The other day I was watching a documentary about Arthur Miller, the American playwright. For various reasons, I already knew quite a bit about him. I’d done his thinly disguised autobiographical play After The Fall on three separate occasions. First I played Quentin, the Arthur Miller character in the play, who is struggling after his divorce with Maggie, then has to deal with her suicide – Maggie being a thinly veiled replica of Miller’s second wife Marilyn Monroe. Quentin goes on to re-examine his life as he determines whether to marry his latest love – Holga, who is uncannily like Miller’s third and final wife – Inge. After acting in the play I then went on to direct it twice. So I did know quite a bit about Miller, but nevertheless the HBO documentary, which was showing on Sky Atlantic, I found really interesting. It was simply called Arthur Miller: Writer and it was made over a period of 25 years by his filmmaker daughter Rebecca Miller. There was a lot of personal footage in there and very intimate moments featuring someone who was undoubtably one of the most brilliant playwrights of the modern era.
But a number of years before I’d ever heard of After The Fall, I played Grosvenor Thomas Danforth in a West Riding Youth Theatre production of Miller’s magnificent play The Crucible. Miller wrote The Crucible in 1953 and was ostensibly about the Salem Witch Trials that took place in 1692. Back in the 1960s when I first read the play prior to performing in it, I just assumed it was a play about mass hysteria. One girl admits to having a liaison with the devil and soon nearly all the other girls in the village are claiming the same thing. In reality Abigail, the main character in the play, creates this mass hysteria in this very Puritan town, so as to destroy her former employer John Proctor, who she’d had an affair with the previous year.
In itself a great plot and a great story. Then someone explained to me that it was an allegory for the McCarthy hearings in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The infamous House Un-American Activities Committee had been formed, with the idea of rooting out communists that were supposedly lurking within American society. For some people this change in attitude was difficult to understand, after all only a few years previously the Americans had been fighting alongside the Russians defeating fascism. Nevertheless, supposed communists were being accused and blacklisted. But the Committee reached the height of its notoriety when it began investigations into the Hollywood film industry. By this time Miller had struck up a close friendship and working relationship with director Elia Kazan, most notably Kazan had directed All My Sons and then the both critically and commercially acclaimed Death Of A Salesman. In 1952 Kazan was summoned to the HUAC and much to Miller’s shock and consternation, Kazan named eight members of what was known as Group Theatre. Zazan had been a member of the American Communist Party for just eighteen months sixteen years earlier during the Depression. Even though he was not named, Miller broke off his relationship with Kazan and refused to speak to him. Miller had been a supporter of communism, but had never actually joined the party. It was in this charged atmosphere that he wrote The Crucible.
In 1956 he was subpoenaed to appear before the HUAC. He was open and honest about his own political allegiances, but refused to name names. Miller was found to be in contempt of Congress and given a fine along with a prison sentence, he was also backlisted and his passport confiscated. In 1958 the sentence was overturned by the Court of Appeals, not because it was ridiculous, but because it was said the chairman of the HUAC had misled the defendant.
When I first looked into the McCarthy era I was shocked to discover that it didn’t really enter into a decline until the late 1950s, that would have been only six or seven years before I first read The Crucible. How could it be?
The McCarthy hearings are still to this day looked upon with shame and embarrassment. In 1999 Elia Kazan was awarded an honorary Oscar. At the ceremony a great number of the people refused to applaud and the event was picketed by 250 protestors. If you mention the McCarthy era to teenagers ‘? it’s hard for them to grasp that in a supposedly democratic country people could be blacklisted and marginalised because of their beliefs. If we were to blacklist people because they were Muslims or because they were Christians or because they were members of the Green Party, then the country, rightly so, would be up in arms.
So what happened in America in the 1950s? I believe it was simply the one thing – mass hysteria.
Cases of mass hysteria have been recorded throughout history. There are numerous examples but these are some of the more infamous:
- 1518 in Strasbourg there was the dancing plague and numerous people took to dancing for days.
- 1749 in Wurzburg in Bavaria, an outbreak of screaming, squirming, and trance like states in a nunnery ended when a nun was executed suspected of being a witch.
- 1894 in Montreal 60 students at a ladies’ seminary suffered an outbreak of fits and seizures, some lasted for as long as 2 months.
- 1938 nearer to home – the Halifax Slasher. Women and men claimed to have been attacked by a mysterious man wielding either a mallet, a knife or a razor. Scotland Yard were called in, vigilante groups beat up various innocent people, then over a week later one of the alleged victims admitted that he had inflicted the damage upon himself for attention. There followed other admissions and the Yard concluded that none of the attacks had been real.
- 1965 in Blackburn, Lancashire, several girls complained of dizziness. Within a couple of hours, 85 girls from the same school were rushed by ambulance to a nearby hospital after fainting. Eventually it was decided that the epidemic was just mass hysteria.
