Harley Granville-Barker (1877-1946) was the most important figure in modern British theatre, though you may never have heard of him. He left school at 14, became a professional actor, and gravitated to the pioneering theatre clubs of the late nineteenth-century theatre.

These theatre clubs had various functions, including the circumvention of censorship, since plays performed for a private club did not require a license from the Lord Chamberlain. Some of them, such as J.T. Grein’s Independent Theatre Society (1891-97) were concerned to stage new plays that wouldn’t get a license because of their subject matter (Grein put on, e.g, Ibsen’s Ghosts, which deals with hereditary syphilis, and Shaw’s Widowers’ Houses). Others sought to air non-commercial approaches to drama. William Poel’s Elizabethan Stage Society, for instance, was devoted to performing Shakespeare in productions that stripped away nineteenth-century pictorial and historicist realism in order to get back to Shakespeare’s fluid, relatively simple staging. Barker played Richard II for Poel, and in 1899 he was a founder member the Stage Society, the successor to Grein’s Independent Theatre.

Out of this emerged, under Barker’s leadership, a sustained attempt to bring the new and the non-commercial theatre into the mainstream. He put on repertory seasons of new plays (especially by Shaw) and translations (especially from Euripides) at the Royal Court (1904-7), and then at the Savoy (where Waste was to have been performed), as well as pioneering, modernist productions of Shakespeare at the Savoy (in 1912 & 1914). Barker’s importance lay in his combination of three or four distinct roles. Though he was only in his mid-twenties when, with the business manager J.E. Vedrenne, he took the lease on the Royal Court, he had more than a decade’s experience as a professional actor to draw on. In one-off performances for the Stage Society, Barker had started to direct plays. In his work at the Court, it can be argued that he became the first English theatre director. He was also a playwright, having been writing plays since his teens. In addition, often in partnership with a businessman or backer, Barker proved a capable theatre manager. Besides combining this range of expertise, Barker was challenging established practice, not just in the staging of new plays, but also in the interpretation of old ones, especially in his Shakespeare seasons at the Savoy.

He thus anticipated the terms on which the main subsidized national theatre companies (the RNT and the RSC) work, with their concern to produce new work and and to re-interpret the old. In later years, Barker would become a Shakespeare critic, and his prefaces to Shakespeare continue to be cited, because they laid much of the groundwork of performance-oriented criticism of Shakespeare, which is one of the strongest currents in modern Shakespeare scholarship. In 1904, along with the critic and translator, William Archer, he produced a Scheme and Estimates for a National Theatre. Though they weren’t the first to propose a national theatre, Archer’s and Barker’s plan anticipates the terms on which a national theatre was realised by the establishment of the NT company under the direction of Laurence Olivier in 1963 at the Old Vic (its new home on the South Bank wouldn’t be ready until 1976).

In 1914 Barker and Lillah McCarthy, his then wife, took a 25-year lease on the Kingsway Theatre, obviously intending a sustained commitment to theatre management. And yet Barker’s practical theatre career all but ended that same year. Barker had been struggling against disillusionment for some time, when war broke out. Barker quit the stage, and a couple of years later divorced his wife and married an American heiress. Thereafter, it was common to regard him as British theatre’s ‘lost leader’. Barker became an almost legendarily under-appreciated and wasted figure. It is difficult to separate the fate of his play, Waste, about a lost leader whose visionary schemes are thwarted, from the reputation of Barker himself.

Waste concerns a political sex scandal, in which Amy O’Connell and her unborn child are killed in a botched abortion, and her lover, a politician called Henry Trebell, then commits suicide. Trebell is an independent MP who has the chance to take a cabinet seat in a Tory administration in order to push through a scheme to disestablish the Church of England and use its resources to fund a grand scheme of national education.

The first version of the play was to have been performed in 1907. Barker substantially revised the play in 1926 for a production that didn’t take place (the revised text was finally performed in 1936).

Barker had intended to include Waste in his 1907 season at the Savoy Theatre (which can be considered an extension of his 1904-7 Royal Court seasons). However, the Lord Chamberlain’s Examiner of Plays refused the play a license. Barker therefore had to be content with one performance of the play as he had originally written it under the auspices of the Stage Society, and one public performance of the text as cut by the Examiner to secure copyright.

Spoken drama in the UK had long been subject to censorship. In Shakespeare’s day, censorship had been a royal prerogative power. Between 1737 and 1968, censorship had a statutory basis. Scripts were required to be approved and licensed. Part of the reason for the statutory imposition of censorship was political. In the 1730s, Henry Fielding maintained a satirical attack in the theatre on Walpole’s notoriously corrupt regime. Walpole imposed statutory censorship partly to close Fielding down (he turned to writing fiction instead). Though the maintenance of public decency was always among censorship’s ostensible raisons d’etre, it often had a political motivation. Even in Shakespeare’s day, it had been virtually impossible directly to represent contemporary politics onstage. The ostensible reason for the refusal of a license to Waste had to do with its mention of abortion. However, as Barker pointed out, he’d lately staged a play that dealt with abortion, which had been given a license. In any event, Waste could not be interpreted as being in favour of abortion: the abortion in the play directly causes the deaths of mother and child, and indirectly that of the father.

