Censorship and Art

Censorship and Art

CENSORSHIP AND ART JOHN GALSWORTHY "Je vous dirai que l'exces est toujours un mal." -ANATOLE FRANCE TABLE OF CONTENTS: ABOUT CENSORSHIP VAGUE THOUGHTS ON ART ABOUT CENSORSHIP Since time and again it has been proved in this country of free institutions that the great majority of our fellow-countrymen consider the only Censorship that now obtains amongst us namely the Censorship of Plays a bulwark for the preservation of their comfort and sensibility against the spiritual researches and speculations of bolder and too active spirits--it has become time to consider whether we should not seriously extend a principle so grateful to the majority to all our institutions. For no one can deny that in practice the Censorship of Drama works with a smooth swiftness--a lack of delay and friction unexampled in any public office. No troublesome publicity and tedious postponement for the purpose of appeal mar its efficiency. It is neither hampered by the Law nor by the slow process of popular election. Welcomed by the overwhelming majority of the public; objected to only by such persons as suffer from it and a negligible faction who wedded pedantically to liberty of the subject are resentful of summary powers vested in a single person responsible only to his own 'conscience'--it is amazingly triumphantly successful. Why then in a democratic State is so valuable a protector of the will the interests and pleasure of the majority not bestowed on other branches of the public being? Opponents of the Censorship of Plays have been led by the absence of such other Censorships to conclude that this Office is an archaic survival persisting into times that have outgrown it. They have been known to allege that the reason of its survival is simply the fact that Dramatic Authors whose reputation and means of livelihood it threatens have ever been few in number and poorly organised--that the reason in short is the helplessness and weakness of the interests concerned. We must all combat with force such an aspersion on our Legislature. Can it even for a second be supposed that a State which gives trial by Jury to the meanest poorest most helpless of its citizens and concedes to the greatest criminals the right of appeal could have debarred a body of reputable men from the ordinary rights of citizenship for so cynical a reason as that their numbers were small their interests unjoined their protests feeble? Such a supposition were intolerable! We do not in this country deprive a class of citizens of their ordinary rights we do not place their produce under the irresponsible control of one not amenable to Law by any sort of political accident! That would indeed be to laugh at Justice in this Kingdom! That would indeed be cynical and unsound! We must never admit that there is no basic Justice controlling the edifice of our Civic Rights. We do we must conclude that a just and well- considered principle underlies this despotic Institution; for surely else it would not be suffered to survive for a single moment! Pom! Pom! If then the Censorship of Plays be just beneficent and based on a well-considered principle we must rightly inquire what good and logical reason there is for the absence of Censorship in other departments of the national life. If Censorship of the Drama be in the real interests of the people or at all events in what the Censor for the time being conceives to be their interest--then Censorships of Art Literature Religion Science and Politics are in the interests of the people unless it can be proved that there exists essential difference between the Drama and these other branches of the public being. Let us consider whether there is any such essential difference. It is fact beyond dispute that every year numbers of books appear which strain the average reader's intelligence and sensibilities to an unendurable extent; books whose speculations are totally unsuited to normal thinking powers; books which contain views of morality divergent from the customary and discussions of themes unsuited to the young person; books which in fine provide the greater Public with no pleasure whatsoever and either by harrowing their feelings or offending their good taste cause them real pain. It is true that precisely as in the case of Plays the Public are protected by a vigilant and critical Press from works of this description; that further they are protected by the commercial instinct of the Libraries who will not stock an article which may offend their customers--just as in the case of Plays the Public are protected by the common-sense of theatrical Managers; that finally they are protected by the Police and the Common Law of the land. But despite all these protections it is no uncommon thing for an average citizen to purchase one of these disturbing or dubious books. Has he on discovering its true nature the right to call on the bookseller to refund its value? He has not. And thus he runs a danger obviated in the case of the Drama which has the protection of a prudential Censorship. For this reason alone how much better then that there should exist a paternal authority (some no doubt will call it grand-maternal--but sneers must not be confounded with argument) to suppress these books before appearance and safeguard us from the danger of buying and possibly reading undesirable or painful literature! A specious reason however is advanced for exempting Literature from the Censorship accorded to Plays. He--it is said--who attends the performance of a play attends it in public where his feelings may be harrowed and his taste offended cheek by jowl with boys or women of all ages; it may even chance that he has taken to this entertainment his wife or the young persons of his household. He-- on the other hand--who reads a book reads it in privacy. True; but the wielder of this argument has clasped his fingers round a two- edged blade. The very fact that the book has no mixed audience removes from Literature an element which is ever the greatest check on licentiousness in Drama. No manager of a theatre--a man of the world engaged in the acquisition of his livelihood unless guaranteed by the license of the Censor dare risk the presentment before a mixed audience of that which might cause an 'emeute' among his clients. It has indeed always been observed that the theatrical manager almost without exception thoughtfully recoils from the responsibility that would be thrust on him by the abolition of the Censorship. The fear of the mixed audience is ever suspended above his head. No such fear threatens the publisher who displays his wares to one man at a time. And for this very reason of the mixed audience; perpetually and perversely cited to the contrary by such as have no firm grasp of this matter there is a greater necessity for a Censorship on Literature than for one on Plays. Further if there were but a Censorship of Literature no matter how dubious the books that were allowed to pass the conscience of no reader need ever be troubled. For that the perfect rest of the public conscience is the first result of Censorship is proved to certainty by the protected Drama since many dubious plays are yearly ...