film & video
censorship of performance
This page considers the censorship of performance, including
theatre and music.
It covers -
of performance in public places (eg Punch & Judy shows),
demonstrations, graffiti and 'blue laws' are discussed
in a later page of
this guide and in the more detailed note on assembly.
For much of the past five hundred years restrictions
on public theatrical performance were perhaps the pre-eminent
manifestation of censorship.
That was because the theatre (later replaced as a bugaboo
by film and broadcasting) was perceived as a uniquely
powerful mechanism for influencing emotions and for the
delivery of seditious ideas. It was often a space in which
people of all social orders mixed promiscuously. And,
perhaps as importantly, it was amenable to censorship
of commercial venues
on commercial performances outside those venues
examination and licensing of texts, with subsequent
monitoring of theatrical productions.
the United Kingdom, for example, licensing of commercial
venues and vetting of scripts was in place by the time
of Elizabeth I. Stage works were subject to pre-production
censorship by the Lord Chamberlain (an officer of the
Royal Household) under the Stage Licensing Act 1737,
an enactment that with amendments remained in force until
1968 and resulted in curiosities such as a ban on performance
of Shakespeare's King Lear from 1788 to 1820.
The legislation is discussed in Vincent Liesenfeld's The
Licensing Act of 1737 (Madison: Uni of Wisconsin
The 1843 Act required -
the submission of any new stage play or addition to
an old play, intended to the produced or acted for hire
in Great Britain seven days before it is due to be first
acted or presented, and it is an offence to present
anything which has been disallowed, or not been given
legislation was in place in Australia from soon after
the first Anglo settlement (eg the Places of Public
Entertainment Act 1828 in NSW colony) but was wound
back earlier than in the UK.
Censorship of music has taken two forms.
The first is prohibitions on performance of particular
works. Mozart's 'subversive' Magic Flute was
pulled from the Austrian repertoire. Verdi's Stiffelio
was suppressed; his Un Ballo in Machera is a
reworking of a politically incorrect earlier version.
Glenn Watkins' Proof Through The Night: Music &
the Great War (Berkeley: Uni of California Press
2003) highlights censorship of symphonic or other works
during the 1914-18 War. The Mayor's A Square: Live
Music and Law & Order in Sydney (Newtown: LCP
2003) by Shane Homan covers pop music performance in Australia
from the 1950s onwards.
Music critic Stalin (along with his peers) cancelled performances,
printing of particular manuscript scores or the lives
of their authors. For the Nazi era see in particular Michael
Kater's Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of
Nazi Germany (New York: Oxford Uni Press 1992) and
Composers of the Nazi Era: Eight Portraits (New
York: Oxford Uni Press 2000), Michael Meyer's The
Politics of Music in the Third Reich (New York: Peter
Lang 1991) and Erik Levi's Music in the Third Reich
(New York: St. Martin's 1994).
Censorship of lyrics has been more widespread and dates
at least to the beginning of print, with particular texts
being confiscated or amended under the ancien regime.
In Australia and elsewhere lyrics were banned at the beginning
of last century as too risque. In Argentina one set of
military supremos censored tango lyrics from 1943 to 1949.
Censorship extended from paper to performance with the
advent of mechanical recording. The Australian federal
Customs service for example confiscated early shellac
recording deemed too lubricious. Elvis Presley, undeterred
by criticisms of his own performance, encouraged 'Beatle
Burns', ie cremation of records from the Fab Four. Israel's
Education minister David Zarzevski famously banned a 1965
visit to that nation by the Beatles, reportedly because
the band might corrupt its youth.
More recently Tipper Gore and others to her husband's
far right converged in urging censorship of offensive
rock and rap lyrics. Particular songs are accordingly
not broadcast on Australian and US radio or only in an
expurgated form. During 1983 Simon & Garfunkel's Cecilia
("... I'm down on my knees, I'm begging you please
to come home") was apparently banned in Malawi after
reminding people of disagreements between President-for-Life
Hastings Banda and female friend Tamanda Kadzamira.
Critics of Banda successor Bingu wa Mutharika were arrested
in 2005 for impudently alleging that the President was
worried that his 300-room palace was infested with ghosts.
During the same year the Central African Republic ordered
radio and television stations to stop broadcasting songs
that "encourage men to leave their wives", as
such music is "a hindrance to the country's development".
CAR broadcasters accordingly must not play music that
might inspire men to look for new partners if the existing
wives (in a society where polygamy is legal) no longer
satisfied their needs.
In the US Apples iTunes more staidly renders one of the
songs from Gilbert & Sullivans' The Mikado
as 'Willow, T*t-Willow'.
