The Censor in Each of Us
This piece is drawn from the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture, given by Colm Tóibín as part of the PEN World Voices Festival.
It began, as many things do, with a dream. In the summer of 1901, while staying at Coole Park, the house that had belonged to Lady Gregory’s husband and now belonged to her son, the Irish poet W. B. Yeats had a dream that was “almost as distinct as a vision, of a cottage where there was well-being and firelight and talk of a marriage, and into the midst of that cottage there came an old woman in a long cloak” who was “Ireland herself,” personified as Cathleen ni Houlihan, “for whom so many songs have been sung, and about whom so many stories have been told and for whose sake so many have gone to their death.”
The play that came from the dream was performed as “Cathleen ni Houlihan” in Dublin, in April, 1902. In the text, which is in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, there is a note in Lady Gregory’s handwriting: “All this mine alone.” And then, toward the end, “This with WBY.” It was clear to some even when it was first performed that most of the play was written by Lady Gregory, who was a playwright and translator, but the official author on the programwas W. B. Yeats. Now, more than a hundred years later, it is in both his and her collected works.
The play had, on its first performance, an enormous impact. This was helped by the vivid sense of domestic space and the naturalistic dialogue, and by the talk of money and marriage. But the impact was itself caused by the sudden and mysterious transformation of an old woman into a young woman, a young woman “with the walk of a Queen,” the transformation caused by the arrival of French forces in the west of Ireland, in 1798, to assist in the struggle for Irish freedom. The audience understood that this change in the woman represented Ireland and what could happen to Ireland, were they to devote themselves to its cause. The hall was packed every night. The woman, both young and old, played by Yeats’s muse, Maud Gonne, seemed to lure the imagination away from everyday materialism and toward the heroic, from ordinary speech toward the poetic, the suggestive. The play showed how important and, indeed, how disturbing images of transformation could be in a society in which there was repression, paralysis, political stagnation, a strange vacuum. George Bernard Shaw later said that it was a play “which might lead a man to do something foolish.” In the way it affected the audience, “Cathleen ni Houlihan” made clear how powerful words, poetry, and pure and risky theatrical images could be in a place where people had learned to distrust political speeches and the language of the official world, a place in which there was a hunger for something in the public realm that was new and could be trusted and almost believed.
It was left to writers to create the dream, and soon the dream of transformation became the dream of revolution. Years later, in a poem, W. B. Yeats would ask the stark question: “Did that play of mine send out / Certain men the English shot?”
This would then be an easy story to tell if Yeats and Lady Gregory themselves had been revolutionaries, ready only to use art to create political change, ready only to use their work in the theatre to inspire an audience to undermine the civil power. The story is more complicated because the play was merely one of their moods. Like the moods of most artists, their moods came in many guises. They believed in the glittering imagination, the image as something unstable and free, something without limits. They did not toe any party line. But, in the work they would do in Ireland over the next twenty-five years, they would have to navigate in waters where others believed that art had a single purpose, or who had solid aims, or who believed in setting limits to what a writer could say or what images the theatre could portray.
In any discussion of censorship in an emerging or changing or fragile society, this story is instructive and salutary.
The play helped the reputation of W. B. Yeats with the growing number of Irish Catholicpatriots, some of whom had been disturbed by the less-than-flattering image of the Irish peasant and by the use of superstition in a previous play of his. In every society where there is an urge to censor, there is always already in place some rawness, some grievance, a fear of the outside world, a hunger for images that are comforting and comfortable, images that cover the national or social or religious wound, or attempt to heal it. And there is a deep and often visceral resistance to images that expose the wound or throw salt on it. This is what makes the battle against censorship in religious societies or developing societies so difficult to manage.
Thus, the real trouble began when Yeats and Lady Gregory and the Abbey Theatre, which would dedicate itself to present new Irish plays to an Irish audience in Dublin, began to produce the work of the Irish playwright John Millington Synge. It mattered, of course, that all three were Protestants in a country where the majority were Catholic, and all three were cosmopolitan in a country that was becoming increasingly insular. James Joyce, in an encounter in his great story“The Dead,” would dramatize the clash between the protagonist, Gabriel, who writes for an English newspaper and takes his holidays in Europe, and Miss Ivors, who tells him that Irish is his language, not English, and that he should go to the west of Ireland on his holidays rather than to Europe.
