Exhibition Review: Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 @ V & A Museum

on Friday, January 25, 2019
Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 at Victoria and Albert Museum (10 July 2018-27 January 2019) // Words: Saam Das

The Lord Chamberlain's Theatres Act of 1968 brought an end to censorship for British theatre - or did it? The Victoria and Albert Museum (more specifically, curators Anna Landreth Strong and Simon Sladen) are on hand to investigate. The free Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 display reflects on the history of regulation in the theatre setting from the 17th century through to more recent censorship issues across film and music, as well as on stage.

Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 impressively showcases artifacts relating to censorship from as early as the 1600s, including Charles II's notable 1662 patent for the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (all other theatres were outlawed) which stated that plays must not contain "any matter of Prophanation, Scurrility or Obscenity". Spoilsports. From 1737, theatre censorship was brought under the control of the Lord Chamberlain, inspiring a battle for abolition that affected works by such greats as DH Lawrence and Oscar Wilde.

The abolitionist movement gained pace in sixties Britain, causing significant distress to American playwright Tennessee Williams whose works such as 'Streetcar Named Desire' and 'Cat On A Hot Tin Roof' (with their sexuality-based themes) found themselves under particular censorship from the Lord Chamberlain. A telegram shows his concern that the cuts were to the detriment of the works that were being staged on this side of the pond.

On a more whimsical note, the exhibition displays art design pieces from The Windmill Theatre in London's Soho, which cheekily circumvented censorship rules by using nudity motionless based on the guidelines that stated "if it moves, it's rude". (Established to exclude classical statues from being considered as morally objectionable.) Similarly, provocative genitalia-based costume designs from Gerald Scarfe's for Alfred Jarry's 1967 play 'Ubu In Chains' evoke amusement in the modern age, rather than the outrage of the time.

Exiting the historical section, the exhibition subsequently opens figuratively and literally as it allows the visitor to explore areas relating to film and music, as well as a dedicated case study of the 1970s furore surrounding Oz Magazine. An underground publication, it became the subject of the longest obscenity trial in history thanks to a schoolchildren-led issue that dared to cover sex and drugs. Various ephemera from the time is displayed, as well as an entire wall of complaints regarding Oz that could gleefully be used as some sort of moral outrage bingo - representative of the all-round clean and effective presentation across the exhibition.

The music section is disappointingly brief, compiling a handful of record sleeves of offensive songs (problematic album art could perhaps have been an additional area to investigate and showcase) as well as a listening post of such offending artists including George Formby and Frankie Goes To Hollywood. Understandably, The Sex Pistols take centre stage for their notoriety, which included being banned from national television as a result of their potty mouths.

Broadcasting standards for television are also covered in the screen section, but again this area feels somewhat neglected. Items related to influential 1961 film 'Victim' are arguably the most interesting material on offer - the first film to use the word "homosexual", it helped pave the way for the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 leading to homosexuality being partially decriminalised. Stanley Kubrick's iconic film 'A Clockwork Orange' is also featured, which was pulled from UK cinemas and not shown publicly until after its director's death in 1999.

The remainder of the exhibition is dedicated once more to the theatre, reflecting not just on moral concerns but political beliefs. For example, we see a 1985 letter from the Minister for the Arts cutting funding for the 7:84 Theatre Company, seen by critics as a result of their anti-governmental sentiments. More contemporary controversies are also highlighted such as Stewart Lee's notorious 'Jerry Springer: The Opera' through to Brett Bailey's 'human zoo' theatrical installation in 2014, raising questions about artistic freedom of expression in the 21st century.

It's unfortunate that the V&A's Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 tacks on film and music to its overt stage focus, Oz Magazine section notwithstanding. The lack of coverage of censorship in music and film mean that this display could have been better served excluding those areas. Indeed, a solely dedicated exhibition for censorship in music would be fascinating, particularly with the recent debates regarding UK drill music demonstrating that despite abolition of restrictive legislation for artists over the years, the issues of the past are never as far away as they may initially appear.


Censored! Stage, Screen, Society At 50 closes Sunday 27 January 2019. Find more info at vam.ac.uk.

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