Text Transcript for Session 7: Policing Performance
Performers and an audience—in a way, theatrical performance is a technology whose fundamentals have not changed since antiquity. This week we explore the history of theater censorship, using it as a contrast case to ask how information technologies have—or haven’t—affected a medium which seems so unchanging.
- Brice Stratford & the Droll Players (performing banned 17th century plays)
- Stephen Nicholson (UK theater censorship)
- Elsa Sjunneson-Henry (burlesque performance)
- Cory Doctorow (digital information policy)
- Plus series hosts Ada Palmer and Adrian Johns
[Ada Palmer] Welcome all to this session of Censorship and Information Control During the Information Revolutions. This week we are looking at censorship of theater, which might be counterintuitive to be a question for information revolutions. Since if you think about it in one sense, theater is information technology that has not changed since Euripides. You have a bunch of people in front of a bunch of other people doing a thing. But nonetheless, theater has been profoundly affected by the arrival of different technologies which have intersected with it in different ways. We will look at that and its censorship history today. I’ll ask my fellow guests to introduce themselves starting at the far end with Brice. If you’ll introduce yourself briefly.
[Brice Stratford] I’m Brice Stratford. I run the Owle Schreame theater company. We are specialists. The only performers actually of drolls, an illegal form of theater from the British Interregnum between 1642 and 1674 I think.
[Steve Nicholson] I’m Steve Nicholson from Sheffield University in the U.K. I teach in a theater section in a school of English and I’ve done a lot of researching into writing about theater censorship in Britain under Lord Chamberlain, who was in charge of it 230 years; particularly 20th century theater censorship.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m Cory Doctorow. I’m one of the hosts of this seminar. I write science fiction novels and I work for an international NGO called Electronic Frontier Foundation. I’m visiting computer science professor at the Open University and visiting library professor at University of North Carolina.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] My name is Elsa Sjunneson-Henry. I am a speculative fiction writer and editor. My academic background is in research on burlesque and obscenity law. I’ve done work with the Burlesque Hall of Fame, where I’ve conducted oral history interviews with women who performed burlesque in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. I have written a lot of scholarship on disability in media.
[Adrian Johns] I’m Adrian Johns. I’m one of the co-organizers with Ada and Cory. Which is to say that I follow along in Ada’s wake.
– Me too.
[Adrian Johns] I do the history of science. Early modern Britain and history of the book. I occasionally go to the theater.
[Ada Palmer] I’m Ada Palmer and I work on the history of censorship of radical thought and the movement of radical thought in pre-modernity, especially the Renaissance but also the Enlightenment. I also as frequently as I can make it happen, go to the theater. I thought we could plunge in today possibly with Stephen talking to us a little bit about his observations about the effect of the arrival of television on the way theater was censored before the rise of television and during the rise of television. That that might give us a good kick off to plunge into the various experiences we’ve had looking at multiple centuries of theater censorship.
[Steve Nicholson] Maybe I just start with something that an MP, Member of Parliament, said in 1900 in Britain, when he was calling for more strict censorship. He said, “Young people today form most of their ideas “from what they see in the theater.” Obviously that’s pre-television age, pre-radio age. “So apart from press, theater,” he said, “was were people got their ideas from.” That’s why he was very keen for censorship to actually get tougher than it was and why for example, they were banning plays like Oedipus because of the theme of incest in Oedipus. By 1968, which is when that system of censorship is abolished, nobody could possibly have said that young people or any people were getting most of their ideas from the theater. In a sense, although that was never given as the reason why theater censorship was no longer necessary in the same way, I think that’s absolutely the subtext. The Lord Chamberlain, who was in charge of censoring theaters, had absolutely no control of television or radio. Not everybody knew that. People sometimes wrote to him complaining about things that had been on radio and television. He became increasingly embarrassed by the fact that things were being presented, performed on television or on radio that he had banned from being in the theater. One example would be a play by Jean-Paul Sartre called Huis clos, No Exit, which he banned because of a lesbian character in it. They broadcast it on the radio. When he was asked why he wouldn’t allow it on stage, he said, “Well you can’t tell on the radio she’s a lesbian.” So really, his censorship was being completely undermined by the existence of television and radio. He was being made to look more and more ridiculous at what he was turning down. Is that okay for an answer?
[Ada Palmer] Anyone wanna chime in on things of that makes you think about or reminds you of in terms of theater moving from being a centerpiece of popular culture to serving a particular slice of popular consumption?
[Brice Stratford] It’s interesting the point which essentially theater stops mattering. As much as we all fight against that, if it’s true theater is not the proper form. It hasn’t been since before 1968, which of course why I took that on to change things. Always being one step behind. I think the specific thing about theater is that it’s a mob; it’s a group of people. It’s whipping up a frenzy, which is what makes it dangerous.
[Ada Palmer] The audience is by definition all in one place at a time.
[Brice Stratford] Oh yeah, exactly. People that say it’s a meeting. I think it’s interesting that part of the reason that theater is so much less dangerous and matters so much less is because people are far more self-contained now and far more self-absorbed. The way that people interact with art is far more individualistic and far less defined by the group. With the advent of technologies and just the increase in individual education, all of that has served I think to change things alongside entertainment technology.
[Ada Palmer] It would certainly be hard to point at any audience of a theater today and say that audience is a coherent community.
[Brice Stratford] Absolutely.
[Ada Palmer] That would form or see each other again in other contexts. Certainly if I imagine the theaters that we go to downtown or the people who are going to the Globe Theater in London, who are seeing plays whereas when they originally performed, you would go over and over and over. You would know the other people who went. It formed a kinda community which I think some kinds of theater still have.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] That’s actually what I was about to say. The burlesque community is actually quite well-connected. There are certain performances like The Pink Door in Seattle, Washington, where there are regulars who’ve been going to the Saturday Night Cabaret behind the Pink Door for at this point, 13 years. So you show up and you see the people who have been going for years. I show up; half of the performers know me because they’ve known me for 10 years. It’s like oh you’re back in town; it’s really nice to see you. So there is a communal aspect, but I think part of that is because burlesque and Cabaret, somewhat underground or community performed type of theater. You’re seeing people come together to create conventions around the education of burlesque performers. That’s a completely community-built convention called BurlyCon. It does have a community structure that I think we’ve lost in some ways in other forms because the audience and the participants do know each other and they communicate.
[Brice Stratford] Yeah, we do still get that. Obviously you do get that within fringe theater, which is in England, sort of the equivalent of off-Broadway. A lot of the same people know each other As a consequence, you kinda end up with the echo chamber thing. The stuff that’s been discussed and interrogated, it’s not changing anyone’s minds or opinions. One of the few examples I would say today of there still being some kind of community aspect to a mainstream theater which is not defined by a small subgroup is in Stratford-upon-Avon. Locals in Straford-upon-Avon really do care about the RSC and are proud of the RSC. They will go back again and again and again and they will see individual actors’ careers rise and fall. They’ll have their favorites. It’s the only place that I am familiar with. Birmingham Rep there was a similar thing in. That was more in the 80s I think. More recently it’s declined. The only one I’m aware of in Britain I think is the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon.
[Adrian Johns] The phenomenon that I’m speaking secondhand about this because I’m not an expert on this. As I understand it in the 18th and 19th centuries, with some of the bigger theaters in cities like Vienna or Paris, you have layers of audience. These are sometimes physical layers in the sense of the stools, then the balcony, then the second balcony, boxes and that kinda thing maps onto the architecture of the theater itself In certain forms of theater, especially it’s most notorious in opera, you have a form of almost censorship that’s exercised by the audience in the sense that they would form into claques. If it’s thought that a particular composer is to be disliked, then they will hiss the performers off the stage or boo and clap and all those kind of things. There are rival claques almost like gangs. They favor or disfavor particular singers, performers, tunes, this kind of thing. It’s a quite complicated phenomenon. I think there’s something that almost is like the residue of that that operates at La Scala still.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] It’s interesting that you bring up 19th Century audience culture because in the United States, we had what’s called the Astor Place Riots, which was a riot that was caused by Shakespeare performances. There was an actor and I’m forgetting their names, but if you look them up, they’re on Wikipedia even. But there was one actor who was preferred by the Nativist movement, people who wanted it to be American and they claimed Shakespeare for America. Then there was a British Shakespeare actor. What happened was that the American people decided to go and destroy the other performance. There was a riot and people actually died. A theater burned down. Shakespeare caused a riot in New York City in the 1800s.
[Steve Nicholson] Certainly in the 1940s and 50s in London there was something called The First Nighters Club, where a group of people would go along to the first night and they would literally howl it down and boo it if they didn’t like it. Thinking sometimes more recently here of it happening in opera. There have been a few examples recently of operas in Germany I think where an audience hasn’t liked an interpretation that the director was putting on it; perhaps particularly in terms of sex and explicitness. I don’t think it happens so directly in theater now, but it was certainly through the 1940s and 50s.
[Brice Stratford] In the 30s, there was Orson Welles and voodoo Macbeth, which caused a huge furor. I think the first mainstream African-American interpretation of theater in America. Mainstream obviously.
[Adrian Johns] One of the reasons I’m a little hesitant about bringing this up and talking about 19th Century opera and things is I feel that it’s become sort of a received mess to do with the Romantic composer. It becomes one of these things where every composer has has a moment when they have a disastrous performance and it fits with the Romantic idea of struggling and being heroically victorious in the end. That you have to rise above this moment when you are unjustly persecuted by the claque. So Berlioz has this with Benvenuto Cellini. In his memoirs, there’s a description where they put on Benvenuto Cellini and his story. It’s all a plot that this sort of rival conductor doesn’t like Berlioz, so he’s organized the claque in the opera house. He says something like they applauded the overture and the rest of it was randily hissed. Within a week it had closed and gone. It’s never become part of the repertory since then. It’s a little too neat as part of the story of the persecuted artist I think.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m interested from the historians in hearing about how the industrialization of parts of theater proceeded. I know with music that the advent of sheet music bifurcated musicians into composers writing industrial practice ’cause there was a printing press that made their product that could be sold on without them being present. Performers who were in that moment gradually believed by their composers to be just mere instruction followers. They wrote the recipe; the performers followed the recipe. This was largely innocuous until photograms came on and you had these performers, jumped-up instruction followers who started selling the composers’ compositions by performing them and recording them. You had John Phillip Sousa going to Congress and saying, “If the infernal talking machines are allowed to continue, “we will lose our voice boxes as we lost our tails “when we came down out of the trees.” It created this huge split. Today it’s still a bit weird when you think about the idea that we have these exclusive rights that are considered… The received wisdom is that the exclusive right to control the creative use of your work as just kind of a naturally arising right. Yet, no one would say that you shouldn’t be allowed to perform a cover. In fact, what we do is just have these collecting societies that convert the moral right to decide who can perform your work into an economic right. I know it’s a little different with stage. Obviously you have to explicitly license to perform, but is there a moment where playwrights and players split because of their industrial relations?
[Ada Palmer] With the publication of plays. We talked about this a little bit yesterday and that I was tryin’ to think on it. But because non-performed plays in the Middle Ages, plays inherited from antiquity: Terence, Plautus are read without any staging as high literature throughout this manuscript period in the Middle Ages. Then when you moved into the Renaissance and you’re getting Renaissance theater, a lot of that is born out of revival performances of Plautus that people interested in the classics are putting on. Commedia dell’ Arte then springs up largely in response to that, saying actually that had some funny bits which were great. Let’s do the funny bits without the long, tedious Latin speeches part of Terence. Then you’ll have the rival tradition in the Middle Ages of non-textual theater performances. Mummers plays and song where there isn’t a written version. But it means there is this long tradition of a written version of plays circulating, being reproduced, and spread around having nothing to do with performance in a way that music can’t.
[Cory Doctorow] With a known author? With like a living author?
[Ada Palmer] Yes.
[Brice Stratford] I’m not sure that playwrights and performers were ever fundamentally twained by necessity in quite the same way a composer has to be able to play their instrument. A writer doesn’t have to be an actor though some of the best were, Shakespeare and Johnson. It was never a prerequisite. Often there’d be quite a divergence between maybe the academically-inclined writers who’ll be distanced from the performances sometimes and the performers themselves.
[Cory Doctorow] Certainly I think when performers become industrialized themselves, when they start being recorded and performances are spread over the screen, writers stock falls pretty precipitously. The joke, you know, so stupid, they had sex with the writer really emerges from that moment as the writer’s star falls and the performer’s star rises. Only a minority of actors without recorded performance can become trade names.
[Brice Stratford] Yes, it has to be the recorded moment because prior to that the only actors…only a minority of actors when…without a recorded performance can become a big name.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah, without industrial distribution schemes, the fame of a creator is limited to the number of people who can physically be co-present with them or view a manually produced instance of their work.