Synge wrote his plays about Irish peasant life with wit and complexity at a time when many people wanted solemnity and simplicity, when they wanted the theatre to protect rather than provoke. When his play “The Shadow of the Glen,” in which Nora Burke, a married woman, runs away with a tramp, was performed, in 1903, the attacks on Synge began. And they did not come from England, or from any government, but from Irish patriots who were attempting to idealize and recreate a new Ireland. Arthur Griffith, for example, the founder of the nationalist party Sinn Fein, wrote, “Mr Synge’s Nora Burke is not an Irish Nora Burke, his play is not a work of genius—Irish or otherwise—it is a foul echo from degenerate Greece.” Maud Gonne joined the attacks: “Mr Yeats asks for freedom for the theatre … I would ask for freedom for it from one thing more deadly than all else—freedom from the insidious and destructive tyranny of foreign influence.”
Three years later, riots broke out in the Abbey Theatre at a performance of Synge’s play “ThePlayboy of the Western World,” and they continued for a week. They broke out because members of the audience were shocked at the way in which Irish women were presented on the stage as earthy and sexually alive, in which there was no effort made to idealize the Irish peasantry, but, instead, an effort was made to have them seem comic, grasping, and, of course, dramatically forceful. It is important to remember how much images matter in a fragile place. In the cartoons in English magazines, for example, it was common for the Irish figure to appear as feckless, untrustworthy at best, and, at worst, violent, alarming, and simian. In order to create the conditions for Irish patriotism to thrive, the image of the Irish peasant would have to be cleansed, idealized. Irish women would have to seem more pure, more fully Victorian than their English counterparts. The play was a disruption of this project by a brilliant imagination.
When it was performed in America, in 1911, the Irish-American audiences hated it even more than their counterparts at home. They had greater fears, since many of them were employed as an underclass. They threw rosary beads and stink bombs at the stage. The New York lawyer and art collector John Quinn believed that the play had a right to be heard in the American cities. He wrote, “The policemen that ought to be put in the theatre ought to be Irish policemen; then the town [New York] would have the edifying spectacle of Irish policemen ejecting Irish rowdies from an Irish play.” Quinn had to rush to Philadelphia to have the actors released when the entire cast of the play was arrested.
Once more, it is important to remember that those who wanted to stop the play were themselves vulnerable; they were Irish emigrants in America who sought to idealize the country they came from in order to improve their image in the new country. It was their feelings of weakness, or grievance, and openness to mockery that caused them to riot; it was their sense of themselves as beleaguered and powerless underclass that caused their objection to the play. The battle over the work of Synge in America happened at a key moment, when emigrants were caught between tradition, both remembered and imagined, and assimilation, both feared and desired.
In Ireland, too, the rioters were caught between a country balanced between tradition and modernization. Both patriots and emigrants expected art and image to assist their uneasy cause; they wanted art merely to offer relief from a challenge they felt from within, rather than to intensify, or make public, that challenge. When artists, on the other hand, insisted on their right to freedom of speech, the clash was messy and bitter, and the possibility of dialogue absent and compromise impossible.
It would be easy then to say that Yeats and Lady Gregory and their friends were ready to take on the patriotic rabble in the cause of artistic freedom, to represent broad cosmopolitan values against narrow and restrictive ones. But this story is instructive to anyone interested in the battle against censorship and the freedom to write, because it shifts and changes.
Between the Irish and the American riots over “The Playboy of the Western World,” another play was performed at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which would change things for Yeats and Lady Gregory. It was a short play, written in three weeks, in 1909 by George Bernard Shaw, called “The Shewing-Up of Blanco Posnet”. Blanco was an American horse thief who, at one point in the play, decides to threaten Almighty God. There were also some foulmouthed women in the play and dialogue bordering on the blasphemous. Like “The Playboy of the Western World”, there was something in its tone, as much as in the particulars, which could easily offend those who wanted work in the theatre to be tame and easy.
