Indecent and Censorship of American Theater
Paula Vogel’s Indecent follows the trajectory of the play God of Vengeance, written in 1906, which features a brothel owner and his daughter who falls in love with one of the brothel’s prostitutes. Indecent gives audiences a look at how God of Vengeance came to tour Europe and eventually made its way to America and Broadway, a look behind-the-scenes at the cast and crew in the original production, and the eventual scandal surrounding the cast being arrested and tried on the grounds of obscenity.
Censorship is a dominant theme in Indecent and the play raises many questions for its audiences to ponder: Should a playwright ever censor themselves? Should producers have the right to censor work that isn’t theirs? Who has the right to censor someone else’s art?
Throughout history, art has been a subject of controversy, often leading to censorship. From theater to music, journalism to film, photography to other visual arts, art forms and artistic expressions have stirred people to action, whether that action takes of the form of activism or protest. Theater in particular – in America and around the world – has a kind of immediacy and power to reach people on a deeper level.
According to John H. Houchin in his book Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, theater artists specifically have a power that some fear will instigate the changing of the status quo:
“Understandably, the conservative community fears artists, particularly theatrical artists. Throughout history these individuals have generated intense tense public adulation, but the political, religious, and social leaders of the conservative community typically characterize them as immoral, pernicious, or subversive. They fear that these artists will teach the faithful to imagine new systems, rewrite laws, and overturn the old order.”
When you sit in a room with other people to watch a play unfold live, it is hard to ignore the subjects or topics being addressed on stage. For centuries, art has inspired change. Sometimes, often more conservative groups find that change scary and deem it an encroachment on their held societal power. With this in mind, what is the responsibility of art? Some would say the responsibility of art is to challenge its viewers; some would say to enlighten; some would say to purely delight; and some would say to strictly document a (once again, subjective) truth. In any case, when it comes to the censorship of art, one must ask, “do I have the right to prevent another person from deciding whether or not they want to experience this art?”
What is Censorship?
In searching for a definitive definition of censorship, there is —fittingly— not one agreed-upon description.
“Censor: One who supervises conduct and morals: as a) an official who examines materials (as publications or films) for objectionable matter; b) an official (as in time of war) who reads communications (as letters) and deletes material considered harmful to the interests of his organization."
—Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are 'offensive," happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups. Censorship by the government is unconstitutional.”
—American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)
“Censorship: The use of the state and other legal or official means to restrict speech.”
—Culture Wars, Documents from the Recent Controversies in the Arts, edited by Richard Boltons
“What Is Censorship? Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons —individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous."
—The American Library Association
“Censorship: the cyclical suppression, banning, expurgation, or editing by an individual, institution, group or government that enforce or influence its decision against members of the public—of any written or pictorial materials which that individual, institution, group or government deems obscene and ‘utterly without redeeming social value,’ as determined by ‘contemporary community standards.’”
—Chuck Stone, Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina
“Censorship in the United States involves the suppression of speech or public communication and raises issues of freedom of speech, which is protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”
Many of these definitions of censorship would agree that the act of censoring is based on subjective opinion. What an individual or a group finds questionable is not necessarily questionable to everyone. In some cases, this disagreement can cause significant public conflict.
Events in American Theater Censorship History leading up to God of Vengeance
To give a” brief” history of arts censorship could rack up 100+ pages! Here, we will dive into a snapshot of the history of censorship specifically within the American theater leading up to God of Vengeance. Since the issue of theater censorship in this country spans hundreds of years, we will highlight a few notable events. Note that theater and storytelling have been forms of expression and entertainment since the beginning of human existence, so these moments cover only those theatrical events that were formally documented in American history books:
- 1620: In September of this year, the first Puritans arrive on the Mayflower in what is now Massachusetts. The Puritans were a deeply religious group and arrived with an anti-theater sentiment carried over from radical English Protestantism; so theater did not start off on the best foot in the first American colony. According to Houchin, “The stage, for English Puritans, represented a chaotic and anarchic site, exempt from the laws of the state and of God where sexual, social, and religious transgressions could be practiced with impunity.”
- 1665: Three young men attempt to put on a play (the first English-language play documented to have been performed in North America, called Ye Bare & Ye Cubb) and are taken to court as punishment for producing theater.
