Thursday, March 13, 2003

[3/13/2011] Wolcott Gibbs Tonight: "The Mantle of Comstock" (continued)


"Of course, nobody wants censorship, but it's a question, actually, of the protection of the people."
-- the Rev. George F. Savage

"Bonnell has done much psychiatric work and is thought to know something of such matters. I didn't see the play."
-- the Rev. John H. Powell Jr.

[quoted by Gibbs in "The Mantle of Comstock"}


Trio (1943), Baker's second novel, presents the conflict experienced by Janet Logan when a young man evoking heterosexual love enters her life. Hitherto, she'd had a long-standing relationship with a domineering woman professor, whom she assisted while doing graduate work. Reviewers faulted it as overworked and lacking in humanity. Nevertheless, it won the Commonwealth Club of California medal for literature. The novel was developed out of an earlier story "Romance" (Harper's Bazaar, 1941), which achieves a compelling tension the longer novel lacks.

Baker and her husband rewrote Trio as a stage play, which opened in Philadelphia in 1944. A run on Broadway was dogged by censorship that triggered industry-wide protest and also attracted many reviewers. Most found it moral to the point of moralizing (the lesbian villain is disgraced and shoots herself), but dull. The controversy over its forced closing outlived the play by several years.


In preparation for tonight's Gibbs piece, we took a look back at Anthony Comstock in Thursday's post. For quick-study purposes, a phrase I like is "supervising the public morality." No less than George Bernard Shaw coined the term "comstockery,"
meaning "censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality", after Comstock alerted the New York police to the content of Shaw's play Mrs. Warren's Profession. Shaw remarked that "Comstockery is the world's standing joke at the expense of the United States."
(Comstock, we learned, considered GBS "an Irish smut dealer.")

Comstock devoted himself to creating and then enforcing repressive laws, which naturally became known as "Comstock laws," designed to make everyone conform to his ideas of morality, which were, shall we say, expansive.
During his time of greatest power, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the United States Postal Service. [The writer must mean the United States Post Office, the "Postal Service" being a late-20th-century invention.] . . . He was a savvy political insider in New York City and was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of either public distribution of pornography or commercial fraud.

Now let's turn the floor over to Gibbs. "The Mantle of Comstock" appeared originally in The New Yorker of March 10, 1945, and was subsequently included in the Gibbs anthology More in Sorrow.

The Mantle
of Comstock

Of the sixteen Protestant clergymen who signed a resolution condemning Dorothy Baker's play called Trio, it appears that only one, the Reverend Dr. John Sutherland Bonnell, of the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, had bothered to see the darn thing. All these gentlemen are members of a society called Sigma Chi, which, for your records, has no relation to that fraternity with the communal sweetheart but is simply a small group of ministers who gather the first and third Wednesday of every month for lunch and discussion. The subject under discussion a few weeks ago was the state of the New York stage and it produced a resolution from Dr. Bonnell demanding that something be done about Trio. In a sermon the Sunday before, Dr. Bonnell had specifically denounced a play that "condones, applauds, and even enacts promiscuity," a remark which the congregation obviously took to refer to The Voice of the Turtle. For one reason or another, however, he abandoned that crusade and settled for Trio. The assembled brethren signed his manifesto with enthusiasm.

In view of these facts, a diligent and gifted worker in this vineyard was asked to telephone the fellowship of Sigma Chi in an attempt to find out just what would move a man to condemn a play sight unseen. I would like to report his conversations, as nearly as possibly verbatim, with fourteen out of the sixteen.

The Reverend W. Russell Bowie, of Union Theological Seminary, said, "I got in at the end of the meeting and was not in on the discussion. I went ahead and signed the letter at the suggestion of the others." When asked if he'd seen Trio, he replied, "Well, I haven't given the matter much thought and I'd rather not discuss it."

The Reverend John Knox, also of the Seminary, and in response to the same question, said, "No, I haven't seen the play myself, but I hear it's pretty bad. It ought to be shut."