When I first started this blog I was given a gentle warning not to make it political. This isn’t political, it’s an observation. Over the last 5 to 10 years we’ve had a series of protests, all of which I’m sure are worthy of our attention and highlight problems that should be addressed, and that’s what we should be doing when we feel strongly about a situation, but what worries me is the growing mass hysteria that accompanies these protests. When people are demonized for having a different opinion, when people’s jobs are threatened because they have a different take on a situation and I’m sure everyone that’s on Facebook has seen the type of diatribes I’m talking about, then I fear for democracy and freedom of speech. Let me reiterate here that the major protests that we’re all aware of, I am personally not against, I’m all for them. I may not support all of them, but I support everyone’s right to demonstrate. I may not go on demonstrations; I’ve never been on a demonstration in my life. If I have anything to say, I’m quite happy to write it in a piece of drama to make my views clear. But I also know if you demonstrate or express an opinion, albeit with ten thousand others or by yourself, then the chances are you’re going to offend someone. Let’s face it, people will get offended. We all get offended at some point about something, but the beauty of living here, despite what anyone says, is you’re allowed to offend people. When Spitting Image was a weekly show in the UK I’m pretty certain most of those politicians it featured were offended. David Steele said it went further than that, because he was portrayed as the much smaller, fawning sidekick of David Owen, he blamed Spitting Image for the electorate not taking him seriously. When so-called fans scream insults at a footballer who has been training all week and, not for wanting of trying, misses a goal – do we really think he’s not hurt or offended. If I get a bad review for whatever, I will freely admit I’m hurt and offended. When you hear about certain actors refusing to read their reviews, it’s because they don’t want to be offended. The problem at the moment is that what might just have been an offensive statement, now materialises into blacklisting, job losses and prejudice.
I’m already bracing myself for the backlash I’m going to receive over this blog, because I know it’ll be perceived in a way that it’s not intended, something I’ve tried to make clear. I don’t want to single out any one protest, because that would immediately give focus to any attack. Whatever I’ve said, could be interpreted in the wrong way by someone, but now it’s not just an opinion that might be different to mine, it’s a declaration of war. There are various things I love about this country – free speech is just one of them. Two hundred years ago it would have been pistols at dawn. Think about it – recently what are the most often heard questions from it seems like everyone – “Can I say that?” and “Am I allowed to say that?” I am seriously worried where this is all going to end.
Up until 1968 there was something called the Lord Chamberlain’s Office. Since 1843 this office had been the official censor for all theatrical productions, not performed in ‘private clubs,’ basically that meant strip joints. This of course were all the commercial theatres and the West End, by far the vast majority of theatres in the UK. They were all subject to the censorship via the Lord Chamberlain’s office. But as early 1909 playwrights were opposing this censorship, one of these was J.M. Barrie that gave us Peter Pan. These weren’t crazed playwrights who wanted to leap from zero to Oh Calcutta! These were people who genuinely wanted the freedom to express themselves fully. Then in the 1930s some plays were not granted a license because … and wait for it … they were critical of the German Nazi regime. The Lord Chamberlain’s office had been instructed not to allow any plays to be performed that might alienate the German government. They even got the German Embassy to read plays to get their reaction. Well I think we all know how that ended – mass hysteria that allowed a programme of genocide to flourish and mad man to try and conquer the world through force. I think we can safely say they got that wrong.
Now the idea of plays being censored seems incredible and we have the notion that it only happens in countries such as China and Russia, but a far more subtle form of censorship is operating in the UK. An example being that after a recent reading of one of my pieces there were accusations of me resorting to female stereotypes and that various women were portrayed as weak. The piece also included what would be classed as a number of stereotypical males, but this was never mentioned. Nobody stopped to ask the reason for the portrayal of these in this fashion, there was a ‘contemporary’ knee jerk reaction and I know that should the piece go any further in its present form, this will become the focus for a number of people, but not to offer genuine criticism about the writing, but to accuse me of pursuing an anti-feminine agenda. This has nothing to do with whether the piece works or it doesn’t, this is about various people’s personal prejudices which are driving writers to be so wary about what they’ve written, that it acts as a form of censorship – and if the situation is allowed to continue, it will only get worse.
I’ve always considered my job is to push the boundaries in popularist drama. Which I suppose means I like a lot people watching what I’ve written or directed. Some people consider popularist drama as being low grade, that offends me and probably a lot of other people too, but it doesn’t stop me. Early days in EastEnders we came in for a lot of stick with regards to some of the storylines, cot death and date rape to name just a couple. In this modern climate, I’m not sure we’d be allowed to run those stories. The cot death would be too shocking would offend families that had suffered a loss in that way and the date rape story definitely couldn’t be told in the way it was told then. (I’ll explain why in another blog – that is if I’m not forced to quit writing because of this blog.) What we have is a situation where soap operas and dramas have a plethora of murderers and heightened incidents, because they can no longer present stories in a provocative and realistic way. They can’t put it out there for discussion, because there is no discussion. There’s the right way and it’s the only way.
Mass hysteria is generated out of fear or quite often in this day and age – boredom. When people are scared of saying something that might be interpreted by the masses as being offensive to them or against their beliefs, instead of it being the start of an interesting conversation, it becomes mass hysteria which in turn becomes dangerous. And we all know what happens then and it has nothing to do with democracy or freedom of speech.