- Early 1700s: The Quakers (another conservative religious group) based in Pennsylvania propose “An Act against Riots, Rioters, and Riotous Sports, Plays and Games” (which included theater) three times, but as the English Crown ruled over the territories, it was vetoed each time.
- 1749: A group of actors begin performing plays, including Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy (1712) in a warehouse outside of Philadelphia’s city limits. Within a few years, after being closely followed by local police and openly bashed by the nearby city council, the company moves to New York.
- 1750: Massachusetts passes a piece of legislation titled the “Act to Prevent Stage-Plays and other Theatricals,” which outlaws using “any house, room or place” for “acting or carrying on any stage-plays, interludes or other theatrical entertainments whosoever,” and punishes any bystanders of theatrical events. This act continues to be the law of the land for 40 years.
- 1752: The Company of Comedians from London, or the London Company, arrives in North America and performs Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The Company of Comedians became a well-known company, both for its works, but also for the vehement censorship of its work that would last throughout its existence.
- 1766: The colonies’ anti-British sentiment is on the rise, and the anti-British group the “Sons of Liberty” states that “theatre, like tea, was a British export and should be boycotted or destroyed” (Houchin). The group burns theater companies’ programs and interrupts performances mid-run.
- 1774: In the midst of the American Revolution, the Continental Congress closes all theaters “in order to encourage frugality…and discountenance and discourage, every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, exhibition of shows and plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments,” though theater performances continue in secret under the table on both British and American sides of the colonies.
- Late 1780s: The Dramatic Association forms to combat anti-theater laws. They organize a petition signed by over 2,000 people, which essentially states that people should have the right to choose what they do with their money and time. Tying the right to perform and watch theater to the right to freedom, this sentiment rings true to many former colonists.
- 1789: The most recent law against theater (1786) is successfully repealed. However, legislation is put in place that a small but powerful group of leaders has the right to approve any and all plays submitted to be performed.
- 1830s-40s: Theater becomes a nationally contested form of entertainment once more during this period, as many working-class Americans begin to protest its aristocratic ownership.
- 1850s: Theater tickets are defined as “temporary licenses,” which means theaters can expel patrons that go against the establishment’s rules. This begins a period where audiences are being “censored” as well as the art. Per Houchin: “by 1890, American theatre auditoriums had been completely transformed. Audiences were licensed to sit quietly and witness the performance. Any response other than polite applause might be regarded as dangerous and result in eviction.”
- 1868: A burlesque troupe from Europe has its first performance in New York. Initially, reviews are stellar, though by 1869, members of the press begin to turn on the art form, calling it “monstrously incongruous and unnatural.”
- 1872: Anthony Comstock begins a life-long quest to censor the public’s intake of literature and art. He is the primary hand in getting a book dealer and their associates arrested for obscenity, specifically for publishing books, pictures, magazines, and newspapers that Comstock deemed obscene. Later this year, Comstock lobbies Congress in support of “An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use,” specifically focused on making illegal the mailing of “obscene” materials. This act also came to be known colloquially as the “Comstock Law.” Per Houchin: “While Comstock occasionally railed against gambling and intemperance, he…defined immorality in purely sexual terms and exerted tremendous effort in an attempt to prescribe the depiction of the female body.”
- 1900: The play Sapho opens in New York City. Depicting an older woman’s relationship with a younger man, the play caused an uproar – it is called “coarse, unsavory, and indecent.” Despite the controversy, the play’s opening night is sold out, and houses continued to be packed for months after. Producer and star Olga Nethersole, her costar, and two backstage personnel were eventually arrested for “corrupting public decency,” ignoring Nethersole’s argument that the play taught a valuable moral lesson.
- 1905: George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman is produced by actor and producer Arnold Daly. Shortly after, the head of the circulating department at the New York Public Library removes the play from shelves, claiming to be protecting youth from Shaw’s “corrupting philosophy.”