[Brice Stratford] In everyday populist forms today, generally speaking, writers are of far lower stock than performers. It’s a standard thing in soap operas and so on that the actors claim to write their own lines and the powerless hack writers can’t do anything about it.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think also when it comes to burlesque, much of burlesque has actually been benefited by the fact that you could get your hands on things because it’s often a reaction to something that’s been written before. Many times a burlesque will be a parody of something. That’s kind of what it means. So somebody will say, take a play that’s been done by somebody else. Add sexy times to it then put it on stage to titillate the audience. That’s how you make a burlesque more interesting to your audience. The first burlesque in the United States was called Ixion, which is a Greek play. The reason why they put it on was because it was an all female production, which is why it was a burlesque; because they were flipping it and creating this sexualized version. I think in many ways the industrialization actually helped burlesque become an art form because we had more access to things.
[Steve Nicholson] Once the system of censorship in Britain was introduced in 1737, one of the requirements was that you had to submit a complete script. Originally 14 days before the performance. Then it became seven days. The actors were not, at least in theory, allowed to modify that text at all. So no improvisation was permissible on stage. As a point, in 1950s, where quite an enterprising director wants to stage some Commedia dell’arte, the traditional Italian comedy that depended largely on improvisation. The Lord Chamberlain is actually quite sympathetic but says there is nothing I can do. I can’t allow this because the law requires that you submit the complete script. You don’t change anything in it. Now whether that always happened, I’m very doubtful. I know of examples where actors certainly did change lines and there was no effected policing system to make sure that they never did. Even if a line had been cut, the actor could always say, oh I didn’t mean to say it, sorry. I’d learnt it, I didn’t managed to cut it. So it was things like that where you could get around it a bit.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] It’s interesting because the Lord Chamberlain also did police burlesque theaters in London. The Windmill did get visits by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. If you moved a single inch because you stand still and be naked but you couldn’t move. If you moved an inch then you got into trouble.
[Brice Stratford] There’s the famous case of the rat appearing on stage and the nude jumping off and screaming and the whole theater getting shut down because she’s moved.
[Steve Nicholson] Some of the Lord Chamberlain’s staff were regular attenders at the Windmill. Generally thought that the Windmill was tipped off when they were coming and they made sure that certain things didn’t happen. I have to say, I have never seen so many photographs of nude women as I’ve seen in the Lord Chamberlain’s files because he had to approve every single pose and he used to sign his name across the thighs usually of the women in the photograph.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] There’s literal circles on these pictures sometimes like this is not acceptable.
[Steve Nicholson] It was a known device that they sometimes wore costumes that would slip off them. They could apologize and say oh that wasn’t supposed to happen but it was all planned.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Deliberate slips of costume have been used in the burlesque community for generations of performers as a reason to not get arrested. Your merkin might slip or your bra strap might fall off just so or maybe that bra hinge just doesn’t work today.
[Brice Stratford] It’s also important to remember that actors don’t do what they’re supposed to do a lot of the time regardless of whether it’s planned or the producer has any control over it or intention. A lot of times, if the actor’s gonna get a laugh, they’ll do it no matter how many times they’re told not to. And that’s always been the case.
[Adrian Johns] One should say that in the history of the printed version of plays, there’s a very standard, well-known thing about the period sort of Shakespeare, Johnson, through the mid 17th century, where the first versions of Shakespeare plays were often quite different from what we–
[Brice Stratford] Oh yeah.
[Adrian Johns] To be or not to be, I there’s the point. First version of Hamlet. At least a century of academic agonizing about what these weird versions of Shakespeare plays are. Are they something like, as it were, pirated versions which somebody went and wrote them down in shorthand? Are they prompters scripts? Are they the actual scripts that people used? This is actually what people said. There are various technical arguments going back and forth but this is to get back to something Cory was asking about. There’s a standard story that you start getting as it were definitive stage printed playtexts with Ben Johnson and Shakespeare in the 1620s. It’s the first Shakespeare folio as a Ben Johnson works, which is actually an interesting term for it. He’s thought to be the first person who announces that he has such a thing as works. After that, that sort of sets a quantum change. After that you can have a sort of neo classical as it were representation of a modern playwright as an author of texts that are properly printed, laid out in certain ways with organized entries and exits and stage directions and things like that.
[Brice Stratford] It is worth bearing in mind as well with that certainly where the Johnson folio was concerned. While they were based on the playtexts, those were not written or published to be performed. Those were published to be read and were edited heavily by Johnson specifically for a reader in mind rather than an audience. The degree to which that’s true, the Shakespeare folio, is up for debate. But the history of chamber drama is its own thing. The very notion of an authorial version in theater, certainly throughout the Renaissance and earlier is something that’s quite unlike the safe play today. The idea of this is what this play is; this is Hamlet. There’s multiple Hamlets and there would only have been more Hamlets. The notion of what Hamlet is was so much more than just what this script is. The script is the script. The production is something else entirely. It’s a collaboration between the actors and the script and whoever else is involved in whichever thing, which makes it so much harder to police and to control. You can control this playtext, but that is only one ingredient in the production itself. In the Renaissance, suddenly it’s not the defining ingredient.
[Ada Palmer] So much of the theater that’s happening in the Renaissance is strongly influenced by things like Commedia. The script for a Commedia play, if there is a script, is three pages at the very most. A whole scene will be Pantalone enters with a bush on his head. Arlecchino enters disguised as a doctor and convinces him that he has the plague. That’s all you get.
[Brice Stratford] You can still find them, short sketches which are only descrying. The whole thing essentially is just stage direction. It’s just a description of the action of the business. The lines themselves are just whatever comes into everyone’s heads while it’s being performed.
[Ada Palmer] Is there a good example of that from the droll you did for us yesterday, which is one of the barber?
[Brice Stratford] Take your pick.
[Ada Palmer] We have the acting troupe with us. I was wondering whether you could do the same exact bit twice and we can see how totally not the same as itself it it. See what I mean, if you can pick one. Can brainstorm on it for a minute.
[Brice Stratford] Have a think, guys.
[Ada Palmer] Yeah.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] What’s interesting too is that burlesque scripts are the same. You don’t have stage directions for how a burlesque production goes off. It’s more like these are the things that are going to happen and this is where our roadmap. Go have fun.
[Adrian Johns] Some of the…has had something like that form as well, so they’ll be censorship rules like you can’t show a member of the royal family on the stage; that kind of thing. It doesn’t matter what they say. I don’t know why I’ve got opera on the brain. This is why allegedly in Boris Godunov, you have the Czar on the stage a lot. But in, which isthing about the Czar, there is no Czar on the stage at any point. It’s because the Czar, who historically would have been the Czar at the time ofwas the ancestor of the current Czar. You weren’t allowed to show him on the stage. But you can show Boris Godunov ’cause there’s a break in the dynasty.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m interested in the penalties that were available to the Lord Chamberlain to punish bad performances or noncompliant performances. First of all, what were they? Second of all, who were they visited upon? Was it the director? Was it the theater proprietor? Was it the individual player?
[Steve Nicholson] It changes at different times. Basically he had the power ’cause he was also the licenser of the theater, so he could take away that theater’s license to perform anything at all. There are also examples. It’s not usually the writer actually. It’s the theater manager or the actor normally. There are examples of actors being taken to court and fined and theater managers. Can’t think of any. The Lord Chamberlain had never dealt with a playwright. It was though the playwright didn’t exist. It’s all between the manager and Lord Chamberlain. Then the manager can go to the playwright and say are you happy to change this line? Then it’s up to the playwright. But in a sense, it’s not the playwright’s responsibility what they perform.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think there’s also fines were used. I know the Windmill got fined multiple times.
[Steve Nicholson] Yes.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] So there was also the financial issue of we’re a theater. We don’t actually make that much money.
[Cory Doctorow] I’m just wondering if an actor decides to become noncompliant and say a bunch of things they know they’re not meant to say, is the worse thing that happens to them that they may not work in that town again because the Lord Chamberlain will visit such horrible penalties on a theater owner that the theater owner will never… No theater owner will ever let that player be on their stage again because it would be reckless.
[Steve Nicholson] I think that’s right. I think it is the theater owner’s responsibility, a theater manager’s responsibility.
[Cory Doctorow] Was there ever a sense that the Lord Chamberlain would be more lenient with the things you wanted to perform based on who you were, your relationship with him, or whether you’re known to be a good actor or bad actor? Not in the sense of a player, but actor in the sense of an actor in society.
[Steve Nicholson] Yes, I think it’s very complicated ’cause there are several strands that happen. One is that he expects theater managers and actors to be decent and play the game. He would invite them in for a glass of sherry to St. James Palace where he was based and they would negotiate on the greetings. If you went along with that and played the game, he would then trust you. Whereas if you took, as particularly playwrights started to do in the 1950s and 60s, take an aggressive and abusive stand towards the Lord Chamberlain and say I’m not gonna take any notice and what you do. You would have a reputation with him. He would be far more censorious. One thing Lord Chamberlains like to avoid was bad publicity; therefore he didn’t really want to get into a clash with a very famous, well-known actor, with a Laurence Olivier or whatever because the press would make the Lord Chamberlain look foolish. So he’s hedged in by things like that. Whereas actors he never heard of or writers he never heard of, he wouldn’t have that.
[Brice Stratford] That from the actor’s perspective makes it a more complex thing. If you go off book and it’s gonna be really good and successful, then it may well end up being worth your while to break the rules because it’ll give you more and more cash aid. It’ll make you more popular. It’ll boost your career enough that you’re strong enough to withstand any kind of attacks or penalties from Lord Chamberlain.
[Cory Doctorow] There are really interesting parallels between this and motion pictures voluntary theatrical cinematic ratings: the PG, PG-13, G, NC-17. There’s a really good documentary about this called This Film is Not Yet Rated by Kirby Dick. The MPA formed this voluntary censorship board on the grounds that if they did so, then they could avoid any sense that they might be later censored. Very much like thecode or the Hayes code. Really it’s a success with the Hayes code. They vowed at the time that they would have a secretly empaneled, ever changing group of young parents of young children who would be in no way affiliated with the studios that owned the MPAA, who would gather to rate the movies and to provide impartial feedback to the filmmakers. It was widely believed among independent filmmakers that if you worked with the MPA, you got judged more harshly. Particularly if you got an NC-17 rating, none of the theatrical exhibitors would exhibit your film because if you couldn’t bring kids in and even 16 year olds, then you couldn’t put enough bums on seats to make it worthwhile. So you’re much more likely to get an NC-17 if you’re an indie film than if you were the MPAA. To evaluate this, Kirby Dick hired a pair of private detectives to figure out who the MPA’s ratings board were. One of his thesis from having talked to a bunch of independent filmmakers was that you were much more likely to get a more strict rating if you had sex than if you had violence. The thing that would give you the most strict rating of all was to have gay sex; any kind of gay romance. So he hired these two middle aged lesbian private detectives to follow around the MPA until they figured out who their censorship board were, who turned out to all be middle aged studio executives’ spouses who had been giving much more detailed feedback to the studios like if you cut this frame and that scene and this bit, then we’ll take you from N-C17 down to R. Whereas if you were an independent studio, it would be like playing Battleship. They would just say it’s an NC-17. You would cut a bunch of stuff and send it back to them and they would go nope, it’s still NC-17. You just have to keep cutting until you got that R back. The best part of this movie is when submits a print of the film in which he reveals the identity of the ratings board to the ratings board and it’s fantastic. The former California Congressman who’d become the CEO of the MPA at that point, calls him up. He’s in a one state recording legal state, so he records the phone call. It features in the film where he’s talking to the CEO of the MPA. This former very powerful Congressman about the fact that he’s out their entire ratings board. It’s very very good but it reminds me a little of this. This idea that when you have a censor who can make arbitrary decisions, that they can kind of channel you into your lane.
[Steve Nicholson] Yes, one of the things that the Lord Chamberlain always took note of. Once he had given a license to one theater for a particular play, any other theater could do it. One of the plays that’s often seen as having brought the censorship down in the 1960s was a play by Edward Bond called Saved, which is still a very shocking play. It has a scene in which a bunch of youths stone a baby to death in a pram in a park and then set fire to it ’cause basically they’ve got nothing better to do. The theater that wants to do it is the Royal Court Theater which is a very famous, well-established theater. But the Lord Chamberlain actually says, I can’t quote him exactly but something like the Royal Court audience will be alright watching this but if another group of people get hold of this play, perform it to gangs of young men who might be inspired to go out and do the same sort of act, then that’s a reason we mustn’t license it.
[Ada Palmer] The youth copycat concern again.
[Steve Nicholson] Yes, absolutely.
