Forty three years ago today, the musical HAIR opened at the Shaftsbury Theatre. The producers had to wait for theatrical censorship to be abolished the previous day. It must have been long expected for surely they would not have made that kind of investment in cast, scenery etc. without knowing it was coming, and precisely when. 1968. The Summer of Love and student riots in Europe and America. All that. As a 10 year old, I remember HAIR very clearly, and I loved it. The music anyway – we did, after all, live in Zambia at the time. But I was fortunate that my parents had trendy expatriate friends with state-of-the-art hi-fi and cool LP collections. And I always liked the little umlaut (or is it an infinity symbol?) over the capital “I”. Far out, man.
HAIR so represented the spirit of the age. Its London cast included hunky Oliver Tobias and cute cheeky chappy Paul Nicholas. Rocky Horror’s Richard O’Brian and Tim Curry met during the production. Elaine Page was a developing star of the musical stage. Cast member the late Marsha Hunt, black, beautiful and Mick Jagger’s lover. HAIR‘s anthemic, naive, hippy songs are still very listenable today. I think so, anyway.
The new censorship regulations opened the door and HAIR came crashing through. But did it open the floodgates of filth and perversion? Hardly. Oh! Calcutta followed a year or two later but only very occasionally have we had further controversy, Jerry Springer The Musical being the only one I can think of, actually.
Until September 1968, theatre censorship was the responsibility of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. This duty was set up under the Licensing Act 1737 by Robert Walpole, fed up with dramatists various satirising him and his administration. The Act, it is argued, was partially responsible for the rise of the novel, creative writers seeking new avenues to take a poke at authority. And the revival of Shakespearian drama.
The Licensing Act was superceded in 1843 by the Theatres Act, which essentially removed the political dimension of the censorship, just leaving the protection of the theatre-going public from lewdness. This was the Act that was scrapped in 1968 to give us HAIR.
Further back still in the Elizabethan and early Jacobean eras, plays were controlled by the Office of the Censor operating out of St John’s Gate. The plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries were all scrutinised. In 1593, The dramatist Thomas Kyd, accused of sedition, narrowly escaped with his life following severe torture as an indirect result of what he’d written.