The Reverend Frederick C. Grant, another Seminary man: "It may be all right for people beyond forty to see a play like Trio, but it's terrible when youngsters are permitted to see this sort of thing. Why, a teen-aged girl in Bonnell's parish went to see one of these plays six times; the whole course of her life is now warped. In Trio, the subject matter is unduly pathological and the presentation is offensive. No, I haven't seen it."

The Reverend Harold Pattison, retired pastor of Christ Protestant Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay and secretary of Sigma Chi: "The whole thing is too nasty to discuss in a conversation, let alone put on the stage. I'd rather not go into it. Of course I didn't want to see the play."

The Reverend Nolan B. Harmon, Jr., editor-in-chief of the Methodist publications, said he was in a hurry to catch a train but would be delighted to talk about Trio some other time. He did, however, add that he hadn't seen the play. "But let me have a chance to think about it," he said hastily. "I'll call you," and went off, presumably catching his train.

The Reverend Howard Melish, of Holy Trinity Protestant Episcopal Church in Brooklyn: "I haven't seen Trio, but Bonnell saw it. I was particularly interested in the fact that one or two people Bonnell knew had very definite Lesbian tendencies -- he probably ran into them in his advisory work -- well, the play had had a deleterious effect on them. Of course, nobody wants censorship, but it's a question, actually, of the protection of the people."

The Reverend Theodore F. Savage, Executive Secretary of the Presbytery of New York: "The public goes to the theatre expecting dramatic entertainment and gets filth. I haven't seen Trio."

The Reverend George P. T. Sargent, pastor of St. Bartholomew's, read over the telephone a portion of his previous Sunday's sermon: "I have a great sympathy for our city officials, who have no desire to be moral censors of our lives but feel a sense of responsibility to maintain moral standards." Part of the trouble, he added, "comes from a tendency in many plays to parade an immoral subject in a beautiful setting with exquisite acting. I haven't seen Trio or read the novel. I'm not going to devote Lent to that sort of thing." Mr. Sargent also quoted at length from St. Luke, to no apparent purpose.

The Reverend Joseph R. Sizoo, of St. Nicholas Collegiate Church: "There is no doubt that the stage, just as the press, has a right to narrate tragic elements of life, but in this instance the portrayal of an irregular sex relationship can't be justified because there is nothing in it that lifts people. No, I haven't seen Trio myself."

The Reverend Lynn Harold Hough, dean of Drew Theological Seminary, Madison, New Jersey: "I haven't seen Trio, but I got a very full report from a man who had seen it and who had lived in Paris twenty-five years and had seen everything."

The Reverend Geoffrey W. Stafford, also of the Drew Seminary faculty, hadn't seen Trio either, but in the words of Dean Hough: "Stafford was an officer in the British Army in the other war, and he's had a very close contact with the world in its rougher aspects, as you might imagine."

The Reverend A. B. Cohoe, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Montclair, New Jersey: "I haven't seen Trio* but Bonnell saw it and condemned it in a very detailed statement making the subject matter of the drama clear to all of us. I personally would not denounce a play in my pulpit or in my writings without having gone to see it. All we did was to support Bonnell's opinion, which all the members present did without dissent."

The Reverend John H. Powell, Jr., pastor of the Reformed Church of Bronxville: "It was not made clear to us that the thesis of the play is actually a condemnation of perversion, as you tell me. Bonnell has done much psychiatric work and is thought to know something of such matters. I didn't see the play."

The Reverend George Vincent, pastor of the Union Congregational Church of Upper Montclair, New Jersey: "Dr. Bonnell is our spokesman in the matter. He saw Trio. I didn't."

The Reverend Arthur P. Mabon, formerly associate pastor of St. Nicholas Collegiate Church, signed Dr. Bonnell's statement. He could not be reached for comment, but his secretary said that he rarely attended the theatre.

The final clerical comment on Trio came from one of the above Sigma Chis, who said that it must be pretty bad because it had opened in Paris {Trio opened in Philadelphia) and they hadn't let it run there. It was nearly as distasteful, he added, as another French atrocity whose name, as he recalled it, was La Parisienne, quite properly suppressed over here under the title of The Captive.


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