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Censorship of Gay Plays: An All-American Tradition
The silencing of breakthrough gay and lesbian plays
by Demian
© February 11, 2010, Demian
updated November 14, 2010

This article began as a brief history of the early breakthrough plays in the United States that had gay and lesbian characters or story lines. Upon researching this topic, it became apparent that almost all these early plays were censored. And the censorship of new productions has never stopped.

While the past three decades have seen a literary avalanche of gay and lesbian plays, they have, to some degree, served as fodder to the theocrats and thought police, who remain ever vigilant regarding all forms of art, in order to maintain their world views and power positions.

Censorship is always about power, the ability to control someone else’s spirit, mind, actions, and pocketbook.

It is never really about blasphemy, politics, sex, or someone, somewhere, having more fun then they have. Like rape, it is all about having authority and supremacy over others.

“The censorship method … is that of handing the job over to some frail and erring mortal man, and making him omnipotent on the assumption that his official status will make him infallible and omniscient.”
      - (George) Bernard Shaw, playwright, author, critic, Nobel Prize for Literature (1925)
       from his speech on BBC radio, January 20, 1935
For centuries, historians have censored by ignoring, or leaving out evidence, or denying the gay and lesbian identities of influential artists, philosophers, scientists, and politicians.

While many have heard of the plays of Sophocles, Euripides, Agathon, Christopher Marlowe, Thornton Wilder, William Inge, and Eric Bentley, as well as authors such as E. M. Forster, Andre Gide, Marcel Proust, and Walt Whitman — most do not know that they were gay, as they might have heard about Oscar Wilde, Jean Genet, (Thomas Lanier) Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, Harvey Fierstein, Terrence McNally, and Tony Kushner.

To know they were gay allows us to understand what informed their writing and their understanding of the world.

To remove information is to control what people think.

Here is a telling statement from one of the supreme censors of the century; someone who has, by censorship, attempted to obliterate vast areas of science, politics, and truth:

“And as you know, these are open forums, you’re able to come and listen to what I have to say.”
      - George W. Bush
         at a press conference at the White House Rose Garden, October 28, 2003
Censorship has been generously applied to plays with gay content, presumably because of the cultural enmity toward homosexuality.

In 1988 England and Wales, much gay drama was squelched by Clause 28, which prohibited government money from being spent on any communication that promoted homosexuality in a positive light, particularly homosexual relationships as alternatives to the “nuclear” family. Scotland produced a twin law. It was not until 2003 that 28 Clause was repealed in England and Wales.

Until 1960, every U.S. state had an anti-“sodomy” law. “Sodomy” was defined differently in each state, and, while both straight and gay people engage in sodomy, it has often been confusingly equated solely with homosexuality.

The sodomy laws had been infrequently invoked; however, they were often used as basis for other discriminatory laws and rulings regarding custody and the like, specifically targeting same-sex relationships. This oppressive legal environment meant that censors had state-authorized backup for their personal antipathies.

By 2003, 37 states had repealed these laws, or they had been blocked by state courts. Responding to Lawrence v. Texas (02-102), the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law on June 26, 2003. It rendered invalid all the rest of the state laws intruding on private adult sexual relations.

While Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, and Lanford Wilson are frequently, and correctly, mentioned as pioneers in establishing an American gay theater, the presence of lesbian and gay characters and plays began many years earlier.

While the censorship is still just as common as as it has been for centuries, there have been some differences. The plays themselves now often garner the top awards in show business, and, now and then, have been known to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Here, then, is a list of plays with gay and lesbian content. They are frequently innovative and inspiring, and have provided social and artistic breakthroughs in theater, as well as for our American culture.

      Demian is the associate editor and Web programmer for the Purple Circuit.
      He is a scriptwriter, videographer, director, and actor with a doctorate in education.
      Demian can be reached at Sweet Corn Productions -

The Breakthrough (often Censored) Plays
Inspirational Censorship Quotes (just for fun)
Major Resources for this Article
Web Sites of Interest

The Breakthrough (often Censored) Plays

Note: Those plays with an “ * ” were attacked or censored because of the subject matter.

In some plays, censorship has been avoided because the gay roles were so submerged — or “coded” — it was impossible for a general audiences to know that gay characters were being portrayed. The closeting of the characters and story lines usually allowed a play to get by without being trounced by the moral (or actual) police.

The “ § ” besides a person’s name indicates that they have been identified as gay or bisexual.

  — 1896 —

At Saint Juda’s
     by Henry B. Fuller

This one act play features a man who confesses his undying love for his best friend on the day his friend is to be married. His friend vehemently rejects this and suggests he should kill himself. Not exactly a gay lib ideal. It is possibly the first U.S. play on gay themes.

It appears never to have been produced. It is contained in Fuller’s collection of 12, brief dramas called The Puppet-Booth, The Century Co., NY (1896)

  — 1900 —

* Sappho
     by Alphonse Daudet and Adolph Belot

This play, about the lesbian poet, was first produced in 1895.

The censorship:

• When revived in 1900, Sappho caused a scanda and was banned.

  — 1922 —

* The God of Vengeance
     by Scholom Asch

A young Jewish woman falls in love with a prostitute who works in her father’s brothel. The play may contain the first on-stage lesbian kiss. The director, Rudolph Schildkraut, was also the lead actor. It played at the Provincetown Playhouse, NYC, for 133 shows.

