The sudden death of the TASTE TABOOS

Robert Fulford April 18 1964

The sudden death of the TASTE TABOOS

Robert Fulford April 18 1964

The sudden death of the TASTE TABOOS

uIn 10ßJf. (here is nothing — not royalty, not any form of sex, not religion — which cannot be attacked. There is almost nothing that cannot be described realistically, either.” What brought on the new tolerance, and how long will it last?

Robert Fulford

FOR THE RATHER SPECIAL PURPOSES of daily newspaper editors, a fictional eighteenth-century prostitute named Fanny Hill has played in recent months the role that Christine Keeler, the real twentieth - century prostitute, played last summer. That is, Fanny Hill has recently been the subject of a thousand leering news stories and the object of a hundred indignant editorials in the newspapers of Britain, the United States and Canada. Fanny, of course, is the heroine of John Cleland’s elaborately pornographic novel. Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, or Fanny Hill, which was published in all three countries last fall and subsequently set upon by policemen and prosecutors, who saw it as an incitement to immorality and a threat to the public order. The case against the book — which celebrates sexuality in richly descriptive terms — was briefly stated by a columnist in the London Sunday Telegraph. "It would surely be odd,” he wrote, "for a society pledged to monogamous marriage to allow any citizen with a few shillings in his pocket to buy Fanny Hill." The courts agreed. A magistrate in London, a judge in Toronto, and the Supreme Court of New York State all condemned the book. But they themselves were condemned in turn by proFanny Hill editors and others who saw censorship of this kind as an infringement of freedom. The mocking tones of the Toronto Globe and Mail were typical: "Gentle, goodnatured Fanny — whose only fault was her liking for men — is against the law.”

But there was something about these legal cases, and the public debates that arose from them, that was far more important than the freedom of a single book. These debates signalled clearly that a radical change in public tolerance and public taste has occurred in the last few years. The change goes far beyond ribald sexuality in novels — it involves public and private attitudes to religion and politics

as well. It covers the new German play that attacks Pope Pius Xll on Broadway, the satire of the Queen on Canadian TV, and the parodies of American militarism in the film Dr.


The change has come so quickly that it is hard to grasp precisely what has happened. In 1964 there is almost nothing — not royalty, not sexual perversion, not religion — which cannot be satirized or attacked. Possibly more important, in the long run, there is almost nothing which cannot be described realistically in print or on film. What is remarkable in all this is not that tastes change but that they have lately changed so abruptly. It has been commonplace, through history, for one generation's scandal to be the next generation's accepted style: but it is far from commonplace for this to occur within four or five years. Yet this is what has happened in several Western countries, including Canada, since the late 1950s.

In the atmosphere of indignation surrounding the debate over Fanny Hill’s morals, the real point of the case was easily missed. The point was not that the fight for the publication of Fanny Hill was lost; the point was that the fight was made at all. Such a debate would have been unthinkable

— literally, it would not have occurred to anyone as a possibility — just half a dozen years ago.

In 1959, in the United States, a New York publishing firm, Grove Press, issued an edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, the first such edition to be sold publicly in any English-speaking country. For anyone who has read a few of the books published since then, it is hard to recall now that this was an act of bravery. In the United States, Britain and Canada, the book had to undergo a series of public trials in which its merits were seriously questioned and then seriously defended. Its chances

— though now the idea seems ludicrous — were considered doubtful, but with the help of a platoon of literary critics, editors and writers in each country, and after intense pub-

lic debate, it narrowly escaped censorship.

But Lady Chatterley’s Lover is infinitely easier to defend than Fanny Hill. Unlike John Cleland’s imaginative potboiler, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is the work of a great writer, it is concerned with important social issues, and it has, at its core, a plea for sexual fulfillment which even bishops could, and did, endorse.

Perhaps it was that kind of endorsement which, more than anything else, changed the atmosphere surrounding banned books. For certainly Fanny Hill — a book of straightforward pornography with only marginal literary merit — was defended at least as warmly as Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In New York the critic Eric Bentley went to court to describe it as "a very interesting, stimulating book.” In England Robert Pitman, of the Sunday Express, said it was “wholesome.” The London Observer, an unquestionably respectable Sunday newspaper, carried the defense to its outer limits with an article by Marghanita Laski, a writer of considerable distinction. Her view was that the book was sexually stimulating, and that this was a good thing; her article amounted to one of the most remarkable statements on sex ever published by a woman: "I enjoyed it very much ... (it shows) a full acceptance of women’s equal desire and pleasure ... In any normal person it will rouse sexual desire ... I am inclined to think that Fanny Hill, with its emphasis on sex as thoroughly enjoyable, might well be a better, healthier guide than the self-conscious, selfrighteous, painfully frank instruction manuals of our own time . . . Fanny Hill is the most enjoyable and realistic pornographic book I have read . . .” This was a woman’s point of view that was expressly condemned in the debate over Lady Chatterley’s Lover-, now it was not only permissible, it was worth four columns in a great newspaper.