[Ada Palmer] Saying that we see with the extra censorship of depictions of teen suicide, this idea of youth copycatting as being one of the still-palatable justifications for censorship.
[Brice Stratford] That’s consistently used. The Puritan Warren Theater in all the tracks, that comes again and again and again. This idea that apprentices are shirking work and going to watch these plays and then mimicking them on the street. There’s even a line in the droll, I’ll use the words of the apprentices, “a suburb bought on a Shrove Tuesday.” The place of theater was literally and metaphorically, the same as that of prostitution and public execution and bear baiting. They were considered essentially the same thing and inhabited the same place in society and were considered equally dangerous and undesirable. Although it’s interesting that executions were so much more common then.
[Cory Doctorow] The third Borribles novels of Michael de Larrabeiti travel writer who got fed up with a very cheaply British children’s television show called the Wombles of Wimbledon Common. He told his kids a bedtime story where the Wombles of Wimbledon Common were these giant rat-like creatures who were hunted by children who killed them called the Borribles. Really good adventure reads but the third one had the misfortune to be scheduled for publication by Harper Collins just after the Brixton uprising. Harper Collins canceled the publication of the third book because they said we can’t… In a moment in which young people are on the streets throwing stones at policeman, we can’t publish a book in which immortal children with pointy ears take their catapults into the street and kill giant It wasn’t published for another decade.
[Steve Nicholson] One of the things that the Lord Chamberlain wanted to do in the 1950s and 60s was to take from film the system of different ratings so that you could restrict ages because that never existed in theater. He wanted to introduce a system because again he said, and far be it for me to defend the Lord Chamberlain, but I can see his point that any play he licensed, any kid go in and see so he has to keep that in.
[Brice Stratford] It’s also worth noting that at least one of the stated purposes of a Lord Chamberlain, so far as the Lord Chamberlain was concerned, was to stop the spread of fake news. It was to stop giving one-sided non representative version of events, which could then cause a riot, an uprising et cetera.
[Ada Palmer] And that has intersected with two things I’ve been thinking about through this discussion. One, the degree to which unlike books or images, theater is very much pulling on the same challenges to government that freedom of assembly. It’s a freedom of assembly question in addition to being a freedom of speech question, because you have to have a group of people coming together in one place. So it has all of the narrative potential dynamism of a novel, but all of the social action dynamism of a protest for example; or any kind of march or parade that is bringing a large number of people into one place, which is something that other literary forms don’t generate and so don’t grapple with, in terms of the anxieties of the State.
[Brice Stratford] Absolutely and you see that again and again. The ideas that someone might come across in a book on their own sitting at home or in a library, will not affect them in the same way as if they are in a group of people all getting the same ideas together from someone physically talking to them.
[Ada Palmer] That the community aspect is harder on the anxiety.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] What I think is kind of interesting is that we’re talking about in England, the Lord Chamberlain existed to police theater which we didn’t have in the United States. So the burlesque movement in the United States was being policed not by a theatrical board, but by the police and by specifically what we call community standards. Community standards comes up a lot in the legal definitions of obscenity. But what it typically comes from is somebody objecting to something they saw in the theater. They scurry off and tell somebody else and it gets back to somebody in power. Whether it’s Fiorello La Guardia, who’s the Mayor of New York, who decided to crack down on the burlesque theaters of New York City or if it’s the police commissioner who’s decided that they don’t want this in their town any more. You see it over and over again. Up until now, there was recently a crackdown on burlesque in Jersey State because they were posing photos of their shows on Facebook. The local community, not the local community of actual people who live in Jersey City, but the people in local government said we don’t want this in our zoning laws so we’re going to change the way that you’re allowed to do theater in this neighborhood.
[Steve Nicholson] In Britain, it’s important to say that most theater managers were in favor of the system of censorship by the Lord Chamberlain just for that reason. Because it gave them protection. They got a license and if local people, particularly applied to touring shows, but not only to touring shows. If people started to complain and say oh we don’t think you should be allowed to do that. Some local organization, some local society, individual. The theater manager could say, look, it’s approved by the Lord Chamberlain, who is a servant in the Royal Household. So effectively, it’s been approved by the Monarch.
[Ada Palmer] This affects all sorts of performance, including music. I remember a friend of mine describing waking up one morning in her Manhattan apartment and hearing a bagpipe in the distance and walking toward it enjoying the music and then eventually getting within line of sight of the player who was in a park; who upon seeing a human approaching, immediately stopped playing and picked up a piece of paper and waved it, “I have a license, I have a license”. Because so often people tried to shut down a bagpipe player outside. But by having that licensing system, you have a protection at the same time that you have the censorship.
[Steve Nicholson] Technically, you didn’t. You could still be prosecuted but the effect was everybody thought it was as if you had protection. So for most of the 20th century, it was playwrights who were against the Lord Chamberlain and the censorship. Theater managers, until the 1960s, were in favor of it.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I will say that the United States did have licensing. New York, for example, had the cabaret license, which required that you have a liquor license but you also had to have a cabaret license. In New York, what that meant was if you didn’t have a cabaret license, you couldn’t have dancing at all until 2012. So if you were dancing in a club that didn’t have a cabaret license in New York City, you were technically breaking the law until 2012.
[Cory Doctorow] I beg your pardon, you go ahead.
[Brice Stratford] I was just going to say, I think it’s worth bearing in mind with the British situation with Lord Chamberlain concern, as you say, his power comes from the Monarch and that’s in contrast to the government. Perhaps not necessarily in practice, but in principle. Those are two different things. So this idea of pluralized censorship and different ways of accessing in different ways around it, that becomes very relevant here.
[Cory Doctorow] It’s interesting what happened to community standards as the Internet came up. The Internet origin story is in military research, DARPA, Rand Corporation. It was run by research institutions. Public universities, government agencies and the people who administered it had a kind of sense of patrician duty to it and also a sense that if there was anything like pornography on it, that some day, some Congressman would get up in DC on the floor and say why is the government funding smut? And so that’s why the early days of the Internet, all the discussions were… The subjects of the discussions were always moderated. If you wanted to create a new discussion group on Usenet, the administrators of the Usenet nodes in the world needed to vote on whether or not your discussion group could be formed and sex was off limits. This ended when the first commercial dial up ISP was started by John Gilmore, who I’ve mentioned here before, who started the little garden and created a Usenet node where anyone could connect to it. He created a hierarchy called Alt that very quickly became larger than all of the rest of the Internet and included pornography. At the time that the Internet started to become demilitarized and governmentalized and privatized, Al Gore held hearing in 1995, called the National Information Infrastructure Hearings or the Information super Highway Hearings they were also called. One of the questions they considered is how community standards could possibly apply because you might be making something that wasn’t smut in Manhattan, but it might be smut in Tennessee. And so the question of whose community standards applied and what would happen if someone reached across and caught you? We’d previously resolved these conundrums with things like not letting you mail obscene things through the mail. But if we said you couldn’t move an obscene thing over the Internet and obscene was the thing that the least tolerant person in America found to be obscene, then the Internet couldn’t carry anything. The answer was the Communications Decency Act, the CDA, which basically banned sex on the Internet. Hosting companies would be held liable for allowing material that was inappropriate for children to be viewed over the Internet. There was a lawsuit over this brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Electronic Frontier Foundation. That part of the CDA was struck down and the part that remains is one the one hand, a safe harbor where service providers are not liable for obscenity by their users or for other bad speech acts by their users. When you hear company’s like Twitter say CDA280 means I don’t have to police Nazis. That’s the same rule. And also that recipients of Federal funding had to censor their Internet connections to keep child inappropriate material off the network. Which is why public libraries, public schools all have these filters. In the U.K. this system was paralleled in broad strokes, but it’s about to end. In the last Parliament, there was a rule passed, the Age Verification Rule that’s being administered by the BBFC, which also regulates films, which says that if you’re an in Internet service provider, you have an obligation to only allow through pornography websites that perform an age verification step with the person whose looking at the porn. So you have to collect multiple non-contradictory pieces of personal identifying information and keep them on file. Effectively creating databases of the porn-viewing habits of 20 million British adults. Which, given that a lot of this is going to be based on credit card data, will also be sortable by net worth and blackmailability, which is potentially really catastrophic. The BBFC has produced some very mild guidelines about the privacy safeguards that should be accompanied with this rule. But they are voluntary guidelines and not mandatory. There is currently a petition circulating to make the BBFC’s very minimal privacy guidelines mandatory for everyone who collects and retains indefinitely the pornography-viewing habits of every adult in Britain.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I will also follow up on that with the fact that places like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook will regularly take down burlesque performers’ promotional photos. They will regularly say this is obscene material or this is pornography and remove it from their profiles, which means it’s virtually impossible for burlesque performers to promote on any of these platforms because ultimately they will get shut down. But they still aren’t shutting down Nazis. I have questions.
[Cory Doctorow] But they’re not doing it because they’re legally obliged to.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Right, exactly.
[Cory Doctorow] They’re doing it because they think that’s sound business.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Exactly. They think it’s sound business to protect children and families, but they don’t think it’s sound business the other way around because societally, we have problems with sexuality.
[Brice Stratford] I think it’s ironic as well that generally speaking, more often than not the consequence of that controlled pornography is simply to push people towards VPNs and towards the dark web and to places where even what they’re looking for is totally innocuous, they’re going to be having to sort through lots of incredibly extreme pornography to get there. The consequences exposes people to far darker stuff, far worse stuff.
[Cory Doctorow] In Australia, where there’s been a series of tightening ratchets on copyright infringement, the statement has always been we’re not gonna ban VPNs. Australians are very wedded to their VPNs because so much content is windowed for release in Australia last in the Anglosphere and so Australians who wanna watch Doctor Who or whatever need to use a VPN to get outside of Australia to see the same episode of Doctor Who all their friends on the internet are talking about. It’s ever been thus. So first they had a rule that said people who represented studios, primarily Village Roadshow and Fox, could send a letter to an ISP and demand that a website be blocked after getting a court order showing evidence that that website was primarily used for infringement or primarily intended for infringement. The next round of it that’s going through now is that if the website is primarily used for infringement. So it doesn’t have to be intended for infringement. It can just be like a locker or any of these other services used for infringement; they can get a block. They can also demand that search engines block results that point to things that are blocked in Australia, which will make it harder for Australians to know what is blocked. They still say well we’re not going after VPNs; we’re just going after this stuff because the last round, which we swore would work, didn’t work. But this round we swear will work and we definitely won’t have to come for VPNs. But of course VPNs defeat all of this stuff. The next phase will be now thy we’ve acknowledged the validity and usefulness of blocking infringing material in Australia and now that we’ve gone through all all these rounds to try and do it, I guess that the only step remaining is to take the VPNs.
[Ada Palmer] The question of this kinda stuff pointing people at the dark web for me immediately makes me think of the droll plays as well because what have you done? You’ve shut down the legitimate theater and said there can’t be any legitimate theater so there can only be illicit theater. So what kind of theater does that generate? It generates theater which is a much higher ratio of crude, crass, and sexualized and removes the impetus for there to be other forms of theater.
[Brice Stratford] We’ve been talkin’ about this a lot, the likelihood that women would have performed in droll plays. Because even though women weren’t legally allowed to perform on the stage until the Restoration, nobody was hardly and performing on the stage throughout the So why wouldn’t you? It would be naive to think that what would end up being a huge draw, especially for a society which is used to seeing only men on stage. Suddenly if you go to the back room of this pub, you can see a bunch of women singing, dancing, and acting. Why wouldn’t you? There’s nothing to lose at this stage. That’s so far as were concerned a positive thing. But there’s far worse aspects to it in terms of dark and racist subject matter. Things which perhaps it isn’t a good thing which people are accessing through theater.
[Cory Doctorow] I like the way you describe the performer who would do the body plays as the ones who were not so good that they could go abroad and not so skilled that they could get another job and so–
[Brice Stratford] Well yes, this is an important thing to remember as well. The actors who were doing this, the really good actors who have some kind of social standing, they’ve got too much to lose. Most of them can simply go abroad and keep acting where it’s still legal or they don’t really need to keep acting. So it’s not those guys and it’s not the stable ones who could move into other careers. Anyone who’s sort of ready to be a well-adjusted adult can simply do something which isn’t acting. The people who are doing these drolls, they’re not doing it because they love theater. They’re doing it because they’re such reprobates they can’t hold down any other job. It’s a matter of last resort and they’re not clever or good. They’re just dangerous, mad, stupid drunks, like these guys.
[Cory Doctorow] Have you guys worked out what you’re gonna perform?
[Brice Stratford] I don’t think they want to perform. I do think they might in this context, I think it might be a bit like dissecting a frog to see how it moves.