The play was originally in Yiddish, and has been translated into nine languages.

The censorship:

• While a Broadway hit, it was attacked by critics. It was called “ugly, sordid and repellent beyond any play that has yet been presented on the contemporary English-speaking stage,” and “hopelessly foreign to our Anglo-Saxon taste and understanding.” These sentiments appear to be prompted by anti-Jewish sentiment.

The play was closed, and the producer, director and 12 actors were arrested. A jury found them all guilty of presenting an indecent play. Each paid a $250 fine, and their prison sentences were suspended.

When the Jewish Repertory Theater revived the play in 1992, it received similar complaints.

Note: Yale Drama School, in May 8-13, 2000, presented The People vs. the God of Vengeance by Rebecca Taichman, with live music by Michael Alpert of Brave Old World. It interwove text from the original play and transcripts from the obscenity trial proceedings against the 1923 Broadway production.

  — 1925 —

The Green Hat
     by Michael Arlen (born Dikran Kouyoumdjian)

The play contains a coded gay male character. The cast included Leslie Howard, later to be in films including, Gone with the Wind, and The Scarlet Pimpernel. It played 231 shows at the Broadhurst Theatre.

In 1924, Arlen gained fame and prosperity with the publication of his novel, The Green Hat. He dramatized it himself, and it was shown on the West End stage starring Tallulah Bankhead (128 performances at the Adelphi Theatre).

In 1928, a silent movie titled A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo, was based on The Green Hat. Constance Bennett also did a screen version.

Note: Arlen used some of the proceeds from his bestselling novel to finance Noel Coward’s controversial play The Vortex (1924). Coward was an old friend.

Arlen, a Bulgaria born to an Armenian merchant family fleeing the Turkish massacres of their race, remained mindful of his origins as a persecuted people. When he saw Goebbels strutting on a hotel balcony below his room, he carefully prepared a Martini and poured it languidly over the Nazi minister’s head.

  — 1925 —

The Vortex
     by Noël Coward§

The play contains a coded gay male character. The play contains many veiled references to drug abuse and homosexuality. The cast included Leo G. Carroll and the very gay Noël Coward. The play was a hit on both sides of the Atlantic. It ran in Henry Miller’s Theatre for 157 shows.

Note: Coward performed on stage at six, and wrote his first drama at 16.

  — 1926 —

* The Captive
     by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.

Basil Rathbone, Arthur Wontner
in The Captive
Lesbian relationship depicted. It was based on La Prisonniere by Edouard Bourdet. The cast included Basil Rathbone and Arthur Wontner, both of whom later played Sherlock Holmes in films. The play was a Broadway hit. One source states that it played 160 times in the Empire Theatre. (If they did 9 shows a week, it would have come to 153.)

The censorship:

• After 17 weeks it was closed in a police raid of. The star, Helen Menkin, was arrested for portraying a lesbian. In Rathbone’s autobiography, In and Out of Character, he writes about the night of the arrest:

“As we walked out onto the stage to await our first entrances we were stopped by a plainclothes policeman who showed his badge and said, ’Please don’t let it disturb your performance tonight but consider yourself under arrest!’ At the close of the play the cast were all ordered to dress and stand by to be escorted in police cars to a night court.” (p. 103)
The cast was released on bail, and ordered to appear in court a few days later. At the court hearing, the play’s management announced they were voluntarily (really?) withdrawing the play from the stage. Rathbone felt that the closing of the play was a:
“Hideous betrayal, this most infamous example of the imposition of political censorship on a democratic society ever known in the history of responsible creative theater; this cold-blooded unscrupulous sabotage of an important contemporary work of art; this cheap political expedient to gain votes by humiliating and despoiling the right of public opinion to express itself and act upon its considered judgment as respected and respectable citizens.” (p. 105)

  — 1926 —

Sin of Sins
     by William (James) Hurlbut

The play is a melodrama about a murderous, insane lesbian. (Since the play was not published, the description comes via a play critic.) It had a tryout in Atlantic City, and then a Chicago premiere. Two of the three Chicago critics panned the play, and it appears that there was a news block about the play because of the lesbian content. It was poorly attended and ran less than a month.

The play’s title originally was Hymn to Venus — after a poem by Sapho — but it was not thought provocative enough.

Note: Hurlbut also wrote the screenplay for the artistically and financially successful The Bride of Frankenstein, which was directed by James Whale§.

  — 1927 —

* The Drag
     by Mae West

The play had Gay male characters, was about homosexuality, and alluded to the work of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, whose theories West favored above those of Sigmund Freud and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. The play has been described as ambiguous; pro-gay in some moments and homophobic in others.

The censorship:

• The Drag was a box office success, even though audiences had to go to New Jersey to see it because it was effectively banned from Broadway.

Note 1: West was jailed for her first Broadway hit play, Sex. Written under her pen name Jane Mast, played for a year — April 26, 1926–March 1927 — before authorities closed it. New York’s deputy police commissioner raided the show, charging West and company with lewdness and corrupting of youth. West was prosecuted on morals charges and, on April 19, 1927, was sentenced to ten days for “corrupting the morals of youth.” She served eight days with two days off for good behavior.

