Anything goes

Good authors too who once knew better words
Now only use four-letter words Writing prose
Anything goes

Yes, time moves on.

Last year, 50 years of The Theatres Act 1968 was roundly celebrated. This was the legislation that, in laying to rest the powers of the Lord Chamberlain's office, saw off theatre censorship.

No longer did a corps of upper-crust, white men have a grip on what could be seen or heard on the licensed stage, when playwrights would have to humbly endure the squabbles of these untrained and often uninterested arbiters of decorum over the use of "arse" or "tit".

No more would the point of the censors' blue pencils unnecessarily protect a society the majority of which had long moved on from the Chamberlain's tightly held Victorian values. Yes, there was conservatism but there was also watching That Was the Week That Was on the television, seeing Victim—the first English language film to use the word 'homosexual'—at the cinema, or reading Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Goodbye theatre censorship! But once the 50 birthday candles were blown out, there remained a whiff of false self-congratulation in the air. We may have dumped the anachronism that was the Lord Chamberlain's idea of propriety, but five decades later do we really have artistic freedom?

I had never given it much thought. I live in a democracy and anyway the arts are protected by the UN both in respect of "the freedom indispensable for… creative activity" and everyone's " right to freedom of expression; [including] to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds… in the form of art".

Theatre's freedoms are in safe hands and only occasionally does something happen that makes me cross.

A case in point is a mob causing the cancellation of Brett Bailey’s 2014 installation Exhibit B. This was a set of living tableaux portraying a human zoo to make a statement about colonial dehumanisation and slavery.

Well received before its arrival in London, described by Lyn Gardner as "unbearable and essential", audiences in other cities had been allowed to choose to see Exhibit B, but in the capital the extreme nature of the protest meant the safety of performers, audiences and staff could not be guaranteed.

Similarly, some ten years earlier, scenes in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti caused such offense to the Sikh community and resulted in such violent protests that its run at Birmingham Repertory Theatre was aborted and, in the same year at the Edinburgh Fringe, Israeli government-funded The City was cancelled due to the action of pro-Palestinian protesters.

What these shows have in common is that they were shut down by the rule of the rowdiest, by the heckler's veto, these days not only taking the form of people out on the streets but also via social media campaigns.

The protesters that closed down Behzti, Exhibit B and The City had different objections—to the message, to the method, to the backers—but the outcome was the same. They were ready to take away my right to experience art, in a way that I would never have considered taking away their right to protest.

As a result, I recently found myself in a quandary.

I heard about it when it was all over and the mob had made its views clear about an online game which involves the player roleplaying as a serial murderer and rapist. As a result of the protests, the executives who had sanctioned the game's production withdrew it prior to release.

Phew! But why is the closure of Exhibit B anathema to me, but the withdrawal of the game an eleventh-hour victory?

Am I as bad as the Lord Chamberlain's officers, prudishly dictating what is in poor taste or inappropriate for society's consumption?

Am I just a snob if I make a distinction between that game, which I do regard a creative endeavour, and art with more of a capital A? Is the difference between Exhibit B and the game one of high art and low?

This can't be about the end user. It has to be about there being no merit in equating rape with triumph in a setting free of thought or consequences, and at the same time there existing an inherent value in provoking consideration of—for instance—the legacy of slavery.

It's the context, stupid, I say to myself.