The British Phonographic Industry (BPI)
site comments that
time to time record companies receive complaints from
members of the public offended by the sexually explicit
or violent nature of the content on or connected with
some recordings. Seemingly, despite warnings on the
packaging, very young children sometimes purchase these
recordings. Such complaints generate a certain amount
of press and political interest in the issue. This raises
questions about appropriate responsible action to notify
the public about the nature of content on or connected
Whilst the BPI cannot condone censorship, it is the
duty of every responsible record company to strike an
appropriate balance between artistic freedom on the
one hand, and moral responsibility on the other. Similarly,
we must look to retailers and parents to take an active
part in deciding what it is appropriate for young children
to purchase and hear.
early modern theatre
For early UK censorship useful points of entry are
Cyndia Clegg's Press Censorship in Elizabethan England
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1997) and Press Censorship
in Jacobean England (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
2001), Janet Clare's Art Made Tongue-Tied By Authority:
Elizabethan & Jacobean Dramatic Censorship (Manchester:
Manchester Uni Press 1999) and Lynn Hunt's The Invention
of Pornography: Obscenity & the Origins of Modernity,
1500-1800 (New York: Zone 1993).
Works regarding other locales include Dramatic and
Theatrical Censorship of Sixteenth-Century New Spain
(Lewiston: Mellen 2003) by Daniel Breining.
For the Georgian and Victorian ages in England see works
on the Lord Chamberlain's Office highlighted below and
popular or academic studies such as LW Conolly's The
Censorship of English Drama 1737-1824 (San Marino:
The Huntington Library 1976), Jane Moody's nuanced Illegitimate
Theatre in London, 1787-1843 (Cambridge: Cambridge
Uni Press 2000) and Richard Findlater's Banned! A
Review of Theatrical Censorship in Britain (London:
MacGibbon & Kee 1967).
Joss Marsh's Word Crimes: Blasphemy, Culture &
Literature in 19th Century England (Chicago: Uni of
Chicago Press 1998) and Alan Nielsen's The Great Victorian
Sacrilege: Preachers, Politics and ''the Passion'' 1879-1884
(Jefferson: McFarland 1991) are academic studies of UK
blasphemy censorship, which as noted earlier in this guide
and the separate profile on blasphemy
was still active in the early 1990s. Michael Simpson's
Closet Performances: Political Exhibition and Prohibition
in the Dramas of Byron and Shelley (Stanford: Stanford
Uni Press 1998) offers a perspective on authors writing
for the desk drawer - or private performance at home,
the precursor of later UK 'theatre clubs' - rather than
the licensed theatre.
the stage after 1900
John Johnston's The Lord Chamberlain's Blue Pencil
(London: Hodder & Stoughton 1990) is a readable
account of UK theatrical censorship: don't mention the
war, the royal family, the 'F' word, the divinity or indeed
anything likely to frighten the horses up to the 1950s.
George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion - now as dead
as his enthusiasm for spelling reform and Jaeger underwear
- caused a sensation at its first performance in London
in 1914 because Eliza Doolittle used the word 'bloody'.
Producer Laura Henderson's 1932 Revudeville at
the Windmill Theatre in London subverted restrictions
on nude performance by ensuring that her naked performers
remained motionless: with movement, nudity became indecency
but was otherwise art.
Media hound Mary Whitehouse, in launching a private prosecution
of Howard Brenton's 1980 The Romans in Britain
was asked "why couldn't people who didn't like this
kind of play just stay at home?". She responded that
theatre and broadcast were more dangerous than text and
that there was a wider threat to society. Men might be
"so stimulated" by watching Brenton's play -
now pigeonholed as "the play about buggering a druid"
- that they would "commit attacks on young boys".
UK police had decided that the play broke no public decency
laws, so she pursued director Michael Bogdanov under an
imaginative interpretation of the Sexual Offences Act,
claiming he acted as a pimp in having procured the actors.
For an overview of the UK regime see the scholarly and
detailed study in Steve Nicholson's The Censorship
of British Drama, 1900-1968 (Exeter: Uni of Exeter
Press 2003) and British Theatre and the Red Peril:
The Portrayal of Communism, 1917–1945 (Exeter:
Uni of Exeter Press 1999), Politics, Prudery &
Perversions: The Censoring of the English Stage 1901-1968
(London: Methuen 2000) by Nicholas De Jongh and The
Censorship of English Drama 1824-1901 (Cambridge:
Cambridge Uni Press 1981) edited by John Stephens.
