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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Walpole’

Hairposter49 years ago this very evening, the stage musical HAIR opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre, heralding the dawn of the Age of Aquarius, whatever that was. A troupe of hirsute performers led initially by Oliver Tobias and including Richard O’Brien and Tim Curry (yes, the seeds of Rocky Horror) delighted London audiences for the next five years until the theatre roof literally came down.

The previous era –  the Age of Stage Censorship – had ended the previous day with the Theatres Act 1968. This new law extinguished the considerable and centuries-old powers of the Lord Chamberlain to curtail all sweary bits, nudy bits and politically subversive bits from the theatres of the nation.

As the title suggests, the Lord Chamberlain is a Royal official. Originally, the approval or otherwise of new productions fell to the Master of the Revels, a powerful and lucrative royal sinecure. His physical office between 1578 and 1607 was based at St John’s Gate in Clerkenwell. Whenever I visit there, I always imagine the work of Shakespeare and his great contemporaries  having their first airing in front of the Master or his officials.

This situation pertained (not forgetting, of course, outright suppression during the Commonwealth) until 1737. Robert Walpole happened to be the Master of the Revels at that time. Weary of anti-government satire by the likes of Henry Fielding, Walpole put censorship on a statutory footing with his Licensing Act 1737, giving the responsibility of stage censorship directly to the Lord Chamberlain. Under the Act, the Lord Chamberlain could suppress any performance without recourse of appeal. The measures were softened with slight modifications in 1788 and 1843, but essentially our public entertainment remained thus bridled for over 200 years.


Interesting article on HAIR and contemporary theatre censorship here.
Complete 1968 HAIR soundtrack on YouTube here (terrific!).

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hair the musical

Origianal HAIR album cover, just as I remember it.

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.

st john's gate

St John's Gate. In Shakespeare's time, the Censor's Office operated from this very room.

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