Note 2: West regarded talking about sex as a basic human rights issue, and was also an early advocate of gay rights.

  — 1928 —

* Strange Interlude
     by Eugene O’Neill

The play contains coded a gay male character. The show was a Broadway hit. The show played 426 times at the John Golden Theatre. A 1963 revival ran 97 shows at the Hudson and Martin Beck theaters, and a 1985 revival ran 63 times at the Nederlander Theatre.

The play won the 1928 Pulitzer Prize.

O’Neill had attempted to write a role that had “never been done in literature with any sympathy or real insight.” However, most in the audience did not know that the character, Chalres Marsden, was gay. The play is the saga of “Everywoman,” who ritualistically acts out her roles as daughter, wife, mistress, mother, and platonic friend.

The censorship:

• When Strange Interlude played in Boston, in 1929, Mayor Nichols prohibited the production. Instead of opposing the restriction, the Theater Guild moved the production to Quincy, a suburb beyond the jurisdiction of the city authorities. Thousands flocked to see the performance.

Note: The play was revolutionary in style and length. When first produced, it opened in late afternoon, broke for a dinner intermission, and ended at the conventional hour. Techniques new to the modern theatre included spoken asides, or soliloquies, to express the characters’ hidden thoughts.

     by Sophie Treadwell

The play was based on journalist Treadwell’s reporting assignment at the sensational 1927 trial of a stenographer named Ruth Snyder for the murder of her husband. In one scene, in a crowded speakeasy, a young woman is pressured by her boyfriend to have an abortion, and a homosexual male courts a young hustler. It premiered with Clark Gable cast as “Dick Roe,” the protagonist’s lover. It was a critical success and ran 91 performances at the Plymouth Theatre.

Note: Treadwell was a women’s rights advocate, as well as a novelist. She was America’s first accredited female war correspondents during World War I, before turning to the theater and writing nearly 40 plays.

  — 1929 —

* The Pleasure Man
     by Mae West

Secondary characters were gay male dancers and professional female impersonators. The play, a backstage melodrama, was a reworked version of The Drag, with a heterosexual lead replacing the gay playboy of the original.

The censorship:

• The play experienced a nightstick raid at the very end of the first performance, and the cast was arrested. West released them from jail, and they all appeared the next day’s matinee. This time the NYPD invaded the theatre at intermission, and the 54 actors, still in stage make-up and dresses, were driven off in paddy wagons.

• West and the producers were charged with presenting “an obscene, indecent, immoral and impure drama.” West was acquitted by a hung jury after 14 days of testimony, and the charges were dismissed.

  — 1932 —

Dangerous Corner
     by J.B. Priestly

The play focuses on the suicide of Robert Caplan’s brother Martin. We learn it may have been murder, as the seven characters close to Martin discover how his death affected them. There is a missing $50,000 from the company, the bisexuality of the deceased, and a mysterious music box/cigarette holder that plays “Unchained Melody.”

Censors, inexplicably, did not intervene. Originally London produced. The show ran 206 performances at the Empire Theatre. A 1933 revival ran 90 performances at the Waldorf Theatre.

Design for Living
     by Noël Coward§

Noël Coward, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne
in Design for Living
The play contains coded bisexual characters. It co-stared author Coward, and the married team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Originally London produced. It premiered in New York City on January 24, 1933, running for 135 shows at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. Revivals ran for 245 shows at the Circle in the Square Theatre in 1984, and for 69 performances at the American Airlines Theatre in 2001.

Often considered to have its basis in the real life relationship between Coward and his friends, the lustful ménage a trios caused a scandal when first performed. Censors, inexplicably, did not intervene.

The play was made into a 1933 film — directed by Ernst Lubitsch and screenplay by Ben Hecht — where all traces of homo or bisexuality were expunged. Amazingly, one of the film stars was bisexual Gary Cooper, and the role of the ménage lady’s husband went to the completely flaming Edward Everett Horton§ .

Note: Coward left Paris just before World War II started. He took time off from writing to perform for the troops. Coward was also engaged by the British Secret Service MI5 and conducted intelligence work.

  — 1933 —

The Green Bay Tree
     by Mordaunt Shairp

The play contains coded gay characters. While any overt mention of homosexuality is never even whispered, the most ominous signs are evident by the expression of expensive taste, bitchy wit, and — you guessed it — a penchant for arranging flowers. The play was a hit, playing 166 performances at the Cort Theatre.

In the U.S. premier, the bisexual Lawrence Olivier played the young man adopted by the wealthy bachelor. His real life first wife, Jill Esmond, co-starred. Leo G. Carroll played Olivier’s manservant.

The play was originally London produced. A 1951 revival ran 20 performances at the John Golden Theatre.

  — 1934 —

* The Children’s Hour
     by Lillian (Florence) Hellman

In this highly-praised drama, one woman confesses her passion for her female friend after they were falsely accused of being lovers. The play ran at the Maxine Elliot Theatre for an incredible 691 performances; at the time, a record for the longest, single-venue run in theater history. A 1952 revival ran 189 shows at the Coronet Theatre.

The story was based on a legal case which took place in Edinburgh in the 19th century about two old-maid schoolteachers and a young girl who brought charges of lesbianism against the teachers. Hellman explained to the story editor who wanted to buy screen rights to the play: “It’s not about lesbians. It’s about the power of a lie.”