Shaw’s play could not be performed in London, because London plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, a division of the Royal household, which could and did censor plays until as recently as 1968. No wonder Samuel Beckett called him the Lord Chamberpot. But, by accident, this man’s remit, even before Irish independence, did not extend to Dublin. Thus, Yeats and Lady Gregory decided to perform the play in their theatre. The British authorities in Dublin, housed in Dublin Castle, now took the place of the Catholic and patriotic rabble. They pointed out that the freedom from the Lord Chamberpot’s scrutiny was nothing more than “an accidental freedom,” and it should not be taken advantage of. Lady Gregory and Yeats attended several heated meetings with the British authorities while the play was in rehearsal. There was a threat that the theatre’s patent could be withdrawn or not renewed.
In a wonderful moment, they asked Lady Gregory if she could see no way out. “None, except our being left alone,” she replied drily.
Shaw was delighted. Like many artists, he loved a row. “Threaten that we shall be suppressed,” he wrote. “That we shall be made martyrs of; that we shall suffer as much and as publicly as possible. Tell them that they can depend on me to burn with a brighter blaze than all Foxe’s martyrs.” Dublin Castle continued to threaten the loss of the patent, closure, and a fine. In her memoirs, Lady Gregory wrote of walking downcast with Yeats “through the lamp-lighted streets” and then suddenly coming to the decision that they would confront the British and go ahead, or they “would never be trusted again.” The play opened to huge publicity on August 25, 1910. Yeats took full advantage of the occasion, insisting that, while there might be some truth in the idea that “we are not truthful to one another here in Ireland, we are certainly always true to ourselves.” And then he had a good go at the English: “In England,” he wrote, “they have learned from commerce to be truthful to one another, but they are great liars when alone.”
Patrick Pearse, who would lead the Easter, 1916, Rebellion in Dublin, was there on the opening night and, as with many others, he had forgotten the earlier problems with the theatre. One of the strange things about those who wish to censor and silence is that, when they give it up, what they have done seems to dissolve for them, not to have happened. Artists and writers arrested one year often come to be revered afterward, and, if they are lucky enough, soon afterward. Censorship often looks stable, but, under pressure, or over time, that stability can fade. Now Patrick Pearse could write in praise of Yeats and Lady Gregory for “making a fight for Irish freedom from an English censorship.”
Lady Gregory reported that when a stranger outside the theatre was asked what was happening, he replied, “They are defying the Lord Lieutenant.” The cheering in the theatre was taken up in the streets outside. Since Dublin Castle, in its defeat, remained silent, the only sour note came from James Joyce, home briefly from his exile in Trieste, who reported that “Dubliners care nothing for art but love an argument passionately,” and that, despite all the noise and praise, Shaw’s play was, in his opinion, not very good.
This battle with a weakening British establishment was simple. The forces at work were clear as they often are when a state apparatus sets out alone to censor. You wait for openings to come and then you take advantage of them. Or, helplessly, you watch things become more rigid and cruel. But you know the enemy, and the enemy is not solid or stable. Governments are by their nature uneasy and temporary. While forbidding, banning, repressing belong often to their mission as much as collecting taxes or building highways or having their photographs taken, their policies dart and move. And thus they are often open to pressure—which is what makes PEN’s mission so necessary and so important—just as they are often ready to pretend that they are not. Political power is a form of weakness; the word, in all its slippery ambiguity, is a form of strength.
The defeat over Shaw’s play in Dublin, in 1910, meant that the British administration would not last much more than another decade. They were already living in fear.
But, in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1916 in Dublin, Yeats and Lady Gregory faced the most dangerous censor of all, and the most difficult one to defeat or confront. That is the censor which lives within us all; that is the idea that we might or can or do censor ourselves.
Both Yeats and Lady Gregory were surprised by the 1916 Rebellion, even though they had known many of the leaders personally. At the beginning, Lady Gregory saw the inevitability of executions, but, slowly, between April and September, 1916, as public opinion in Ireland began to change, her mind changed, too, and she began to feel that there was something heroic about the leaders of the Rebellion who had been executed by firing squad by the British. Yeats, too, came to feel their heroism, and he wrote one of his most famous poems as an argument with himself about what had happened. The poem, written in September, 1916, is called “Easter 1916.”
