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Walter O. Williams


Setting the World on Fire Merely to see it Burn?

The Censoring of George Bernard Shaw’s Testimony in the 1909 Parliamentary Hearings on Censorship


In July of 1909, at the insistence of numerous well-known writers, the British Parliament convened a Joint-Select Committee of the House of Lords and the House of Commons to examine the issue of the censorship of stage plays in Great Britain during that era. After Mrs. Warren’s Profession had been rejected in 1894, George Bernard Shaw began a lifelong campaign against the Censor. The 1909 Hearings became an important battleground in Shaw’s long war. In the printed minutes of the proceedings from 30 July 1909, Shaw asked that he be allowed to read a prepared written memorandum as evidence that he had published privately for the Hearings under the title, The Statement of the Evidence in Chief of George Bernard Shaw before the Joint-Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship and Theatre Licensing). Shaw was not allowed to read his prepared statement, nor would the Committee allow it to be printed as a part of the evidence presented before it. In this essay I argue that the suppression of this document by the Committee was something Shaw may have actually precipitated as part of a larger endgame culminating with the successful performance of The Shewing up of Blanco Posnet at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin that same summer. It is possible that Shaw was being purposely agonistic, in the Foucauldian sense, playing an endless and open strategic game with the Joint-Committee. In her article, “Augusta Gregory, Bernard Shaw, and the Shewing-Up of Dublin Castle,” Lucy McDiarmid suggests that the character structure in Blanco Posnet represents a model of a Foucauldian agonism, “a relationship which is at the same time reciprocal incitation and struggle, less of a face-to-face confrontation which paralyses both sides than a permanent provocation” (1994, 30).  She suggests that this kind of agonism not only fit the play but also Shaw’s production of it in Dublin in August of 1909 as a response to the rejection of the play by the Censor (30). I suggest in this essay that Shaw’s agonistic approach to Blanco Posnet is part of a much larger consciously confrontational game that incorporated the entire series of events leading up to the hearings, including the writing of the play itself,  and culminating with the Dublin production. And further, that this small battle was part of a much larger agonistic war that Shaw waged with the Censor throughout his career.