In Canada the reaction to Fanny Hill was hardly less surprising. The Toronto Daily Star, which was among the country's most puritanical newspapers only a few years ago, declared that "Despite the ridiculous aspects

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Continued from page 18

Ten years ago one paper banned “prostitute” in its pages. Now its editors defend Fanny Hill

of this banning and unbanning of books, it is really no laughing matter. The censorship of books by authority — whether police or customs inspectors or courts — is an insidious and dangerous business.”

Nothing better demonstrates the general change than the Star's own changing attitudes. A decade ago, under the regime established by the late Joseph Atkinson and maintained by his successor, the late H. C. Hindmarsh, the Star strongly supported censorship, not only of hooks but also of plays and movies. Atkinson wouldn’t let his hook-page editor review books that might be in had taste, and in those days Fanny Hill would have been lucky to get mentioned, much less defended. In the pages of the old Star the word “rape” never appeared — a woman could be “assaulted,” but nothing more serious than that, which produced curious paragraphs in which women would be struck on the head, thrown to the ground, pushed around, and only then “assaulted.” Nor were reporters allowed to use the words “abortion” — they said “illegal operation” instead — “prostitute” and “venereal disease.” Since the late 1950s, a new generation at the Star has swept all those rules aside; most other Canadian newspapers have gone through the same transition in a milder form.

CBC-TV’s striking new look

So has Canadian broadcasting, though the change there has been far more spectacular, given the nature of television. In the late 1940s the pregnancy of an unmarried woman in a Lister Sinclair play could raise headlines across the country and produce demands for the abolition of the CBC. Today the CBC produces more striking material every month, with far less noise. On February 25, the weekly half-hour Quest broadcast For the Lack of Something Better to Do, a remarkably sordid play by George Ryga, in which a very ugly man was shown making love to a very ugly woman, and in which the man was later shown making jokes about it with two other men and a woman. Five years ago a subject like this was unknown in television, and if treated would have caused enormous distress inside and outside the CBC. But in February it went down the network with hardly a murmur. There was the usual question in Parliament from C. S. Smallwood (PC, Battle RiverCamrose), who said the play was “corrupt and immoral”; but there were no headlines, no letter-writing campaigns.

It would be a mistake to think that these changes are focused only on sex. In its treatment of Queen Elizabeth, for instance, the CBC has moved through a remarkably similar change. In the 1950s the Queen was invariably treated with the utmost respect by the CBC, and certainly this

must have been the wish of the public — when Joyce Davidson, a CBC interviewer, said on American TV in 1959 that she was indifferent to the Queen, “like most Canadians," she produced a reaction of wild fury from the public. But between then and now something happened to Canadians’ attitude to the Queen. Last season Quest broadcast a British satirical troupe. The Establishment, which included a young woman who mercilessly satirized the Queen. Her appearance provoked a few newspaper editorials and some hostile phone calls, but there was at least as much praise as blame. (This season The Establishment returned and satirized the British cabinet and the homosexuals-in-government issue, in the same skit. It was just another show.)

Satire of this kind, on both Canadian and American TV, springs directly from the British satire industry, that diverse collection of comedians, commentators, writers and cartoonists who have in recent years overturned all the rules of public conduct in entertainment. . Various combinations of these people have published the fantastically scathing Private Eye magazine, produced the revue Beyond the Eringe, worked on the BBC program That Was the Week That VLÍI.Y, and generally raised a quite new kind of hell in British public life. To put it simply, these young people decided not to be nice, and a good many other young people, as well as some older ones, decided that this was proper entertainment. The result was that in the land of good-natured old Punch and the gentle good-clean-fun West End revues, Private Eye began to impugn the political motives and sexual virility of most of the important men of England, and Beyond the Eringe began demonstrating, to its own satisfaction, that Prime Minister Macmillan was a blithering dolt barely this side of being certifiable. Bernard Levin, who performed on That Was the Week That Was and anticipated some of its manner in a column he wrote in the Spectator in the late 1950s, told me recently that "It was simply that they decided that a cabinet minister could be an idiot, and that you could call him one." The cabinet minister might not like it. hut the public did. and the result, in England and later in North America, was that the range of public debate was considerably widened. A new generation, a generation without respect for public dignity or public pretension, was finding its voice.