Although the poem interrogates the use of violence, asking, “Was it needless death, after all,” for example, and includes the lines “Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of heart,” the poem’s refrain was what would be noticed and quoted most. It read, “All’s changed, changed utterly / A terrible beauty is born.” At the end of the poem, he listed some of the leaders as though they were heroes.
Lady Gregory’s only child, her son, Robert, was fighting for England in the First World War at the time, as were eleven of her nephews. Robert would die in the war in 1918, and four of her nephews and a grand-nephew would die. Added to her losses was that of her favorite nephew, the art dealer Hugh Lane, who was killed when the Lusitania was torpedoed, in 1915. Lane had left a codicil to his will that gifted his large collection of valuable paintings to Dublin, but the codicil was not properly signed, and the paintings thus legally belonged to the National Gallery in London. Lady Gregory wanted to convince the British government to operate according to the spirit of Lane’s will and hand the paintings over to Ireland. This involved slow and careful diplomacy and lobbying. She travelled to London over and over. Her argument would not be helped, she believed, by the publication of Yeats’s poem “Easter 1916,” since Yeats was so publicly associated with her.
Any writer who has ever worried about causing offense to family or friends, or to local community, or to a whole country should take instruction from the delay in publication of this important public poem. While Yeats read it a few times to friends, he created at first only a limited edition, warning the printer not to show the poem to anyone. Then a Dublin magazine published only the first sixteen lines; the full text of “Easter 1916” did not see the full light of day until four years after its composition, when it appeared in its entirely in the New Statesman, in London. Yeats did not publish it in his 1919 volume, “The Wild Swans at Coole,” but waited until 1921 to publish the poem in volume form.
These two figures who had stood so firmly against censorship had effectively censored themselves, but their action was also ineffective. The paintings they wanted for Dublin remained in London. Their timidity about the poem made no difference to the dispute, which would last for more than ninety years. The paintings were not to be shown in Dublin until 2008.
The last battle Yeats and Lady Gregory found for freedom of speech occurred in 1926, when Dublin was no longer a city of the Empire but the capital of the Irish Free State. 1926 was the tenth anniversary of the 1916 Rebellion. Those who fought and died were heroes, and so, too, were those rebels who had survived, some of whom were in government. And the widows and families of those who had given their lives for Ireland had a special, sacred place in the new Ireland, as did the memory of the patriot dead. A play about the Rising in the Abbey Theatre, the national theatre, would then, one imagines, be a solemn event, a fitting commemoration, a requiem for the brave, and an anthem for the new society.
Instead, the playwright Sean O’Casey wrote a play called “The Plough and the Stars” in which the ordinary people of Dublin, who used the Rebellion as an excuse for looting from stores, were the heroes. They were people who lived on their wits; patriotism did not mean anything to them. In the play, the Irish flag was taken into a pub in which there was a prostitute; the pieties and aims and antics of the patriots were mocked.
As the new state came into being, Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, and Lady Gregory offered to hand the Abbey Theatre over to the state, make it an official theatre, an offer that was wisely declined by the government. Instead, it was decided to offer the theatre a government subsidy, making it the first English-language theatre in the world to be publicly funded. The price of the subsidy was a new member of the board, an economist called George O’Brien, who would be the government’s semi-official representative on the board of the theatre.
Slowly, as this new play, “The Plough and the Stars,” was in rehearsal, the actors began to object to lines. Soon, the text was read by this new director, George O’Brien, who wrote to the other directors of “the possibility that the play might offend any section of public opinion so seriously as to provoke an attack on the theatre of a kind that would endanger the continuance of the subsidy.” He also listed individual words that he felt should be removed, as though he was the Lord Chamberpot.
In a statement that has relevance to any arts organization, including ones in the United States, that accepts a subsidy, whether private or public, or has a list of rich donors and depends on their support and goodwill, Lady Gregory was ready to bite the hand that fed her theatre. In words that might be usefully written up in every boardroom of every theatre in the world, she said, “If it’s a choice between our freedom and the subsidy, we will choose our freedom.”
While there were some small cuts, the play went ahead. And the subsidy remained, too. She won her freedom and kept the subsidy. And maybe there is a lesson in that, too.
Once more, however, there were riots in the theatre. One of the most formidable women in Dublin, Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington, whose husband had been summarily shot by the British during the 1916 Rebellion, whose father had been a Nationalist Member of Parliament, and whose sister had been used by James Joyce as the inspiration for Miss Ivors in “The Dead,” led the attack on the play. “In no country save Ireland,” she said, “could a state-subsidised theatre presume on popular patience to the extent of making a mockery and a byword of a revolutionary movement on which the present structure claims to stand.”
Despite the objection from her and from other widows of those who had fought in 1916, the play went on every night. Yeats was amused at the idea that, if he had to call the police, it would no longer be British police but the people’s own police.
“The Plough and the Stars” and “The Playboy of the Western World” remain part of the theatre’s repertoire to this day.
Thus, the battles were won, but the war itself for freedom of expression in Ireland was soon lost. In 1929, the Censorship of Publications Act became law in Ireland, allowing any citizen to complain to a government-appointed board about a book or a publication. Among the many writers whose books were banned between then and 1967 were John Steinbeck, Graham Greene, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Thomas Mann, and Evelyn Waugh. Most Irish writers, including Samuel Beckett, had books banned. In 1950, Robert Graves described Irish censorship laws as “the fiercest literary censorship this side of the Iron Curtain.”
In 1965, the young Irish novelist John McGahern had his second novel, “The Dark,” banned because it had some mild scenes where an adolescent masturbates. McGahern also lost his job as a teacher in a Catholic school. His treatment at the hands of the censors and the Church caused shame in the country, which was attempting to entice foreign capital and investment and wished more and more to be seen as a normal modern democracy by the rest of the world.
Ireland had not imprisoned its writers; it had instead made sure that they left the country, and many, including Beckett and McGahern and Edna O’Brien did. Ireland had imprisoned the books rather than the writers. But the country made it clear that no writer, or, indeed, any serious reader, could easily feel at home in Ireland—that the word was too dangerous.
I was twelve when the law changed and liberalized. Within a few years, you could buy most works of modern literature in any bookstore. John McGahern, who returned to live in Ireland, became a figure much loved and admired and honored for his work. Edna O’Brien became an icon. There is a bridge called after Samuel Beckett. What was strange was how normal this came to seem, how right, and how the draconian system in place, which had banned so many books, was hardly ever mentioned. It was studied by scholars of censorship rather than spoken of in the streets. But it was important to remember that, before the new freedom, there was repression, and that this, in turn, came from a sense of fragility in a new country, in a place that did not feel itself fully formed, a place that feared the outside world and remained suspicious of any image which was not familiar. It came also after a battle for freedom in the theatre that seemed to have been won, only to be lost when it came to books and magazines.
The censorship was introduced at a time of economic stagnation. Once money moved, and there was free trade between Ireland and England and the possibility of Ireland entering what was called the Common Market, it seemed that the books would have to come, too. And pressure from the outside world mattered. The country became deeply concerned about its image, and that concern became greater than the need to control what its citizens read. But, for all of us who lived through that change, a change I witnessed again in Spain, in 1975, when the dictator Franco died, it meant that we understood two things.
First, that the urge to riot in a theatre to stop actors being heard, the urge to ban books, the urge to threaten to cut subsidy are almost built into our nature, they lurk always in the shadows, especially in societies where there are divisions and pressures and fears or sudden and uneasy change, but maybe they lurk everywhere.
Second, the need to resist these urges, urges that can be both shadowy and substantial, both threatening and pressing, which weaken and poison the richness and potential of our lives, requires single-mindedness, vigilance, cunning, knowledge that the enemy is within as well as without, an absolute belief in the idea of the glittering mind and the power of the shifting and uncertain image, and a belief in the challenge of the word and the often awkward presence of the new. The doctrine that these things are fundamental to us, to our way of living in the world, to our humanity, means then that we must work, using examples from the past, toward the right for others, as well as ourselves, to be let alone to imagine, to write, to read, to share, and to be heard.