Drama, Theater, and Censorship Analysis

At Issue

Since its beginning, theater has faced censorship at the hands of governments, the clergy, and powerful individuals. The communal nature of theater—the fact that plays are typically performed before masses of people, who need not be literate to understand their messages—has raised special concerns about the power of theater to instill potentially dangerous ideas and incite action in its audiences. A case from the life of Great Britain’s premier playwright, William Shakespeare, provides an example. In 1601, on the eve of an attempt by the Earl of Essex to depose Queen Elizabeth, those planning the insurrection, presumably to drum up support for their cause, paid Shakespeare’s acting company to revive his Richard III, a play about the deposition and killing of a monarch. It is unclear whether this performance had any impact on the public’s opinion of the queen or if it helped Essex and his coconspirators. In any case, Essex’s uprising failed. However, Elizabeth’s fury at the fact that the popular theater had been unleashed against her illustrates an important point. Essex’s belief that the play’s performance would help his cause and Elizabeth’s belief that the play would harm her cause illustrate the power attributed to this art form.

Such concerns have been part of the heritage of theater since ancient times. One of the earliest advocates of stage censorship in the western world was Plato, who attacked theater in both the Republic and the Laws. The ancient Greek philosopher opposed all forms of mimesis, or imitative art, and as theater is the quintessential form of imitation, it came in for his especially harsh criticism. Plato’s writings are only a small part of the history of antitheatrical bias arising from the idea that theater can be dangerous and subversive. Because of this attitude, censors have often treated drama and theater differently from other forms of literature and art. In many cases, theatrical censorship has remained strict, even in times and places where other forms of expression have enjoyed relative freedom.

North America

There has never been widespread, systematic prior restraint in the United States, where drama is treated the same as other printed matter and theatrical productions are protected by the constitutional guarantee of free speech. However, this is not to suggest that there has been no censorship of theater in America. It means, rather, that such censorship has been local rather than national in scope and has been pursued sporadically in different times and places. The earliest incidents of American theatrical suppression sprang from the puritanism of the English settlers, whose religion made them deeply suspicious of theater and acting. In the early days of the American colonies, plays of all sorts were denounced as immoral and unchristian. In the late eighteenth century, several of the original colonies—and, after independence, many states—adopted strict laws forbidding theatrical performances. However, as populations grew in size and religious diversity, demands for theatrical entertainment also grew, until it was no longer practical to outlaw dramatic performance. Slowly, the authority for regulating plays devolved to the cities in which performances occurred. After this, censorship became quite idiosyncratic, relying as it did upon the moral, political, and religious convictions of widely varying local authorities.

Owing to laws protecting freedom of expression, only a few American cities—most notably Boston and Chicago—ever attempted prior restraint of theater. For the most part, productions of plays and other entertainments were allowed to open, and, if they were...

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United Kingdom

Theatrical censorship in Great Britain is notable because it was for many years more severe and more regularly enforced than in the rest of Europe. In addition, until the late twentieth century, the theater was censored with far more vigor than the press and the other arts in the same country. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the burden of theatrical censorship fell to the Master of the King’s Revels, a minor court official responsible for arranging royal entertainments. In order to ensure that nothing would offend the royal family, this official made sure that no blasphemy was uttered on stage and that no offensive remarks were made about members of the royal household. It soon became the task of this office to screen scripts intended for production in the kingdom. Various office holders took the job’s responsibilities more or less seriously, but in general the post had a reputation for corruption, caused in part by the fact that fees were charged for reading scripts and licensing theaters—a practice suggesting that the office holder might not be wholly disinterested.

In the eighteenth century, however, the onus of censorship was transferred to the office of the Lord Chamberlain. Concerned with the amount of antigovernmental satire appearing on stage, particularly in works by Henry Fielding, Parliament swiftly passed the Licensing Act of 1737. This law gave the Lord Chamberlain the duty of reviewing all new plays and issuing licenses before...

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Western Europe

During Europe’s Middle Ages, the predominant censor was the Roman Catholic church. Much drama was religious in nature, and the clergy felt it necessary to regulate the content of scripts and performances. After the Reformation, Protestant churches also became involved in theatrical suppression, attempting to delete references to catholicism. There were particularly severe restrictions on performance in Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This church-sponsored censorship was based in part on religious objections to the “immorality” of much stage business. But an even greater objection was to the presence of women on stage—which seemed by the standards of the day a great breach of decorum.

In France as well, the authorities were concerned with the threat to morals posed by theater. For a part of the seventeenth century, for instance, Italian comedies were banned in France as lewd and corrupting. Censorship through much of France’s history was enforced by the royal government, which kept guard over the state theater monopoly until the revolution of 1789 brought increased freedom to the arts generally. Still, some restrictions on the building and ownership of theaters remained until 1864, and along with these controls came the ability to restrict performance on both moral and political grounds.

