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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Joseph Conrad on Censorship

In 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote "The Censor of Plays." The full text appears below.

Conrad tried his hand as a playwright only once, producing a one-act play that the audience rejected. After he had finished the script he learned of the existence of the Censor of Plays, and this inspired the following satirical essay about the obscure civil servant who Conrad felt had no place in twentieth-century England.

Given the vulgarity and tasteless quality of many contemporary British (and American) plays, one wonders if Conrad might not be tempted to reconsider his assessment of censorship were he living today. (Of course, the question of censorship is as old as Plato (pro) and Aristotle (con), and we shall not resolve the matter here, but note that Conrad does hold Jules Lemaitre, the French drama critic and "censor of plays" in high regard.)

What follows is a delightful piece of writing that reveals Conrad's love of things English and his association of "mustiness" and "monstrous illusion" and with the Middle Ages and the Orient.

The Censor of Plays
By Joseph Conrad

A couple of years ago I was moved to write a one-act play - and I lived long enough to accomplish the task. We live and learn. When the play was finished I was informed that it had to be licensed for performance. Thus I learned of the existence of the Censor of Plays. I may say without vanity that I am intelligent enough to have been astonished by that piece of information: for facts must stand in some relation to time and space, and I was aware of being in England - in the twentieth-century England. The fact did not fit the date and the place. That was my first thought. It was, in short, an improper fact. I bet you to believe that I am writing in all seriousness and am weighing my words scrupulously.

Therefore I don't say inappropriate. I say improper - that is: something to be ashamed of. And at first this impression was confirmed by the obscurity in which the figure embodying this after all considerable fact had its being. The Censor of Plays! His name was not in the mouths of all men. Far from it. He seemed stealthy and remote. There was about that figure the scent of the far East, like the peculiar atmosphere of a Mandarin's back yard, and the mustiness of the Middle Ages, that epoch when mankind tried to stand still in a monstrous illusion of final certitude attained in morals, intellect and conscience.It was a disagreeable impression. But I reflected that probably teh censorship of plays was an inactive monstrosity; not exactly a survival, since it seemed obviously at variance with the genius of the people, but an heirloom of past ages, a bizarre and imported curiosity preserved because of that weakness one has for one's old possessions apart from any instrinsic value; one more object of exotic virtù, an Oriental potiche, a magot chinois conceived by a childish and extravagant imagination, but allowed to stand in stolid impotence in the twilight of the upper shelf.

Thus I quieted my uneasy mind. Its uneasiness had nothing to do with the fate of my one-act play. The play was duly produced, and an exceptionally intelligent audience stared it coldly off the boards. It ceased to exist. It was a fair and open execution. But having survived the freezing atmosphere of that auditorium I continued to exist, labouring under no sense of wrong. I was not pleased, but I was content. I was content to accept the verdict of a free and independent public, judging after its conscience the work of its free, independent and conscientious servant - the artist.

Read it all here.

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