When Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play and Broadway hit Cat On A Hot Tin Roof premiered in London 50 years ago this spring, it was to set in motion a major press campaign calling for the abolition of the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of censorship.
Despite being a major new work by an acclaimed American playwright, the Lord Chamberlain’s office banned all public performances of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof due to its references to homosexuality, still a criminal offence in 1958. Therefore, when the play premiered at the Comedy in the West End, Peter Hall’s production was not open to the public, but to private members of the New Watergate Club.
The New Watergate Club was formed a year earlier with the express purpose of triumphing over the censor, which had no powers over private performances. First producing Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, which also dealt with homosexuality, the club immediately attracted 13,000 members; when Cat On A Hot Tin Roof premiered, that number had grown to 64,000.
The situation, which critics at the time called “ludicrous”, called into question the Lord Chamberlain’s powers of statutory censorship, which had been awarded more than 200 years previously, in 1737. After a major press campaign and weeks of controversy, the censor finally backed down and ended the ban on any plays that mentioned homosexuality.
It was the beginning of the end for the censor. But it took another decade for theatre censorship to be abolished completely; in 1968 legislation finally changed, despite opposition from Queen Elizabeth II, Lord Cobbold the Lord Chamberlain and Harold Wilson the Prime Minister, and the censor was no more.