But these changes have been on a comparatively small scale; or. where they have been on a large scale, in TV, it could be argued that this was a young medium, without rules, in which young people simply made their own standards of taste — or decided to have none at all. The change is really striking, and most obviously provable, in the one medium which has a huge audience, a history and a thousand oppressive rules — the movies.

Last year O. J. Silverthorne, chairman of the board that censors films for the Ontario government, announced that henceforth his board would stop cutting pieces out of films and would instead classify them according to whether they could be seen by

children and adolescents, or just by adults.

“The motion picture,” he explained, “has now moved into a period of freedom of expression previously denied it by various forms of censorship. We must now recognize the fact that public opinion has changed considerably over the past years. Audiences now expect that those movies which attempt to deal truthfully with the realities of life shall have the same freedom of expression as that granted to the theatre, literature and other forms of art. Stories which a few years ago we would most definitely call questionable are not now' found objectionable by the public at large . . .”

The change has come swiftly — Room at the Top. in 1959, was a much-discussed and sometimes banned film, because of its “frank" treatment of sex; but Tom Jones, in 1963, was far franker and had almost no trouble with censors. The public (and the critics and the censors) had changed so much, so quickly, that hardly anyone was shocked by the explicit comic sexuality of Tom Jones' most eloquent scenes. In recent months Tom Jones was a great hit in the same movie theatres which Otto Preminger had to battle to get his The Moon is Blue shown in when he produced it in 1953. That innocent little picture's sin was that it used words like "virginity” in a comic manner. At the same time it outlawed The Moon is Blue the Hollywood Production Code was banning scenes in which men and women were shown in bed together, even if the man and woman were married. In recent years the production code has largely dissolved, partly because some producers have walked around it and partly because the movies in general have had to find new themes in order to compete with TV — and, inevitably, some of those have been themes which the code once banned. Certainly in recent years movies have often dealt w'ith subjects that the production code’s framers didn't even envision, much less permit — like sadism in Cape Tear, lesbianism in The Children's Hour, cannibalism in Suddenly Last Summer. When The Children's Hour was first rewritten for the movies in the 1930s, the lesbianism which is its point had to be changed to heterosexual adultery, which rather blunted the story; but two years ago it was filmed intact, and now it's likely that there is nothing you can do on the stage that you can't do in the movies. In fact, some recent movies — like Ingmar Bergman's Silence — go farther in explicit depiction of sex than stage plays have ever dared to go.

In the biggest movie-house circuits of tue United States you can now even jeer at the United States military establishment and ail its works, and not only get away with it but get rich in the process. This certainly is the experience of Stanley Kubrick, who directed and helped write that nightmare comedy, Ur. Strangelove. which turns on their heads all the old Hollywood ideas about the government, patriotism, preparedness for war, and fighting men. It concerns, of course, a nuclear attack on Russia, launched b\ a mad American general, which leads to the destruction of life on earth. Dr. Strangelove treats the sub-

ject with a wildly thrusting satire that makes the film by far the roughest fictional treatment of this subject in any medium. It shows American generals and politicians as fools or madmen, it casts doubt on their manhood, and it laughs hysterically at their feeble last-minute attempts to keep from destroying the world.

What makes this surprising is that the film is exhibited within the same environment that welcomed, say. Strategic Air Command, a 1955 Technicolor film in which James Stewart personified the sober, responsible SAC officer doing his duty, keeping the peace through discreet use of nuclear weapons. This is the way successful movies have always pictured American fighting men, because the moviemakers believed that that's how audiences wanted to see them. It turns out, however, that audiences also want to sec the airmen as clowns: Dr. Strangelove is a hit.

The Deputy is also a hit. on Broadway (where it takes in five thousand dollars a night) as in Berlin. Paris and London. Rolf Hochhuth's play has a simple message: Pope Pius XII did not condemn Hitler for killing Jews, and therefore he was guilty of a profound moral failure. To Roman Catholics, the play is a deeply wounding attack on a towering figure: to others it's a striking theatrical experience. It has caused riots in several cities. And yet it is performed on Broadway, and it is published, and a scene of it was shown on the CBC. I think that it needed the contemporary public climate, the contemporary tolerance. to be able to exist: I am sure a play with a subject like this would have had difficulty playing in a tiny theatre off-Broadway half a dozen years ago.

Who can tell a Jewish joke?

