Notes on Life and Letters HTML version

The Censor Of Plays--An Appreciation—1907
A couple of years ago I was moved to write a one-act play--and I lived long
enough to accomplish the task. We live and learn. When the play was finished I
was informed that it had to be licensed for performance. Thus I learned of the
existence of the Censor of Plays. I may say without vanity that I am intelligent
enough to have been astonished by that piece of information: for facts must
stand in some relation to time and space, and I was aware of being in England--
in the twentieth-century England. The fact did not fit the date and the place. That
was my first thought. It was, in short, an improper fact. I beg you to believe that I
am writing in all seriousness and am weighing my words scrupulously.
Therefore I don't say inappropriate. I say improper--that is: something to be
ashamed of. And at first this impression was confirmed by the obscurity in which
the figure embodying this after all considerable fact had its being. The Censor of
Plays! His name was not in the mouths of all men. Far from it. He seemed
stealthy and remote. There was about that figure the scent of the far East, like
the peculiar atmosphere of a Mandarin's back yard, and the mustiness of the
Middle Ages, that epoch when mankind tried to stand still in a monstrous illusion
of final certitude attained in morals, intellect and conscience.
It was a disagreeable impression. But I reflected that probably the censorship of
plays was an inactive monstrosity; not exactly a survival, since it seemed
obviously at variance with the genius of the people, but an heirloom of past ages,
a bizarre and imported curiosity preserved because of that weakness one has for
one's old possessions apart from any intrinsic value; one more object of exotic
VIRTU, an Oriental POTICHE, a MAGOT CHINOIS conceived by a childish and
extravagant imagination, but allowed to stand in stolid impotence in the twilight of
the upper shelf.
Thus I quieted my uneasy mind. Its uneasiness had nothing to do with the fate of
my one-act play. The play was duly produced, and an exceptionally intelligent
audience stared it coldly off the boards. It ceased to exist. It was a fair and open
execution. But having survived the freezing atmosphere of that auditorium I
continued to exist, labouring under no sense of wrong. I was not pleased, but I
was content. I was content to accept the verdict of a free and independent public,
judging after its conscience the work of its free, independent and conscientious
servant--the artist.
Only thus can the dignity of artistic servitude be preserved--not to speak of the
bare existence of the artist and the self-respect of the man. I shall say nothing of
the self-respect of the public. To the self-respect of the public the present appeal
against the censorship is being made and I join in it with all my heart.
For I have lived long enough to learn that the monstrous and outlandish figure,
the MAGOT CHINOIS whom I believed to be but a memorial of our forefathers'
mental aberration, that grotesque POTICHE, works! The absurd and hollow
creature of clay seems to be alive with a sort of (surely) unconscious life worthy
of its traditions. It heaves its stomach, it rolls its eyes, it brandishes a monstrous
arm: and with the censorship, like a Bravo of old Venice with a more carnal