Censorship in the Time of Shakespeare.

Did the bard create an evil Richard the Third to make Queen Elizabeth’s Tudor ancestors seem benign by comparison?

William Shakewspeare. Image source unknown.

A new play, “The Ballad of Crookback and Shakespeare” explores the problems encountered by writers during a period in which long held religious beliefs were being overturned by the English throne. Henry VIII may have declared himself the head of the Church and repudiated many of the practices of Catholicism; his son, Edward VI, a child king heavily influenced by his uncles, accelerated the persecution of ‘Papists’. The older of Henry’s daughters, a devout Catholic with a Spanish mother and a Spanish husband, attempted a reversal but was followed by her half-sister, Elizabeth, who resumed the onslaught on the old ways.

Among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Thomas Kydd and Christopher Marlowe were betrayed to the authorities. It is widely believed that Kydd implicated Marlowe whilst being tortured. Marlowe died shortly afterwards in suspicious circumstances, and before he was able to answer the charges against him.

Every ‘entertainment’ was vetted by Sir Edmund Tilney, Master of the Revels to Elizabeth and her successor King James (I of England, VI of Scotland).

Several scenes in the play consist of conversations between Shakespeare and Tilney. Ben Johnson, Kydd and Marlowe make frequent appearances, in Marlowe’s case, in one scene, as his ghost interfering in Shakespeare’s dreams of Anne Hathaway.

The play has yet to be produced but I had the privilege of access to a review copy of the script. As in the best of the bard’s plays, there is humour and pathos in equal measure, much of the former as bawdy as would be expected from an Elizabethan drama. In a recent exchange of e-mails I discussed the origins of the play with its authors, Clive Greenwood and Jason Wing. The two met through a mutual friend, Jonathon Hansler with whom Clive wrote a play about Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.

Shakespeare’s Globe London.  Chris Dorney / Getty Images found at https://www.tripsavvy.com/shakespeare-globe-theater-london-the-complete-guide-4685626

As a tour guide at Shakespeare’s Globe, in London, Clive is thoroughly versed in its history, that of the man, and of his relationship with Tilney. Jason is an actor and it was when Clive saw him in a performance as a 17th century artist that they began discussing the theme of artist as businessman and how that contributed to Shakespeare being a very wealthy and successful man.

“We also discussed how much do we think he had to compromise himself in order to succeed? For example, writing ‘Richard III’ as one of the greatest villains of the stage, that would have fitted the ‘party line’ at Elizabeth’s court: that the Tudors were the rightful rulers, and saved England from a tyrant.”

Subsequent discussions between friends and associates, all with great knowledge of the period, provided the inspiration to turn what had begun as a one act play into a full length piece. At one stage, for example, the writers suggested that the Queen appear as a recorded voice. As Clive tells it:

“We were told in no uncertain terms, by females present, that reducing an iconic character like ‘Gloriana’ to an offstage voice, was unlikely to prove popular!”

This suggestion came out of a read through at “Scripttank”, run by “a brilliant BBC scriptwriter and playwright, Katharine Way, who is very knowledgeable about the period.” It was she who pointed out that “[the characters] talked about Robert Greene a lot. Why not bring him onstage as he is a great (and tragic) character.”

The actual writing took place in Clive’s flat in Covent Garden where “I typed (badly) the script onto my laptop and Jason preferred to pace and vape! Jason would say the words out loud he was thinking of, (he supplied the coffee too!). “We would regularly stop and read back what we had written and correct anything that we felt didn’t work when read out.”

Clive is “lucky enough to have access to the library at Shakespeare’s Globe, which ensures that the background to the play is grounded in facts of the time. It was also interesting to look at the development of the character of Richard of Gloucester by Shakespeare, from quite a heroic and noble figure in ‘Henry VI pts 1 &2’ to the moment in ‘Part 3’ where Shakespeare ‘retcons’ the character and for the first time he mentions being a hunchback and wanting the crown.”

In addition to his work as a tour guide at the Globe, Clive performs as historical characters at a number of sites, including such iconic ones as The Cutty Sark, Hampton Court and the Tower of London, so he is used to undertaking research. However, this was not always advantageous. “Jason become very adept at rooting out anything that was too ‘Costumed Historical Interpretation’ and we developed a code word for that!”

As the play was developed during the period of frequent ‘lockdowns’, I asked if the pair had used Zoom to communicate, as so many of us did. Clive came up with an amusing anecdote about the perils of early adoption of the video collaboration tool: “We had an online reading of the second draft kindly organised by Clare-Louise Amias of ‘A Monkey with Cymbals’ theatre company, Jason inadvertently shared the whole Zoom link, including the passwords, and we suddenly found we had been joined by a couple of blokes who were all old enough to know better, waving their bits around! We had to close the reading and recommence on a new Zoom meeting, as someone joked ‘Were they playing King James’s courtiers?'”

