The Stories Behind Some of History’s Most Controversial Theatrical Productions

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A play is causing a ruckus amongst our friends on the other side of the pond. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Marat/Sade (The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade) — originally written by Swedish playwright Peter Weiss — seems to be too “perverse” for British audiences. Ironically, the production was first staged at the RSC in 1964, where it was applauded for its progressive, avant-garde approach. Nearly 50 years later, up to 80 audience members a show are walking out on Marat/Sade — which is set in an insane asylum and revolves around inmate the Marquis de Sade’s play about the assassinated Jean Paul Marat. This play isn’t the first controversial theatrical work that upset audiences, however. Hit the jump for a look at other “shocking” stage productions.

Spring Awakening

Banned throughout history due to what many have considered to be pornographic subject matter, German playwright Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening was initially criticized for its portrayal of 19th century German teens who question the social and sexual mores of the time. The epic theater pioneer’s work has since gone on to win multiple Tony Awards for its musical Broadway adaptation — featuring songs by Duncan Sheik (yeah, the guy who wrote “Barely Breathing” in the ’90s) — but when Wedekind’s play first hit theaters in the early 20th century, many didn’t look kindly on its extreme subjects of rape, abuse, and abortion.

Equus

Inspired by a true story about a teenage boy who blinded six horses, Peter Shaffer wrote Equus in the early ’70s to examine what might have been the cause behind the crime. He constructed a story about a young man who’s troubled childhood led him to develop a sexual attraction to horses — thanks to his mother’s suffocating religious weirdsies. Confusing religious devotion with something more venereal, he invents his own theology — all of which is studied by his psychiatrist. Although Equus was applauded for its unique staging, the subject matter left something to be desired with other audiences. On-stage nudity has also caused concern, particularly when a 17-year-old Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) took the lead part for the play’s Broadway run several years ago. Sidney Lumet directed a film version in 1977 that used real horses in it — another artistic and moral point of contention for some viewers.

Corpus Christi

Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally wrote Corpus Christi — also the Texas city where McNally was raised — as a modern-day passion play about a homosexual Christ and his disciples. (This Jesus even performs a gay marriage.) Controversy drummed up by extremist religious groups has often overshadowed its messages about faith and love. Despite the protests, death threats, and multiple cancellations it has been performed on several occasions, and a documentary film — Corpus Christi: Playing with Redemption — has also screened.

The Children’s Hour

A deceitful student at an all-girls boarding school spreads a destructive lie about the institution’s two headmistresses having a lesbian relationship. What follows is a Crucible-style witch-hunt that devastates the lives of the two teachers and results in a morbid conclusion. Lillian Hellman’s play — based in part on a real-life incident that happened in Scotland during the 19th century — debuted in the early 1930s in New York. It was banned in several major cities, however, due to its homosexual theme. Film versions of the play — one stifled due to the Production Code regulations of the time — also stirred things up. The Children’s Hour was revived for a London theatrical run this year, starring Keira Knightley and Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss.

Mother Courage and Her Children

Set during the 17th century’s Thirty Year’s War, Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage was written during the start of World War II. The famed playwright’s political drama — often cited as one of the most important plays of the 20th century — tells the tale of a woman who anticipates profiting from the war by selling goods, but instead loses her three children to the violent mayhem over a span of twelve years. “Controversial” more so for pushing the social and political boundaries of its debut time — something highlighted by its alienating style/epic structure — Mother Courage has been an inspiring and profound anti-war message for many individuals.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession

A young woman shockingly discovers that her mother made the family’s fortune by running high-class brothels. Mrs. Warren’s Profession, written by the prolific George Bernard Shaw in 1893, also shocked British censors. The play’s open dialogue about prostitution was banned in Britain, and a police raid during a 1905 performance in New York found the theater’s manager arrested. Since then, Mrs. Warren’s Profession hasn’t been an issue for contemporary audiences, since the play was revived in theaters last year. There was also a BBC Television re-telling, along with a 1960 film adaptation.

Hair

Anti-war sentiment, drugs, sex, and other counter-cultural shenanigans populate the songs of Broadway musical Hair. Starting off-Broadway in the late ’60s, Hair was considered lewd and crude by many — including a Boston government bureau in the ’70s because the production’s use of the American flag didn’t sit well with Uncle Sam’s employees. People still protest the musical — often perceived to be Anti-American, unable to appreciate its passionate and positive social messages.

Angels in America

Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America has seen multiple adaptations — including a stunning HBO miniseries drama — that have been inspired by its powerful portrayal of a gay man coping with AIDS during the 1980s. The play debuted in 1993 — the same year that HIV positive individuals were banned from entering the United States, so it’s messages about the virus and social complications therein were keenly felt. Despite ongoing protests and lawsuits, the theatrical production has endured.