‘From time immemorial shrews have been tamed in farce by immemorial means,’ wrote the great theater critic Harold Hobson. But the method of shrew-taming to be used in Sexes and Sevens, the particular farce that was the subject of his sardonic review, was a matter of hot debate right up to the day the show opened at London’s Vaudeville Theatre on June 28, 1938.
The story concerned two prospective Conservative Members of Parliament who get embroiled in a possible sex scandal, which proves at least that some things never change… It all begins when the henpecked Bertie Smythe-Smythe borrows money from Jimmy Brender, and for security gives him a greyhound by the name of Sweetie. Jimmy has planned to have a holiday away from his quarrelsome wife Vera, played by Australian actress Lucille Lisle…
To that end, the chairman of the local Conservative Association, Mr Everton, has lent him a seaside bungalow at Flinton-on-Sea. One of the first things Jimmy does there is heroic: he saves a young, sexy blonde from drowning. Her name is Susie Brent, and she was played by Irish actress Gillian Maude…
Unfortunately for all concerned, in the process she gets a bang on the head, temporarily loses her memory and assumes that Jimmy must be her husband. She’s put to bed in the bungalow, after some business about whether or not it would be prudent to remove her wet swimsuit first. Meanwhile Vera has received a worrying phone call about her husband and ‘Sweetie’, assumes he has gone off with a girl and gets Bertie to drive her down to Flinton. Misunderstandings pile up: Jimmy assumes that Vera is having an affair with Bertie; Vera assumes that Jimmy is having an affair with Susie; and then Bertie’s shrewish wife Dorothea arrives and assumes that it’s Bertie and Susie who are the adulterous pair. In the role of Dorothea was Mai Bacon, seen here a decade and a half earlier…
So all parties seem headed for divorce and, in consequence, political ruin…
Eventually it is all sorted out. Susie gets her memory back. It turns out that she is Everton’s mistress, and she tries to blackmail him with the threat of removing her clothes in his office, with her price rising with every garment she removes. And indeed she does start to undress – tantalizingly just offstage. Breathless audiences were allowed to see only her frock being tossed in from the wings! Meanwhile Vera and Jimmy are reconciled, and it turns out that Bertie and Dorothea don’t need a divorce because her first husband is unexpectedly still alive – leaving Bertie free to pair off with Susie.
That was the play as it was first submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s office for licensing. It was, wrote his lordship’s reader, ‘a typical stock farce by a pair of hack authors’, but it was duly licensed and opened at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on June 13. The plan was to open in London on June 21, but this was deferred for a week, partly because the ‘hack authors’, Con West and Herbert Sargent, had second thoughts about the ending.
A new version was written and rehearsed, and the management submitted it to the Lord Chamberlain the day before the postponed opening night. ‘A new ending for this miserable farce,’ reported the reader glumly. All the business of Dorothea’s other husband was cut out: now she and Bertie were to stay together, but not before Bertie has asserted himself…
Downtrodden Bertie was never really interested in going into Parliament: it was Dorothea who nagged him into standing for election. In this new version of the play, he puts his foot down and says he won’t be doing it after all. Dorothea is suitably unimpressed:
DOROTHEA: You’ll do as I say.
BERTIE: That’s twice you’ve contradicted me. Understand, what I say goes.
(Puts her over his knee and spanks her.)
BERTIE: Let that be a lesson to you.
DOROTHEA: Bertram! My he-man!
BERTIE: Sit down, then, if you can.
DOROTHEA (meekly): Yes, dearest.
VERA: Bertie, fancy you daring to do such a thing. If Jimmy laid a finger on me, I’d…
BERTIE: Go on, Jimmy, it’s easy.
(Jimmy advances on Vera — she shrinks away. Just as he is about to seize her, Everton enters.)
And that’s a lucky escape for Vera. Everton’s problem is that Susie is still in her underwear after the blackmail and stripping incident. She’s agreed to get dressed, but she can’t find her slip (which means, though it isn’t actually spelt out, that she must be still in her bra and panties). Everton is trying to prevent her from coming onstage, but he doesn’t succeed. Bertie has some advice for him:
BERTIE: My dear Everton, there is only one way with obstinate females.
EVERTON: But what is it?
BERTIE: A reversion to the cave-man technique. Leave this to me.
(He advances on Susie, who runs off, followed by Bertie.)
DOROTHEA (to Vera): My dear, what a man!
VERA: Isn’t he simply too marvellous!
(Sound of slaps. Bertie re-enters.)
DOROTHEA: Bertie, you haven’t –
BERTIE: I certainly have! (To Everton) There you are, remember the old saying.
EVERTON: The old saying?
BERTIE: Yes, the hand that spanks the ladies rules the world.
But Susie gets her revenge. She removes all her remaining clothes and comes on wrapped in a bath towel, which she opens to flash the assembled company, with her back to the audience. Then a voice calls out to her from the theater stalls, and she begins to turn round – whereupon the curtain comes down and the play draws to a close!
For the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and consequently for the theater management, the big problem with this new ending wasn’t Susie’s implied nudity but rather what the reader delicately called ‘male spanking of female posteriors’. ‘Personally I have never seen spanking on the stage,’ he wrote, though a colleague had assured him it had happened before, and moreover he knew that ‘recently the charming Claudette Colbert was spanked in a film’ – in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, to be precise.
He concluded that the new ending was ‘harmless though vulgar’, but his superiors didn’t agree, either with him or among themselves. ‘We don’t usually allow this,’ wrote one. ‘I ask for a well carried out spanking!’ countered another. It fell to the Lord Chamberlain himself to make a ruling: ‘Whatever is done in films, let us keep spanking “off” the stage.’ The management was duly asked for, and gave, an undertaking that ‘the business of spanking will be omitted on the stage’.
So Susie still got spanked, on her panties but off the stage, whereas onstage the husbands merely picked up office ledgers and threatened to bash their wives with them. Even so, it wasn’t entirely a lucky escape for Mai Bacon. The Lord Chamberlain’s ruling came through on the very day the show opened. But in the week since the Newcastle run, the actors had been re-rehearsing the play, with its new ending – so poor Mai was spanked in rehearsal … for nothing!
The play opened on June 28, and won universal disdain: it was ‘no masterpiece’, sneered The Observer, while The Times thought it ‘feeble even in its own kind’. They weren’t wrong, and it closed on June 30 after only three performances. Who knows whether it would have fared any better if the spanking had been left in!