[Ada Palmer] Talk about it during the intermission. You’ve brought up and I think it’s worth making a little more explicit. So there aren’t women on the stage before this period that the theater is bad. Then suddenly–
[Brice Stratford] Legally. There are a couple of examples that we know of.
[Ada Palmer] Fundamentally the law makes it harder. Then there’s a lot more after quite suddenly.
[Brice Stratford] It’s a viable carer option for anybody who wants to go there.
[Ada Palmer] So this strange connective tissuemoment of the illicit theater seems to also be instrumental in that shift.
[Brice Stratford] You can compare this to the first World War’s influence on womens’ right to vote of course. It’s this sort of soft experiment in a society where women are able to work just as much as any man can before it becomes established as peace time law.
[Adrian Johns] There are things that also that I wonder whether there are connections. This just occurs to me. So in the 40s and 50s when everything breaks down and there’s no ecclesiastical licensing. There are no bishops, there’s nolicensing for a while. It becomes a scandalous case that there are women preaching. There’s a particular pub actually called the Nags Head. Now it would be on Cullman Street, which is up nearsomewhere. In the Nags Head, I forget her name but she runs a kind of discussion shop for how you will reform everything in the state, in the church, and in society. Repeatedly she is reported to the government from about 1641 right through the 50s. I can’t remember when it stops. There is this sense that I dunno, maybe these drolls are taking place in sites where sure people are drinking and carousing. There’s something more to it than just being drunk and falling over.
[Ada Palmer] There’s a political, cultured sort of pub scene in that sense.
[Adrian Johns] Yeah maybe.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think there is to burlesque as well. There is a very strong political movement within burlesque. I was talking to Ada yesterday about this. There’s this apocryphal moment when Gypsy Rose Lee was arrested in 1940, I think it’s 1940. As they’re walking her out while she’s being arrested, what she says to the press is, “But I was covered by a blue spotlight.” If this is apocrypha, which it might be, it still tells me something. What it tells me is that these women were completely aware of the fact that what they were doing was illegal. That what they were doing was subversive; and they were doing it anyway because they wanted to make a statement about what their bodies could do and what they could do on a stage. That’s still happening in the burlesque movement now. It’s still a part of the performance aspect. There are people who are performing in burlesque now who’ve never been allowed to do traditional theater. One of the performers I know is named Jacqueline Box. She is a wheelchair user. She says it’s the first time in her life that she’s been allowed to be beautiful and that she’s been allowed to be objectified because she’s a wheelchair user. There’s people who are doing Nerdlesque where black women are doing acts as Princess Leia and they’re able to embody a character who for general purpose, they’re not allowed to because of their race. I think there’s an opportunity within the burlesque art style to take on things, identify them, and play with them in a way that you don’t get to in other art forms.
[Ada Palmer] Could you briefly give us a couple of examples of some of the nippy detail of the regulations on what is and isn’t legal in different places? You’ve given me examples before from places like Las Vegas. Because it’s fascinating how micro-detailed the policies will be.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Sure. So in Las Vegas, which is my favorite example, there are different commissioners districts. The Burlesque Hall of Fame is a yearly convention of burlesque performers where there’s a competition. Lots and lots of burlesque performers come from all over the world and they get to perform on a massive stage at the Orleans Hotel. It has not always been at the Orleans Hotel. The Orleans is roughly here; the Palms is down the block. At the Palms, in 2009, there was a requirement that you cover the under boob as well as the areola, which is your nipple, because that particular commissioner believed that the under boob was unacceptable to be seen by the public. The Orleans does not have a problem with the under boob. By a block, literally a block, that’s the only difference.
[Ada Palmer] So you can be arrested or showing this in the one?
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] You can be arrested.
[Ada Palmer] Building, but not down the street.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] The casino can be fined. Also in Las Vegas, there are 500 foot no nudity rules between the gambling table and you. Which means that there are certain casinos that have been built so that there are no rooms above the casino floor so that you don’t accidentally be naked above the tables. There are certain states where it is illegal for you to show your butt crack. You must have an inch wide strap of fabric covering your butt. Certain districts in the South don’t allow burlesque and alcohol to coexist. You’ll literally have two rooms. One room will be for drinking; one room will be for stripping. These go from state to state. You need to have a very detailed knowledge of what it is you’re going to do, where you’re allowed to do it, and what costume you’re going to wear. Sometimes you decide not to do it because you want to take a risk and you want to talk about why it’s weird that women have to cover their areola and men don’t.
[Brice Stratford] We’ve performed at festival before where after the first performance, we often open the show as we do by giving all the audience and actors a shot. Everyone does the shot together to open it. After the first performance, we were told that we had to pass a field sobriety test before every single show.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Wow.
[Brice Stratford] So obviously we made it part of the thing. We all closed one eye and put our finger on our nose and walk in a straight line. If we failed it, we just weren’t allowed to perform there and then. The thing is that’s health and safety gone mad. That isn’t because that’s the law. That’s just because somebody in charge of the venue is afraid of what the law might be. That’s an infected way of thinking, which is a consequence of laws which are considerably more permissive than that.
[Ada Palmer] But the majority of censorship is self-censorship.
[Brice Stratford] Absolutely yeah.
[Ada Palmer] The motif that we keep coming back to. But the majority of self-censorship is really intentionally cultivated because one of the effects of making the laws restricting something like burlesque so complicated is that it makes it that many man hours more difficult. You have to do five man hours worth of legal research before you perform in any new venue to make sure that there aren’t new statutes that you don’t know about. So the barrier to being a performer isn’t just the effort that goes into performance. It’s that effort plus five hours a week of being your own lawyer. These kinds of things can be what makes the difference between it’s worth it and it’s not worth it and I will do it or I won’t do it.
[Cory Doctorow] I think there’s a subtler effect actually going on here that the health and safety gone mad reminds me of. Which is that nebulous rules that difficult to pin down in advance but their thumbs on the scale for people who are intrinsically conservative, cautious, or control-freaky. In the U.K., there’s pressuredabout science that welcome trust and others back. Part of its job is to go around and tell people that there is no health and safety rule that says you must do X. That’s just your boss being weird. Among other things, there’s people who clean the train platforms who are told by their boss that they couldn’t wear acalled mornings. They wouldn’t hear the trains if they were coming and they might fall on the tracks. It turned out he just didn’t think that the hats looked professional and so he made them be culled. There was an epidemic of people who believed a weird urban legend spread around that if tombstones fell over and hurt someone, that the cemetery or local council could be held liable. There were people who set up consultancies where they go ’round and they kick tombstones really hard for you to see whether or not they were in danger of falling over. And then charge you to make them so not-falling-overish. Again there was no underlying rule about this. There’s an infamous instance of someone doing a panto of Peter Pan and the theater manager telling everyone that the audience had to wear hard hats while Peter Pan was on the flying wire and so on and so on. It’s funny, but it’s also an example of how if you have a rule that’s sort of super broad and who’s outcome can’t be understood readily in advance of an adjudication, the worst people get to make the worst rules and just insist that that’s what the rule says. See also aviation.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think it’s interesting that the example of the under boob debacle also occurs. They all show up; this wasn’t a prior explained issue. Everybody shows up from all over the world and suddenly it’s like you need to make under boob covers before you can get on stage. So now you have frantic burlesque performers in Las Vegas trying to make new costume pieces. It’s an extra barrier.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think that in some ways, it’s almost deliberate. We don’t approve of the thing that you’re doing, so we’re going to make it that much harder.
[Cory Doctorow] When you talked about burlesque being a place where you could experiment, it reminded me of people talking about golden age science fiction. Particularly Judith Merril who was this feminist science fiction writer, editor and critic who was living in Chicago until the police riots in 68; who then went into exile in Toronto, where she became my mentor. One of the things she talks about is that you could get away with a lot of very political stuff in science fiction at a time when the politics might have been frowned upon because nobody took science fiction seriously enough to care. Rod Serling also was a good example of this with Twilight Zone.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Very much so. I mean so much of his works reflects the fears of the time.
[Ada Palmer] Andas I discussed before and Manga. Comic books get targeted by a lot of censorship when they’re depicting sexuality or nudity or provocative political content. But when there’s less political provocative content, comic books tend to be less policed than serious or adult literature. So you can have chewy discussions of the rightness or wrongness of what your country is doing. Those don’t tend to be policed as much. Now if you’re making fun of one particular politician who will then get upset, that’ll cause trouble. So there are these strange, ironic patches where certain kind of expression are easier to get published in comic books or be policed less while others are harder to put out in comic books and will get policed more depending on very subtle sensitivities of which kinds of things people are gonna point at or look for in a comic.
[Cory Doctorow] Speaking of that, can one of you theater-versed historian types talk about Hansard and Hansard’s relationship to theater and censorship of Parliamentary reporting? I only know the broad outlines of this. No?
[Adrian Johns] I don’t know the Hansard story. Earlier than somewhere in the 1770s, it was illegal to print the speeches in Parliament. It’s a complicated thing actually because sometimes there are printings of them. That goes back to the origins of newspapers in the late 1630s, early 1640s where one of the first periodical pieces reporting reports to be speeches in Parliament. But it was illegal.
[Ada Palmer] I’ve been looking through the Gentleman’s Magazine, which we’ve talked about. They’ll have reports on the discussions of the Senate of Lilliput, meaning Parliament. But they’re publishing it as if it’s fictitious so that they evade this.
[Adrian Johns] But there are two other sort of subsidiary levels to it. One is that within Parliament itself, there’s a long-standing convention of freedom of speech. So MPs can say ore or less whatever they want and you can’t be prosecuted for libel or something like that, slander. That goes back sort of indefinitely. It’s not clear exactly when it gets in, but it’s being referred to by MPs under Elizabeth I. Then it kind of becomes a shibboleth after that. There’s a sense that the freedom to speak in Parliament sort of goes along with the fact that it won’t be printed. But then another part of it is that the printers themselves developed a belief that as long as Parliament was sitting, they were immune from any kind of oversight. This is a bizarre thing. There’s no known legal basis for this in the 17th Century. But it’s a statement that you see them coming out with over and over again when they’re arrested. “But I thought I could print anything “when Parliament was sitting.” It’s not clear where that arises. It starts in the 1620s somehow. Nobody really knows why. There are gradually these intrusions on the reporting of Parliamentary speeches. First actually by handwritten newsletter writers. So you could make a living in 16th, 17th Century through to the very early 18th Century by writing by hand newsletters that went out to subscribers in the provinces basically. The idea is that because you’re not printing it, it doesn’t run up against any ban. You could report actually at length MP speeches in these handwritten newsletters. There’s actually a guy who invests money in making a font for printing that looks like handwriting and starts producing a newsletter which is actually printed, but it’s supposed to look like handwriting to try and take advantage of this. But there are these kind of gradual breaches until I think it’s in the 1770s sometime. They finally give up and say okay you can print it. It becomes part of things like the Times, the first week of the Times. Hansard was if I remember right, was he the royal printer? I can’t remember in the early 19th Century, who takes it over and it becomes a dynasty of different sorts.
[Cory Doctorow] My understanding was I thought that maybe it had been plays, but also the Parliament of Lilliput sounds right too. It became institutionalized that it was something that skirted the edges and then became institutionalized.
[Adrian Johns] I think that’s right; it skirted it. It gets institutionalized in a certain sense before it’s legal.
[Cory Doctorow] Right. It rose in a debate called theyworkforyou.com. So Hansard was published in the 1990s and 2000s as Word documents that they would put out every day. Some civil society hackers wrote a parser that would go through the Word document and turn it into what looked like a Facebook wall with a picture of your MPM, what they said, and a picture of the next MPM, what they said. You could comment on it. You could click on any of them because the MPs would only accept feedback by fax. You could turn it into a fax. You could have their quote with their picture, your remarks, and hit a button and it would be faxed to the Parliamentary Office. Unlike government works here that are in the public domain, the government works there were copyright by the clerk of Parliament. It was done without permission. There was this big debate about isn’t this just appropriate. Hansard was originally this pirate publication. We’ve pirated the pirate publication. But what ended up happening was the clerk of the Parliament called them in and said, “The MPs are addicted to their numbers.” Who gets the most comments? Who gets the most likes for what they’ve said in Parliament today? If I shut you down, they’ll be riots. So I’m giving you a retrospective license that makes you legit.
[Adrian Johns] Okay.
[Ada Palmer] It’s fabulous.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Really interesting to me, how much of this is about working around the system. I’m thinking a lot about… We’re talking about this handwriting or font. This typeface that you could use that looked like handwriting and it made me think about ways performers have gotten around laws. In the 1920s, there was a performer in San Francisco named Margie Hart and she was famous for panel dances which where you have a skirt made out of a whole bunch of panels and you sort of flash the audience. Thing is what she did is she wore a pubic wig called a merkin rather than showing her own hair because she knew she’d get arrested. So any time the cops showed up and they’re like you’re breaking the law, we can see your pubic hair, her response would be no, it’s a wig. You can’t arrest me for a wig. So the idea that we have to find the work around to not break the law but get really really close to the edge of the law is really fascinating to me as a theme of censorship.
