THE MAN IN THE GREEN GOGGLES: CLERGYMEN AND THEATRE CENSORSHIP (TORONTO, 1912-13
One of the most fervent and dedicated, perhaps the most fervent and dedicated of all religious critics of theatre in Canada was the Toronto Methodist minister, the Reverend John Coburn (1874- 1954). Coburn is of particular interest because he differed from the norm. Rather than contenting himself with delivering sermons or writing essays against the theatre, he immersed himself in the day-to-day activities of Toronto theatre life in the period immediately preceding the First World War. Rather than denouncing the theatre as such, he berated individual theatres and took steps to censor or suppress particular plays. His influence on the Toronto theatre was immediate and measurable, and Coburn provides probably the most interesting case-study in Canadian theatre history of church criticism of the theatre.
Coburn, who had previously distinguished himself in a campaign against the 'wets' during the 1909 Toronto plebiscite on bar-rooms, describes his crusade against certain plays and certain theatres in Toronto in one chapter of his sketchy memoirs, I Kept My Powder Dry.1 It all began with an anonymous telephone call received by Coburn in his parsonage on Parliament Street. The caller spoke of an 'indescribably filthy and obscene' play at Toronto's main burlesque house, the Star Theatre. Coburn had never been to the Star, but he 'knew its reputation as the number one purveyor of indecency in the city.' He attended the offending show (which he does not name) and found it 'shamelessly obscene'. Following consultations with senior members of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches, with city and police officials, and with the head of the city's Morality Department, Coburn found himself in court giving evidence against the management of the Star Theatre. The prosecution was successful, the show was closed, and a $10.00 fine (plus costs) was levied against the Star's manager. Coburn was dismayed at the lightness of the penalty: 'If some poor chap had stolen a few dollars, and had been convicted in the Toronto police court, he would probably be sent to jail for a good stiff term, but a man could corrupt the morals of thousands and escape with a ten dollar fine' (Coburn, p 117).
This initial skirmish with the Star whetted Coburn's appetite. In February 1912 the Star put on a risqué burlesque show called The Darlings of Paris. Some of the dialogue and dances were, one gathers from press reports, mildly suggestive, and they attracted the attention of R.B. St Clair, a Congregational minister and secretary of the Toronto Vigilance Association. Hoping to arouse public indignation against the theatre, St Clair printed and distributed a description of The Darlings of Paris. The plan backfired. St Clair was promptly arrested and charged with publishing obscene literature. His trial opened on 7 September 1912, and despite the appearance of Coburn and other church ministers as witnesses for the defence, St Clair was found guilty of publishing and distributing 'certain obscene circulars, tending to corrupt morals, contrary to the provisions of the criminal code.' 2 The judge offered to suspend sentence in return for St Clair's promise not to repeat the offence. A committee had been formed to defend and advise St Clair; its members, including Coburn, urged St Clair not to give the judge the agreement he sought. Coburn explains the consequences:
The judge was most uncomfortable. It was evident that his sympathies were wholly with St. Clair and that he was disgusted with the actions of the police [for arresting St. Clair and for not closing the Darlings show]. Very reluctantly he imposed a fine of twenty-five dollars or ten days in jail. St. Clair again on our advice refused to pay the fine. He was quite willing to spend the ten days in jail for the cause. If they had put him in jail we would have organized such a demonstration on his release that would have shaken the city. The authorities fearing such a result simply did nothing. That fine has never been paid to this day, and St. Clair was not sent to jail. (Coburn, p 119)
Having helped win at least a moral victory in the St Clair case, Coburn and his St Clair defence committee insisted that the Star now be prosecuted for presenting The Darlings of Paris. The trial opened on 10 January 1913 in the Assize Court for the County of York before Justice Middleton. Coburn was again in court, but the first day's proceedings were occupied by legal discussions as to whether charges for putting on an obscene performance should be laid against the Star's proprietor, F.W. Stair, or the theatre's manager, Daniel Pearce. In the end both were charged, and the actual trial began and ended on Saturday 11 January. Counsel for the defence was the skilful Toronto lawyer, Herbert Lennox. Lennox's methods sometimes slipped