disposal only because it was, as an unlicensed play, the refuse of the English market. As a matter of fact there was no such Hobson's choice in the matter. I offered a licensed play as an alternative, and am all [Page 279] the more indebted to Lady Gregory and Mr. Yeats for not choosing it. Besides, Ireland is really not so negligible from the commercial-theatrical point of view as some of our more despondent patriots seem to suppose. Of the fifteen countries outside Britain in which my plays are performed, my own is by no means the least lucrative; and even if it were, I should not accept its money value as a measure of its importance.
G. BERNARD SHAW.
27 August, 1909.