[Steve Nicholson] Some of you will know the American play by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? Still notes well of course. It was staged first in America and then the Lord Chamberlain wanted to censor it when it was coming to England. Partly because people frequently say “Jesus!” in it as a sort of expletive and he wouldn’t allow that. The manager writes to the Lord Chamberlain and says would you allow us to change it to cheese-us? So he says, well yeah, I can’t stop you saying cheese-us and then one of his staff goes to see it being performed and then comes back and says do you know when you say cheese-us in an American accent, it sounds just like Jesus.
[Brice Stratford] Talking about that as being, but you still get that There’s a version of Shaun of the Dead for airlines where they’ve replaced the word fuck with funk and it’s ludicrous.
[Cory Doctorow] Infamously the last line of Die Hard in the TV edit is yippy-kay-yay… What is it? Yippy-kay-yay mammy-jammer or something. Something really terrible.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I highly recommend watching the TV edit of Deadpool.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah.
[Adrian Johns] Oh God.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] It’s made of magic.
[Ada Palmer] That reminded me of the book we have in our exhibit, which is a classroom edition of Catullus. Catullus is a bunch of poems about General Penis. His name is one of the many many many Latin words or penis. If you’re interested in senses of humor about this kind of thing, there’s a wonderful reference book called Latin Sexual Vocabulary, which is highlighter orange so that if you have it in your office, no one will ever enter your office and not know that you have Latin Sexual Vocabulary glowing on your bookshelf. But this edition of Catullus has to decide how to render the name of this General and rendered it as tool, T-O-O-L in all caps to bring your attention to it more than if it had just said penis or just said tool. As if the editor is trying to undermine the very censorship that’s happening by bringing your consciousness to the fact that the censorship is there even more vividly than if weren’t, which is all that these sorts of substitutions often do.
[Brice Stratford] I think it’s really important to bear in mind historically just how much… Just how little laws dictate behavior in the obvious sense and usually, it’s the total opposite. The more laws there are telling people not to do things, the more it’s happening. The more people are doing that. And also constant double thinks existed, especially if your at Elizabethan times, between what official laws were and what standard behavior was. At times, there was almost no relation to those two things. It’s an easy paradox to fall into to think that when laws are constantly telling people to behave in a certain way, that’s any indication that they were behaving in that way.
[Cory Doctorow] There’s this swallow a spider to catch a fly problem where when you do it, then you have to do something else to make up for it. A good example of this is injunctions and super-injunctions in the UK where you can have a rule that you can ban a newspaper from printing a thing and so the newspaper will say, “A person did a thing and we’re not allowed “to tell you what it was.” Then everybody runs out and finds out what it was.
[Brice Stratford] That’s a good example. And then Parliament can break that. Someone in Parliament can choose–
[Cory Doctorow] can use Parliamentary privilege. But to get ’round this, the way that they sort it out is they created a thing called the super-injunction, where newspapers were no longer allowed to tell you that they weren’t allowed to tell you something. The ever-larger measure that you have to bring in to suppress the speech and to suppress the speech about the criticism of the expressed speech. Like the Australian example. First you ban websites then you ban links to websites the you ban search engine results that mention the websites and so on and so on because eventually people are gonna be
[Brice Stratford] Yeah, it’s always gonna be, sorry.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] People are naturally curious. We were talking about this earlier. When you arrest an actor or you talk about how there’s something you show that people shouldn’t see, you know what happens? The show sells out because people wanna go see it. That was the case this year, or last year. There was a Broadway production of 1984 and all of the reviews were this show is horrible and has this awful torture scene in it. Guess what? Show sold out.
[Steve Nicholson] Of course there’s some truth in it. I think there’s another side as well ’cause I think we’re risking saying oh is censorship always ineffective and pointless. Most of Lord Chamberlain’s clashes were with foreign playwrights who had written plays that weren’t intended for the British stage. Why is that? Because British playwrights knew what the rules were. If you’re tryna make a living as a playwright, you are not gonna waste your time writing a play that probably isn’t gonna be put on. 1999 there’s a big government inquiry into theater censorship, and the whole number of novelists give evidence to the committee and say, “We won’t write for the theater.” Because as soon as you get close to what it is you really want to say, you’ve got the censorship looking over your shoulder. Ideally we should think–
[Brice Stratford] That’s really the way to keep going back to all this. The issue with censorship is not the literal censoring of things. It’s the way it infects the way people think before they do it. It affects the choices that you make before you create the art that gets censored rather theof the art.
[Adrian Johns] One of the things about that is the archival records still are left. Generally the archival records of when the system doesn’t work. For one reason or another, like trials are not successes in censorship; they’re failures.
[Brice Stratford] Yes.
[Adrian Johns] When it works, there is no–
[Brice Stratford] It’s the fact that it’s got that. Yes the fact that the trial is necessary is and of itself a demonstration that censorship has failed. The recent thing with C. Phillip Green attempting to keep his name out of it. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. The standards domino fall of powerful men in the wake of #MeToo keeps hitting people. The more men try to stymie that in Britain at the moment, the more that draws attention. The issue is the attempt at censorship. I think that the Lord Chamberlain quite openly said that a lot of the time it was better not to actively try to stop the play because the publicity would give it far more attention.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I will also say there are definitely consequences for performing burlesque and I wanna make sure that I’m really clear about that. I’m the daughter of a burlesque performer. When I was under 18, my mom made very clear that she would not do anything that would endanger her ability to keep custody of me because there was a real dancer if CPS investigated what she was doing and she broke a law. I don’t have another parent, so they would just say that I couldn’t live with her any more. That has happened to burlesque performers across the country. Arrests are still happening now when it comes to breaking obscenity laws in the United States. There’ve been custody cases between people who are getting divorced where one partner is a burlesque performer and an ex husband is a person who says well she does burlesque, so she’s not morally fit to be the custodial parent. There are consequences and it’s not a safe art form by any means.
[Ada Palmer] That’s a great example where the consequence is in fact a legal consequence independent of the laws about this specific thing. You get hit more harshly by laws about an unrelated thing because of being involved with it.
[Brice Stratford] International travel is a good example as well. A now dead friend of mine was regularly denied entry into the United States for moral turpitude because of an autobiography which he’d published.
[Cory Doctorow] This is a big issue with customs/border patrol announcing that they’re gonna delve into the social media history of people who apply for travel permission to enter the United States. It’s a license to look into the jokes you’ve told your friends to see whether there’s anything that a customs and border protection official doesn’t like.
[Brice Stratford] Once they’re on the Visa Waiver Form, it’s optional at the moment, but there’s a space to put your social media handle.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah, that’s right. This business of naming a thing as forbidden and that it increasing its profile, Michael Masnick coined a widely-used term for it now called the Streisand Effect. It refers to a coastal erosion aerial survey done in California every year where they fly over and they look at what’s happening to the coast. They incidentally capture all the big houses that are on the coast, including Barbra Streisand’s house. It’s an open data set; it’s produced by a government agency. There are thousands of photos of the whole coastline. Streisand objected to the presence of her mansion’s roof in this photo set and signed an injunction to have it removed. At the time, the photo had been viewed three times, once by her. By the time she was told she wouldn’t be allowed to remove it, it had been viewed half a million times. They’ve christened this term to refer to this rebound effect.
[Brice Stratford] I would just go back to what you were saying about it is important to remember that censorship does have negative consequences and is effective in other ways. It is true. Even with a lot of the cases we talk about where it’s a success and against censorship and the censorship fails, it’s a success from our perspective sitting here talking about events years, maybe centuries after they’ve happened. The personal reality of the individuals involved at the time can be horrific and utterly damning. Even if they do end up winning, the trauma of going through that process raises serious questions about whether it was worth it or not.
[Ada Palmer] Years of your life went too that trial instead of writing the next novel.
[Brice Stratford] Absolutely. Then the rest of your life being defined by that.
[Steve Nicholson] There’s a playwright in the 1930s who has a phrase, talks about the unborn plays, the generation of writers would have liked to write, but haven’t been able to write. The difficulty with censorship is we’re always only able to look at the cases that have actually come into being. What we can never know about unless someone has recorded it in a diary something they wanted to do. But we usually can’t look at is the way it’s actually silenced things before they came into being; the plays that haven’t been written.
[Ada Palmer] Milton talks about this in the Areopagitica as censors are people who sit in judgment on the birth and death of books, preventing the birth in the first place of a book in a godlike manner.
[Steve Nicholson] Yes, and in theater you’ve got the case of the theater manager telling the writer before it ever it even gets anywhere near the Lord Chamberlain. So then you’ve got potentially the writer censoring himself or herself consciously. Then there’s maybe another stage where they don’t even realize they’re censoring themselves actually.
[Cory Doctorow] That level of indirection I think is really important because of course it means that you’re always playing blind man’s bluff. You’re asking the theater manager what he thinks the Lord Chamberlain is going to say and the theater manager can therefore shape what you say to suit his tastes as well as his understanding of the law.
[Adrian Johns] Something that’s very striking, meaning your piece. I think it’s your piece about the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It’s one of the pieces on the reading list anyway. There’s a certain sort of way of speaking that British civil servants have. It starts in like the 1880s and it runs right through to maybe Margaret Thatcher when it dies. It’s a certain sort of public spiritedness in a certain way. It’s very reasonable and people will discuss things in a rather dispassionate way. It’s in a certain sense and these are public servants. They’re quite well-informed, they’re educated, and they’re civilized. For half of the people, you actually have a certain sympathy for them. I’ve read some of these things in archives of the British government in the U.K., where in other areas where I’m looking at things like food standards. You will find scientists in government labs talking to each other about the degree to which it’s appropriate for government science to extend control out into the manufacturing food. It actually sounds totally similar to this. There’s a sudden disconcerting effect when one of the papers starts talking about what happens when that sensibility confronts a situation like the late 1930s, when on the constant you have totalitarianism and the playwrights and theater managers want to bring out plays which have fascism portrayed. Suddenly that tone has completely flipped 180 degrees, for me at least as a What otherwise comes out as we’re all roughly on the same side and we;’re all reasonable people suddenly looks like that famous novel about the butler in the country house and they’re running sort of Remains of the Day. Remains of the Day, thank you. It suddenly sounds like that. It suddenly sounds an awful lot more sinister.
[Steve Nicholson] I don’t know if this is the example you’re thinking of, but what you also start to get is the internal debate in the Lord Chamberlain’s office in the late 1930s. Which in a way is less guarded than when they’re talking out to the playwrights and the managers and so on. Lord Chamberlain wouldn’t approve any play that was critical of fascists, critical of Hitler, critical of the Nazis right up until the day the Second World War started; you have that policy. There are people in his office who are increasingly appalled by this and saying we’re accepting totalitarianism, fascism here if we’re not allowed to protest against it. So you start to get quite a heated debate within the office.
[Cory Doctorow] It’s a theme in Siegel and Shuster making Superman as well where it’s finally a place where they can talk about their anxieties. A Jewish Canadian and a Jewish American hearing rumors of war and neither country… Well Canada had entered through it’s Empire loyalty, but America hadn’t entered. It became a way for them to intervene in this dialog, but again using a medium that nobody took seriously enough to criticize them for politicking.
[Brice Stratford] Interesting I think. One of the issues that comes up again and again in the 1930s in Lord Chamberlain’s office with the non-authorizing of plays critical of Germany and the Nazi Party is specifically that it’s one sided. They’re one sided. They’re giving a very one sided view of things. The BBC often when it comes to televised debates, ends up in this awkward position because they have to find two opposing sides always. So you’ll end up with one person representing a tiny minority view presented as the equal opposite to another person representing a huge number of people who’s highly qualified.
[Ada Plamer] One of these problems, right. If you wanna have a climate science debate, what you actually need is 50 scientists or 100 scientists of whom one is against and all the others are pro to have a representative presentation. But that doesn’t feel representative.
[Cory Doctorow] The BBC has change its guidance now specifically on climate and vaccines where you no longer have to find someone who thinks the Earth is flat every time you bring someone on who says the Earth is round.
[Brice Stratford] Too late for Brexit though.
[Cory Doctorow] Too late for Brexit.
[Ada Palmer] So we are at our break. We will resume.
[Adrian Johns] This is censorship.