beyond the bounds of the ethical. He tried - usually successfully - to get some of his many friends and acquaintances on the jury. In the Star case, according to Coburn, this was exactly what he achieved, and the result was a very odd verdict indeed from the jury. After five hours deliberation the jury found Pearce and Stair not guilty, but added a rider to the effect that 'the jurors wish the citizens to know that they feel that the proprietors and those in charge of show houses cannot be too strongly censured for allowing such plays as this [The Darlings of Paris], suggesting anything that is immoral, indecent or obscene' (Coburn, p 124). As Coburn observes, the verdict and rider seemed quite contradictory, and Judge Middleton was bemused and annoyed. 'The verdict was an obvious disappointment to the Judge. He did not attempt to secrete his feelings,' observed the Globe reporter (13 January 1913, p 1). Coburn quotes Middleton's irate remarks to the jury:
I assume from the fact that you have taken so much trouble with this verdict that it is honestly and conscientiously arrived at. I may frankly say that I entirely disagree with it. I cannot see how any reasonable man could have any doubt that the play was anything else than immoral, indecent and obscene, and I cannot see how you found that even on the defendants' evidence you could arrive at any other verdict . . . . The Department of Justice has been brought into disrepute by this trial. The man [i.e. St Clair] who drew the attention of the public to this and who described what took place in the theatre in a way that seemed to be substantially undisputed has been convicted of publishing obscene literature, while those who produced the play have been by the opinion of the jury acquitted....3
Some segments of the press were equally dismayed by the verdict. The Globe (whose editor at this time was a churchman, the Reverend J.A. Macdonald) carried an outraged editorial on 13 January:
Toronto is a place where immorality, indecency, and obscenity may flaunt themselves publicly, under public license, and recognized by the police authorities, and yet those responsible for the proved vileness and uncleanliness are, by the verdict of a Toronto jury, acquitted.
The Star case was indeed a rum business, and the result of the trial must have given Coburn second thoughts about continuing a campaign against the theatres. His first effort against the Star had ended with a conviction but a paltry fine; his support of a fellow clergyman's similar effort had failed to prevent that colleague's being convicted of writing an obscene circular; and now the Star had been acquitted by an eccentric jury. Time to return to a temperance campaign, perhaps.
But between the conviction of St Clair and the acquittal of Pearce and Stair, Coburn had taken other initiatives to control Toronto's theatres, initiatives which held out the promise of more satisfactory results than those achieved so far.
St Clair was convicted on 23 September 1912. On 11 October the Globe announced on its front page that the committee which had been formed to support St Clair had met the previous evening at Toronto's Central YMCA to 'take some action regarding police methods and conditions in Toronto as revealed by the Rev R. B. St Clair and other cases.' Another committee, of twenty members, including Coburn, was organized to call a mass protest meeting. This meeting was duly held on Friday 1 November in Massey Hall. Some 4,000 people attended, including, according to the Globe (2 November, p 1), 'nearly all' Toronto's clergymen. It was an exciting evening, with no lack of clerical zeal: 'by standing votes and vociferous applause, [those present] endorsed striking and trenchant indictments of the administration of the Morality Department of the Toronto police, and stirring and dignified appeals for a morally better Toronto.' A number of resolutions were passed, all of them reflecting dissatisfaction with the police's alleged failure to keep Toronto 'clean'. From the theatre's point of view the most significant decision of the meeting was to establish a Committee of Forty, with James Ryrie as chairman, and John Coburn as secretary. Part of the Committee's mandate was 'to carry on a campaign to clean up the theatres of the city' (Coburn, p 119). Coburn himself accepted the main responsibility for this. He was granted relief from some of his church duties so that he would have more time to keep an eye on the theatres, a task he performed with great diligence. 'During a period of two years,' he says, 'I either saw every stage show that came to Toronto or had a report on it by some reliable person who had seen it' (Coburn, p 120). In effect, Coburn became a professional censor, for he instructed many theatres on what was or was not suitable for Toronto audiences. On some occasions managers and proprietors actively sought his advice. The manager of Ambrose Small's Grand Opera House on Adelaide Street, for example, once had his company put on a full rehearsal of a play about which he was 'a little nervous' so that Coburn could advise him. Coburn obliged. He suggested some cuts, and Cowan, the manager, expressed his appreciation:
