On the 2 November 1960 Penguin books was acquitted of obscenity at the Old Bailey. Finally, after a 32 year wait, D.H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was declared a legitimate read. The novel was deemed controversial due to its explicit language and the openness with which it portrayed sexual acts. But what really rattled the establishment was the suggestion that a toff might wish to commit adultery with someone at the bottom of the pecking order. The fact that Penguin were selling the book for 3/6 – then the equivalent of a packet of ten fags – meant the working classes might get silly ideas in their head. The entire social order was under threat.
The trial lasted six days and so I was curious as to how the Galleries of Justice were going to pull this off given that they had programmed in one hour for their ‘show’, the third Lawrence related performance of the NEAT16 festival: the others being Stephen Lowe’s Altitude Sickness and The Fight for Barbara.
Thirty members of the public were ushered through into the Victorian styled courtroom and we took our seats at the back of the courtroom. I then sat excitedly waiting for a cast of actors to walk through to be given some kind of contextual account of the trial. Instead three members of the Galleries of Justice, dressed in suitable attire, explained that volunteers were required to take on key roles. These roles included: Judge, Court Usher and Clerk; the defendant Penguin Books; two witnesses for the Prosecution – American critic Miss Esther Forbes and Lawrence’s friend/foe, editor and author John Middleton Murray. The Witnesses for the Defence were – Vivian Pinto, a Professor of English at the University of Nottingham, The Sunday Times Literary Editor Jack Walter Lambert, Roy Jenkins MP, Reverend Donald Tytler and the courageous publisher, Sir Allen Lane.
Surprisingly, the audience were very forthcoming and eager to participate and so the roles were quickly taken up. This was largely due to the stern and entertaining direction of the Galleries of Justice staff member playing the part of the Prosecution Barrister. She had a lovely demeanour about her and put all of our nerves at ease. But another reason the audience were so keen to get involved is most of them were members of the D.H Lawrence Society. Consequently, the role of judge was quickly snapped up by David Brock, a keen animal rights activist, who wasted no time in questioning what material his outfit was made from. Oh dear. There’s only one thing more passionate than D.H Lawrence and that’s a fan of D.H Lawrence. But Mr Brock also hammed up his role and was very entertaining.
The participants were issued with a script and on occasion, some chose to deviate in the name of humour and Laurentian education. For example, when it was announced that Penguin had sold over 250 million books and therefore Allen Lane was a very wealthy man, Mr. Brock interjected that money was a corrupting influence and no guarantee of happiness, echoing the sentiments of DH Lawrence.
The script skimmed over key parts of the trial and gave a broad picture of what went on. Although one member of the D.H Lawrence Society was completely aghast that cultural critic Richard (‘we’re not all the same, us working class lads’) Hoggart wasn’t one of the five witnesses for the defence. This is a fair point as Hoggart’s testimony was deemed a key turning point of the trial. But these criticisms were politely rebuffed by the Prosecuting Barrister.
I thoroughly enjoyed myself and I think this is largely because it went against all of my expectations. Instead of a dry recital of facts and quotes, the audience were completely immersed in the trial through role play; active participation is always the best way to learn. This was signified by the jury being sent out to deliberate and decide for themselves if Penguin were guilty or not. Their verdict was ‘not guilty’, thus history remained on course and the future would still have a place for Malcom Tucker, the 4 minute fuck scene in The Wire and Fifty Shades of Grey.
A Novel Trial: Lady Chatterley’s Lover was performed at the Galleries of Justice on 2 June, 6.30-7.30pm £7.50
For more information on other performances, please see the NEAT16 festival guide