In the early months of 1944, everyone in Britain was privately uncertain and anxious about the outcome of the Second World War. It was a different matter in public: everyone in Britain knew that the Allies were going to win, and as the conflict marched through its fifth year, people began to think ahead not just to that surely inevitable victory, but to what would come after it.
It was in this context that the playwright Moie Charles (1911-57) and her collaborator Donald Sutherland – the British screenwriter, not the eight-year-old future Canadian actor – penned their comedy Tomorrow’s Eden. The action takes place in the future, beginning some months after the end of the war, and the story is about how the characters will move on from their wartime experiences now that killing is once again defined as murder and women have to go back to running homes and pleasing their menfolk. And you may be able to guess what that means…
The central character is Eve, described as ‘an extremely attractive girl’ and played by Diana Churchill – the actress, not Winston’s daughter of the same name.
She has the idea of taking her circle of friends out to South Africa to establish a farm: the Eden of the title. (Obviously nobody foresaw what was going to happen to that unlucky country in 1948.) One of the group is the former air ace Peter Byrne, who has been her lover for some years (though the censor blue-pencilled the frank statement that they have actually been going to bed). He was played by Diana Churchill’s real-life husband, Barry Barnes. Here they are together:
And in the play Peter agrees to go to South Africa with her only on condition that they do so as man and wife. But when they get there, discord begins to bubble up between the men and the women, who feel their war work has been undervalued in comparison with that of the soldiers and sailors and airmen. ‘We’re to be dear little Polly Flinders again – sitting in the cinders,’ says Eve. ‘Well, I for one am not having any.’
Maybe she’s forgotten what happened to Polly Flinders in the nursery rhyme (‘for spoiling her nice new clothes’). Let’s get a reminder from the summary of the plot written by the censor’s reader:
‘In Africa with pioneering work to be done first, there is little outlet for Eve’s energy. Being a natural leader she resents inactivity. It ends in Eve and Peter quarreling. She smacks his face and he spanks her bottom!’
The scene in question starts a argument between Eve and Peter about the perceived lack of equality in their marriage. Peter insists that things must be allowed to settle down, but Eve impatiently wants to give up on her African scheme and go back to England: she won’t be merely ‘an assistant tweenymaid’ to their Scottish housekeeper or a convenience to Peter.
PETER (very angry): In that case you’d better go. I’ve no use for a spineless, gutless little coward.
PETER: Spineless, gutless little coward.
(Eve, by now white with fury, comes up to him and smacks his face hard, twice.)
(She falls back, a bit shaken and surprised at her own violence.)
PETER: all right. Now it’s my turn.
(He takes her firmly round the body, pulls her down, turns her over and administers a good hard spanking. Eve is almost too surprised to struggle at first. At length she wriggles free. She’s blazing with rage.)
PETER: Eve! Oh my god, Eve! Why did you make me so damn mad? Oh hell, did I hurt you?
EVE (raging): I could kill you for this.
PETER: Daring. I never meant to. Oh, why…
(He fusses round her and tries to soothe her.)
PETER: I lost my temper. I’m sorry. Eve, darling, can you ever forgive me? I was so mad at the thought of losing you.
As Eve cools down, fury turns to craftiness. Seeking revenge for the indignity, she stirs up trouble at the farm: she flirts with another man and encourages the project’s financial backer to develop it along lines contrary to Peter’s wishes – thereby steering the play’s debate about the postwar future into the troubled relationship between capital and labor. So in effect, the spanking motivates the next phase of the plot. And that gave the censor a small headache.
Spanking scenes usually rang alarm bells in the Lord Chamberlain’s office, but this one couldn’t simply be cut out without uncoupling the storyline. ‘The spanking business should be merely enough to make the effect,’ wrote the reader, and those higher up the chain of command approved the compromise: ‘This must be done very briefly.’ This was put to the management, who accepted, and the play was licensed on March 2 with that stipulation.
On March 27, a premiere at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, inaugurated a long tour of Britain. But by the time it reached London, the play’s moment had passed: it had a brief run at the Embassy Theatre from August 7, 1945 – three months after the Allied victory in Europe, and exactly a week before the Japanese surrender ended the war altogether. But it didn’t last long: it was time for people to stop thinking about the aftermath of the war, and time to start handling it.
But one thing is clear. The Lord Chamberlain may have required, and the management agreed, that the spanking should be kept very brief. But as the play made its way around the country, it’s clear from the reviews that if a single moment could be said to be the highlight, that moment was … Diana Churchill getting a ‘good hard spanking’!