Mr. Coburn, my employer and I are determined to keep this theatre clean and decent. But you know we cannot always be sure of everything that actors bring to our stage; we want your help. Two of the best seats in the house for each and every performance are at your disposal. We hope you will use them often; the oftener you do so, the better we will be pleased. We promise that what we have done in this case we will do in all others. Whenever you see anything which in your opinion is not proper in a public performance, please report to me at the close of the show, and I guarantee it will be eliminated. (Coburn, p 122)
So far as Coburn and the Committee of Forty were concerned, this was a much more satisfactory state of affairs than having less rigorously-minded police officers censor plays that came to Toronto. That system, after all, had allowed The Darlings of Paris free reign. However, the Toronto City Board of Control, obviously under some pressure after the mass protest meeting at Massey Hall, was also looking carefully at the censorship system. At a meeting on 4 December 1912 the Board agreed to ask the Police Commissioners to establish a theatre censorship board consisting of a chief censor and two assistants, none of whom should be police officers and all of whom should have 'special qualifications for the work' (Globe 5 December, p 9). It took just three weeks to find a suitably qualified chief censor, and on Christmas Day the Globe announced (25 December, p 9) that a member of the paper's editorial staff, William Banks, had been appointed at a salary of $1,300 a year. Banks' duties were to begin on 1 January, and his assistants were to be named at a later date.
Toronto, then, had quickly gone from a position of having no appointed censor, to having both an official, full-time censor and an unofficial church-supported censor. It was too much to expect that the secular censor and the church vigilants would always see eye to eye about what was morally allowable on the Toronto stage. The inevitable clash was not long coming. The trial of Legrand Howland's problem-play, Deborah, in the spring of 1913 was not, as Murray Edwards says, 'the first legal battle involving the theatre in Canada,' 4 but it is certainly one of the most intriguing cases involving church, state and theatre in Canada, or anywhere else for that matter.
Although he was directly involved with the Deborah case, Coburn says nothing about it in his memoirs. The omission can be rectified by reference to the Toronto newspapers, but there are difficulties in unravelling the complexities of the case. Information about the American author of Deborah is sparse; 5 the same is true of the principal performer in the play, the American actress, Carlotta Nillson; 6 and, briefly notorious though it was, the play was never published.7
Deborah was a new play; the Toronto production on 20 May 1913 at the Princess Theatre was its first. From the advance press publicity and reviews of the opening night and other productions, we can get some idea of what Deborah was about. A press release in the Toronto Evening Telegram (19 May, p 10) describes the play as dealing with 'the great cry of motherhood, the yearning of all true women for children.' It contains a 'stirring dramatic story . . . proceeding along the advanced lines of the purely modern school whose greatest exponents are Ibsen and Brieux.' Deborah, the main character, is described as 'a young New England girl who feels this cry of motherhood so strongly that she is induced to take a step which brings about a strange and remarkable situation.' The Telegram review (21 May, p 27) gives more detail. Deborah (played by Carlotta Nillson) has been raised, we gather, by two stuffy maiden aunts (Marie Day and Maud Sinclair) who have sheltered her from social life in general and from young men in particular. These circumstances, together with her 'retiring disposition' virtually guarantee spinsterhood for Deborah, but she desperately wants a child. She visits her family doctor (Frank Gillmore), who tells her that if she does not fulfil her desire her life will end in consumption or insanity. All this occupies act one. In act two Deborah visits her sister, and there, following her doctor's advice - though he had probably not intended it to be understood this way 8 - she takes a lover (played by Elliott Dexter). The third and final act takes place sixteen years later. Deborah had the child she wanted, but has lived with a guilty conscience for all this time, finally confessing her 'sin' to her minister (also Elliott Dexter).
