Everyone enjoys going to the theatre. Even those who hate the idea get sucked up into the atmosphere of the production once they are in the seats. However, not all plays have caused such joy. Over the last one hundred years there have been a few productions that have raised eyebrows, caused outrage and split opinions down the middle. In recent memory, there have been Hollywood actors stripping down (Equus), Episodic stories (The Vagina Monologues) and simple stories involving suicide (All New People) that get everyone talking and riled up, but let us look at the grandparents of controversy who got the ball rolling:

 

5. Mother Courage and Her ChildrenBertolt Brecht

Meryl Streep in The Public Theater’s production of Mother Courage

Mother Courage and Her Children is a grimly disturbing depiction of war profiteering set within the years of the Thirty Years War. It focuses on Mother Courage who has her own canteen and, with the help of her three children, plans to profit from the war. As the war and grisly violence continues on she slowly loses her children and in a grim scene watches as her son’s corpse is tossed into a large grave after he is executed. For fear of the enemy finding out who she is, she stands back and just watches for fear of being caught.

The play was written to counter the effects of of the increase in fascism and Nazism in the 1930s. By writing a bleak and disturbing vision of war, where the main characters are quite unlikeable, the hope was to deliver the message that war is a terrible ordeal. No one should or would want to go through what Mother Courage does in the space of 12 scenes that represent 12 years.

The play had a profound effect on the audiences of the 1930s and still resonates today. With scholars referencing it in comparison to  and the war in Iraq, it has been the source of anti-war rhetoric and a reminder of the horrors of war.

 

 

4. Rhinoceros – Eugène Ionesco

Rhinoceros performed by the Boston University Theatre

Written in 1959, this strange play has formed debates for years surrounding the idea of conformity. The plot centres around a man called Bérenger who is lazy and generally always late. As the play progresses it is discovered that the town’s inhabitants are slowly turning into rhinoceroses.

Often seen as criticism of Fascism, Communism and Nazism, explores the idea of conformity. With the increase of social media in the last 10 years, the play is as important as it was when it was written and shows that some people make a conscious choice to abandon their individuality, even their humanity, and succumb to the forces of society.

 

 

3. Spring Awakening – Frank Wedekind

The musical version of Spring Awakening performed on Broadway. Image courtesy of Paul Kolnik.

Causing so much controversy that it has been banned and censored countless times over the years, Spring Awakening deals with the exploits of a band of teenagers in the 1890s. The play showcases masturbation, sex, abortion, death and various other sordid ideas that, although seem like simple thematic plot devices, at the time caused mass criticism and harsh feelings towards the play.

The play has recently been turned into a successful musical, but perhaps it’s the changing of the times that we are desensitized us to musical content along the lines of Totally Fucked or The Bitch of Living. However we view the play now, it was and still is a controversial piece of work.

 

 

2. The Children’s Hour – Lillian Hellman

Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in The Children’s Hour at The Comedy Theatre.

Banned in Chicago, Boston and London, The Children’s Hour is a drama that focuses on the destructive implications of a rumour at an all-girls’ school. When a girl runs away from the strict school she has been sent to she falsely implies two of her teachers are lesbian lovers. What follows is mob mentality, homophobic scenes and a riveting finale that ends in death. Through stress induced revelation one of the teachers admits her true feeling for the others and when rejected commits suicide off stage.

Although tame by our modern standards, at the time it was a harsh and graphic representation of homosexuality and the power of suspicion. The play helped to pioneer ideas surrounding homosexuality and influenced more modern plays such as Bent, Angels in America and the Torch Song Trilogy.

 

 

1. The Emperor Jones 

 Eugene O’Neill

Paterson Joseph in The Emperor Jones by Eugene O’Neill at the National Theatre

A play, written in 1920, and still as controversial, The Emperor Jones is a violent and visceral play that involves the audience in the exploits of Brutus Jones, an African American railway worker who becomes a thief, killer, escaped convict, and after journeying to the West Indies, the self-proclaimed ruler of an island. Told from the perspective of his final days, escaping his subjects, Brutus turns more animalistic and primal as he tells his story.

Hailed as controversial because of its post-colonial criticism, the play did not push to one side African and American culture at a time when TV shows and other sources of entertainment were predominantly racist.

The main character is a vile depiction of an oppressed man and has been seen to have damaged the portrayal of black culture within society.

 

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