- 1905: Shortly after the Man and Superman controversy, Daly produces another of Shaw’s works, Mrs. Warren’s Profession, in which Shaw argues that “as long as a male-dominated economy kept women poor, prostitution was a reasonable career option” (Houchin). The play causes an uproar before it even premieres! The Police Commissioner obtains a copy of the script of the play and redacts any lines he feels are inappropriate, and tells Daly he must perform that version or be under threat of the production being closed. Per Houchin, critics “agreed that [the play] might be of some worth as a social document, [but] it would likely corrupt innocent audience members by stimulating curiosity about sexual issues.” Though the cast performs the redacted version given by the Police Commissioner, the Commissioner finds the play obscene anyway and orders the show to be closed and the producer and cast arrested. They areall eventually acquitted.
- 1911: An Irish theater company performs a U.S. tour of The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge. When performed in Ireland, audiences protested the presentation of the leading character, as they believed the character reinforced negative stereotypes about Irishmen. When the play opens in the U.S., riots break out in New Haven. The United Irish-American Societies of New York proclaims the play to be “immoral and not true to Irish character,” and the Gaelic American dubbed it a “monstrosity.” On opening night, the actors were pelted by vegetables, eggs, and stink bombs.
- 1932: God of Vengeance premieres on Broadway. Soon after, the production is halted due to the cast, producer, and theater owner being arrested and tried on charges of obscenity. The eventual conviction of the cast was overturned, but the fact remains that God of Vengeance “was the first company of actors to be convicted of presenting an indecent performance” (Houchin).
Censorship in Indecent and the Responsibility of the Arts
Throughout the history of the United States, art in many forms has been censored. Most often, the government or key groups have censored art that challenges the status quo—and increasingly during times of crisis. God of Vengeance follows this trend in many ways. A few key players had different reasons to bring obscenity charges to the producer and actors of God of Vengeance.
Some, especially Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El in New York, argued against the play’s controversial depiction of the Jewish community, including the leading character owning a brothel and throwing the sacred Torah at the end of the play. Silverman argued that “this play libels the Jewish religion” and that “even the greatest of anti-Semites could not have written such a thing.”
Others were scandalized by the outright depiction of sexuality in the play. According to Houchin in his book Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century, “censorship [from 1900-1930] was aimed largely at productions that discussed sexual topics that threatened the dominant moral paradigms of the nineteenth century.” The play focuses on a brothel owner and his family. And at the time, any depiction of sexuality was often deemed immoral and illegal.
This was even more complicated by the depiction of lesbian love and sex in the play. God of Vengeance is considered by many to have depicted the first lesbian kiss on an American Broadway stage. Some speculate that perhaps that was too shocking to audiences during a time when the most significant mainstream exploration of homosexuality was Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality in 1905.
Whatever reason the play brought so much ire, the actors and producer were eventually found guilty on charges of “unlawfully advertising, giving, presenting, and participating in an obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama or play.”
Indecent does not answer the question of whether or not the play should have been banned, what in particular led to it being banned, or whose responsibility that should have been. It leaves these questions up to the audience to consider. Vogel herself has spoken about the necessity for shocking, confrontational art, especially during times of crisis. In the program for the premiere production of Indecent, she writes:
“I didn’t anticipate that Indecent would be as relevant today as it is; we again are witnessing an upheaval of fear, xenophobia, homophobia, and yes, anti-Semitism…We must reclaim the importance of our arts and culture. We must remember where the closing of borders in the 20th century led nations around the globe…I believe the purpose of theatre is to wound our memory so we can remember…Theatre is living memory.”
Certainly, the opponents of God of Vengeance during its time on Broadway—and those who continue to oppose the play to this day—might not agree that theater needs to shock audiences to nourish society or allow it to grow. As long as censorship like that in God of Vengeance continues, as long as theaters, artists, and writers continue to be banned, silenced, and regulated, we will continue to have this conversation.
We must continue to wonder: What truly is the responsibility of art during times of crisis?
John H. Houchin. Censorship of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge Studies in American Theatre and Drama). Kindle Edition.
History of Massachusetts: "The Great Puritan Migration."
Culture Shock: "Definitions of Censorship."
Encyclopedia Britannica: "Censorship."
ACLU: "What Is Censorship?"
Digital Yiddish Theatre Project: "10 Things You Need to Know about God of Vengeance."
American Theatre: "But Is 'God of Vengeance' Good for the Jews?"
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: "AROUND THE JEWISH WORLD: Atlanta theater to feature controversial Yiddish play."
Playbill: "Indecent - Opening Night at the Cort Theatre."