The point of the play, belonging as it did (at least according to the publicity puff) in the tradition of Ibsen and Brieux, was clearly not to offer a simplistic moral condemnation of Deborah. Nor was it intended to approve wholly of Deborah's behaviour. Those forces, individual and social, which suppressed Deborah's natural instincts seem to have borne the brunt of Howland's criticism. Yet when we listen to the playwright, he hardly comes across as a truly radical thinker:
My object in writing Deborah [Howland explained to the Telegram 22 May, p 23] was to give an example of what happens when the natural laws are disobeyed. If it is wrong, immoral and immodest to bring up the subject of maternity, then the ethics of modern civilization are wrong. The fact that Deborah committed a great sin was purposely put in the play, for when great laws of nature are suppressed there is bound to be an explosion . . . .
Thousands of women are mental and physical wrecks because they have not married, owing to the fact that the need of marriage and motherhood has never been impressed upon them by their parents or those responsible for their education.
The modern society woman no longer desires children, the suffragettes think the same, but nature takes and will take its revenge, for it means race suicide. The woman who refuses to bear children or neglects to educate her children should be ostracized from society. I believe that my play is a message for women, and a plea for mothers, and that any attack upon it is simply the work of notoriety-seekers. If there are still people who think that my play is immoral, let me answer them by saying that my children shall be taught these things to prepare them for the life for which God made them.
So much for Ibsen! Down with the suffragettes; long live the conventional role for women as mothers and wives. There is nothing here to match the challenges posed by contemporary Scandinavian and European playwrights. If Deborah was a problem-play, it was a muted and conservative problem-play closer to Jones and Pinero than Ibsen and Shaw. Nonetheless, the play did contain, by Edwardian standards, an indisputably immoral act, and it did raise the sensitive subject of illegitimacy. Hence the fuss.
The opening night of Deborah was well-attended. The critics of the major Toronto newspapers were there, but so were two individuals whose opinions of Deborah were to have greater significance than those of the critics so far as the play's future was concerned. One was William Banks, chief censor. The other was John Coburn.
Banks took exception to some parts of the play and immediately ordered some changes.9 He told the Globe (22 May, p 8) that 'the suggestion in the climax of the second act was too poignant.' Accordingly, the scene in which Deborah, alone with her lover, turned down the light before the curtain on act two, was cut. (According to a later report in the Daily Star, 4 June, p 17, some eight minutes were censored from the end of act two.) The Telegram reviewer reported on the effect of this change, and the audience's reaction to it at a subsequent production: ' 'Tis true that all they hewed out was the turning down of a light by a lady, but it was the connecting link between Act I and Act III and Deborah without it doesn't hold together.' The same reviewer also noted the unusually loud applause at the end of the second act: 'it was evident the crowded gallery was entering a protest against the powers that prevented it getting all it came for' (Telegram 23 May, p 17). Banks also ordered the deletion of some dialogue. His assistant, Wiggins, explained to the Globe that 'the lines had been materially pruned in places to the satisfaction of the [censorship] board without affecting in any way the original idea of the author.' He thought that 'certain passages were too crude and suggestive and would give rise to objection on the part of theatre-goers' (Globe 22 May, p 8). Banks also attended a matinée performance of Deborah on 21 May and ordered a few additional changes, and so far as the secular censors were concerned, that was that. The play, in its censored form, could continue.
