Exhibition reveals official fears over gay characters in the theatre

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A new exhibition will be pay tribute to the postwar period of transformation in theatre which saw writers ‘coming to terms with life.’

The Golden Generation will draw on the British Library’s collection of theatrical manuscripts, letters, photographs and unique oral history recordings to explore the vibrancy of British theatre following the end of the Second World War.

Up until 1968 the Lord Chamberlain was responsible for licensing plays.

The exhibition shows that the portrayal of homosexual characters was the subject that most worried the Lord Chamberlain in the post-war years.

Attempts to prohibit representations of homosexuality led some writers to instinctual self-censorship – as can be seen in a handwritten script of gay playwright Terrence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, where Rattigan is forced to change a character accused of importuning other men to a man accused of ‘nudging women in a cinema’.

Under pressure to re-think his policy, the Lord Chamberlain sent a number of letters to ‘wise and responsible men and women’ (including Laurence Olivier) to canvas opinions.

In the letter displayed in the exhibition, the Lord Chamberlain worries that the subject will be ‘very distasteful and embarrassing in mixed company’ and ‘might start an unfortunate train of thought in the previously innocent’.

In 1957, the Lord Chamberlain, the Earl of Scarborough, responded to the Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution by issuing a ‘secret memorandum.’

The memorandum, on show in the exhibition, allows ‘serious and sincere’ references to homosexuality in plays, although still banned ‘pro-homosexuality’ or ‘practical demonstrations of love.’

Other highlights include the only surviving scripts of the first two plays of John Osborne, The Devil Inside Him and Personal Enemy, the former written nine years before the 1956 premiere of Look Back in Anger, which made Osborne one of Britain’s most celebrated playwrights.

Jamie Andrews, Curator of the Exhibiton and Head of Modern Literary Manuscripts at the British Library said:

“The exhibition recognises the excitement generated by the premiere of Look Back in Anger in May 1956, but shows that, far from single-handedly kick-starting the new wave, Osborne was one of many visionary new writers, actors, and directors who came to prominence in this exciting period for the theatre.

“The exhibition also demonstrates how evolving social attitudes forced the theatre, as critic Kenneth Tynan put it, ‘to come to terms with life,’ and this included the campaign that led to the abolition of the Royal Household’s powers to censor theatre in 1968.”

The Golden Generation: British Theatre 1945 to 1968 runs from tomorrow until 30 November 2008 at the Folio Society Gallery at the British Library.