When smoking becomes freedom of expression

NYC theatre companies are now prohibited from featuring real cigarettes in their plays. That is censorship.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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This week, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill is filing reports from New York City. His second is published below.

When George Bernard Shaw’s play about prostitution, Mrs Warren’s Profession, was first shown in New York in 1905, the police invaded the theatre, arrested the director and his entire cast, threw them into a cell for a night, and charged them with ‘offending public decency’.

A new production of Mrs Warren’s Profession, at the Selwyn Theatre on 42nd Street, is potentially politically combustible for a different reason – not because it features an unapologetic madam, but because one of the characters smokes. That’s as likely to outrage today’s defenders of decency as much as Shaw’s poke in the eye to sexual hypocrisy rattled yesteryear’s.

‘WARNING: herbal cigarettes feature in this production’, say the posters in the Selwyn lobby. These are best understood as talismans designed to ward off the NYPD, for in smokefree NYC, where smoking in public places has been banned since 2003, it’s against the law to have someone smoke a real cigarette on stage. Theatre companies can apply to City Hall for a waiver if they really want their actors to puff for real, but it’s so much hassle that most opt for herbal cigarettes instead.

‘Oh god, not herbals!’ says an elderly woman and seasoned theatregoer when she sees the posters. What’s the problem? ‘They stink. They smell like pot to me. So the actress can’t smoke a cigarette but she can smoke something that will make the audience think “is that marijuana?” It’s crazy.’ She tells me she has been to smaller theatres where some audience members have covered their noses when a herbal cigarette is lit, because ‘they really don’t like the smell’.

The irony is that Shaw’s play is about the tendency of our moral betters to pontificate about the lifestyles of the lower orders. It tells the story of Vivie Warren, daughter of Mrs W, discovering that her mother has a string of whorehouses around Europe and what’s more that she used their considerable takings to pay for Vivie’s schooling and Oxford education. Vivie (brilliantly played by Britain’s latest national treasure, Sally Hawkins, in this new production) is a modern woman; she’s into science and rationalism, is in no rush to marry, and most symbolically of all, she smokes. She is aggrieved to discover that her charmed life has been built on the humiliating graft of less fortunate women – until her mother challenges her with a monologue about life’s harsh realities.

Smoking is key to Shaw’s play. It’s how we know that Vivie is one of the ‘New Women’ who emerged in late nineteenth-century Britain, that and the fact that she wears less restrictive clothing and rides a bicycle. Shaw’s text is peppered with smoke-related stage directions. ‘She settles herself comfortably in her chair, smoking’; ‘She nods placidly with one eye on a wreath of smoke’.

Which got me thinking – when the depiction of smoking is central to a piece of theatre, don’t smoking bans become something even worse than irritating and patronising health-improvement measures and turn into attacks on freedom of expression itself? If a theatre company is limited by law from showing a character doing something that the playwright specified, isn’t that as outrageous an attack on artistic liberty as the cops’ storming of the first NYC showing of Mrs Warren’s Profession on the basis that it was immoral?

I think the producers of the current New York showing of Mrs W may even have indulged in self-censorship. They show Vivie smoking only once, but she puffs more frequently than that in Shaw’s original text. Maybe they wanted to limit the number of times they subjected the audience to the herbal whiff.

Other New York theatre producers have applied for that waiver which might, if some bureaucrat in City Hall is feeling generous, allow their actors to smoke real cigarettes on stage. But they’ve found the process art-stoppingly dispiriting. Abbie Strassler, general manager of the 2005 Broadway revival of The Odd Couple, in which the character Oscar chomps almost non-stop on a cigar, applied for such a wavier, and the whole process took four months. Shaw would be outraged. In his ‘Apology’ for having written Mrs Warren’s Profession (strictly ironic, you understand), he wrote with characteristic snobbery, but also good sense, of the ‘staggering absurdity in appointing an ordinary clerk to see that the leaders of European literature do not corrupt the morals of the nation’. Today, ‘ordinary clerks’ don’t necessarily keep a list of words and moral themes that cannot be explored, but they do draw up bizarre rules governing the lighting up of real cigarettes on stage.

A part-time actor in one of the actor-filled bars that line 42nd Street (all smokefree, of course) says he knows of theatre companies that have had a hard time finding the right herbal cigarette for their actors – some herbals have made actors feel ‘nauseous’. ‘It all adds stress to the production’, he says. But in a sense, New York is lucky. In other American states, and some European ones, theatre companies are forbidden even from lighting herbal cigarettes on stage. Now, some theatre companies are fighting back, arguing that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech must extend to allowing playwrights to depict smoking and actors to act it out. Which is why I love America.

In Colorado, three theatre companies sued the state for forbidding them from having their actors smoke on stage. One of the theatre companies was producing Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; it was told that it could just ‘fake it’ and have its actors hold rolled-up, unlit pieces of paper. Yet in Albee’s play, there’s a scene in which the character of Martha says to her conquest Nick, ‘Hand me a cigarette, lover’, followed by the stage direction: ‘He lights it for her. As he does, she slips her hand between his legs.’ Imagine doing that scene with a rolled-up dollar bill instead of an actual cigarette. Some of these ‘ordinary clerks’ really don’t get art. Stopping Martha from having a cigarette is a censorious assault on Albee’s work of art and on modern-day theatre companies’ right to produce it.

Works by playwrights as diverse as Henrik Ibsen and Noel Coward have all been self-censored or censored or cancelled in America because they feature smoking. At the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, a production of Mark Twain Tonight! was regrettably called off by a theatre company, because Twain ‘had a cigar in his mouth 99 per cent of his waking hours’ and it was impossible to do the play without one. ‘It is part of our history that people smoked’, said the chief exec of the Denver centre.

Indeed. Which means that the erasing of cigarettes from the stage is an act of moral blacklisting every bit as much as the censorship of depictions of prostitution in the past. In 1905, one of Shaw’s supporters described the attacks on Shaw by intolerant sections of the New York press as a ‘moral lynching’. Shaw’s critics said the likes of Mrs W were ‘ordure’ and ‘should not be mentioned in the presence of decent people’. Today, it is smokers who are morally lynched, presented as weak and inferior and not fit for discussion or depiction in front of ‘decent people’. The pseudo-scientific idea that an actor having a one-minute smoke on stage might infect the audience with so-called secondhand smoke echoes the old notion that Shaw’s depiction of prostitution could have ended up warping his audience’s moral sensibilities.

Back in NYC, it is extraordinary to think that in a city as loud and boisterous as this one, where perfect strangers think nothing of telling you what they think of your sweatshirt (I speak from experience), an actor can’t have a real smoke on stage without City Hall’s explicit permission. In his ironic apology for Mrs W, Shaw said: ‘All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current concepts, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships. There is the whole case against censorships in a nutshell.’ I’ll smoke to that.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Read his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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