The banning of Waste occasioned a doomed campaign to overthrow theatrical censorship. Though censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s office ceased in 1968, other kinds of censorship of the theatre continue, such as prudential self-censorship for fear of offending local authorities or other influential bodies.

Given that Waste concerns an idealistic politician who has an affair with a married woman, there might seem to be one respect in which its concern with guilt is obvious, and one expect it to expose the politician as a hypocrite. However, with the partial exception of Lord Cantelupe, a high church Tory, no one in the play seems outraged by the adultery per se.

As one might expect from Barker’s previous play, The Voysey Inheritance, Waste has little time for conventional morality. In The Voysey Inheritance, Edward Voysey inherits his father’s legal practice, and finds that the family fortunes are based on fraud. His theoretical commitment to right comes up against a practical problem to be lived and worked through, and the play implies that, in moving away from the conventional and abstract (and priggish) view of right and wrong, and arriving at his own, lived judgement, the younger Voysey grows up.

However, Waste is less concerned with an individual arriving at their own ethical understanding than it is with the contrast between abstract commitments and lived ones. In the second half of Act 1 we’re shown the prelude to Henry Trebell’s and Amy O’Connell’s single sexual encounter. It’s an odd sort of seduction, in which their general ideas (very much against a sexual relationship) are contradicted by the concrete specificity of desire at that particular moment. The fact of their being in the same place at the same time is the result of miscalculation by the political hostess, Lady Julia Farrant: she’d invited Amy to distract Russell Blackborough – a calculation that indicates her disdain for both of them.

Amy has the reputation of being pretty, flirtatious and vacuous. She stands in contrast with the other women in the play who are intellectual and capable, but who maintain an appearance of conventional subservience by pursuing their political ambitions through their men. Amy, by contrast, is a victim of a conventional female upbringing, and is struggling to survive and assert herself. She was raised by a great uncle who “thought the whole duty of woman was to be pretty…”, and she tells Trebell, “I was petted and bullied as a child” and then also as a wife. She has the wit to feel that something is wrong: “I’m good for something more than to be treated like this”. But the immediate upshot of her dissatisfaction is that she goes to bed with Trebell, a man of abstract passions and unromantic plain-speaking (“I’ve no use for romance in the moonlight”). His attitude to women is usually indifferent, if not misogynistic. Confronted in Act 2 by an Amy who is now pregnant, Trebell is ready to support Amy and their child, but cannot bring himself to affect a love for her that he does not feel – least of all when Amy horrifies him by revealing that she has avoided pregnancy, even in her marriage, though her husband (as a Catholic) regards birth control as a sin. She explains, “I said I’d a right to choose. What do women’s rights come to if that’s not their right? So I left him”. Later, there’s something chilling in the sense of brotherhood that will (surprisingly) quicken between O’Connell and Trebell. O’Connell tells Trebell “Had she borne you your child I could better have forgiven her [… …] I think we are brothers in misfortune, sir”.

Yet there is also something troubling about Amy’s detestation of the idea of having a child. It cuts to the heart of the play’s vitalism which is at the root of its transvaluation of conventional morality. The real sin in the world of Waste is not to break this or that commandment, but (in D.H. Lawrence’s phrase) to do the dirt on life. The drive to realise and fulfil the possibilities of life is what informs Trebell’s educational schemes. It also informs his horror at Amy’s loathing the mere idea of childbirth: “You unhappy woman… if life only seems like death to you!” Even his sister Frances, after Amy’s death, remarks on her “Fear of life… the beginning of all evil”. Yet in the final act, even when Frances has spotted the possibility of her brother committing suicide and is trying to avert it, she has some hard truths to tell him. She unconsciously echoes Amy in telling him “If you’d loved her… only a little…   s h e might have found courage to face it” [Barker’s text spaces certain words for emphasis]. However, all Trebell’s love had been devoted to his scheme, of which, he acknowledges, “I’d never, so to speak, given myself away before [… …] But it follows, you see, that having lost myself in the thing… the loss of it leaves me a dead man”. A moment later, he makes it clear he’s speaking of an inner death (“One may be dead for years… and who’ll notice… if one keeps up appearances? It’s not good manners to notice”). But his disdain for mere appearances will override the distinction between inner and literal death, and at the end of the play he’ll shoot himself.

If one accepts Trebell defence of suicide, one is in opposition to the law as it then stood. Suicide wasn’t decriminalized until 1961. Yet his choosing death could also be seen as a violation of the kind of sacredness of life that Trebell had earlier put to Cantelupe in a conversation that lies, arguably, at the play’s intellectual climax. Trebell had said that his kind of people were “members one of another in science or statecraft… with no use at all for conventicles and their self-righteousness. Nor even for the promise of salvation hereafter… for we die pretty tired, most of us. But with much need to sanctify here on earth the world of power that our secular minds have made.” Yet that conversation comes just after Amy’s last appearance, and, for all Trebell’s brilliance in it, it is haunted by a failure of common humanity in his behaviour to Amy, as well as by the dramatic irony of our being allowed to hear his grand schemes for humanity in general, only after we’ve seen him nonplussed by a particular, all too human plight.

Dr James Brown is Associate Research Fellow in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck College. He will be talking about Harley Granville Barker’s Waste as part of the SPACE/Guilt Working Group Event Parliament on the Stage on 9 February 2016.