In Germany, as elsewhere in Europe, governmental permission was required to open a theater and strict censorship was the rule. In the eighteenth century, for instance, an attempt was made to elevate the tone of theatrical performance, which the authorities feared might have a corrupting influence on the populace. King Joseph II placed new, strict regulations on comedy and forbade the kinds of dramatic improvisation of which Germans were fond. Throughout Germany’s early history, state control was intended to ensure morality and order and ostensibly to serve the public welfare. When the Nazis rose to power in Germany in the 1930’s, however, their suppression of theater was swift and well organized. They outlawed drama and theater by such “undesirables” as Jews and communists. They also banned plays by non-Germans—with the notable exception of Shakespeare, whom they regarded as sufficiently Nordic in spirit to satisfy Adolf Hitler’s government. To replace the theater that they suppressed, the Nazis simultaneously began a campaign to bring to the populace as much propagandistic German theater as possible.

Russia and Eastern Europe

There is a long history of theatrical repression in Russia and Eastern Europe. Under the rule of Russia’s czars, all plays were potentially subject to restraints on political grounds. The late eighteenth century’s Empress Catherine II and mid- nineteenth century’s Nicholas I became notorious for restraining theater and other arts. Soviet Russia, as well, was known for strict control during the twentieth century. Mechanisms for censorship were in place, and a number of productions were, in fact, restricted in the decades before World War II, but after the war, when Joseph Stalin was at the height of his power, these restrictions increased dramatically. Socialist Realism became the only permissible form of drama, and all playwrights were expected to devote their efforts to promoting the state. Local party officials were placed in charge of each theater and saw to it that authors, actors, directors, and other theater workers conformed to the state ideals.

Among the most interesting reversals of theatrical fortune is the case of Czech playwright Vàclav Havel. His plays were banned outright by the Czechoslovakian government in 1969, and he served time in jail for his “seditious” writings. He continued to work for artistic and social freedoms, however, and became a leading voice in the revolution that toppled his country’s communist regime in 1989. Afterward, he was elected president of the new Czech Republic. It has been remarked that Havel helped orchestrate the revolution as if it were a stage play and the revolutionaries actors.

When state communism collapsed in much of Eastern Europe in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, state censorship vanished with it. At this time, many predicted an explosion of new drama, including bold experimentation and challenges to the old “official style” of Socialist Realism. This, however, did not occur as expected. Certainly, playwrights and performers felt less constrained, and new plays were produced. But economic hardships caused by the conversion to free-market systems intervened, making large-scale changes in culture difficult.

Latin America

As was the case elsewhere in the Roman Catholic world, Latin America for many years experienced substantial censorship from the Church. In 1739, for example, Portuguese-Brazilian playwright Antônio José da Silva was burned at the stake by the Inquisition, in part because of his stage depictions of churchmen. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries political, rather than religious, concerns have led to the greatest restrictions on theater. The political instability in many countries of Central and South America, and the presence of both right- and left-wing dictators, has made censorship a constant part of theater in this region. In Guatemala in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century, for example, all forms of...

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This part of the world has a theatrical history as ancient and diverse as the cultures that make up the region, and censorship has long been a part of that history. In China different forms of drama were once considered suitable for the different social classes, and some were more strictly regulated than others. A fourteenth century Mongol ruler, for example, outlawed certain classes of comedy that he deemed lewd and inappropriate. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, China’s government had begun to fear the large (and potentially unruly) crowds that gathered at some types of performance—which were variously restricted and even banned outright. With the outbreak of World War II, censorship in Chinese theater increased,...

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It is difficult to generalize about a continent as large and diverse as Africa, which has more than fifty nations with more than eight hundred languages. However, some incidents of stage censorship there can be mentioned. As orthodox Islam moved into Africa from the Middle East after the seventh century, it brought with it a ban on artistic representations of human beings. This ban included actors portraying other humans on stage, so Muslim countries often restricted certain types of performance on religious grounds. More often, though, censorship has been politically motivated, and the best known case of state censorship on the continent is that of South Africa. For many years, the country’s ruling white minority considered...

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Jonas Barish’s The Antitheatrical Prejudice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981) gives a thorough overview of the bias against theater, covering Western culture from Plato to the twentieth century. The history of theatrical censorship in America, from the colonial period through the mid- twentieth century, is considered in Abe Laufe’s The Wicked Stage: A History of Theater Censorship and Harassment in the United States (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1978). Frank Fowell and Frank Palmer’s Censorship in England (reprint, Bronx, N.Y.: Benjamin Blom, 1969), first printed in 1913, covers the history of stage censorship in Britain until the beginning of the twentieth century and includes such...

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