The Lord Chamberlain orders the Garrick Theatre to change the script of a play
Shameful moment No. 5
On Thursday 5 December 1935, the day after the FA vice-chairman had toasted Hitler, the German Embassy complained to Sir George Crichton, the Lord Chamberlain, about a play at the Garrick Theatre in London’s West End. Sir George immediately instructed Dodson Noon, the theatre’s manager to remove some lines in the play which had been deemed to be insulting to Hitler. He had the power to do so because, until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain, as the senior officer of the Royal Household, was, besides being responsible for state visits and other official protocol, also the effective licensor of plays in the City of London and Westminster.
The offending scene was contained in a romantic comedy entitled “Vicky” about downtrodden aristocrats in Vienna. When a page boy, played by the actor Fred Royal, is asked by Vicky, the daughter of a cigar shop owner, why he is called ‘Hitler’ he replies “It’s my name. It’s a damn nuisance there being two of us, but he won’t change his name and I’m dashed if I’ll change mine” He later adds “We are the other branch of the family.”
A week earlier the theatre had refused a direct request from officials at the German Embassy to remove all reference to the character “Hezekiah Hitler”. It had felt that it was immune to any such interference in its artistic freedom since the supposed slur was contained in the original licensed script which had somehow been passed by the censor. Aileen Marson, the 21 year old actress who played Vicky, informed the Daily Herald that the theatre had no intention of removing the scene explaining that “there is not the slightest attempt to characterise Herr Hitler” and that “this particular scene is a great favourite with our audiences and draws a greater laugh than any other in the show.” The Embassy officials were shocked by this unexpected show of defiance. They had informed Noon, the theatre’s manager, that they considered the scene was “discourteous… and contrary to English fair play” and according to the Yorkshire Evening Post “they complained particularly that the page boy’s Christian name suggested he was of Jewish descent.”
Unfortunately for the theatre it became a much more pressing matter when a request now arrived unexpectedly from the Lord Chamberlain. Noon was warned that he should delete all reference to ‘Hitler’ prior to the play’s performance later that same day. He felt he had no option but to comply to such pressure. Indeed, such was the perceived urgency of implementing the necessary changes to the script, that the actors, who arrived at 8.15 pm without any knowledge of the new dialogue, were left with only fifteen minutes to rehearse the new lines before the curtain rose.
In the new version, the page boy was called George Bernard Gandhi, a reference to two of the outstanding personalities of the time, the Irish playwright and left leaning iconoclast George Bernard Shaw and Mahatma Gandhi, leader of the Indian independence movement against British rule in India. George Bernard Shaw, when asked for his reaction by the Daily Mirror commented “I don’t mind. People will know it’s not George Bernard Shaw.” No one, however, thought it necessary to ask Gandhi for his view and no action was taken against the theatre when the Indian National Congress complained.
1. Regarding the role of the Lord Chancellor in theatre censorship see David Thomas, David Carlton and Anne Etienne (2008) “Theatre Censorship from Walpole to Wilson,” and Steve Nicholson (2005) “The Censorship of British Drama 1900-1968: Volume II 1933-1952,” University of Exeter Press, p9-55.
2. “Exit ‘Hitler’,” the Yorkshire Post, 6 December 1935 p5. For brief accounts of the play see “The World of the Theatre,” the Illustrated London News, 7 December 1935 p1050 and “New Plays in London,” the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 6 December 1935 p522.
3. “Embassy Objects to Hezekiah Hitler,” the Daily Herald, 29 November 1935 p3
4. “Hezekiah Hitler,” the Yorkshire Evening Post, 6 December 1935, p10
5. See “Hitler Ban in Play,” the Daily Mail, 6 December 1935, p11, “‘Hitler’ Struck Out Of Play,” the Dundee Courier and Advertiser,” 6 December 1935 p7, “‘Gandhi’ Instead of ‘Hitler’,” the Belfast Newsletter, 7 December 1935 and “‘Hitler’ Deleted from Play,” the Aberdeen Press and Journal, 6 December 1935, p6.
6. “Hitler is now George Bernard,” the Daily Mirror, 6 December 1935 p1. The complaint by the Indian National Congress mentioned in Steve Nicholson, “The Censorship of British Drama: 1900-1968. Volume Two: 1933-1952,” University of Exeter Press, p23.