The Lord Chamberlain Regrets (London: British Library
2004) by Dominic Shellard & Steve Nicholson offers
reports by readers for the Lord Chamberlain's Office.
Douglas Dawson characterised Noel Coward's 1926 This
was a Man (refused a licence) as disgusting, subversive
and likely top corrupt the lower classes
Every character in this play, presumably ladies and
gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing
so. I find no serious "purpose" in the play,
unless it be misrepresentation. At a time like this
what better propaganda could the Soviet instigate and
Nicholson's account can be contrasted with that in Fredric
Hemming's Theatre & State in France, 1760-1905
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 1984), Susanne Fröhlich's
uneven Strichfassungen und Regiebücher: Kulturpolitik
1888-1938 und Klassikerinszenierungen am Wiener Burg-
und Volkstheater (Frankfurt: Peter Lang 1996) and
Peter Jelavich's Munich & Theatrical Modernism:
Politics, Playwriting, and Performance, 1890-1914
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1985) and Berlin Caberet
(Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1996). For Eire see Riot
& Great Anger: Stage Censorship in Twentieth-Century
Ireland (Madison: Uni of Wisconsin Press 2001) by
Joan FitzPatrick Dean.
For the US a starting point is John Houchin's Censorship
of the American Theatre in the Twentieth Century
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2003), superseding William
Reardon's Banned in Boston: a Study of Theatrical
Censorship in Boston from 1630 to 1950 (Ann Arbor:
Uni Microfilms 1958) and Abe Laufe's The Wicked Stage:
a history of theater censorship & harassment in the
United States (New York: Ungar 1978)
Anthony Aldgate's Censorship & the Permissive
Society: British Cinema & Theatre 1955-1965 (Oxford:
Oxford Uni Press 1995) catch the UK censors in action
at critical times. Burlesque is explored in Rachel Shteir's
Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show
(New York: Oxford Uni Press 2004)
As noted above, music recordings, scores and live performances
have been censored on a variety of grounds that include
subversive or otherwise offensive lyrics (eg that feature
"bad language" or "satanism", incite
racial hatred or promote drug taking, necrophilia and
that incorporate or allude to banned music (eg include
a reference to a revolutionary song)
style (with the jazz and rock & roll prohibited
because they were decadent)
supposed behaviour of audiences and performers (eg the
tango banned because it involved "lascivious movements"
Censoring Rock & Rap Music (Westport: Greenwood
1999) is a collection of essays edited by Betty Winfield
on contemporary music censorship in the US, complemented
by Banned! Censorship of Popular Music in Britain
1967-92 (London: Arena 1996) by Martin Cloonan and
his 1995 'I Fought the Law': Popular Music and British
Obscenity Law' in 14 Popular Music 3, 349-363.
There is a more funky study by Eric Nuzum:
Parental Advisory: Music Censorship in America
(New York: Morrow 2001). It is complemented by Taboo
Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs
(San Francisco: Backbeat Books 2003) by Peter Blecha.
Tipper Gore fretted
Sexual innuendo or rebellion has always been a part
of rock 'n' roll, but nowadays, sex is described explicitly,
complete with moans and groans. Moreover, sadomasochism,
bondage, incest and rape are out of the closet and into
the lyrics. Whips, chains, handcuffs and leather masks
are being popularized in songs and as images in videos
and on album covers
provoking responses such as Mathieu Deflem's Rap,
Rock & Censorship: Popular Culture and the Technologies
of Justice paper.
For an earlier period see Hitler's Airwaves: The Inside
Story of Nazi Broadcasting and Propaganda Swing (New
Haven: Yale Uni Press 1997) by Horst Bergmeier & Rainer
Lotz and other works highlighted on the radio
page of this guide.
A perspective is provided by the CD
Actionable Offenses: Indecent Phonograph Recordings
from the 1890s, a collection of archival bawdy US
material (originally available for sale to consumers or
listening in bars and arcades) that somehow escaped destruction
Censorship may take more bizarre forms. Melbourne academic
Dr Mark Rose denounced The Daring Book for Girls
(Sydney: HarperCollins 2008) for inclusion of information
about playing the didgeridoo. Rose reportedly warned that
females faced infertility – or worse – if
they played an instrument that should only ever be handled
by men. "Infertility would be the start of it, ranging
to other consequences. I won't even let my daughter touch
The publisher responded with
apologises unreservedly to any Aboriginal Australians
who were offended by the inclusion of instructions on
how to play the didgeridoo in the forthcoming publication
The Daring Book For Girls
announced that the offending chapter would be omitted
in future reprints.
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