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“Hair” and “The Golden Rump”

September 27, 2014

goldenrump

Today is the forty-eighth anniversary of the first London staging of the musical Hair.  As historical anniversaries go, this would normally be rather inconsequential.  The most interesting feature of the London staging (as opposed to the New York or Copenhagen stagings) is the fact that it was held up until the repeal of the Lord Chamberlain’s Act.  The nudie bits were accommodated as a result of the final extinction of a piece of legislation that dated back to 1737.

This Act insisted on pre-approval for production from the Lord Chamberlain’s office (the famous blue pencil) and also fiercely controlled and restricted the licensing of theatres for non musical theatre.

The Act was not passed in prophetic anticipation of the nudie bits in Vietnam War themed musicals but was rather designed to prevent Henry Fielding from making fun of Sir Robert Walpole.  From his little theatre in the Haymarket, Fielding enjoyed a variety of satirical swipes at the so-called “Prime Minister” (originally no sort of acknowledged title at all but a term of abuse). Walpole was one of those people who liked other people to think that he had a sense of humour when he didn’t really.   Fortunately (?) for Walpole, parliament learned of a planned production entitled The Golden Rump which threatened to be the most obscene play ever staged or dreamed of – or at any rate the most anally fixated play of its age, full of emetic imagery.  Its plenitude of shiny arses threatened to lower political discourse below the gutter to the sewer (or so it was threatened) and SOMETHING MUST BE DONE to crack down on this sort of thing.  In any case, the threat of this play created the necessary political context to vote through the Lord Chamberlain’s Act and shut down Henry Fielding for good – forcing him to become a major novelist instead.

The funny thing is – no actual text of The Golden Rump has survived.  And nobody has a clue who wrote it.  It merely appeared as a threat at just the right time.  And this has led some theatre historians to speculate that the entire play was nothing more than a phantom, conjured by a political client of Walpole himself – that the Walpolian whigs had invented the very filth they were clamping down on.

It’s a nice idea and a bizarre context for the story of theatre censorship over the course of the 231 years which separate The Golden Rump and Hair.  I suppose it didn’t occur to anyone back in 1968 to try to fuse the two plays in order to construct some sort of historical tribute.

Nobody looked at all those eighteenth-century arses and thought…
Let – the sunshine in.
Let – the sunshine in – the su-un-shine in.

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