Coburn had different ideas. He ignored the censorship altogether and called a meeting of the Committee of Forty for the afternoon of Thursday 22 May, telling the Globe (2 2 May, p 8) that 'If I am to remain Secretary of that Committee there must be some action on that play.' Coburn understood Deborah quite differently from Howland, apparently interpreting the play as an approval of Deborah's behaviour: 'I cannot imagine anything more outrageous, and the offence is aggravated by his [Howland's] attempt to justify the moral attitude of the heroine of the play' (Telegram 22 May, p 23). It seemed that Coburn wanted advice from the Committee of Forty on what action to take against Deborah, but in fact he had already taken decisive action on his own initiative. On the morning of 22 May, after consultation with the Crown Attorney's office, Coburn laid informations against the Deborah company and its manager, Maynard Waite. Summonses were issued, and the play was forced to close after that evening's performance. According to a report in the Toronto Daily Star (23 May, p 7), the Princess was packed for this final performance. An extra $400 was taken at the box office and Carlotta Nillson was given seven curtain calls at the end of act two. Since Deborah had been given the go-ahead by the city's official censor, Howland was astonished that it could still be prosecuted, and Miss Nillson reckoned the problem was that 'the play is beyond the intellectual comprehension of the clergymen who are objecting to it' (Telegram 22 May, p 17). But whether he understood the play or not, Coburn had won the first round. Deborah was silenced and its cast was about to be prosecuted.
The Deborah company was charged under section 208 of the Ontario Statutes of the Criminal Code: 'Every person who takes part or appears as an actor, performer, or assistant in any capacity in any ... immoral, indecent, or obscene play, opera, concert, performance, or other entertainment or representation is guilty of an offence and liable on summary conviction to three months' imprisonment or to a fine not exceeding $20, or both' (Daily Star 22 May, p 1). The case was heard before Magistrate George T. Denison in Toronto's Women's Police Court on Saturday 24 May. Denison was also chairman of the Board of Police Commissioners, and his antagonism to the play and the actors was evident throughout the trial. At one point Frank Gillmore (the doctor in Deborah) rose to speak: 'My name is Gillmore. I have been hated into court and I want to protest against the action of this court. How can we tell what is moral and immoral? We ....' Here Gillmore was cut off by the magistrate: 'I have no time to fuss with you. Apparently some of you don't know the morals, but you will have to learn' (Daily Star 23 May, p 22).
Carlotta Nillson also made her views known. During an adjournment she spoke to the press:
The charges against us are absurd. Do you think any minister or any person else could go to an artist in his studio and say 'I don't like that picture, you will have to cover it up.' Or again, could they go to a great composer and say 'Your music is too suggestive, you will have to modify it.' I have no conception of the treatment we will receive, but from the way the people are herded about this corridor by officious policemen, I can well understand the position of poor Mrs. Pankhurst in the English prisons. (Daily Star 23 May, p 22)
Miss Nillson, however, was not the star of this show. Coburn dominated the proceedings. Under cross-examination he insisted that no amount of censorship could alter what he judged to be the essential immorality of Deborah. He unreservedly condemned the whole play, 'notwithstanding what the censor had ordered to be cut out.' Coburn refused to accept 'that a moral lesson was involved in the play, nor was he prepared to admit that Deborah's conduct after the second act was due to an act of impulse or that emphasis had been put by the author upon the repression of her nature' (Globe 24 May, p 8).
Denison heard other witnesses, including a psychology lecturer from the University of Toronto who defended the psychological truth of Deborah, but his verdict was not in much doubt. The manager and company were found guilty, fines were levied ($5.00 each on the actors, $20 on the manager, plus costs) and Deborah was suppressed. Notice of appeal was immediately given by Hartley Dewart, defence counsel, but for the time being at least the Princess Theatre was dark.
