Michael Billington: The End of Theatre Censorship at The London Library

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Theatres Act 1968 Michael Billington chairs a panel of experts looking at the history of theatre censorship dating back to the Licensing Act 1737 and debating different types of censorship that exist in theatre today.

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There was no more sensational trial or public fall from grace in the Victorian era than that of the writer, playwright and cultural icon, Oscar Wilde. Secreted in the Library’s Victorian membership ledgers are the names of Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance; his publishers John Lane and Algernon Marshall Methuen; and his illustrator Aubrey Beardsley.  Constance appears in the Library’s membership records in 1894 giving her occupation or position as “Wife of Oscar Wilde Esq”.  Within a year of joining the Library her husband was serving a two year prison sentence with hard labour and the family home at Tite Street, along with all its contents, had been auctioned off.

Wilde’s iconic fin-de-siècle illustrator Aubrey Beardsley joined the Library in 1896 when he was twenty-three. His risqué illustrations for Wilde’s illustrated edition of Salome were commissioned when Beardsley was just twenty-one and caused a scandal on publication. Wilde dedicated Salome to “My Friend Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas” and the play was published by another London Library member, John Lane with his business partner Elkin Matthews. Beardsley’s art is stamped on the short-lived but influential avant-garde magazine The Yellow Book, which was also published by John Lane at the Bodley Head between 1894 and 1897. The Yellow Book became inaccurately but fatally associated with the scandal that surrounded Wilde when the press reported that he had a “yellow” book under his arm when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel in 1895. In a bid to distance Bodley Head from the furore John Lane swiftly ceased publication of the magazine, withdrew Wilde’s plays from publication and sacked Beardsley.

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It was another London Library member, Algernon Methuen Marshall Methuen, who first published part of De Profundis in 1905: it was a book which triggered the start of Wilde’s literary rehabilitation. A first edition was quickly acquired by the Library in February 1905. In the form of a letter to Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, it is a composition of some 55,000 words written during Wilde’s incarceration. It became, on first publication an instant best seller. 10,000 copies were sold within a few weeks and 14 editions followed over the next three years. In 1962 while he was Chair of the Library’s committee, the writer and publisher, Rupert Hart Davis published an authoritative edition of The Letters of Oscar Wilde which included, what is considered to be, the first true text of De Profundis.

Alongside a first English edition of De Profundis, the Library has a very rare German edition of the work which was published in Berlin in 1905 by S. Fischer.  Bound in vellum on handmade paper with gilt lettering on the spine, it is one of only twenty such copies made. What makes it noteworthy is not only the quality of its production but the speed at which the Library acquired it.  Published in Germany in 1905 it was available for loan from the Library’s shelves by July the following year – and there it has remained ever since.

Wilde’s vulnerability is present in an exceptional first edition in the Library’s collections of The Ballad of Reading Goal by C.3.3. Written after Wilde’s release from prison, it was published in London by Leonard Smithers in 1898.  It is lightly inscribed in ink manuscript on the front flyleaf by Wilde, at that point an exile in Paris.  It is addressed to his publisher Leonard Smithers “in gratitude and wonder”. Tipped in at the back of the book is a letter from Smithers explaining Wilde’s inscription.  Dated 27 January 1898 it reads:

‘This copy of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (No 1 of thirty copies on Japanese vellum) was given to me by the author.  The inscription “In gratitude and wonder” I presume means, in gratitude for my having produced his book; and wonder at my having done so, when other London publishers refused.’

After his release from prison Wilde wrote two letters to the editor of the Daily Chronicle about the need for prison reform.  The letters were reproduced in pamphlet form in 1898 by Murdoch and Co. and sold for a penny.  In Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life Wilde describes the dehumanizing effect of the prison system on all who came into contact with it.  He made a direct request for the case of prisoner A.2.11 (a young soldier whose inhumane treatment Wilde witnessed at first hand) to be looked into as a matter of urgency.  He also praised the kindness of a prison warder named Martin, whom he knew from his time in Reading, who had been sacked for acts of humanity–in particular for giving sweet biscuits to a tiny, hungry child.

As Wilde prepared to leave prison he wrote “I know that on the day of my release I shall be merely passing from one prison into another…Still I do see a sort of possible goal towards which, through art, I may progress … On the other side of the prison wall there are some poor black soot-besmirched trees which are just breaking out into buds of an almost shrill green. I know quite well what they are going through.  They are finding expression.”

We are joined by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri, who curated Penguin's collection of Italian short stories, and has translated a number of stories within it.

In conversation with Adam Thirlwell, she discusses Italian literature, the process of translation, her own award-winning novels and the experience of working across multiple languages and cultures. In partnership with the Italian Cultural Institute.