The permissible range of public performance hasn't expanded in all directions, of course; there is a sort of intolerance of suspected intolerance which presses on a certain kind of performer. The slightest hint of a racial stereotype, or the slightest hint of racial or religious prejudice, is now far more damaging to a performer than, say. the slightest hint of homosexuality. If a comedian is to make a joke about Jews, then he must be a Jew himself; if it is about Negroes, then he must be a Negro. This, of course, applies only to minority groups — Negroes can make jokes about whites without difficulty — and it is important enough to constitute a serious annoyance to a performer like Sheiley Berman. “Tastcmongcrs," as Berman calls them, “seize on anything they believe is in bad taste and raise such a stink that in the end they get through to you personally. They pick up even the most delicate joke on a subject like religion or race relations and condemn it out of hand." In the same way, newspapermen have discovered that prohibitions about sex have been replaced by taboos about race — in the United States many newspapers no longer give the race of suspects in crime stories; in Canada some newspaper editors think it unethical to mention that a criminal is a recent immigrant.

But these are minor issues: the

mainstream of public tolerance continues to widen, and no doubt there are more surprises in store for those of us who formed our ideas in the 1950s or earlier. How has the change happened? In many individual instances the explanation is purely local — only one producer could have done a certain TV show', only one w'riter could have turned out a certain book — but there may also be an explanation which covers the whole phenomenon. One reason is that both leisure and entertainment have increased so much, so quickly, that both audiences and entertainers have been forced to reach out for new' themes. People who have TV sets and the time to watch them can consume in a week far more bulk entertainment — far more stories, characters, themes, ideas, jokes — than their fathers consumed in -a month. And the w'ritcrs arc producing more than writers ever did before. The result is that both writers and viewers, in search of something new to produce and consume respectively, are casting about much more widely for subject matter. So they naturally find themselves criticizing the air force (because each viewer has seen a hundred TV shows praising the air force) or satirizing the Queen.

But a more profound cause lies in the specific character of the various publics to which movies, books, plays and TV shows address themselves in the 1960s. The public itself has changed as much as the entertainment, perhaps more. The young adults of today were formed intellectually in a time when literacy became wider (not necessarily deeper, but wider) than ever before. In those years after the Second World War. the kind of literature w'hich effectively provokes curiosity became physically available to everyone, in cheap paperback books and in magazines. On one level Freud, Darwin and Shaw, and on another level such semi-scientific w'orks as Pornography and the Law and reunites of the Kinsey Report, have all been delivered to us in ninety-f¡vecent editions. The attitude of curiosity which they encourage has been spread further by the popularization of the social sciences in magazines and newspapers: science's passion to look under the rug — to look under (dl the rugs — has become a w'hole generation's habit of mind.

At the same time, the single fact that the whole world knows best is that civilization is profoundly involved with the possibility of its own death through an ultimate exchange of nuclear weapons. As these weapons have become more numerous and complicated, politicians and military strategists have tended more and more to stretch their imaginations over the possibilities of nuclear war — to dwell, that is, on what was just recently an unthinkable idea. This constant extension of *uo limits of thought has produced, in the mind of this same generation, an ability to reach mentally to the end of an idea or a feeling: it has produced the kind of mind which wants, subtly or bluntly, to grasp the limits of whatever it seizes upon.

In these matters, the historic evidence suggests, a pendulum of public taste swings back and forth from tight prohibition to complete liberty. Arn-

old Gingrich, the publisher of Esquire magazine, is one of those who arc waiting impatiently for the next swing. Only a generation ago. Gingrich's magazine (with its sexy Petty - girl drawings) was smirked at in barbershops: now it's an elderly uncle to Playboy, and a distinguished one. too. In 1959 Gingrich gave a lecture in which he predicted that public taste was just about to move toward puritanism. Since then, of course, the opposite has happened, and at an accel-

erating pace. So I phoned him the other day to ask what had happened to his prophecy.

"Well." he said. "1 must say that so far I'm a very lonely prophet. Each time I've thought things had gone as far as they could go and now there must be a reversal, well, each time they've been succeeded by something more. 1 still feel it's going to turn the other way, inevitably — when Fanny Hill, which is hard-core pornography. becomes available on every

street corner, what’s left? But so far it hasn't happened, certainly not In writing. The manuscripts we get here at the office from young writers just seem to get dirtier than ever. But apparently there aren't any shockpoints left — political, spiritual or sexual.” Gingrich's new puritan revolution seems likely to come eventually: if history is any guide he needs only to wait long enough. But if recent experience is also a guide, then he may require a great deal of patience. ★