The case had already aroused considerable interest in the press, and in the days immediately following the trial several related issues were debated on the editorial pages and in letters to the editor. The Globe firmly supported Denison's verdict. 'The leprosy of uncleanness must be kept out of the theatres of Toronto. If theatre-owners and managers will not do so voluntarily the arm of the law must be invoked' (24 May, p 6). The Globe also carried a letter on 26 May (p 6) arguing in favour of tighter censorship controls on the theatre, and suggesting a pre-censorship of plays: 'It seems childish,' the anonymous correspondent suggested, 'that moving pictures should have to be shown a board of censors before they are produced for the public, while any old thing a misguided man may write, and misguided people act, can have public performance to such an extent that before the cumbersome law can take effect it has been heralded abroad, freely advertised, and may go on its damaging way ad lib.'
But the Globe, to its credit, was fairer than most papers in that it also made its columns available to Deborah's supporters.10 On 3 June (p 6) it published a letter from Howland in which the playwright offered to discuss his play with its church opponents, and on 26 May (p 6) there was an interesting letter from one Frederick Henwood, who took strong exception to 'the interference of censoring bodies usually closely connected with the churches.' Henwood was worried about the 'plague' of sexual immorality in large cities like Toronto and believed that the playwright must be free to discuss it. His conclusion is startlingly aggressive:
The scientific method of attacking this plague is to learn the cause of it, and the modern drama is the pioneer in the field of preventive morality, superseding the obsolete method of post-mortern morality. Ministers of the Gospel can be more usefully employed than in meddling with problems of houses of ill-fame and with doubtful passages in the modern drama. Six months at the feet of men like Bernard Shaw would do no harm to the religious instincts of the people, and would effect more for pure social life in cities than the whole host of clerical censors in a lifetime.
In questioning the church's involvement in social, and, more specifically, theatrical affairs, Henwood was getting close to a vital issue of the Deborah case. Who should exercise control of the city's theatres? There was an official censor, but he had been made to appear irrelevant by recent events. The real censor was evidently John Coburn, and until the power struggle between secular and church censors was resolved, producers, managers, playwrights and actors who worked in or visited Toronto would be uncertain about just whose stamp of approval they needed.
The courts - and this time with a judge, not simply a magistrate - would settle the issue. The appeal against the conviction of the Deborah company opened on 4 June 1913 before Judge Morson. It was clear from the beginning that Coburn was not going to have the easy time allowed him by Magistrate Denison in the first trial. Coburn's preliminary announcement that he was secretary of the Committee of Forty was curtly responded to: ' "I am not interested in that," said Judge Morson.'" Dewart, defence counsel, asked Coburn who appointed him as censor. ' "He appointed himself, I suppose," volunteered Judge Morson.' 11 Dewart was evidently on good form. His questions often succeeded in making Coburn appear ignorant or foolish. Part of the cross-examination went as follows:
'What I am trying to get out of you is what qualifications this blessed Committee of Forty found in you to appoint you to the position you hold,' Mr. Dewart stated to Mr. Coburn.
'I don't pretend to be a dramatic critic,' retorted Mr. Coburn.
'Then don't take up the job,' advised Mr. Dewart.
Mr. Coburn told Mr. Dewart that he had seen Romeo and Juliet, but it was some time ago, and he didn't remember it very clearly. Mr. Dewart then named a number of Shakespeare's works, but Hamlet appeared to be the only one with which he was familiar. There were parts of it which he would 'cut' if produced on the stage.
This exchange did not reflect at all well on Coburn, but his dignity as well as credibility were also put to the test.
'Are you the gentleman who went to the theatre with false whiskers and green goggles?'
'Yes,' replied Mr. Coburn.
'Why should you do this, you of all people?' asked Judge Morson.
'I had reason to believe that if my presence were known there the play would not be put on in the original form.'
(It is difficult to control one's imagination in these circumstances. A Methodist minister lurking in the back stalls of a burlesque house in false whiskers and green goggles is one of those joyous moments that come only too rarely to theatre historians.)
There was a touch of the ridiculous in the evidence given by William Banks as well. Banks admitted that when he went to the Princess for the opening night of Deborah he was suffering from a bad cold and 'was unable to see or hear clearly.' This, one might think, is something of a handicap for a censor, but Banks' assistant, Wiggins, was there to help him out and they had 'censored the show jointly.'