The pair would dearly love for the play to be performed at the Globe: “probably the Jacobean style Sam Wanamaker Playhouse would be more suitable – but we are open to suggestions.” Several meetings with producers and theatre managements are upcoming. In addition, the writers have “contacts at the Rose Theatre Trust close to the Globe, where Shakespeare began with Philip Henslowe in 1592 and we are keen to give a rehearsed reading there. There would be quite a frisson to be standing just a few yards from where Shakespeare acted and wrote”

The 1989 campaign to save the Rose: original image source unknown, found at https://archaeology.co.uk/articles/news/the-rose-rises-again.htm

Clive was also “one of the actors who encircled the Rose in 1989 to stop it being lost when Nicholas Ridley in Thatcher’s government refused to schedule it (as a protected site), the picture of Peggy Ashcroft blocking a lorry coming to cover the Rose and wreck its fragile remains is one I will remember!”

Clive is full of praise for their publisher, Anne at TSL Books, who specialises in both history and the publishing of drama scripts.”She is incredibly supportive to her writers. Because of the nature of the play’s subject, we are keen to sell through retail outlets like the Globe shop, National Theatre bookshop, Shakespeare’s Birthplace and Richard III centre.”

One of the sub-texts of the play is the way in which it has been suggested that Shakespeare could not have achieved the success he did because he lacked the necessary eduction. Both men are proud of their working class roots with parents who nevertheless appreciated the arts and encouraged their sons to follow their creative instincts. “Equity recently launched a ‘class network‘ and theatres now recognise writers who came from a working-class background as from an under represented group,” Clive tells me. “This I think sets out to counteract the feeling a while ago that many of those in the arts, whether as writers, performers or directors, came from a more privileged background in terms of education.”

He continues: “That working class identification is important to why the conspiracy theories of Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, as the writer (with absolutely no evidence at all!!) are basically saying a man from a lower social group, such as Shakespeare, couldn’t have written the plays, where in fact they are still relevant today, because he became an actor and knew how to craft a play. ‘Show don’t tell’ Robert Greene would land his actors with huge speeches of exposition. Shakespeare gave the actors great scenes!”

The discussion turns to recent examples of censorship and ‘cancel culture.’ Clive reminds me that “Until 1968 the Lord Chamberlain could censor plays, and also towns had ‘watch committees’ who would vet what was allowed on at the town’s theatres and cinemas and we are letting them in again through the back door in my opinion. I find it frightening that many young people seem to be going along with the ‘cancel culture’ and saying they don’t have an issue with free speech not being allowed. With what is going on in Russia, with a cross between Stalin and Hitler in charge, I find that awful.

“The cancel culture is stifling debate, and also seems one-sided, I recall at the Edinburgh Festival when the Chief Constable of Edinburgh advised the cancellation of ‘Jihad the Musical’ after the venue received threats of retaliation from Islamic fundamentalists, mass meetings were held, with comedians, in particular, concerned about censorship, but the Police said they could not guarantee the safety of the public should a suicide bomber target the venue during the Fringe, and it was pulled.

“Birmingham Rep had to cancel a play by a Sikh woman, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, ‘Behzti’, after threats from Sikhs, yet Christianity is fair game for a bashing on stage. These are all belief systems not races, so it’s not ‘racist’ to examine any belief system and their attitudes to women, LGBTQ+ rights and tolerance. I am working on a series at the moment with Jonathan Hansler and Yasser Kayani and a well known comedy writer (who we can’t yet name), looking at an alternative world where the ‘cancel culture’ was present throughout history with more than a touch of ‘The Twilight Zone’!”

Nor is that last example the only work in progress for the pair. “We both write separately and together, and will continue to do so. Historical writing always interests us, and our next idea moves to the Jacobean period and looks at the questions of cultural appropriation in performance at that time. I (Clive) am also a member of a funding body, Unity Theatre Trust, which gives small grants to qualifying productions, and we are looking at a TV mini series or one off film set in 1936 showing a group of young working class Londoners who have founded a new radical theatre in Kings Cross, Unity Theatre, making a decision to pool their scanty funds and head to New York, against the backdrop of war and increased Fascist activity, to get a play for their new theatre.”

5 thoughts on “Censorship in the Time of Shakespeare.

  1. Very interesting, Frank. Free speech is important, and so is public safety. As the previous comment says, it’s a delicate balance. As always, education is the key to providing a place where freedom thrives in a safe society, and education needs to begin in primary school at the latest. I feel we have regressed a long way in the last few years.

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  2. Any pushback to the cancel culture is welcome. If one is offended, or dislikes certain content, they are free to not watch, not go or turn it off. The same is true of “under representation”. Getting a leg up, or over in some cases, should be down to merit. Oh, your daddy was milkman? We’re sorry, here’s your belated contract with our apologies. Keith Emerson (ELP) came from a low-end working-class family. I don’t recall his virtuosity being swept aside because of his parents’ address. We’d all be better off if the label makers would cut the crap and we could get on with being productive regardless of the hats we wear. Hell, I’m not gay, but I’m ready to sue someone to get rainbows sans relationship to sexuality back.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Such an interesting post, Frank. I do hope the writers get their work produced.

    In the US, my sense is that although this cancel culture nonsense is a problem and never to be ignored, there’s much more of it coming from the far right than from the left.

    Liked by 1 person

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