What do an ancient Greek playwright, Roaring Twenties film icon Mae West, and Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw all have in common? They all wrote plays that came with jail fines. With Banned Books Week raising awareness about the censorship of literature, a look back through theatre history reveals some of its own intriguing stories of plays and musicals that pushed boundaries.
Check out these 11 works which led to actors in jail, the development of new obscenity and censorship laws, Supreme court cases, and more for their politically and socially subversive messages.
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Though this play was written in 411 B.C. in ancient Greece, the drama was apparently controversial enough to be banned nearly 2,000 years later in the United States. With the passing of the Comstock Laws by Congress in 1873—which censored many things as well as criminalizing the use of the U.S. Post Office to ship any obscene literature, contraceptives, and more—the comedy about women going on an anti-war strike by withholding sex from their husbands was put on the banned list. In the 1920s, Moscow Art Theatre attempted to transfer their production to the States, but faced arrest and jail fees unlikely accounted for in the production budget. Unsurprisingly, the production did not transfer.
Mrs. Warren's Profession by George Bernard Shaw
Comstock Laws also led to the interruption of a New York production of Shaw’s play about a remorseless brothel owner. Written in 1893, the play had been banned in Britain, only receiving performances at members-only clubs until its first public performance in 1925. In the United States, the play was staged at the Garrick Theatre October 23, 1905 and played a singular performance before police arrested the cast and crew for violating the Comstock Laws. That one performance, though, does make the ultimately cancelled production the play’s official Broadway premiere. It’s received five Broadway revivals since.
The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman
Despite being staged in New York successfully, the 1934 drama about a runaway student who accuses two of her female boarding-school teachers of having an affair was banned in Boston, Chicago, and London for thematically touching upon homosexuality. The play was deemed unfit by Boston’s Watch and Ward Society, leading to the cancellation of the production’s transfer run from New York. When producer Herman Shumlin sued the city of Boston for damages, a federal judge did not intercede. Following Boston, a municipal ordinance in Chicago was cited for the denial of a performance permit. The work was banned in London in 1935 for public performances. London’s Gate Theatre Studio paid attention to the fine print and circumvented the ban with a private performance in 1936.
Salome by Oscar Wilde, adapted by Richard Strauss
Wilde’s 1891 one-act—while in rehearsals with stage star Sarah Bernhardt—was banned for depicting Biblical characters. The tragedy tells the story of Salome, who attempts to seduce John the Baptist, performs a veil dance worthy of a burlesque show, instigates John’s execution, and then is executed herself on the orders of her stepfather. Salome was absent from the London stage until 1931. Richard Strauss composed an opera based on Wilde’s play in 1905. It premiered in New York at the Metropolitan Opera in 1907, only to be denounced four days later by the Met’s directors and banned by the opera house. Bans across the United States and in Europe quickly spread.
Sex and The Drag by Mae West
These two plays by the 1920s screen siren landed Mae West in jail. Sex, which follows the story of multiple prostitutes, opened on Broadway April 26, 1926 and had a successful commercial run despite bad press. Another show from West titled The Drag, which dealt with themes of homosexuality and gender representation, successfully opened in January 1927, however, under pressure from the mayor (Beau James) and other influential people, New York County District Attorney Joab H. Banton ordered the arrests of both casts February 9, and shut them down due to obscenity. West spent ten days in jail, and supposedly said of the experience, “a few days in the pen ‘n’ a $500 fine ain’t too bad a deal.”
The Captive by Edouard Bourdet
A melodrama with themes of lesbianism, The Captive first premiered in Paris in 1926 without issue, but translated into English and transferred to Broadway where it was less accepted. The play debuted at Empire Theatre September 29, 1926, and played 160 performances before it was shut down. It was put on trial for indecency by the Citizens’ Play Jury, but its acquittal of all charges did not prevent the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and various other religious organizations from continuing to campaign for obscenity charges. Along with West’s The Drag and Sex, as well as another show titled The Virgin Man, The Captive was at the center of a censorship campaign in New York that ultimately led to a new state law called the Wales Padlock Act. The act banned plays “depicting or dealing with the subject of sex degeneracy or sex perversion,” and offenses could result in the arrest of actors and producers, and the padlocking of a theatre for a year.
Hair with book by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, and music by Galt MacDermot
After its 1969 Tony-nominated success on Broadway, the show (which famously included full-frontal nudity) received productions around the country, but found less acceptance than it did on the New York stage. In 1970, a proposed Boston production was at the center of censorship dispute which led to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruling in the production’s favor—with a caveat. The actors had to be clothed and could not simulate sex. Producers contended it was a First Amendment violation, and filed a lawsuit that went through multiple phases and up the ladder to the Supreme Court, whose ruling allowed the production to proceed. The Supreme Court would rule similarly a few years later when the municipal board of Chattanooga, Tennessee tried to deny a city building being used as a production venue.
Spring Awakening by Frank Wedekind
Now known to audiences through the 2006 Broadway musical adaptation, the original play was written by Frank Wedekind sometime in the earlier 1890s. It was banned in Wedekind’s home country of Germany for years, and did not premiere until 1906. In 1917 New York, the play about the sexual awakening of teenagers was performed for the first time in English at the 39th Street Theatre. The Commissioner of Licenses made claims about the show being pornographic, but it was ultimately allowed to proceed with a matinee performance for a limited audience under an injunction by the New York trial court.
The Other Shore by Gao Xingjian
This 1986 play by Chinese playwright Gao Xingjian has never been performed in China. A run at Beijing People’s Art Theater was cancelled, and Xingjian left China for France the following year in a permanent leave from his country of origin. It was not the play’s themes of enlightenment that caused controversy, but rather Xingjian’s political issues with the communist party and his departure that led to the banning of The Other Shore and additional works by the Chinese government through the early 2000s. Productions of the play were staged at Taiwan National College of Art and Hong Kong Academy for the Performing Arts.