On the other hand, Banks, when he could see and hear it, showed he understood Deborah better than Coburn. He did not like the play - 'One of those abominable problem plays which I detest' - but he did recognize that its moral position was really very respectable and old-fashioned: it 'taught a moral that sin would bring a punishment - a very heavy punishment in this world.' In any case, Banks sensibly argued, 'he couldn't suppress the whole play because two or three sentences might be suggestive.'
Judge Morson must have wondered about the reliability of the evidence of the two censors; one of them had seen Deborah through green goggles, the other had been half blind and half deaf on opening night. Perhaps this is why Morson took the unprecedented step of ordering a special performance of Deborah so that he could make up his own mind. The company was willing, though since they had already been convicted and fined for performing the play they might have had some qualms about doing it again. However, the performance of Deborah that took place in the Princess on the evening of 4 June 1913 was not a public performance, but in fact a continuation of that day's court hearing. It was a unique occasion in Canadian theatre and legal history. Some sixty people were present, mostly witnesses, court officials and journalists. This unusual audience was treated to the original uncensored version of Deborah, and according to the Globe (5 June, p 2) the company excelled itself: 'It seemed as if the challenge of the court was an inspiration that brought out the best that was in every individual member.' There is no record of Judge Morson's immediate reaction to Deborah; judgement was reserved.
Morson, having seen the uncensored play and read the censored text, took two days to reach a decision. It was in favour of Deborah. The convictions of the manager and members of the company were quashed. Nothing about the Deborah case had been straightforward, and so it was that even Judge Morson's final judgement (an appeal was not allowable) was not without its quirks. Parts of his ruling made good sense; other parts made no sense at all, as Coburn and others were quick to point out. Morson stated that 'the play in its censored form does not exert an immoral influence.' 12 'The proper method to adopt in determining whether a play is immoral or not is to treat it as a whole, looking to the purpose for which it was written. It [is] not sufficient to single out isolated passages, which is too frequently done by those not sufficiently educated up to appreciate the drama at its true value.' Yes, but the company had not been convicted for acting the censored Deborah; it was the opening night uncensored version which Coburn had challenged. He was quick to criticize Morson's judgement:
It is a very strange document to be handed out from a British court of justice in that it fails to decide the vital issue of the case. It decides that the censored performances were not immoral. But was the first performance immoral? . . . We are in a strange position: the undisturbed finding of the court is that these people [i.e. the Deborah company] committed a crime on Tuesday May 20, and yet are permitted to escape punishment by the grace of his Honor.
Coburn had a point. He was upset at Morson's evasion of the main legal issue, but perhaps even more upsetting were the judge's comments on the relative authority of Banks and Coburn as censors. Morson was blunt. He claimed to admire the aims of the Committee of Forty, but concluded:
I do not think they should be permitted to constitute themselves self-appointed censors and usurp the functions of the official censor and have their own opinions preferred to his, as appears to have been done in this case. It would, I think, have perhaps been better if the Magistrate in the exercise of his discretion, even though his personal opinion was immoral [sic!], had given effect to the opinion of the censor, but in any event, I think he should not, in his discretion, have found the appellants guilty in view of the fact that they were playing the play in its then form with consent of the official censor, and were entitled to assume, as they did assume, that they were within their rights and not transgressors of the law.
This was clear enough, and Banks, for one, was pleased. He hoped the judge's comments would 'clear the air and more accurately define the position of the censor.' He looked forward to co-operating with 'moral reformers,' but it was now clear that he, not Coburn, was Toronto's theatre censor.