[Ada Palmer] It is who it is. Welcome back to the second half of our discussion of theater censorship. I want to ask a question about newspapers and news circulation. But before that, we’re gonna have a discussion of why we’re not gonna see a skit now after having consulted with the actors during the break. So if Brice could talk about a bit of it
[Brice Stratford] Because you should come see it tomorrow evening. That’s why. It’s interesting for a number of reasons with the drolls because there’s no fat on the drolls. There’s no meat. Larger scale Renaissance plays that predate them, they were designed to be seen sort of piecemeal almost. They would have been performed for a couple of hours and people would have come and gone throughout them. There would have been lots of distractions, lots of noises. You can edit, you can cut down. These drolls are a different animal. If they could be any shorter, they would be shorter for a start. You really can’t take excess out of them and have them still work. But more than that, they’re experiential. The very fact that the text is not the droll, the text is not the play and can only give a limited idea of the performance is is the reason we can’t just take a bit of that text out of context and perform it in this environment. I don’t know if you’ve come across anything similar in other forms, but generally speaking, these pieces work as experiential machines. Whether somebody’s covered in makeup; whether you’ve established that you dislike this character before they then get marked; before they get their comeuppance. All that stuff is important. What really changes is the stuff that’s around the text rather than just the performance of the text. The context in which it’s being performed.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I think that’s much the same with burlesque. It’s why I didn’t bring a person to come and do a burlesque performance today. Because it wouldn’t work. A burlesque show takes place in a place where they happen. They are less than seven minutes long these days is a burlesque act. They’re about the length of a song. You can’t really chop it down into a teeny piece. Every time that you do do a burlesque act, it’s different depending on where you are. I’ve seen acts multiple times in completely different venues. My mother has an act I’ve seen her do. It’s based on the song by Edith Piaf, La Vie En Rose. When she does it on a tiny postage stamp stage, it’s a very different act when she’s doing it on a stage that’s about the size of this room with a giant proscenium and a thousand seat theater. These kinds of things don’t operate sort of They deal with the audience and with the space that they’re in.
[Brice Stratford] Totally. I don’t know if anybody did see last night’s performance. But if you did, do come. If you want to see this illustrated, come to tomorrow’s performance. You’ll get a totally different experience because there are different audiences, different night, and different stuff is brought to the table. But yeah, it’s very much. The way the drolls work is in the same way that a Folk Night works. The reason that if you go to some Irish bar and you get everyone picking up drums, fiddles, and guitars and playing a piece of music. Then you go to that same bar with mostly the same people but on a different month, the songs will be completely different. The experience of the songs for the audience will be totally different. That’s obviously a totally different thing to simply picking up a guitar right now and then singing a song twice. The experiential context of the text as being a collaboration between the performers but also the audience, the world and time which it’s being performed, that’s what makes it so different. That combination of things, that recipe of ingredients is what makes the text different depending on when it’s being seen and who is seeing it.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] It was interesting when I saw the show last night, one of the things that was really familiar to me was the audience interaction. That’s a large part of burlesque as well and how you interact with your audience. At one point, you grabbed somebody’s chair and you spun them around. Then you put them in their seat in the front row. I’ve seen burlesque performers walk up to the edge of the stage, look at an audience member who seems either completely into it or absolutely no please don’t look at me and offer their hand and you have to take off their glove. It’s a part of the experience is that there is an audience to interact with.
[Brice Stratford] Also much like with burlesque as you’ll agree, a lot of it is about establishing this version of yourself. Establishing a caricature of who and what you are. You’ll usually give a fake name, a character some, but you’re still sort of you at the same time. But it’s very much a caricatured version of you. It’s taking elements of what you are and magnifying them, putting them up large. When I’m doing the drolls, when I’m in, I’m not quite the same Brice who’s talking right now. Part of it is very much establishing that right from coming in. I’ve got to be a bit obnoxious so that then, when I get humiliated, it’s a funny good thing rather than something you pity me for. Obviously, I’m not obnoxious; you all like me.
[Cory Doctorow] There’s a wonderful bit in David Byrne’s How Music Works, where he talks about the shift from a live ensemble performance to decomposed studio recordings that are done one track at a time; and what it means to play just the bass without a guitar player there. Maybe listening to a prerecorded guitar in your headphones and how once the music is decomposed, the artist becomes not the performer, but the editor. If you can decompose music into a bunch of individual tracks that an editor can then mix to suit their vision, then really the performers do become that thing that composers thought of them as, which is instruction followers. The editor becomes the person who puts the music together.
[Brice Stratford] The curator in a sense, yeah.
[Adrian Johns] I’m not sure that this something we must go into detail. This is really in my mind as with other forms of as it were performance that have done in spaces with audiences. Things like public and scientific experiments, anatomy theaters, to some extent lectures actually, which is something I have to do periodically. There’s a great architectural example for the world of the sciences in the Royal Institution London, which is where Faraday used to lecture. The big lecture hall in the Royal Institution looks a bit like this. It’s almost a theatrical space with a raked set of seats in the hall. At the front of it, there’s a table rather like this. It actually extends bit further out into the hall. It’s now pretty much the same as it was in Faraday’s day. They’ve changed the actual seats, but the layout is the same. Faraday would come up here and he would do experiments for the fashionable audiences of London. The same audiences he would be going to theaters after that. As in Middlemarch, it says something like you are middle class, so you get your science from Mr. Faraday. He does these experiments, which are very ocular. They’re supposed to be seen. What you see when he does them are simple demonstrations of natural powers. The most famous one is the electric motor dynamo where you have a combination of magnets and fluids. You can see a kind of circular motion coming around because of an electromagnetic field has been set up. What you don’t see is the rehearsal. The rehearsal actually happens underneath. There is a basement to this theater. There’s a little door off to the side. If you go through this door and go down a set of staircases, you go into this basement into a small room, which is a private laboratory where he rehearses these experiments. He rehearses them and of course, they don’t work the first time. We have his diary so we know this. They don’t work the first time. He tweaks them; he changes the materials a little bit. He makes them more visible. What you get is an extraordinary form of artifice where the private stuff is what we might think of as actual experimentation: It often doesn’t work, it’s all flawed, it’s improvised. Then it’s brought up into the public space and it’s displayed. It’s called an experiment, but it’s actually more like a demonstration or performance or something. It’s heavily rehearsed, but it’s rehearsed in such a way, but the main purpose of rehearsal is to look like it’s not rehearsed. That you’re just seeing direct relation there. I think that kinda thing happens a lot with these other forms of display which one might not initially think of as theatrical, like anatomizing or experimental displays. But they have their own forms of rehearsals, their own forms of gestural rhetoric. Their own conventions about what you can and can’t say and do.
[Ada Palmer] You’ve reminded me of another performance that I had never thought about to think about in a censorship context that very much is. If you go to Padua, to the University of Padua, that you can still see the Renaissance Era Operating Theater which is a stage like this, although it’s much steeper. It’s like a cone and at the bottom of the cone with many circular balconies like a Dante’s Inferno cone of everyone on tiers. At the bottom is a table where they would put the body as the surgeon dissects it. This is a demonstration largely for medical students, but also for all sorts of people who would come to watch the dissection of a body. The universities had a lot of regulations on where you get a body. You get a body from the executioner’s grounds after a hanging for example. You weren’t allowed to source bodies on your own. But they didn’t have as many bodies as there was demand for demonstrations. The table flips over and it can flip over in a second. There’s straps on it. You can strap the body down and on the underside, you have a dead dog. If the police come to say what are you doing in the operating theater? We know you didn’t have a body this week. You suddenly flip it over and there’s a dead dog on the other side and you’re innocently dissecting the dog.
[Brice Stratford] Like a speakeasy.
[Ada Palmer] We’re not doing that here; we’re doing this.
[Cory Doctorow] What can be less sinister than a dead dog?
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I just have the image of somebody innocently blinking while holding a scalpel and that’s not innocent at all.
[Adrian Johns] Don’t ya love medicine?
[Ada Palmer] Yeah. Premodern medicine takes a strong stomach to study, but it’s I wanted to turn to a question which bears on all of this, but which we touched on a little bit earlier. Which is the impact on performance, which we can broaden from theater to dissection. The impact of performance as the circulation of news changes. We’ve talked from time to time about how when a theater is censored or a theater gets in trouble, the news about that spreading has an impact on both the censoring body and the censored body. Similarly, how the fame of an actor and X person having a particular reputation will make a censor more or less likely to mess with that person or make people more aware of it. When newspapers are circulating and the news that X theater has had X happen can circulate through a city or through a region very quickly. We’re actually in a very different space in terms of the impact of someone coming into a particular performance or shutting down a particular theater and how visible that is when news is flowing through established newspaper channels versus when news is only flowing through the horseman who goes back and forth once a week between Rome and Florence with one copy of the newsletter versus Facebook and Twitter, which make these things expand instantly. Before they’re even done shutting down the performance, half of America would know that the performance was being shut down. I wonder if people could comment on how the speed of news changes what performance means and can mean.
[Brice Stratford] In our shows, the reputation of where you’re getting the news from is really relevant right now because we still have this hangover of respecting stuff that has been published journalistically. That was developed at a time when only a minority of people were publishing things journalistically. A majority of society is not quite rejigged its standards to get that anybody can write anything of the internet and almost anybody can get anything published through a supposedly periodical online. It doesn’t instinctively and instinctually have the same validity as it used to. Something being published in a book does not mean what it did 50 years ago. It just doesn’t. For good or for bad, for right or for wrong. A lot of people are alive and they never will get that distinction because older generations aren’t going to necessarily change their mindset, aren’t going to change the way they view and respect certain media.
[Cory Doctorow] I think that we have a tendency to rewrite the history of media. It’s the truism that anything that’s been around for 50 years has probably been around forever. No medium has ever been so partisan and sensationalist than non-advertising supported cash-based newspapers. Which historically have had names like the such-and-such democrat and the such-and-such republican and the Kingston Wig Standard. And whose stock in trade was writing the most sensationalist stuff that they could, particularly slanted news. Not because it got them more advertising dollars, but because it got them more subscription money. We have this narrative now that original sin of the internet is trading paid-for news for advertising-supported news. Clay Shirky has pointed out, the historical linage of newspapers in especially small town America was a world in which you had a patrician local family that owned the paper and the paper’s target audience were locals who wanted to read sports scores. The advertisers for it were people who wanted to sell goods that people only bought rarely. Keep in top of mind it was hard, so mostly white goods. The local appliance retailers would subsidize the newspapers so people could read sports scores. The patrician sense of duty among the newspaper families had them peel off some of the profits from that to send someone to City Hall and report on City Hall. Oftentimes the news would be hugely reflective of the individual biases, aspirations and feelings of these autocratic newspaper proprietors. That was largely demolished by rate changes, antitrust enforcement in the Reagan Era, when we shifted from the doctrine of stopping firms from monopolizing a sector to stopping them from monopolizing a sector only if they raise prices. We had centralization newsrooms. We had news content become a lot more homogenous nationally. Rate shifts that made news brittle and more readily disrupted by online. It’s hard to say that online is why we have partisanship or why we have sensationalism.
[Brice Stratford] I think you’re totally right. I think it interests you the way you describe it, that patrician role and term. It puts me in mind of what you were saying earlier about the language of the civil service. When things are going well or at least when you’re looking back at a period when things are relatively stable and healthy, it’s so easy to see a language which comes only from there being an unambiguous authority in this area. Usually for wrong. It comes out as so many things we don’t want. It’s just that it seems good. That patrician tone of the civil service feels so comforting when it’s in a relatively stable environment. When things are going relatively well or at least relatively well for the people whose stories get told in the mainstream. The instant it’s the 1930s and that is being used in the context of the rising of the National Socialist Party a much darker tone becomes apparent and you realize just how utterly inappropriate it is. The same is true of a lot of the small town newspaper families that you’re talking about. It’s all great and good when we’re thinking of classic happy white picket fences and good wholesome families, everything going well. But it’s when you start to look at it in the context of the marginalized groups, the stories which aren’t being told. That’s when that suddenly becomes not at all comforting. Quite the opposite; it becomes chilling.
[Cory Doctorow] I mean if you wanted to name one very patrician newspaper proprietor today who really believes that he’s operating out of a sense of public duty to bring values that are important to him to the world, it would be Rupert Murdoch. He’s pretty much the only one who’s not purely motivated by profit and who publishes things on the basis of ideology. When News Corp buys a Sarah Palin biography or autobiography memoir at 10X what it’s worth and pulps 90% of the copies they publish, it’s really because Rupert wants to make sure that there’s a big a splash as possible for the ideas of someone he thinks of as being very important. Not because he relishes the thought of losing millions of dollars by paying over the odds for a Sarah Palin memoir. I don’t agree with anything he has to say, but it’s dangerous to wish for mere patrician values, sense of duty and ideology as a guiding force behind the news.
[Brice Stratford] Totally. Tyranny is great if you’ve got a really great person in charge. That’s not an argument for dictators.
