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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.
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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 found objectionable, the local police would raid the theaters and close them down, sometimes fining or even imprisoning the actors and theater managers. For much of the nineteenth century, however, American playwrights shared the conservative standards and tastes of the general public, so relatively little government censorship was deemed necessary. By the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, however, vaudeville and burlesque theaters were becoming infamous for their vulgar comedy and shocking—by Victorian standards—dance acts. It was upon these entertainments that local restrictions were increasingly enforced.
At the same point in history, though, the “legitimate” theater was also experiencing expansion of the subject matter and stage business it saw fit to attempt. Daring plays by such foreign authors as George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen were performed—sometimes while still banned in their home countries—and even American playwrights were beginning to tackle such sensitive issues as divorce and gender roles. This new freedom on the stage led to a new outcry against drama and theater, with clergy, newspaper editors, and members of the public demanding stricter controls by the authorities. Thus, at the very time when much of Western Europe was campaigning for a relaxation of censorship laws, many in America were asking to have such laws strengthened.
The outcry, however, did not result in any action on the national level, and censorship remained very much a local issue that flared up from time to time with greater or lesser violence. Among the most famous cases of local prosecution in the early twentieth century were Jane Mast’s 1926 play Sex (for performing in which actress Mae West was arrested and jailed for several days), Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1928), and Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour (1934). In midcentury, many theater workers—like their counterparts in the film industry—faced persecution that amounted to censorship at the hands of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anticommunism campaign. Playwrights Lillian Hellman and Bertolt Brecht were perhaps the most famous theater professionals called to testify before the House Committee on Un- American Activities (HUAC), where both refused to indict their fellow writers and actors. Meanwhile, throughout the twentieth century, theaters continued to push the boundaries of what could be staged, until late in the century little remained that still constituted grounds for closing a play. It was at this point, however, that many began to scrutinize, and in some cases to suppress, the quasi-theatrical form known as “performance art.”
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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 performances were allowed. The Lord Chamberlain, with the assistance of the examiner of plays, could insist upon specific deletions and changes or deny performance outright for any reason. Not only was he not required to explain his decisions, he was responsible to no other agency and was unavailable for appeal. Those who refused to abide by his decrees were heavily fined and risked losing their theatrical licenses.
Over the years, a number of playwrights and others expressed outrage at the degree of censorship imposed on the British theater. Fielding gave up writing plays and turned to novels (a far less regulated form) after the passage of the Licensing Act. While the law remained in effect, other authors—including Thomas Hardy and H. G. Wells—suggested that they might have written drama were it not for fear of the censor. English drama thus suffered a great deal in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as artists turned to genres that allowed them greater freedom of expression. Some British plays, in fact, had their foreign performances long before they were staged in their native land. Many authors, of course, still chose to write for the theater, and of them George Bernard Shaw (himself a target of the censor) was perhaps the most vocal in his campaign for a reduction in the Lord Chamberlain’s powers. This chapter in the history of British censorship ended when the Theaters Act of 1968 finally abolished prior restraint, leaving the theater to be regulated in the same manner as other arts.
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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.
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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.
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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 political and social satire were banned from performance. After General Augusto Pinochet gained power in Chile in 1973, his government closed watched the theaters, banning many plays before performance and closing down others after they opened. Here, as elsewhere in the region, censorship promoted a preference for light comedy and noncontroversial subjects. Despite—or perhaps because of—such restrictions, theater has remained vital in Latin America, and many practitioners consider it an ideal way to bring new ideas to the people.
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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, and drama began to be used for patriotic and propagandistic purposes. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has constantly censored the theater, more strongly during periods of political and social unrest. In Japan, a burst of new theatrical activity in the seventeenth century brought an accompanying burst of censorship. Women were banned from stage at this time, and certain subjects—including the samurai clans—were not allowed. In the nineteenth century, the Japanese emperor issued a decree that all theatrical performances must be appropriate for families and foreigners. India, too, has a history of stage censorship which, not surprisingly, is interwoven with the complex history of its religious and social upheavals. With the coming of Islam in the tenth century, the ancient tradition of Sanskrit theater was suppressed in accordance with the new religion. Later, the agencies of the British Empire used the theater to help teach British culture to their Indian subjects, and consequently they censored many native works, especially after passage of the 1879 Dramatic Performances Act.
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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 drama a way of promoting European culture, and they enforced various types of censorship as well as strict racial segregation in theaters. When the black liberation movement gained force in the 1960’s and 1970’s, militant theater became a tool to spread ideas and politicize the black majority. A number of playwrights, actors, and theater workers were tried and served jail time for their activities. The severity of theater censorship in this region, as in the rest of the world, might be used as an indicator of the relative stability or instability of religious, social, and political life.
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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 useful supplements as extracts from the Theaters Acts, the oath taken by the examiner of plays, and copies of play licenses. For Europe, see Robert Justin Goldstein’s Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe (New York: St. Martin’s, 1989). A selection of American and British newspaper articles and speeches considering both pro and con positions on theatrical (and film) censorship is reprinted in Lamar Taney Beman’s compilation, Selected Articles on Censorship of the Theater and Moving Pictures (New York: Jerome S. Ozer, 1971). Bruce Zortman’s Hitler’s Theater: Ideological Drama in Nazi Germany (El Paso, Tex.: Firestein Books, 1984) provides a clear historical account of the Nazis’ suppression of theater as well as their work to promote a new theater for a national socialist Germany.