A Subject of Scandal and Concern
by John Osborne
Our Daily Bread
Nearly twenty years before an English jury found a magazine editor guilty of blasphemy and almost fifty years before the abolition of blasphemy as an offence, John Osborne wrote a TV screenplay, A Subject of Scandal and Concern directed by Tony Richardson for the BBC Sunday Night Play in 1960, first produced for the stage in Notthingham two years later.
Osborne had looked at contemporary documents on the case of socialist lecturer George Holyoake (Jamie Muscato), the last person jailed in 1842 for blasphemy in England and, from them, fashioned this play. This is no The Crucible, but deliberately so. It is a carefully measured series of snapshot scenes from days leading up and during the trial and imprisonment of Holyoake.
As presented in the play, Holyoake is a self-educated man, carefully spoken but a stammerer, who was somewhat uneasily linked with reformer Robert Owen. He is poorly renumerated for his pains giving lectures travelling from parish to parish. His starving wife (Caroline Moroney) and child, like many others caught up in the upheaval of the industrial revolution, are on the poverty line and have to lodge with her sister.
Holyoake doggedly pursues his lecture schedule including a talk in Cheltenham on "Home Colonization, Emigration and the Poor Law" where he is ambushed by a question on man's duty to God from the audience, a ready-made story for the local press, although Holyoake, an atheist, is reluctant to touch on any matter related to religion.
This is a sweetly-short hour-long play intelligently and fluently directed by Jimmy Walters with an equally ingeniously simple set of wooden benches and stone walls from designer Philip Lindley matching the fluid staging and scene changes (choreographer Ste Clough).
Osborne's script also manages to allay possible accusations of a chattering classes' play on a working-class story by a careful structure with a modern-day lawyer narrator (Doron Davidson) giving "information" and by the end, a touch of irony.
It sent this journeyman critic, and car companion, as well to Google to look up Holyoake who turned out to be more esconced in the rivalries of newspapers and political reform than the bare dramatic facts of the play want to state.
In the play we see a dramatically satisfying predicament of a man who can find no way out but to answer with logic and coherence. A man who discovers himself abandoned to magistrate (Richard Shanks) and jury, with local newspaper printer and journalist in tow, determined to maintain the power of the church and parish.
It is also curiously satisfying to complete the jigsaw with our own research, the main pieces already put in place by the play. Something which, even before geeks at the Rand Corporation began experimenting with the internet, was maybe the aim of the playwright.
For, incredible as it seems ;), people at the time the play was written and broadcast used buildings where they could borrow books including reference tomes, some still not available on the internet but still to be found in print form in libraries, if the books and buildings have not been sold off.
Interestingly, the late film critic Philip French also pointed out that in the 1960s stammering became fashionable in plays as a sign of integrity versus silver tongued liars and fraudsters. So documentary plays and protagonists with speech impediments were part of a general trend.
But as has been noted on our blog several times, the playwriting world itself was still subject to the Lord Chamberlain's edict. And the welfare state (as Elvis Costello noted in the lyrics of Let Him Dangle) did not extend to abolition of the death penalty. So this combination of canny popularism, political activism and the ability to pique our curiosity makes for a fulfilling hour.
In an age where our state institutions are increasingly fragmented seemingly on a local basis, many would say creating a commercial maze with a loss of accountability, the deceptively straightforward and artful structure of this play encapsulates a tangle of still relevant issues Even perhaps a ready-made historical subject for Ken Loach? A green light for a short play with a long reach.