The play was produced and directed by Herman Shumlin, for whom Hellman had been working as a script reader. Shumlin risked a lot bringing a novice playwright’s work directly to the Broadway stage without an out-of-town tryout, but had great faith in the play.

The censorship:

• Initially, the play was banned in Boston, Chicago, and London. The content scared off the Pulitzer Prize selection committee, which refused to attend a single performance.

The Hays Office forced Hellman to turn the central adult conflict into a standard love-and-jealousy triangle in her film adaptation, released in 1936 as These Three.” In 1962, with the Hays Officer gone, another screen adaptation was released, returning to the frank, if understated, treatment of the lesbian theme.

“Today, when every form of perversion except masturbation and bestiality have been shown on the screen, Hellman, Wyler and the Mirisch Co. apparently thought a re-do of The Children’s Hour would sell tickets if lesbianism were not only restored as the charge the evil child falsely brings, but also condoned. … There is an explicit line of dialogue which asserts that those who choose to practice lesbianism are not destroyed by it — a claim disapproved by the number of lesbians who become insane and/or commit suicide.”
      - Films in Review, April 1962
Note: From 1936-37, Hellman traveled in Europe, where she witnessed the horrors of the Spanish civil war, and traveled in the Soviet Union. She was politically on the left, and in her antifascist play Watch on the Rhine (1941), Hellman criticized the naiveté of Americans. While traveling in Europe, Hellman helped to smuggle $50,000 over the border for a group who wanted to oust Hitler.

In 1952 Hellman was called before the odious House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. She refused to reveal the names of associates and friends in the theater who might have Communist associations. In a letter to the Committee she wrote:

“But the hurt innocent people whom I knew many years ago in order to save myself is, to me, inhuman and indecent and dishonorable. I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions, even though I long ago came to the conclusion that I was not a political person and could have no comfortable place in any political group.”
Hellman was excused by the committee with the remark:
“Why cite her for contempt? After all, she is a woman.”
Hellman was still blacklisted from the late 1940s to the 1960s, as a result of her defiance, which destroyed her income as a writer.

  — 1938 —

Set to Music (the U.S. version of “Words and Music”)
     by Noël Coward

While this show, introduced the song “Mad about the Boy,” apparently, audiences were not allowed to hear one of the Coward’s verses.

The following is from the memoir “My Life with Noël Coward” by his 29-year companion and lover Graham Payn:

“In excavating the truth I turned up an extraordinary ‘lost’ verse to the song. It was to have been sung in the 1938 New York revue, ‘Set to Music’ (the US version of ‘Words and Music’). A dapper businessman in formal black coat and striped trousers is discovered in a smart office setting:

Mad about the boy,
I know it’s silly,
But I’m mad about the boy,
And even Doctor Freud cannot explain
Those vexing dreams
I’ve had about the boy.

When I told my wife,
She said:
“I never heard such nonsense in my life!”
Her lack of sympathy
Embarrassed me
And made me frankly glad about the boy.

My doctor can’t advise me,
He’d help me if he could;
Three times he’s tried to psychoanalyse me
But it’s just no good.
People I employ
Have the impertinence

To call me Myrna Lay,
I rise above it,
Frankly love it,
’Cos I’m absolutely
“It appears to have been written specifically for the New York production but was cut from the show by the management, who found it too daring. One can see their point. After all, it was only 1938!

“Attitudes to homosexuality in the arts were light years away from those of today. In England homosexuality was still illegal and remained so until the late Sixties. America took a more lenient social view but in the theatre or on film it was strictly taboo.”

     by Maza de La Roache

A gay teenager is the sole inheritor of a considerable fortune, which enables him to escape his hateful family to seriously study music abroad. Ethyl Barrymore stared as the teen’s 101 year old grandmother. The show ran at the Hudson Theatre for 104 performances.

This may be the first American play to reward, rather than punish, or kill, the gay character. Says grandma of her grandson, “I know you're a queer boy, but I like you. Yes, I like you very much.”

The Good
     by Chester Erskin

A guilt-free, unashamed gay teen character escapes an oppressive family. The play had nine performances at the Windsor Theatre.

Author Erskin directed the play. He also produced and performed in other productions.

Waltz in Goose Step
     by Oliver H.P. Garrett

The play features evil, gay Nazi characters based on anti-German propaganda. It closed after seven performances at the Hudson Theatre.

Note: This was written during the period in history when gay men were vilified in Nazi Germany and were being killed in concentration and death camps.

Oscar Wilde
     by Leslie and Sewell Stokes

The play begins with Wilde’s literary success and his comradeship with Lord Alfred Douglas. It becomes a courtroom melodrama, and later portrays Wilde as a broken drunk, after two years in hard labor at prison. The script contains much of Wilde’s actual writings.

Robert Morley played Oscar. The audiences were amazed by Morley’s performance and it brought him acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic. It became a hit play, running 247 times at the Fulton Theatre. Originally London produced at the Gate Theatre.

In 1960, a movie was made of the same title, again starring Robert Morley, which mixed writing by Jo Eisinger along with the Stokes brothers’ play.

