Plague Over England, the new play by Nicholas de Jongh currently playing at the Finborough Theatre in London, opened last week to favourable reviews from the national press.
Which must have been a double relief to the playwright, the theatre critic of the Evening Standard since 1991.
Billed as a play about the 1953 arrest of actor Sir John Gielgud for cruising, in fact it accurately portrays several intersecting lives in the period, from a ‘pretty policeman’ used to entrap gay men to the Home Secretary, a man given to pompous speeches and endless moralising.
“We use John Gielgud as a microcosm of the gay witch hunt that was happening in the 1950s in England,” de Jongh explained when we met days before the play opened.
“Public servants knew they were finished if they were caught and it was a great age of the agent provocateur.
“The play attempts to create the social and political context in which Gielgud was living.
“It’s a mixture of fiction and fact, so in the lavatory in which Gielgud is caught is a public school boy and of course a pretty policeman who is himself gay.”
The schoolboy (Greg, played by Robin Whiting) and the policeman (Terry, played by Leon Ockenden) start a breathless affair, while Gielgud is shattered by his arrest and prosecution for persistently importuning men for immoral purposes.
Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe makes several appearances, and through this character and that of Lord Goddard, the Chief Justice, we gain an understanding of the political and judicial attitude to gay men in the 1950s.
A young, shy civil servant, an American doctor who has fled to London from the gay witch hunts in the US military, a camp lavatory attendant, a doctor who offers electric shock therapy as a cure for homosexuality and a retired actress who runs a “bohemian club” for men are among Plague Over England’s cast of characters.
“The plague of course was homosexual acts or homosexuality, which was likened then to an epidemic cancer, a plague, an illness,” said de Jongh.
Recently knighted in the Queen’s Coronation Honours and poised to appear in the West End in a play he was directing, Gielgud’s conviction helped break the taboo surrounding discussion of homosexuality in the national press.
In de Jongh’s admirable play, we see Gielgud (Jasper Britton) discuss his future with legendary producer Binkie Beaumont (Simon Dutton) and confess the depths of his despair to friend and theatre critic Chiltern Moncrieffe (John Warnaby).
The public scandal threatened the very existence of the play he was rehearsing with Dame Sybil Thorndike, wonderfully portrayed by Nicola McAuliffe, and Gielgud faces the prospect of being booed offstage and stripped of his knighthood.
Within the acting profession he also faced hostility.
“There was a campaign within Equity, the actors union, to get Gielgud expelled,” explained de Jongh.
“The petition was sent to every stage door and it did very badly because he was exceedingly popular.
“As regards stripping him of his knighthood, what happened was by November there was a sense of anxiety about this tumult of outrage stirred up by the right-wing newspapers.
“David Astor, the totally heterosexual editor of The Observer, said that a campaign was being conducted against homosexuals with all the fervour of a witch hunt.
“Churchill (Prime Minister at the time) himself felt that all homosexual cases should not be reported (in the press).
“The Home Secretary, the vile Maxwell Fyfe, explained to him that that was legally a non-starter.
“I think that was symptomatic of Churchill’s feeling that things should be brushed under the carpet in an English way.”
The public panic about homosexuals was spurred by a war, an espionage scandal and an academic report, explained de Jongh.
“Obviously after a big war like the Second World War where you get a lot of young men removed into association only with men, there are a lot of young men on their own away from parental control for the first time.
“War is a great stimulus for what used to be called emergency homosexuality and obviously and for quite a lot of people emergency turned into something that wasn’t an emergency.
“Then there had been the Kinsey report, obviously caused alarm by suggesting that homosexuality wasn’t such an amazing phenomenon exclusive to a tiny collection of sick addicts.
“With Burgess and McLean being identified as a bisexual and a gay man who betrayed Britain by selling secrets to Russia at a time of Cold War, hysteria was obviously exceedingly important.
“It forged a dangerous alliance of homosexual equals traitor and you could build up a scenario by which this could happen.
“Obviously by seeing homosexuals as a security risk you increased a sense of fear and anxiety.
