Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Tickets, Critics & Censorship: The Royal Court, the Spectator & the Arts Council of Great Britain 1969-70

Academic journal article Theatre Notebook

Tickets, Critics & Censorship: The Royal Court, the Spectator & the Arts Council of Great Britain 1969-70

Article excerpt

This article revisits a small, but immensely significant event in the history of the English Stage Company (ESC) at the Royal Court. It is a story that involves childish intransigence, monstrous egotism and low cunning matched against tacit diplomacy and a demonstration of English compromise at its most delightfully farcical. There is also a revelation that until now has been missing from existing accounts of the Royal Court; the incident also marks an important moment of transition, after which the relationship between the Arts Council and its funding clients changed irrevocably.

The episode in question concerns the English Stage Company's decision

in October 1969 to withdraw complimentary tickets from Hilary Spurling, theatre critic of the Spectator. This seemingly trivial dispute triggered off a series of events that both led to a partial embargo of the Royal Court by a number of newspapers over the question of press censorship, and saw the intervention of the Arts Council of Great Britain, which by 1969 had become the ESC's principal source of financial support. The feud was only finally resolved when the Arts Council, for the first time in its history, threatened to withdraw funding from a major subsidized theatre.

It is true to say that the Spurling affair has received detailed coverage in several of the major studies on the Royal Court. The most authoritative account to date is Philip Roberts' The Royal Court and the Modern Stage, which draws extensively on material now held in the Royal Court archive, as well as private papers and interviews with a number of key individuals involved. In contrast, this article approaches the incident from a perspective gained by consulting files held in the archives of the Arts Council of Great Britain, which charts in some detail its long relationship with the ESC. While a great deal of material has been duplicated in both archives, the Arts Council records contain significant new material that allows a revaluation of the affair.

In order to understand the ESC's outburst against the critics in 1969, one has to go back to 1966. From its very outset, the Royal Court's relationship with critics had always been uneasy. However, in 1966, celebrations for its tenth anniversary saw a bitter dress rehearsal for the storm to come. The production in question was Macbeth, directed by the Court's new artistic director William Gaskill, who had forged a radical reputation for himself the previous year with the notorious production of Edward Bond's play Saved. This radicalism now extended to Shakespeare with its casting of Alec Guinness, mainly known as a film actor, to play Macbeth and the French actress Simone Signoret as Lady Macbeth. The production also experimented with a neo-Brechtian approach to staging that incorporated minimal scenery and props but utilised maximum lighting on one of Shakespeare's darkest tragedies.

Macbeth, long held in theatrical superstition as a play of ill omen, was to be so for Gaskill and the ESC, where the production received a critical drubbing. Gaskill and Signoret (whose spoken English was ill-equipped for the rigours of Shakespeare's rhyme and blank verse) were picked out for special attention. Gaskill in particular had committed one of the most serious crimes in British theatre--that of pretentiousness. Milton Shulman of the Evening Standard was particularly damning in this regard, describing Gaskill's direction as "so perverse, so insensitive, so precious and so self-indulgent that it mangles into ludicrous strips one of our greatest plays" (Browne 77). If this was not bad enough, included amongst the poor reviews of Macbeth was a vituperative piece from Hilary Spurling, the 26-year-old theatre critic of the Spectator, who became what she called "the bad fairy at the feast" to mark the Royal Court's tenth anniversary. Entitled "Angry Middle Age", Spurling's article lambasted the institution for being "touchy, lugubrious, embattled, inflexible [and] middle aged in outlook if not in years. …

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