  — 1944 —

* Trio
     by Dorothy and Howard Baker

This play was drama about the breakup of a lesbian couple. The show ran 67 times at the Belasco Theatre. The opening cast included Kirk Douglas and Richard Widmark.

The censorship:

• Theaters refused to rent to the producers. • A protest was led by a group of Protestant clergymen. • It was closed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who claimed, at a news conference, that lesbians had “defective genitals.” Thousands of show people protested the censorship, however, the play never reopened.

  — 1954 —

The Immoralist
     by Ruth and August Goetz

Drama pitted a liberated gay man against a closed one. It was based on the novel by Andre Gide§ . It ran 96 shows at the Royale Theatre. Cast included Charles Dingle, Louis Jourdan, Geraldine Page, and the bisexual James Dean. It won Dean the Theatre World Award in 1954.

  — 1966 —

* A Patriot for Me
     by John Osbourne

The true story of a young, able, and ambitious homosexual officer of the Austro-Hungarian Imperial Army who was blackmailed into counter spying for Tsarist Russia. The play ran 69 times at the Imperial Theatre in 1969. Cast included Maximilian Schell.

The censorship:

• Osborn was asked by authorities to remove any references to homosexual behavior, and scenes depicting a man or woman in bed. He refused.

The play was instrumental in ending the 18th-century system of theatrical censorship under the Lord Chamberlain.

  — 1968 —

Boys in the Band
     by Mart Crowley§

The story is about a birthday party attended by nine gay men. While the main party favors are bitch, high camp, and angst over being homosexual, in-depth portraits take the play to a higher level than was previously seen on stage. The play ran off-Broadway at the Theater Four for 1,002 performances.

In 1970, it was adapted to a successful motion picture scripted by Crowley, directed by William Friedkin, and starring the original stage actors. Play and film cast includes Frederick Combs, Leonard Frey, Cliff Gorman, Reuben Greene, Robert La Tourneaux, Laurence Luckinbill, Kenneth Nelson, Keith Prentice, and Peter White.

Gay activists protested both the play and the film. The Gay Liberation Front at Iowa State University wrote a letter to the college paper calling the film, “trash” in that it “perpetuates the ignorance of stereotyping and the idiom of the locker room.”

A sequel written by Crowley, The Men from the Boys, premiered in 2002. This play has most of the original characters, plus three younger men, gathered in the same apartment, 30 years later, for a memorial for Larry, who has died of pancreatic cancer.

  — 1973 —

The Enclave
     by Arthur Laurents§

A group of congenial friends restored adjoining houses in New York City, and plan to move, setting up a sort of urban commune. However, one of them resolves to confront the others with his long-concealed homosexuality, and to bring along his young male lover as a permanent addition to the group.

Stephen Sondheim wrote the incidental score. The play opened at Theatre Four in New York City, for a 22 performance run, after previews in Washington D.C.

Note: Arthur wrote the play Jolson Sings Again, the books for West Side Story, Gypsy, Anyone Can Whistle, and Do I Hear a Waltz?, which was based on his play Time of the Cuckoo. His novels The Way We Were, and The Turning Point, became successful films for which he wrote the screenplays. He also wrote the screenplays for The Snake Pit, Anastasia, and Hitchcock’s Rope. Rope has a coded, gay sub-text.

  — 1985 —

* The Normal Heart
     by Larry Kramer§

The play is about gay men and the AIDS crisis in New York City during the early 1980s. It was first performed at The Public Theater, in 1985, where it was produced by Joseph Papp.

It reportedly has had more than 600 productions worldwide. In 2000, The Royal National Theatre named it one of the 100 greatest plays of the 20th century.

The censorship:

• In 1989, state legislators and citizens opposed a student production at Southwest Missouri State University. The administration refused to halt the play, stating:

“Any decision by SMSU to prohibit the production … would constitute a violation of the First Amendment rights of both students and faculty.”

  — 1988 —

* M. Butterfly
     by David Henry Hwang

The play is based on the true story of a French diplomat who had a 20-year affair with a Chinese opera singer, not realizing his partner was a man masquerading as a woman. The diplomat was charged with treason because of passing information to his companion, who was a Chinese agent. The play explores underlying stereotypes that distort relations between Eastern and Western culture, and between men and women.

The play ran in the Eugene O’Neill Theatre for 777 performances. Cast included B.D. Wong and John Lithgow. The play moved to London’s Shaftsbury Theatre in 1989.

- Awards in 1988:
      Tony Award - “Best Play”
      Tony Award - “Best Featured Actor in a Play” - B.D. Wong
      Tony Award - “Best Direction of a Play” - John Dexter
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding New Play”
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play” - B.D. Wong
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Director of a Play” - John Dexter
      Theatre World Award - B.D. Wong
      Outer Critics Circle Award - “Best Broadway Play”
      John Gassner Award - “Season’s Outstanding New Playwright”
- Awards in 1989:
      Pulitzer Prize

The censorship:

• In August 1993, when M. Butterfly and Lips Together, Teeth Apart were mounted by the Theater in the Square, Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County Commission condemned homosexuality. Two weeks later, it voted to eliminate funds for all the arts at the urging of a commissioner who warned that the arts were helping further a “gay agenda.”

In spite of there being no such agenda, the county instituted a “traditional family structure” standard. They de-funded all arts grants, which not only affected the theater, but other non-controversial programs including the Cobb Children’s Theater, Cobb Youth Chorus, and Cobb Symphony Orchestra.

  — 1992 —

* Lips Together, Teeth Apart
     by Terrence McNally§

In this play, one character’s gay brother has just died of AIDS.

The censorship:

• In August 1993, when Lips Together, Teeth Apart and M. Butterfly were mounted by Theater in the Square, Marietta, Georgia, the Cobb County Commission condemned homosexuality. Two weeks later, it voted to eliminate funds for all the arts at the urging of a commissioner who warned that the arts were helping further a (in reality, non-existent) “gay agenda.”

In spite of there being no such agenda, the county instituted a “traditional family structure” standard. They de-funded all arts grants, which not only affected the theater, but other non-controversial programs including the Cobb Children’s Theater, Cobb Youth Chorus, and Cobb Symphony Orchestra.

  — 1993 —

* Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
     by Tony Kushner§

The seven-hour play is presented in two parts: “Millennium Approaches” and “Perestroika.” It presents a wide variety of gay and non-gay characters in New York City during the mid-80s. One of them, Prior, develops AIDS and his partner, unable to cope with the stress, moves out. Prior is subsequently visited by ghosts and angels who proclaim him a prophet. A real-life monster, lawyer Roy Cohn, changes the political and emotional landscape for everyone.

“Millennium Approaches” was commissioned by the Eureka Theatre Company of San Francisco, and directed by David Esbjornson. It premiered in May 1991. It was developed by the playwright with the Mark Taper Forum of Los Angeles. It debuted in London in a Royal National Theatre production directed by Declan Donnellan, in January 1992, and ran a year.

“Perestroika” was still being developed as “Millennium Approaches” was being performed. It was performed several times as stage readings by both the Eureka Theatre — during the world premiere of part one — and the Mark Taper Forum, in May 1992. It premiered in November 1992 in a production by the Mark Taper Forum, directed by Oskar Eustis and Tony Taccone. On November 20, 1993, it received its London debut at the National Theatre, directed by Declan Donnellan, in repertory with a revival of “Millennium Approaches.”

“Millennium Approaches” debuted on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 1993, with “Perestroika” being performed in May, and Perestroika joining it in repertory in November.

Angels in America: Part 1 - “Perestroika” ran for 367 performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
- Awards won in 1990:
      Fund for New American Plays/Kennedy Centre Award
- Awards won in 1991:
      Bay Area Drama Critics Award - “Best Play”
      National Arts Club’s Joseph Kesselring Award
- Awards won in 1992:
      London Evening Standard Award - “Best New Play”
      London Drama Critics Circle Award - “Best New Play”
- Awards won in 1993:
      Pulitzer Prize for Drama
      Tony Award - “Best Play”
      Tony Award - “Best Actor in Play” - Ron Leibman
      Tony Award - “Best Featured Actor in a Play” - Stephen Spinella
      Tony Award - “Best Direction of a Play” - George C. Wolfe
      Theatre World Award - Marcia Gay Harden and Stephen Spinella
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding New Play”
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Actor in a Play” - Ron Leibman
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Featured Actor in a Play” - Joe Mantello and Stephen Spinella
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Director of a Play” - George C. Wolfe

Angels in America: Part 2 - “Millennium Approaches” ran for 217 performances at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
- Awards won in 1994:
      Tony Award - “Best Play”
      Tony Award - “Best Actor in Play” - Stephen Spinella
      Tony Award - “Best Featured Actor in a Play” - Jeffrey Wright
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Play”
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Actor in a Play” - Stephen Spinella
      Drama Desk Award - “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Play” - Jeffrey Wright

The censorship:

• In 1996, the Catholic University of America, a private, religiously affiliated institution, issued an •advertising ban on a student thesis production because, according to one professor, “publicity for the show might look like an endorsement of the homosexual lifestyle by the university and the Catholic Church.” The student director chose to move the production off campus, rather than adhere to the administration’s other options, which were to close the show, or restrict audience attendance.

• In 1996, the Charlotte Repertory Theater, which received partial funding from the Charlotte/Mecklenburg Arts and Science Council, staged the play. It has a very brief nude scene. Despite picketing from Christian right activists and pressure from the mayor, the “unrepentant” Charlotte Rep refused to “tone down” the show, and went on to also stage John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation which includes a gay lead character.

The following April 1997, at a “circus-like six-hour meeting,” of the Mecklenburg County Commissioners, members of the public condemned the “homosexual agenda.” The commissioners passed a resolution, 5-4, supporting “the traditional American family,” attacking “perverted forms of sexuality,” and denounced the Arts and Science Council for failing to abide by “any acceptable community standards.” The resolution relieved the Council of “any further responsibility for the determination of where taxpayer dollars shall be spent,” and required that every arts grant must be approved by the commissioners themselves.

Interviewed by the Charlotte Observer, Commissioner Bill James remarked that:

“As far as I’m concerned, those guys [the Charlotte Rep] are dead on arrival. If they don’t know they’re the walking dead now, I suggest they get a clue pretty quick.”
Another commissioner, when asked about homosexuality, replied:
“If I had my way, we’d shove these people off the face of the earth.”
Voters eventually unseated four of the Mecklenburg Commissioners who voted to de-fund the arts, and eventually restored the arts funding. However, the Actor’s Theater of Charlotte self-censored and canceled plans to produce Dream of a Common Language, fearing the state’s indecent exposure law, thereby censoring them selves.

  — 1998 —

* National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)

The censorship:

• Performance artists Karen Finley, John Fleck§ , Holly Hughes§ , and Tim Miller§ were denied funding by NEA chair John Frohnmayer, after being offered the grants. They sued — Finley v. National Endowment for the Arts 524 U.S. 569 (1998) — challenging the constitutionality of the “decency and respect” provision contained in a recent amendment to the NEA’s funding policy.

The NEA may not consider “general standards of decency,” ruled the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming a 1992 federal district court ruling. Their grants were restored with damages. In his ruling, Judge James R. Browning wrote:

“Even when the government is funding speech, it may not distinguish between speakers on the basis of the speaker’s viewpoint or otherwise aim at the suppression of ideas … Government funding of the arts, in the circumstances of this case, must be viewpoint-neutral.”
The Supreme Court, however, upheld the provision as only being “advisory” in order to prevent Congress from eliminating the NEA altogether.

Congress successfully pressured the NEA to discontinue granting solo artists.

* Corpus Christi
     by Terrence McNally§

The play offers a contemporary retelling of the story of Jesus and his disciples as gay men. 13 gay men gather to celebrate the passion of Christ. They draw lots to determine their parts in the celebration. It opened at the Manhattan Theatre Club on October 13, 1998 for an eight week run.

The censorship:

This play has been under many censorship attacks. Here are a few:

• The Manhattan Theater Club (MTC) canceled — then opened — a production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi.

On May 1, 1998, an article in the right-wing tabloid, the New York Post, titled, “Gay Jesus May Star on B’Way,” claimed that the play featured a Jesus-like figure “who has sex with his apostles.” They, of course, had not seen, or read, the play.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights declared that McNally’s play was insulting to Christians, promising to “wage a war” against any effort to produce it. They, of course, had not seen, or read, the play.

There were telephone threats to burn down the theater, kill its staff, and exterminate the playwright. A group called the “National Security Movement of America” made telephone threats against the “Jew guilty homosexual Terrence McNally.” The message continued, “Because of you we will exterminate every member of the theater and burn the place to the ground.”

In the face of these attacks, one of the corporate sponsors of the MTC, Trans World Airlines, withdrew its financial support. And, on May 21, the MTC announced that it was canceling production of the play.

The decision elicited criticism from authors and theater figures, including Arthur Miller, Stephen Sondheim§ , Tony Kushner§ , A.R. Gurney, Christopher Durang, William Hoffman, Wendy Wasserstein, David Henry Hwang, and Judy Blume. In protest, Athol Fugard, well-known South African playwright, withdrew his play The Captain’s Tiger from the theater’s line-up.

By May 28, 1998, the MTC stated that it had assurances from the police department that it could safely produce the play. Metal detectors were installed in the MTC. Audience members had to enter the theater by stepping around (by one account) 2,000 gay-haters, who held signs such as, “Terrence McNally Sodomizes Jesus - And Your Mother Is Next.”

McNally, against whom most of the threats were made, never wavered in his decision to continue with the scheduled production.

Corpus Christi opened on October 13, 1998, one day following the brutal murder of Matt Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming.

• In November-December 1999, a London-based Muslim group sentenced Terrence McNally to death for depicting Jesus as a homosexual. The group, Al-Muhajiroun, described itself as the “Defenders of the Messenger Jesus.” They said Jesus is considered an important prophet in Islam, and that classical and modern Islamic authorities agree that capital punishment is the prescribed penalty for insulting a messenger of God. The fatwa (death sentence) on McNally was issued as the play opened in London in late October.

• In July 24, 2001, at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, a student-produced version of the play roused protestors who announced they would sue if the play was not banned. 32 individuals — including 21 Indiana legislators — filed the lawsuit. The University stood behind the play. Said Chancellor Michael Wartell:

“We still believe that the First Amendment and academic freedom apply.”
In July 2001, the district court ruled — in Linnemeier v. Board of Trustees of IPFW — that a student (Jonathan Gilbert) has the right to direct a controversial play in a state university theater, and that the plaintiffs failed to show how the production would violate the establishment clause of the Constitution, which requires a separation of church and state.

The court ruled that the campus production did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” In so doing, the court observed that a university is a “ ‘hub of ideas’ and a place citizens traditionally identify with creative inquiry, provocative discourse, and intellectual growth.”

The taxpayers appealed, but the Federal appellate court, ruled 2-1 to uphold the district court’s decision not to halt the play. It found that the faculty has the academic freedom to allow students to present controversial theater as part of the curriculum. The majority wrote:

“The contention that the First Amendment forbids a state university to provide a venue for the expression of views antagonistic to conventional Christian beliefs is absurd. It would imply that teachers in state universities could not teach important works by Voltaire, Hobbes, Hume, Darwin, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Yeats, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, John Dewey, and countless other staples of Western culture.”
The majority concluded that “the school authorities and the teachers, not the courts, decide whether classroom instruction shall include work by blasphemers.”

