The Charlotte News
SUNDAY, MAY 23, 1937
Phase Of Obscenity:
The Censor's Lewd Eye Scans Gypsy Rose Lee
--By W.J. Cash
Site ed. note: This one could certainly have been written today; in fact, a contra-pointed article on the precise subject was just published today--March 15, 1999--by a well-known conservative syndicated columnist who took to the notion that the Supreme Court of the State of Pennsylvania is erringly wrong in its recent pronouncement that the modern--very modern--equivalent of burlesque sought to be practiced in the banning town of Erie is protected under the First Amendment on the ground that it is symbolic speech because it suggests...--well, it suggests. The well-known contra-pointed columnist, however, did not deal with the underlying notion here dealt with by Cash--and, at least likely, impliedly, if not expressly, dealt with by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, relying on at least 70 years of solid precedent--that is, that if we start with censorship in this rather tawdry arena, then we get more easily then to the banning of books or plays (or rock songs) which are tawdry and then to books or plays (or rock songs) which are of merit but show tawdriness for literary purpose, and then to books, etc., with which the most politically powerful simply disagree, such as the book dealing with evolution once taught in Dayton, Tenn., and so on and so forth, until we are eventually stripped of the right to speak in a public place, except in some covert tone, about, say, the color and seductive qualities of grapes. And then we reach that state where we all, more or less, sound like the TV people who read the news or used to argue on "60 Minutes"--God forbid.
Shayna--er, Cash, has the point.
For four other Cash articles on the subject, see "What Is Decency? - March 28, 1928, (a "Moving Row" column for The News), "Bad Mr. Lewis: He Writes of Hotels" - April 26, 1936, and "Old Maids and Satyrs" - August 16, 1936, (the latter two also originally appearing on the Book-Page of The News), and "See No Evil - March 20, 1938, (a regular News editorial)--all in a similar vain and humor to the piece below.
I HOPE that by the time this gets into print Governor Lehman of New York, who has commonly shown himself to be a civilized man, will have had the courage to act upon what he undoubtedly thinks and believes in his heart, and veto the theater censorship bill which has been passed by the Legislature at Albany--a bill which empowers any elected person to suppress any show which he considers "immoral."
I am not arguing that the American theater does not stink to high heaven. But nothing is more obvious than that it stinks to high heaven simply because the taste of the American people is like that. And I cannot ever quite get over the feeling that it ought to be the right of any full grown man to wallow in slop if he so elects. But what is a more serious criticism than that it is than that no such thing as an intelligent censorship has ever been heard of on earth, and certainly not any censorship wielded by an elected person. By and large elected persons are almost invariably badly educated, without the slightest discrimination in matters of aesthetics and full of stupid prejudices which they confidently believe to be the very essence of morality. Give such a man power to suppress every show which he judges immoral and the chances are ten thousand to one that he'll presently be using it to put down everything in sight with which he does not agree. And even if he doesn't, if he tries to administer his office disinterestedly, it is almost mathematically certain to miss the mark--to bring down the wrong game.
Salty Laughter And Cat Calls
I am not sure, indeed, that the effort to put down the burlesque shows in New York -- the thing that gave excuse for this censorship bill in Albany--is not a case in point. Burlesques is obscene? Of course. But there are degrees and degrees of obscenity. And I do not believe for a second that burlesque shows are the most obscene and the most dangerous shows to be seen in New York or in America. In my callow youth, I used to patronize these burlesque shows with nothing less than devotion. But, searching my soul today, I cannot discover that the experiences left me a particularly lewd fellow. Or even that I am any the worse for it. I have my doubts, in truth, that burlesque shows have ever anywhere greatly contributed to the incidence of vice. Its customers are mainly sailors, visiting buyers and collegians in to paint the town--none of them exactly frail lilies, apt to be unduly flustered by Gypsy Rose Lee. If it is obscene, it is at least frankly and naturally obscene and it is invariably served up with a saving salt of laughter and catcalls.
Granted that we could very well get along without it. I can still think of many things that deserve to be suppressed first. If I were the father of a sensitive son, I had ten thousand times rather submit him to the bald smut of the five-a-days than to the leering innuedoes of any of a dozen moving pictures I have seen in the most respectable houses during the last year. I had ten thousand times rather take him to see Gypsy Rose Lee than any of a half dozen movie queens I discreetly refrain from naming. And I had a million times rather expose him to burlesque at its worse than to the usual musical comedy of our time, with its thinly veiled undercurrent of homosexuality. And I had a million times rather hand him over to the mercies of the whole lot and caboodle of sex purveyors than subject him to the cheap and sleazy standards of a hundred plays and a thousand movies I have seen--of a hundred plays and a thousand movies which had not one word about sex in them and against which not a single would-be censor ever raised his voice.
Tragedy In Higher Levels
But I am only incidentally interested in the case of burlesque, of course. The point that I wanted to make is that the same obtuseness that enables the usual censor to see obscenity and danger only in some obvious thing like the nakedness of La Belle Lee operates for positive tragedy in higher levels--invariably results in dozens of essentially poisonous and corrupting plays getting off scot-free while some sound piece of work, with the breath of life and thought and sound and true morality in it, gets the axe simply because it happens to contain some expression, some phrase, some scene which shocks the notions of convention-bound roots.
What alarms me even worse about the prospect of censorship of the theaters in New York is the thought that, if a plausible sounding case can be made out for it, just as plausible case, nay, a much more plausible one, can be made out for a similar censorship of books in the country at large. And if such a censorship did not result in the complete end of any decent intellectual life in America, it would surely go a long way toward accomplishing that result.
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