May 13, 2004 • Volume 12 Number 17

Assoc. Prof. John Houchin (Theater)

Spotlight on Controversy

Censors of theater have had their share of hits and misses, says Houchin

By Stephen Gawlik
Staff Writer

If you want a barometer of America's changing social mores in the 20th century, says Assoc. Prof. John Houchin (Theater), consider the contrasting reactions to the plays "Sapho" and "Angels in America."

When "Sapho," the chronicle of an ill-fated love affair between a promiscuous older woman and a young man, opened in New York City in 1900, it was the target of withering attacks by the media, clergy and women's groups, including one that deemed the production a "menace to society."

The play faced more than harsh criticism, Houchin adds: "Sapho" producer and lead actress Olga Nethersole was arrested and charged with "corrupting public decency," as was the play's lead actor and the manager of the theater where it was staged.

Ninety-three years later, New York City saw the premiere of "Angels in America," a two-part play that examined the beginning of the AIDS crisis and included nudity and homosexual themes. While considered controversial, and the target of protests in many parts of the country, says Houchin, "Angels" was critically acclaimed and won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award - and nobody wound up arrested or in jail.

Of course, America was a far different country in 1993 than in 1900, Houchin says, and that is the key to understanding governmental and public attempts - successful or unsuccessful - to shut down controversial plays. In his new book, Censorship of the American Theater in the Twentieth Century, Houchin claims that the most vigorous efforts to ban theatrical productions coincide with periods in which established social norms face the most significant challenge.

Those who have believed themselves to be defending such norms - their ranks have included religious groups, local school boards, congressmen, federal agencies and conservative newspapers - have shared a common characteristic, maintains Houchin: a desire to preserve an entrenched standard, belief or ideal of decency and morality they believe to be under attack.

"Sapho" he explains, was staged during a time when Protestant women's groups, seeking to protect the "sanctity and preeminence" of the traditional family, took a leadership role in raising Americans' awareness of social ills such as alcohol abuse and child neglect. Enemy Number One on their list was the growing commercialized sex industry, which was patronized mostly by the working class.

As the middle class feared that sexual chaos would take over the nation, Houchin says, "Sapho" came to be reviled and its lead character, with her morally casual attitude, was viewed with disdain. But a "'Sapho' mania" broke out in some cities, as the play became more popular with audiences, a phenomenon that enraged its opponents.

Fearing the social implications of "Sapho," an influential newspaper filed a complaint with police that brought about the arrests. Eventually, the defendants in the case were acquitted and the show would go on.

Houchin argues that theatrical productions tend to become a flashpoint for censorship because of their very essence: There is an immediacy and a realism to theater, where the actors and action are "live," that simply cannot be expressed in media such as film or television.

Other instances Houchin holds up as examples of censorship include: congressional investigations of plays, playwrights and actors, including those conducted by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s; riots by Americans of Irish descent in response to a production of "Playboy of the Western World" that toured the US in 1913; and efforts during the "Roaring Twenties" to suppress plays that dealt with sexual material.

"Censors in the 20th century feared that theater had the capacity to eradicate the boundaries between classes and genders, instigating political and sexual anarchy," said Houchin.

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