The AAUP argued in its amicus brief in support of the university that the administration would have violated the faculty’s First Amendment right of academic freedom if it had interfered with the professors’ determination to allow their students freedom to select plays to fulfill a course requirement.

• In 2002, the Florida Atlantic University theater department announced it would produce Corpus Christi. This led Florida state legislators to attack the play that they had not actually seen or read.

From State Senator Skip Campbell: “People at FAU have to realize this is offensive to about 80 percent of the people in Florida.” From Sen. Debby Sanderson, a FAU graduate: “For anyone who’s a Christian, it’s very offensive.”

Sen. Dan Webster warned of financial repercussions against FAU: “We need to be asking, ‘is this one of our priorities?’ We’ve already had to cut a lot of funding. Maybe the school’s art and cultural program funds are better spent somewhere else.”

All this was enough to scare FAU President Anthony Catanese. Though he defended FAU’s production “under the principles of academic freedom,” he also promised to create a committee that would review policies and procedures for future “controversial” events. Catanese also said that he would not see the play — and advised others to avoid it as well — which opened on March 28th for its run of three whole days.

• In 2003, the Grand Rapids Community College mounted a production. A legislator on the finance committee called to find out if state money was being used in the production. Constituents complained that the play was sacrilegious. Rather than risk the legislator’s ire, The Actors’ Theatre moved the play to the Fountain Street Church. The Church’s Reverend Judith Walker Riggs stated:

“The great figure of Christ … cannot be harmed by a few words spoken by a few actors in Grand Rapids, MI. But some of our own hearts might be encouraged to move away from narrow-mindedness, hatred and violence.”

  — 1999 —

* Life Versus the Paperback Romance
     by Samantha Gellar§

The play is a love story about two women who get to know each other, and break through personal barriers.

The censorship:

• The play was censored from being produced. 17-year-old Gellar won a Young Playwright’s contest, in Charlotte, North Carolina, in February 1999. The four other winners’ plays were produced at the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte. Gellar became the first winner in the history of the contest to be denied a production. Board of Education rules stated that plays with “homosexual content” could not be shown. The law was on the Board’s side, because there was a recent Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals decision allowing North Carolina high school teacher’s selection of a play could be censored by school officials. That play was the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lee Blessing’s play about a dysfunctional family that included a lesbian daughter and a promiscuous sibling, called Independence.

  — 1996 —

* Vagina Monologues
     by Eve Ensler

Each monologue somehow relates to the vagina, be it through sex, love, rape, menstruation, mutilation, masturbation, birth, orgasm, the variety of names for the vagina, or simply as a physical aspect of the female body. A recurring theme is the vagina as a tool of female empowerment, and the ultimate embodiment of individuality.

It premiered Off-Broadway, and won an Obie Award. It has been performed in 76 countries.

When first produced, Eve Ensler performed all the monologues. Subsequently, performances featured three actresses. Eventually, different actress played every role. Every year, a new monologue is added, highlighting a current issue affecting women around the world. In 2003, for example, a skit was added concerning the plight of women in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

The Vagina Monologues are the foundation of the Valentine’s Day “V-Day” movement. The “V” stands for Valentine, vagina, and violence, linking love and respect for women to ending violence against women and girls. Benefit performances are staged in 81 countries, benefiting programs that assist victims of domestic violence. V-Day has raised donations totaling more than $30 million.

The censorship:

• In the early part of 2003, about a dozen Catholic colleges banned the Vagina Monologues, after planning to allow performances. Cardinal Newman Society president Patrick Reilly claimed his group was responsible for the censorship after launching an e-mail campaign.

Inspirational Censorship Quotes (just for fun)
“Censorship is never over for those who have experienced it. It is a brand on the imagination that affects the individual who has suffered it, forever.”
      - Nadine Gordimer, author
         from in her address to the international Writer’s Day conference, London, June 1990

“Censorship, I believe, is the most dangerous enemy to all human communication, and piety of intention is probably the most dangerous, the most virulent and the most self-satisfying.”
      - Chuck Jones, animation writer, director, artist

“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
      - (George) Bernard Shaw, playwright, author, critic, Nobel Prize for Literature (1925)

“Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”
      - Benjamin Franklin, writer, intellectual, scientist, inventor, politician, editor, printer, publisher, linguist, philanthropist, abolitionist

“There is only one real blasphemy, the refusal of joy”
      - Paul Rudnick, playwright
         from a character in his play “Jeffrey”

Major Resources for this Article

Internet Broadway Database

National Coalition against Censorship


“We Can Always Call Them Bulgarians: The emergence of lesbians and gay men on the American Stage”
by Kaier Curtain, Alyson Publications, December 1988

Web Sites of Interest
“Banned Plays” - on GuerriLA Theatre

“The Captive” - on Basil Rathbone: Master of Stage and Screen by Marcia Jessen

“Lillian Hellman (1905-1984)”

“The Lost Club Journal: Michael Arlen: A Dandysme of the Soul” by Mark Valentine

“The Pleasure Man: Glasgow Citizens Company”

All contents © 2018, Demian
Please do not copy this article by any form of reproduction without permission
from Demian, with the exception of copies for personal (including student),
non-commercial use. Please do not copy this article to any Web site.

Have information about more censored plays? Please send cited information to Demian.

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