Deborah re-opened at the Princess on 9 June 1913. It ran for a week, and the company recouped some of the $7,000 loss manager Waite said they had sustained during the suppression (Daily Star 7 June, p 12). There was talk of an Ontario tour and a New York engagement for the play, but these plans seem never to have materialized. Deborah faded away, but the consequences of its trials were more durable. Deborah had provided an important test case. No one in Toronto in 1913 doubted that some kind of theatre censorship was necessary, the question was, who was to control the censorship? It looked for a while as if a group of well-intentioned but narrow-minded noncomformist ministers had pre-empted secular control. The importance of Judge Morson's ruling on 7 June 1913 was that it restricted the church again to its traditional role of pulpit-critic, not legal guardian, of drama in Toronto. The censorial ambitions as well as the disguises of green-goggled and false-whiskered Methodist ministers had been fully exposed.Notes
THE MAN IN THE GREEN GOGGLES: CLERGYMEN AND THEATRE CENSORSHIP (TORONTO, 1912-13)
1 JOHN COBURN, I Kept My Powder Dry Toronto,
1950. The chapter on the theatre is called 'The Fight for a Clean Stage'
(chapter 11 pp 112-127). I am indebted to Richard Plant for drawing my
attention to Coburn's book, though Dr Plant is, of course, in no way responsible
for any errors or deficiences in my article. Coburn published a second
book of memoirs, Grace, Grit & Gumption Toronto, 1952, but it
has no theatrical content.
Return to article
2 Toronto Globe 23 September 1912, p 9. See also
the Globe 24 September 1912, p 9, and 27 September 1912, p 9. Some
of the witnesses for the defence were rather lukewarm in their support
of St Clair. In describing the Star as 'an agency for prostitution and
a school of vice,' he had gone too far, some suggested.
Return to article
3 COBURN, p 125. See also the Globe 10 January
1913, p 7, and 11 January 1913, p 8.
Return to article
4 MURRAY EDWARDS, A Stage in Our Past Toronto,
1968, p 82. I cannot say when 'the first legal battle' did occur, but the
trial of The Darlings of Paris precedes that of Deborah by
some five months.
Return to article
5 Howland seems to have written only two other plays,
Sarrano, a musical drama in Italian, published in Firenze in 1906,
and Nature's Cry London, 1912.
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6 Carlotta Nillson appeared in a number of New York
productions, her biggest success being in
The Three of Us in 1906.
Return to article
7 Even the manuscript copyright text in the Library
of Congress, dated 22 October 1913, is incomplete.
Return to article
8 According to testimony given in the first trial of
Deborah, the doctor said, 'Every woman, married or single, should
have a right to fulfil her destiny [i.e. Motherhood]' (Globe 24
May 1913, p 8).
Return to article
9 Although Banks was certainly at the opening performance
of Deborah on 20 May he may already have ordered some changes at
a special performance that afternoon. There is some confusion about this.
Banks said on Thursday 22 May that 'I endeavored to get a rehearsal of
the show on Tuesday noon, but could only get a very small part of it, because
they had no scenery, and a slight accident to one of the performers curtailed
the whole matter, and I could not hear all the dialogue on account of that.'
But Howland and Nillson seemed to think that the Tuesday afternoon performance
satisfied the censor. 'We complied with the ordinances of the city in giving
a special presentation of the play for the censors. A few changes were
demanded and those were made,' according to Howland. And Nillson's recollection
was that 'We had a special performance on Tuesday afternoon for the censor,
and the scene of the second act to which he objected was removed altogether
as well as several other lines.'
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10 The Daily Star was perhaps the staunchest
opponent of Deborah, so much so that it earned the thanks of Mr
A.W. Hone, Assistant Pastor at the Pauline Avenue Methodist Church. In
a letter to the Star (28 May 1913, p 6), Hone said, 'I believe the
thanks of all who reverence motherhood and their mothers is due The
Star for its attitude towards this question.'
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11 I base my account of the trial on the detailed report
given by the Daily Star 4 June 1913, pp 1, 17.
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12 Globe 7 June 1913, p 4. My discussion of
Morson's ruling is based on the Globe's report.
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