[Cory Doctorow] Benevolent dictators fail badly.
[Adrian Johns] Maybe this is the same thing. My sense is that in the spirit of Ada’s question about–
[Ada Palmer] Speed of news.
[Adrian Johns] Speed of news. If one were to suppress the theater performance now, everybody across America would know about it happening as it happened pretty much. Part of the reason for that is not just that there’s been a sort of dispersal of ownership. It’s that we’re all carrying around cell phones and cameras. The phenomenal surveillance as it’s called where as it were, the crowd is looking back at the police. It’s much more prevalent than it ever could be before. I sort of feel that that’s a big change. There’s always and probably certainly being sort of expressions of sympathetic outrage, sympathy generating outrage when suppression happens. It hasn’t had that flavor where if I were to say something outrageous now, probably 30 people in this room would be recording this on video and it could be put up on ironically Facebook or something immediately. Part of the thing that strikes me is that lexis of it. It’s the fact that the recorders and the transmitters are indeterminately spread through publics and audiences now.
[Steve Nicholson] An example of that. We had a play in the U.K. that was closed down supposedly in about 2005, 2006, something like that. A play called Behzti included a reference to a woman being raped inside a Sikh temple. It was written by a young woman who was a Sikh. She was writing about it from the inside from personal experience. It was closed down because through social media, there were massive demonstrations of Sikh, mostly men, being busted around the country. The theater in the city of Birmingham, where it was on, had in its other theater a children’s pantomime going on. Demonstrators were throwing stones, bricks, at the windows and police. They couldn’t guarantee the safety of the audience, so that play was closed down. That woman, the writer whose name I just can’t remember at the moment, had to go into hiding because she received serious death threats. To the best of my knowledge, that play has never been performed again. I doubt if I teaching at the university would even dare to do a rehearsed reading of it with a group of students. Why is that? Why are none of us doing it? Because there’s a serious threat. But it was absolutely the social media and the speed of that. I can even think of a more recent example as well where demonstrators who were gathered through social media, Exhibit B at the Barbican in London was closed down. Like I said, the fast spread of protests.
[Brice Stratford] There are no shortage of examples of that sort of thing. When the police consider their primary role to de-escalate things. Then of course, the easy way to de-escalate things is just to not have the player
[Ada Palmer] Yeah.
[Brice Stratford] Problem solved.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] The thing that I’m thinking about is the role of the critic. So Lydia Thompson, her British Blondes were the first burlesque troupe to come to the United States from England. They put on Ixion, which was an all women production of a Greek play. They wore body stockings, looked like flesh, to be naked on stage and they wore fig leaves to cover up certain bits. The important part here is that when they came to the United States, their six month tour was massive. But let’s put it this way. The New York Press said that it was, “a disgraceful spectacle of padded legs “jiggling and wriggling in the insensate follies “and indecencies of the hour.” The Times called their shows “an idiotic parody of masculinity.” So those are just the people who have the platform to say what they thought. These are men, these are men with power. These are men with a platform. You come to the 1920s and 1930s when Mae West is being arrested because critics find out about what she’s doing ahead of time. The police can show up and shut down the show before it even starts because it talks about homosexuality. The critics can talk about Gypsy Rose Lee’s acts; she’ll get arrested. Now we, as you were saying, have a surveillance community where we all have cell phones. We all have the ability to be critics on our own. Which means that there are some people who will go to a burlesque show, take a picture of a performer who is nude or partially nude. Post it on their social media while tagging someone or not intentionally outing that performer or making comments about their body, their race, or their performance that are derogatory and putting them out there for anybody to see. The role of the critic has in many ways changed and empowered people to be cruel in ways they haven’t had the ability to before because of the way the platforms are structured. Critics have always been mean; but now it’s taken on an additional almost safety concern of who can take a photo in a theater. Despite the fact that everybody before a show has a fire speech that says do not take pictures. Here are your fire exits. We still have the problem of photos surfacing and videos surfacing.
[Brice Stratford] Totally. Well there’s sort of person going to be hostile to someone obviously isn’t going to react well to being politely asked not to hurt their feelings.
[Cory Doctorow] We shall let them burn.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Yes.
[Cory Doctorow] So there’s an inverse in this which is like the deliberate invocation of the Streisand effect. Often times when you hear a book has been banned or suppressed, one of the ways that you can feel like you’ve done your bit is by increasing its spread. By buying it, by giving it to other people and so on. This is one of the things that banned book week does well. I have a young adult novel called Little Brother and it was the one book one school summer read for a high school in Pensacola called Booker T. Washington High. The Principal unilaterally canceled the summer reading program to stop the students from reading it. When word got around, they sent 200 copies to the school. They wanted to mail one of the plays that… There had been a couple of theatrical adaptations of it there. People went around and found other kids to give it to and everybody was sticking it to Booker T. Washington High and its thuggish Principle by spreading the book around. There’s this sense that the Streisand Effect now isn’t a thing that happens organically. It’s a thing that happens deliberately. People want to use it to make an example out of censors to show the next censor that when you censor, if you strike me down, I will rise again more powerful than you could ever imagine.
[Brice Stratford] Just on the backs of what you were saying about the issue of an unauthorized photograph or of an outing a performer, the issue is two fold. Of course there is the issue of it being on the environment but also just artistically. It might sound shallow but unflattering photo, when it’s out there, if you Google a name and that’s what comes up, that really damages that character and that future performance. It’s really important that the aesthetic is governed. So much of the artifice in theatrical performance, including burlesque of course, it has to be controlled. You can draw a draw a comparison with standup comedians. They can’t try out new material because there is no safe space for them to experiment with that stuff. It goes on the Internet immediately and then that’s kind of ruined. If there is a really really really good version of this bit, but most of the stuff that you find when you Google it is an inferior version of that bit. It means someone interested in that bit; it stops the bit working. You have a similar issue with the Lord Chamberlain in Britain when you have to describe exact stage business. It’s almost impossible to do and the minute you try and do that, it takes it out of so much context. The more you try to describe, the more you try to accurately express something, the lessit is because performance is not defined by what is literally happening. Performance is defined by the experience of the audience and the way that you remember it, it doesn’t matter whether you misremember or not. It doesn’t matter whether they were wearing a blue t-shirt. If you remember a red t-shirt then that is the performance. The performance was a red t-shirt. The performance is what you remember. It is defined by the impact it has on the audience, not by the literal presence of the performers and the literal objective actions they were doing. There is no objective version of performance in that sense. There is only subjective versions; an infinity of subjective versions.
[Ada Palmer] I know this is a painful request, but if for the Lord Mayor’s office, you are required to describe a piece of the stage business from the play we saw yesterday. For example, the milk scene. It’s a punchline thing. Let’s do an earlier one. Maybe the funny business about the word windmill.
[Brice Stratford] I don’t know if I could. I couldn’t accurately. I could say things like… Okay, give the text and I could talk about how certain lines are emphasized. I could talk about the beats and pauses; but none of that really makes sense to someone who isn’t used to or at least who hasn’t experienced doing it themselves. The Lord Chamberlain was not a man of the theater as he makes quite unambiguous. He has the same background as a relatively sophisticated audience member.
[Ada Palmer] So Stephen, you read a lot of these. What are descriptions of stage business like?
[Steve Nicholson] You don’t usually have to do them in fact. It was a power that was held in reserve, if you like. There are examples of prosecutions where an actor did something that wasn’t in the script. There’s a play for example where the curtain was on a moment when the actor was about to presumably about to get on the bed, on top of a woman on the bed. They prosecuted and said it doesn’t say anything in the script about that. But you didn’t normally actually have to sentence those directions. They had debates about what the text of the play is. Is it just the spoken bit or is it the full text. Anybody who has ever done any theater at all, knows that before you start rehearsing, you can’t possibly put down every single movement, with the possible exception of Samuel Beckett. You just can’t. Well, of course, there are writers who do put it on the stage directions. Eugene O’Neill for example,Gibson.
[Brice Stratford] That’s sort of its own genre. That’s his own style.
[Steve Nicholson] But even then, there are going to be some other things as well that are discovered.
[Brice Stratford] A good example, I’ve got to go back to the health and safety side of things and the milk scene. I’ve had to try to justify the amount of milk used before. It’s impossible to do. You can’t really explain to a stage manager why a gallon of milk is funny in a way that a half pint just isn’t. It wouldn’t be funny. If I tried with a small amount of milk, it wouldn’t be funny. The milk has to spray everywhere. We can’t do a contained version that’s easy to clean up because there’s no point doing at all at that point. Sam Raimi in the Evil Dead 3, talks about having to justify why three zombie skeletons is necessary rather than just two zombie skeletons in this random shot. Perhaps there is some way to define and justify that but the people judging it and the people who have to explain it are not qualified to do that. It’s something instinctual. John Cleese talks at great lengths about the issues with studying comedy. With trying to justify comedy in a formulaic way and firstly how difficult it is, but also how that’s only one type of comedy. That’s a certain type of craft of comedy. Something else that’s just… The windmill bit. The weird way that I say windmill and maybe make eye contact with an audience member when I do it. Every single time, uniformally, it works. It’s very funny and it’s something which I understand and know how and why it’s funny. But it’s not something that can be… That I am able to put on a bit of paper and give to a stage manager for a health and safety report.
[Steve Nicholson] Under the Lord Chamberlain, you couldn’t have had male actors say to another male actor, “I love you.” But any two actors could convey that on stage with a look and a gesture.
[Brice Stratford] Rattigan’s a great example. There was Less Than Kind I think was the version that came out a couple of years ago for the Rattigan anniversary. There were an unperformed early draft of another play. Had a little tour and there were so many… Terence Rattigan obviously was a homosexual writer in a time when that was illegal in Britain. In this early form of the play, a lot of issues are touched on there quite unambiguously. The version of those that then gets produced is completely different. So much of that is still there, but it’s utterly unsaid; and in performance, it’s still conveyed.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] So it’s interesting because we’re talking about how to define comedy and how it’s difficult. One of the challenges in burlesque scholarship is that there’s frequently a question of what is called artistic merit. When I was a young academic doing my first ever historical conference on burlesque and presenting my paper, and in the back of the room, this tweety, bald, cranky academic raises his hand and the first thing that he says is, “But is it art?” I kind of blink at him for a second before I have to try and defend to this person that yes, burlesque is art because his whole thing was implying that I shouldn’t be studying the history of something that’s not art.
[Brice Stratford] Heaven-
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] This is kind of a common theme in burlesque because every time it’s prosecuted, any time that comedy is prosecuted in the United States or film–
[Brice Stratford] Or graffiti or whatever, yeah.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] The question is always artistic merit. We’ll let it go forward if it’s artistic. So the question then is how do you judge art? How do you judge what artistic merit means? Because that’s almost as difficult as deciding what’s funny.
[Brice Stratford] We’re gonna come back to the subjective experience of the audience, the people who are experiencing it. To one culture, a piece of art can be pornography to an audience member and vice versa. The intention of the creator and the artist is only relevant to some degree. There is no objective version of art. It just doesn’t exist.
[Ada Palmer] You’re reminding me of a plate.
[Brice Stratford] I get that all the time.
[Ada Palmer] You remind me of a plate. Europe was fond of collecting porcelain china produced in the Far East in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sometimes stuff will be produced specifically for the export market; specifically to be sent to Europe. So European artists would draw a design for a Chinese plate that they’re making up; send the design to China to have it painted onto the ceramic; and then brought back and sold as a Chinese design. It’s actually European originally, but it gets translated in the course of this by the imagination of the Chinese artists seeing it. There’s one plate where the original image sent was of a black servant/slave helping a noble woman get her shoes on. So you have a man on his knees in front of a woman putting her shoes on as she’s lounging on a feinting couch. The plate produced in China, they look like the same race and it clearly an erotic scene. It’s clearly lovers because this scene didn’t parse and make sense to the artist seeing it. Didn’t understand the class elements that were being conveyed by the representation of the figures in the original. Particularly since in a lot of eastern artists habitual to portray a male figure with darker skin than a female figure because ideas of beauty and paleness were associated with femininity. So the difference in skin tone didn’t communicate a difference in status to the artist seeing that sketch. So you got this beautiful romantic plate back which had been completely transformed in meaning by the trip over and back This is just a mass-produced object for consumption. It’s a collectable. Is it art? It is art and in fact it’s a piece of art that’s undergone multiple transformations to become a kind of art that almost has no author because there the author of the original sketches message didn’t get across. But the Chinese artist has transformed the other one. So it’s one of these complicated is it art or is it kitsch? Does it even have an author? If we wanted to prosecute somebody for making an erotic plate, who is the originator of this erotic plate? There isn’t an author of this erotic plate. The question is about policy toward how much control does the playwright have over the play; over authorizing playhouses to produce the play; over receiving income from the performance of a play; where the different copyright policies lie and how and have lain in terms of the author of a play having rights to the production of a play?