“America at this time was under McCarthy and he and his gay sidekick were agitating very successfully to do something about homosexuality as well as Communism.
“You got a great crackdown by the police all through parts of America on homosexuals, in bars but also in the public service.
“Eisenhower in 1953 signed an ordinance which made it far easier to get rid of people from the public service because they were gay.”
Sir John Gielgud (Jasper Britton) is arrested by PC Terry Fordam (Leon Ockenden).
For Gielgud, his arrest was a devastating blow – at one point he considered suicide – and he was unsure how the great British public would react to him.
“Imagine what George Michael felt in the far more tolerant 1990s, magnify that 150 times you get some idea of what it must have felt like, because he was at the height of his fame in 1953, he was a very, very big actor,” said de Jongh.
“They went first to Liverpool. I think it was arranged that if there was any booing they would stop the performance if that had happened they would have stopped production.
“Gielgud would have withdrawn from the play and then there would have been a question of when he could come back to theatre.
“Gielgud’s gayness was something unspoken for many years and it’s interesting that he was known to be a regular cottager, but no one tried to dissuade him from what was I presume an addiction.”
de Jongh’s awareness of his own sexuality came “at the end of the 50′s.
“I was becoming aware of these things as I realised I was gay very young.
“Only in 1967 with the passing of the act did it begin to change. That was a new beginning.”
de Jongh is at a loss to describe how he came to write a play.
“I don’t know what came over me,” he said by way of explanation, but he is clear that now it is on stage it will be useful to a new generation of gay men.
“It’s for people of your generation that I wrote it,” he said.
“We did a reading before Christmas with a group of actors and there was quite a lot of laughter and a very enthusiastic response from the group of largely young people who took part in it.
“There was one oldish man who said, “I don’t understand why you have all this politics in these caricatures, Lord Chief Justice, Home Secretary it’s all ridiculous you’ve just got two love stories, leave that and it’s fine.”
“There was a young man, about twenty two or twenty three, and he said, “I couldn’t disagree with you more, I think all the politics is absolutely crucial because I wasn’t aware what life was like fifty years ago and what sort of impact there was on gay lives as a
result of all this harrying moralistic persecution.”"
The suggestion that the theatre is a haven for homosexuals then and now provokes an angry reaction from the critic turned playwright.
“I think its a cliche.
“I remember the mid-eighties a director of a major subsidised theatre telling me about a young director who said to him “Oh we don’t want any queers in our company.”
“How many actors have really come out and are coming out?
“Ian McKellen came out at the age of 50. Antony Sher was never going to have a career in film and came out in his forties. Simon Callow, who’s never going to have a career in film.
“John Barrowman is an interesting case and perhaps a sign of different times.
“But generally speaking you won’t find gay men or lesbians who are
leading actors coming out today.”
While Gielgud was never out, as he grew older he became more comfortable with his status.
By 1988, as he retired from the stage, he paid tribute to his longterm boyfriend Martin Henlser in the programme notes of his last performance.
Gielgud died in 2000, at the age of 96. Far from being stripped of his knighthood, he became a Companion of Honour in 1977 and was admitted to the Order of Merit in 1996.
de Jongh says the Gielgud he knew “slightly” was a wonderful man.
“Generous, kind and wonderfully amusing, indiscreet gossip, but his kindness was proverbial.
“He had the image also of being aloof and grand which he wasn’t really and he did infinite acts of generate secret kindness to all sorts of people. He was remarkable.”
Simon Dutton as Binky Beaumont and Jasper Britton as Sir John Gielgud.
Plague Over England is at the Finborough Theatre, The Finborough, 118 Finborough Road, London SW10 9ED until Saturday, 22 March 2008.
Tuesday to Saturday Evenings at 7.30pm. Saturday and Sunday Matinees at 3.00pm.
Tickets £15, £11 concessions, except Tuesday Evenings £11 all seats, and Saturday evenings £15 all seats.
Box Office 0844 847 1652 or book online at www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk.