Northern Ireland's politicians have failed to bridge the gap between opinion and public duty... so we pay the cost
Fifty-five years after Sam Thompson's play, Over The Bridge, was banned in Belfast, municipal censorship is in rude good health in Ulster's council chambers, writes Malachi O'Doherty
Published 27/01/2014 | 08:30
There will always be upstart councillors who think it is their job to protect us from blasphemy and obscenity. At least they are incompetent and don't manage to interfere as much as their instincts would prompt them to.
If they, in fact, went to theatres and cinemas and read books, they would either be riled to more assertive action, or they would be overwhelmed by the scale of the job ahead of them.
We now have to wonder if it is a mercy that our Culture Minister Caral ni Chuilin hasn't been to a play yet while in office, as she told Marie Louise Muir on the BBC's Arts Show last Thursday.
Comedian Jake O'Kane's intervention in the row over the decision of Newtownabbey councillors to ban a play from showing at the Theatre at the Mill was to remind them that "they weren't elected to be moral guardians". He said: "We elected them to empty our bins, make sure the leisure centres were open – that's the powers they have."
Unfortunately, the council was, apparently, acting within its powers when it cancelled the Reduced Shakespeare Company's production of The Complete Word of God (abridged).
Newtownabbey Mayor Frazer Agnew, defending the decision, said there was "a need to defend Christian values" – as if that was his job.
He was also, though he doesn't seem to be aware of it, defending the holy scriptures of Judaism and Islam.
A trailer for the play shows Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of stone bearing the commandments.
'There is good news and bad news', he tells the Israelites. 'I got him down to 10, but adultery is still one of them'.
"If it was a play to do with anti-gay material, can you imagine the outcry there would be over that? If it was anti-Semitic? If it was anti-Koran? All of those things would create an uproar," said Agnew.
But it must have registered with him that the greater uproar now is over the banning of the play and I wonder if he is capable of getting his head round why that is.
Part of the umbrage is about the widely-felt need to defend the arts against small-minded religious cranks who think that they have a right to assume that their responsibilities include the defence of their faith.
If Frazer Agnew wants a mandate to defend his reading of the Christian faith, let him stand as a Christian candidate and not as a representative of a political party which aspires – however laughably – to crossing communities.
But the other fear is that if councillors get a taste for this power to ban plays, then they will use it more lavishly.
We could end up with nationalist councils banning plays which offend their readings of history and unionist councillors extending their censorious impulses to take in material they don't agree with.
We already saw a taste of that fervour in the Ulster Unionist Party's attack on teaching notes issued by CEA for the novel, Bog Child. We could have a moral panic every time a breast is bared on a stage.
We have also had protests about plays by Brian Friel being included in the school curriculum, and a recent fuss about an erotic painting being withdrawn from the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition.
With the Friel plays, the compromise appears to be that schools don't have to use them and Protestant children can be protected against the Donegal idiom and expletives like "Jesus, Mary and Joseph."
It is 55 years this spring since Sam Thompson's play, Over The Bridge, was banned by the Belfast Group Theatre, having been commissioned by James Ellis, because the high-minded directors though that the good theatre-going people of Belfast shouldn't be exposed to the ugliness of sectarianism.
In 1967, we had Belfast Corporation banning the film version of Ulysses, while being memorably unable to pronounce the word. The film starred Milo O'Shea as Leopold Bloom, but it was Barbara Jefford's Molly Bloom that appalled them.
Still, a short time later, Siobhan McKenna was able to recite the whole bawdy soliloquy on a bed on the stage of the Grove Theatre in a production called, Here Are Ladies.
That's the trouble with municipal efforts to clean up culture to the standards of councillors; they can't catch everything.
Nuala McKeever, who has staged plays at the Theatre at the Mill, has written in protest to the council, arguing the play "doesn't denigrate Christianity in any way".
She wrote: "To perceive threat everywhere and to be defensive and closed-minded, those are not Christian traits; they are the traits of totalitarian, fundamentalist dictatorships.
"We don't live in such a society. Shame on the council for letting such behaviour prevail. I suggest the council takes its religious and political views out of the mix when the Theatre at the Mill programme is being decided.
"Feel free to protest outside a show, but don't feel free to stop the show happening."
Have none of these councillors any sense of the need for Northern Ireland to be seen to have grown up in the last 55 years? Have they no sense that they are regarded globally as having form in this type of censorship?
Or are they already eyeing the swings in the parks and thinking of tying them up next Sunday?