[Brice Stratford] Well of course in my period of they have absolutely no rights whatsoever. The playwright is just the person who has written the text. In fact, the publisher of the playtext has more rights over the play than the author does. The only reason that Shakespeare was able to influence the performance of his plays was because he was an actor and he was writing for his own company. That was not at all a standard arrangement. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was unique. But the specific time Shakespeare was writing and the extent that it was Shakespeare, I think that was unique. Johnson has a similar situation early on in his career, but that changes as soon as he starts to get some real success. Which is why there is the theory that a lot of the bad quartos, which is an unfashionable term now but it’s fucked bad quartos, which are the bad quartos perhaps they were pirated copies. Perhaps you would send people to go see plays who would then write in shorthand. Try to scribble down the text so they could then go to a publisher, print it, which they could do legally and then they’d make some money.
[Cory Doctorow] Like someone taking pictures at a burlesque.
[Brice Stratford] Exactly that or going to a cinema and filming the film on your camera and then uploading it as a torrent. That kind of thing. Or you get, another theory, is that actors would get together who had performed it once and they would write down the lines they remember and try to reconstruct like that and then sell it on to a publisher. These are theories which are too established because there’s almost no evidence for any of them and they’re often repeated as fact. But they’re solid theories. That’s my period. I think that begins to change in the… When does copyright begin to change that?
[Adrian Johns] You’re talking about performing rights, which is a early 20th century thing legally. It was a real fight to introduce it because it was thought that in some way there was like a natural right that if something had been put on as a performance, it was evanescent so somebody else could perform it. In France for a long time actually in the 18th century, there was a convention which I think was more a convention than a law that when you first perform a play, everybody else would leave it alone for you. It ran for a certain period. I forget what the period was. Then it went through what was called the fall, la chute. At that point it just became open to anybody and anybody could produce it. I don’t think this was a law, but it was a convention among theater owners that they wanted to preserve the ability for people to actually afford to put on productions, which was what the initial period of exclusivity allowed for. But then they also wanted there to be a generally vital theatrical culture so after the shoot it went through to everybody. But the performing rights, it comes with a big sort of expansion of copyright across the mains around the year 1900, when it extends into things like the-
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah, 1908, the first sound recordings. One way to think about this debate is to think about the performers and phonograms where the composers are like how dare you reproduce my work. The performers are like what did you think I bought this sheet music for? Why do I need a license to perform the sheet music? A more recent example, Adobe had a DRM for eBooks. They were the first company to ever stick the FBI on a researcher for breaking their DRM. It brought a lot of scrutiny to their DRM. They had a guy, a Russian national, named Demetriusdragged off stage at a technical conference in Las Vegas for pointing out that their software didn’t work.
[Adrian Johns] I still have my free t-shirt.
[Cory Doctorow] Yeah. So one of the things Adobe, it turns out, had in their ebook thing is you could tick a box to say whether or not your license included the right to read the book. Adobe had at the stroke of a pen taken what I think most people assumed they got when acquired a book, which was the right to read it, and they had turned that into a separate licensable element separate from your lawful acquisition of the book. You lawfully acquired the book then you acquired the right to read it as a separate transaction. When I license my own work, for stage performance that I’ve done a few times, or for stage adaptation. I license playwrights. Usually my agent negotiates my right to veto the playwright’s work. Then in some cases, I was trying to remember the details. I know at least in some cases, I then had the right to veto the playwright’s authorization of anyone to adapt the work further. The playwright could tell a company yes you can mount this as a one person production or whatever but then I had the right to look into that. No one’s ever asked me to do it and I’m generally a pretty permissive person. But it raises this important question which is corollary to what is art, which is what is fair and what is fair use? Fair use starts as a completely common law doctrine. You would have someone who would make a use. You’d have someone who would object to the use. They would go to a judge and the judge would say, sounds right to me or doesn’t sound right to me and they would make reference to case law. But they wouldn’t make reference to black letter law. There was no statutory law defining it. Then the Congress codifies this in the 70s into what’s called the four factor test, which you may have heard of in terms of fair use. Which are the nature of the underlying work. Are you taking a creative work or largely factual works? A news broadcast where the guy cracks a joke is mostly factual with a little creativity. But a movie about someone chasing tornadoes is entirely creative. How much of the work you’re using, a small taking or a large taking? How transformative your use is. Is it critical? Does it make a new work out of it? Is there a free speech dimension? Is it critical to political discourse? Are you remixing to say something about politics in the moment where there’s a strong First Amendment interest? Are you disrupting the market for the underlying work, which turned to be hugely problematic. If I can convince people to license something that would otherwise be fair, I can make it not fair by saying you’re disrupting the market for the work ’cause I’ve already established that people will pay me for a license to this. Now you’re disrupting that market. But as the eminent copyrights go where Johnny Depp once told us, “Those are more what you’d call guidelines.” So it turns out the Supreme Court can ignore all, or any court, can ignore all of that stuff and still call our work fair and the most important example of this is the Betamax. VCR comes out in 1976. Eight years litigation gets to the Supreme Court 1984. There are six million VCRs in America’s living rooms. The Supremes have all watched movies in their kids’ houses. They drove past video rental stores to get to the court that morning. They are not gonna ban VCRs even though VCRs totally fail all four factors. You take Hollywood movies. You make 100% faithful copies of them instead of renting them and you don’t transform them. They’re a complete non starter for fair use and the courts say it’s still fair. Common sense revolts at the idea that it’s not fair. No one’s ever figured out how to tee this up. What you end up with is people coming up with dumb rules of thumb like if it’s 10 seconds, it’s fair or if it’s non commercial, it’s fair. If you write no copyrighted tendered, it’s fair. You see this on YouTube all the time. The best proposal I’ve seen so far comes from Tim Wu, the copyright and competitions scholar at Columbia who coined the term network neutrality, who says, ‘A thing should be fair “if it’s transformative.” That’s his only test. If you make a new work out of it, if you add a new something new to it, the free expression that we want to see in the world is enable through transformation, It’s the only question we should ever ask.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] It’s interesting that fair use comes out because that is the biggest legal challenge to burlesque.
[Cory Doctorow] Of course. Sure.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] A lot of performers write an hour doing what’s called Nerdlesque where they play a character from one of their favorite movies or comics or books and they then have that character script on stage. There are people who have sued burlesque performers. There’s a reason why I’m not giving you the names of the performers that have done this because I wanna make sure they are protected. Because there have been instances of say full productions that use all of Led Zeppelin’s work being played by a band while performers strip to it and Led Zepplin lawyers kind of went hmm, you can do it this year but we’re gonna have to talk about licensing later. So the question becomes what is fair use for burlesque performers? There’s been a lot of really difficult debate about what is copyright mean if your getting up on stage and basically poking fun of or sexualizing a character? There’s a lot of performers who are aware that they are stepping on potential legal toes. One of the things that’s interesting about burlesque in that particular conversation as well is that it’s a community convention. You won’t steal somebody else’s act. Okay, so I’m not going to do a Jessica Rabbit number, which is the exact same number’s music as somebody else because then I would be doing their act. I have to come up with my own Jessica Rabbit number because otherwise I’m stepping on your toes. There are people who have called somebody out for having a stage name that’s too close to somebody else’s. There are community policing standards going on.
[Brice Stratford] you’re in standup comedy.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] Yeah, exactly.
[Cory Doctorow] Normative.
[Ada Palmer] It’s also important to remember in all this that earlier in this. In the DNA before the development of copyright, is the fact that in the manuscript and pre-print period, and really up until the beginning of the 18th century or the very late 17th, the only remuneration anybody ever expects from disseminating any written text is word fame. What you get is fame. If you’re living on this it’s because you’re dedicating the thing to the Duke of such and such and the Duke of such and such is giving you money. Or you are making your hometown famous and so your hometown gives you a stipend or gives you a position at the school. But the idea that any element of the transaction of book production in the manuscript period has anything to do with the creator just isn’t there. It’s entirely paying the scribe who’s sat there for six months copying the book. Paying the tanner who produced the leather on which it’s written et cetera. The ancestry of the development of copyright and then the expansion of it to all of these different sub details like performance rights and sub-licensing and merchandising and musical adaptations and all of this, come after this initial development into the moment of creator’s wanting to live on the sale of their texts. Which is something that you see people starting to pursue in the later 17th century and succeeding at by the beginning of the 18th. Conrad Gessner, who’s encyclopedia of animals we’ve talked about being censored by the physician, is really the first person to try really hard to live on book sales and by being the most prolific author of that half century and visiting publishers every day to ask do you need a learned introduction for something? Anything. Whatever it is, I’ll write you a learned introduction to it. No matter what it is, as long as you pay me. By really maximizing this system, he managed to drive 1/3 of his living income from book sales; but not more than that. The rest of it has to come from a salary from the University that he’s attached to. At the beginning of the 18th century, you get to this moment where there are enough presses and the way they’re organized has changed. You start getting authors living on being paid by the publishers for the first time, which initiates a real transition in the monetization process. Many of the first authors who did this, you know: Montesquieu, Voltaire, Rousseau. These are familiar names and they’re transitioning to writing for popular consumption instead of for word fame consumption; which is popular but in a different way. And the development of all of these rights and the questions of whether they’re even an issue can’t come up until there is the idea that you should live off an income generated by the mass dissemination of the text rather than by largess or by other structures.
[Cory Doctorow] I just wanna know very briefly the incredible irony of Led Zepplin making copyright complaints, given that they’ve been the target of a string of copyright suits that show unequivocally they lifted all of their riffs form other artists.
[Elsa Sjunneson-Henry] I’ll just point out there was never a complaint made.
[Cory Doctorow] Okay.
[Steve Nicholson] Just to go back to your question, if my students in Sheffield do a public production of a contemporary or a recent play, they will get a license from the agent that says they are not allowed to change the play. They’re not allowed to cut it in any way. Whether it includes whether they can cast it against gender, is a mute point because students often, universities often need to do that because we have so many more female students than male students. If however, they’re doing an extract from the play as part of the course, where the audience is just going to be the assessors and other students, then they don’t have to get that license because obviously they’re going to change it. They’re only doing half an hour of it. I’m sure they don’t always observe that rule of making no change.
[Brice Stratford] The enforceability comes into play. If you’re doing five shows in one week of something written by some not hugely successful or famous or rich and wealthy American playwright say, and you’re performing in Smethwick in the middle of England, it’s very unlikely that anyone’s gonna fly over from America to watch your play and then to bring charges in an English court. It’s not very likely; the scale is the big thing.
[Cory Doctorow] Beckett wouldn’t allow women, or Beckett’s estate wouldn’t allow women to be cast in his work. It came to a head in France, where they had this strong authors moral rights culture that in theory should make that iron clad. They were asked to adjudicate the human rights dimension of discriminating against women versus the authors moral rights dimension and they fell on the side of human rights. They said that the Beckett’s estate could not lawfully withhold licensing on the basis that they were going to cast women in the plays.
[Ada Palmer] So we’re just about out of time. The last thing I wanna add. We’ve talked about a lot of different types rights here. A lot of different tiny rights. I think it’s important to remember that one of the things that makes all of this complicated is the proliferation of enormous numbers of different kinds of rights to any work that now exist. When novelists like Cory and myself are doing a book contract with our publisher, Tor. This contract is 25 pages long and it’s a palimpsest of all of the weird stuff that people have requested or gotten away with in the past that have accumulated to make this enormous thing and it has rights for dozens of… Rights of whether you can sell sections of the texts in a playbook at a performance of the theatrical adaptation of the text.
[Brice Stratford] Yeah.
[Ada Palmer] And one of the things in there is non-dramatic reading rights. When I got to that in China, I asked my agent what that was. We asked the head of the agency what it was. They went out and asked all the agents they knew what that was. Then surreptitiously, I talked to publishers who were friends to see if they knew what they were. I talked to more than 50 people in this industry, none of whom knew what this right is. I possess this right. The contract specifies that this right is mine, whatever it is. I can access it or allow the people to have it but there are so many different types of
[Ada Palmer] You have to read it in the monotone.
[Brice Stratford] Yeah, speech to text, text to speech.
[Ada Palmer] But what it means is there are so many different kinds of rights that the degree of complexity, just like how every burlesque performer has to research the statutes of every town in which your performing, makes it very very difficult and creates a entire industry out of figuring out whether rights exist.
[Cory Doctorow] Full on plug in for lawyers.
[Ada Palmer] Which can then multiply the instinct to say well, it might not be okay, so I won’t do it. Hence again, the multiplication of self-censorship. Thank you all. Let’s thank our participants.
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