Drama, Theater, and Censorship At Issue

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.