Wednesday, 18 January 2017

LETTERS OF NOTE: Hermione Gingold

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When you're in any form of artistic or creative profession, it is almost inevitable that you will attract the attention of people who consider your work to be in some way offensive, whether to God, good taste or anything else. There are a variety of ways in which one can respond - ignoring it, embracing it, engaging with the party in question or retaliating - and I'd like to showcase one particular method, courtesy of Letters of Note.

Hermione Gingold was an English actress and eccentric, best known today for her supporting roles in Gigi, The Music Man and Around the World in Eighty Days. In 1950, she appeared on stage in London in a production of Fallen Angels, a play by "the master" Noel Coward (a.k.a. Mr Bridger in The Italian Job). The play was controversial when it premiered in 1925, featuring as its main characters two married women who contemplate adultery and admit over the course of the play to having premarital sex. It may all sound very tame to our ears, but the play created a small fuss for 1920s audiences, and only got the go-ahead after the Lord Chamberlain, the official theatre censor, granted his personal permission (see Mrs. Henderson Presents for a more detailed, if romantic look at his purpose).
While the production received mixed notices overall, Gingold was the personal recipient of a terse and morally outraged anonymous letter. Its "God-fearing" author claimed that the play was "filthy" and "disgusting", that Gingold's performance was "loathsome", and questioned how the present Conservative government - headed up by Sir Winston Churchill - would allow it to be performed. The author also threatened that they would "do something very unpleasant about it" if the play was not stopped, and signed off that their "wrath" would strike Gingold, possibly in the comfort of her own home.
Gingold wanted to respond directly, but having no return address, she wrote an open letter which was subsequently republished in her 1952 book My Own Unaided Work. You can read the full text of her playfully sarcastic letter here. If you want to read more on censorship, I can point you to these delightful pieces from Pat Conroy, Harper Lee, Mark Twain and Kurt Vonnegut. Thanks for reading!

Daniel

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