Patrick Hamilton, the English author and playwright, has now reached the curious position within the literary world of being best known for being overlooked. Hamilton wrote sad, cruel and intensely funny novels of what I’ve taken to calling the Oh-God-The-War-Is-Coming (OGTWIC) genre — a genre of rented rooms, gin and lonely, quietly failing people, usually based in London and the South East, striving grimly, dimly aware that something is going drastically wrong on the continent and their inconsequential existence is unsustainable in its current form (see also Nigel Collins, Julian McClaren-Ross, and George Orwell, to an extent).
Put simply, there are Nazis, and sooner or later there will be a war. In Hamilton’s Hangover Square, George Harvey Bone’s drinking cronies display fascist sympathies, the bullying Peter having actual served time in jail for Blackshirt streetfighting. Orwell’s George Bowling, in 1939’s Coming Up For Air, bemoans the machine world in the perfect line: “Everything’s streamlined now, even the bullet Hitler’s saving for you.”
Perhaps alone among the OGTWIC novelists, Hamilton found fame in Britain before Hitler. His thrilling play Rope debuted on the West End in April 1929, shortly after his 25th birthday, and was an immediate sensation. Rope, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, concerned a pair of students who decide to kill a friend, just for the hell of it. But, after the murder, as suspicion grows, their nerve dissolves.
The play was apparently based on the 1924 “Leopold and Loeb” case, in which two wealthy Chicago students, convinced by Nietzsche’s idea of the the Übermensch who live beyond humanity’s moral codes, decide to murder a young friend, Bobby Franks. In the lead up to the murder, Nathan Leopold had written to Richard Loeb that: “A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men He is not liable for anything he may do.”
The courts felt differently: Leopold and Loeb did kill poor young Franks, but far from committing the perfect crime, they made several clumsy mistakes and were easily caught and convicted. Only the brilliance of their defence lawyer, the famed Clarence Darrow, helped them avoid execution.
Hamilton was almost embarrassed by Rope’s success, perhaps irritated that his fame had come from a popular West End thriller rather than his novels. But, according to Hamilton biographer Nigel Jones, others gave it more credit. An article in the Times Literary Supplement after the war credited Hamilton with picking up on the Zeitgeist of 1920s and 1930s masculinity, specifically the “young men with the highest social pretensions and an almost mystical pursuit of violence” who would fill the ranks of Europe’s fascist movements. The TLS went on to praise the Rope writer, saying “[W]hether the author was conscious of it or not, his social sensitiveness had invested the thriller form with more than its usual significance. And he has shown himself at least concerned for human values and able to feel passionate indignation at their denial.”
Rope roared on to Broadway and round the world, providing Hamilton with a steady income for the rest of his too-short, drink-sodden life.
But, given its prescience, it encountered a particularly ironic moral panic when it was scheduled for broadcast by the BBC in January 1932.
The radio had been commissioned by BBC HEad of Productions Val Gielgud — brother of Sir John and of an equally theatrical leaning. Eagerly hyping his commission, Gielgud put himself forward to issue a statement on air, warning that the play was shocking indeed and that BBC listeners should “send the children to bed and lock granny in her room” before settling down to listen to the thriller.
Gielgud’s music-hall instincts worked a dream, and the newspapers and defenders of the nation flew into a fury. The Morning Post quoted a concerned correspondent who allegedly wrote: “The play had a successful run — there is, of course, a section of the British public which enjoys the degenerate; no one wishes to interfere with their pleasure. It is, however, quite another thing to broadcast this stuff into millions of homes.”
The aggrieved Morning Post reader went on to bemoan the “outrages and murders of little girls” that filled the pages of the newspapers, and suggested that the broadcast of Rope would only encourage “the morbid tendency which leads to these crimes. I submit that the BBC is making a gross misuse of its powers.”
The British Empire Union, a xenophobic, ultra-conservative organisation, picked up on the “morbid tendency” theme, protesting to the BBC that: “While not questioning the ‘cleverness’ of the play, or the undoubted dramatic ability of the author, we consider the broadcasting of a play of this description cannot but encourage in unbalanced and degenerate minds that morbid tendency which leads to the crimes depicted.”
Gielgud, by this point trolling the entire country, told the Evening Standard: “There is nothing disgusting or gruesome about this play, [but] it would have been unfair to broadcast it without letting people know in advance what they were going to hear. For example it might not be the most suitable thing to hear in a hospital.”
The broadcast was, of course, a roaring success, with millions listening in and critics (the Morning Post and the Daily Mail aside) wooed utterly.
The mechanisms of so many public outrages are tied up neatly in Rope: the tease of the promoter; the wilful misunderstanding of a work which explores a controversial issue rather than condoning it; the head in the sand refusal to look at the context of the work; the censorious impulse of those who, while not themselves affected by such things, fear for those lesser beings who may be; the intervention of the Daily Mail; and, ultimately, the fleeting, soon-forgotten nature of the controversy. Over 80 years later, in the age of the iPhone and the Twitter mob, how little we have changed.