Those familiar with theatrical history in this country will know that until 1968, the Lord Chamberlain had the power to close or rewrite any play that he deemed to be offensive.
This means that few people under the age of around 65 will have experienced any of the restrictions and limitations that censorship inevitably caused, preventing such offences as permitting nudity on stage, the use of bad language and negative references to contemporary politicians or members of the Royal family.
It seems unlikely that many readers will hanker for a return to such a repressive system but a worrying trend is beginning to develop in the United States, a country in which freedom of expression is supposed to be enshrined in the constitution. It might be a long distance away but, as we all know, excessive behaviour there is likely to be mirrored by equivalent extremists here before too long.
The irony, which would seem quite comical if it wasn’t so sad, is that the plays under attack are at the harmless end of the scale. This means that, to mix metaphors, if allowed to succeed, the initial sortie by the evangelical right, the kind of people who make up Donald Trump’s base, will almost certainly be the thin end of the wedge.
The position is clearly set out in a document entitled A Time of Indecency, which opens as follows “The Dramatists Guild of America vehemently objects to and is appalled by the recent cancellations of the play Indecent, originally scheduled for production at Douglas Anderson School of Performing Arts in Jacksonville, Florida, and the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which was just cancelled by Cardinal High School administrators in Middlefield, Ohio.”
As readers will soon discover, rather than taking on the big guns of Broadway, where such blasphemous shows as The Book of Mormon and Hamilton are riding high, the Christian fundamentalists prefer to take pops at school productions.
Despite its members’ justifiable concerns, it is clear that the Guild can see the unintended humour alongside the tragedy, pointing out that “the irony of the school censoring Indecent, a play about censoring a play, would simply be a cause for eye rolling were it not so insidious.”
The appeal to rationality goes on to question why the school’s Principal decided that the play’s “mature content” was less well suited to a school production than The Seagull. The mischievous Guild is only too keen to note that Chekhov’s play “deals with themes of sexual desire and infidelity and concludes with a suicide”.
However, one fears that religious fundamentalists have no interest in listening to reason (or watching plays), when they can get on to their high horses and censor anything that does not meet their own sometimes random standards.
An additional concern is that “there is something else at work in Florida. At a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise, the school’s cancellation of a Jewish-themed play about the historical impact of another Jewish-themed play, with both plays written by Jewish playwrights and featuring a romantic relationship between two Jewish women, has dark implications.” Indeed, if Paula Vogel’s play is so offensive, it is surprising that there have been no demands for closure from the orthodox Jewish community.
This is particularly concerning so soon after Kanye West has been accused of promoting anti-Semitic tropes while also enjoying the hospitality of Trump, the man who we must not forget could be the next President of the United States.
Anyone who has seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee might (obviously mistakenly) have regarded the musical as harmless, if not tame. It is apparently among the most frequently produced shows in schools across the United States. Apparently, the complaint here relates to an accusation that the show is “vulgar”, that it references Jesus and includes a character with two dads.
If this kind of censorship is allowed to spread, it is easy to imagine that almost every play and musical could be drummed off stages in the United States, should the evangelical Stalinists have their way.
While nobody would wish to see plays causing offence, the normal way of preventing those who might find a piece unacceptable is to issue warnings both in publicity material and at venues. In this way, the 99% who will enjoy the play can do so, while the remaining 1% can steer clear or get their money back.
At the moment, there is very little sign of similar political activity against theatrical works occurring in the United Kingdom, with the last high-profile incident of this type surrounding Bezhti at Birmingham Rep almost two decades ago. For those who do not remember the scandal, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s play sparked protests from the Sikh community primarily because it depicted 'unnatural' behaviour in a gurdwara (temple).
One could suggest that, compared with other human rights issues in the United States such as gun control and abortion, the closure of a couple of harmless plays is no big deal. However, the real question is where this might lead.