From ‘Sex’ to ‘Superstar,’ 10 Plays That Caused a Stir

The marketing campaign for the Broadway-bound “Slave Play” is following the time-honored tradition of leaning into its controversy, with pull quotes like “Gaudily transgressive” and “Gruesomely sexy.” Assuming the transgressions and sexiness carry through to the Golden Theater, “Slave Play” will find itself part of a rich history of productions — many of them transfers from the more licentious lands of Off Broadway and London — that shocked audience members upon opening on Broadway.

To this day, classics like “Lysistrata,” “Tartuffe” and (as any Fox News viewer can attest) “Julius Caesar” can raise hackles centuries later. Here are several more plays that caused controversy — and frequently made sure to point that out in their ad campaigns.

Mrs. Warren’s Profession (1905)

“It’s much my best play,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “but it makes my blood run cold.” Temperatures ran a good bit higher during a protracted war of words in the press between one of the performers and the much-feared Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The profession in question was the running of a brothel, after all, and the cops busted up the first United States performance of this play. New York’s police commissioner supplied what would have been the perfect pull quote — “revolting, indecent and nauseating where it is not boring” — had he not canceled every subsequent performance.

God of Vengeance (1923)

The police may have been there at opening night for “Mrs. Warren,” but it wasn’t until Sholem Asch’s Yiddish drama — also about a brothel keeper and her daughter, and this time featuring a lesbian relationship — transferred uptown to the Apollo Theater that its producer, Harry Weinberger, and the cast members were indicted on charges of “an indecent, immoral and impure theatrical performance.” Weinberger, a well-known lawyer who had defended the likes of Emma Goldman, agreed to represent himself and the cast in the subsequent obscenity trial. Paula Vogel’s “Indecent” would dramatize the proceedings almost a century later.

Sex (1926)

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the police wagon that hauled away the cast members of both “The Captive” and this lurid Mae West dramedy on the same night. “Sex” had been running for almost a year at that point and got a huge bump in publicity from this run-in, although West earned that publicity by serving a 10-day sentence at a Roosevelt Island workhouse. She then took the play on the road, armed with this “warning” in the advertisements: “If you cannot stand excitement — see your doctor before visiting Mae West in ‘Sex.’”

The Children’s Hour (1934)

As with “God of Vengeance” and “The Captive,” homosexuality was at issue in this Lillian Hellman drama. It was banned in Boston the following year, and the New York Drama Critics Circle sprang into existence in the wake of the Pulitzer Prize committee’s refusal to award Hellman. The play was so incendiary that Hellman not only removed any mention of lesbianism but even changed the title — to “These Three” — for the film version in 1936.

Hair (1968)

Drug use and irreverence toward the American flag had as much to do with the furor that rose around this “American tribal love-rock musical” as its famous — and famously brief — nude scene. Not one but two Supreme Court decisions weighed in on contested productions (including one in, you guessed it, Boston); the Apollo 13 astronauts made headlines by leaving at intermission; and members of the touring casts were issued an eight-page guide on how to handle the local police.

Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)

The “Hair” director Tom O’Horgan struck again with this freewheeling adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice concept album. But there’s a thin line between boisterous and blasphemous, and both Christians (who didn’t like seeing Judas as a protagonist) and Jews (who worried about the villainous depictions of Herod and Caiaphas) ended up protesting the work. Charges of impiety would also arise in later years over “The Book of Mormon,” “The Testament of Mary” and especially the Off Broadway play “Corpus Christi.”

Oh! Calcutta! (1971)

A few dimly lit seconds in “Hair” gave way to lots and lots of nudity a mere three years later in this revue with segments written by John Lennon, Jules Feiffer, Sam Shepard and (before he pulled the rights) Samuel Beckett. Since American audiences quickly adopted a been-there-seen-that attitude in the 1970s — “There is no more innocent show in town,” reported The New York Times critic Clive Barnes — the producers actively courted foreign audiences, spending about $35,000 a year solely on Japanese-language advertising for its long-running 1976 revival.

Miss Saigon (1991)

Just as “God of Vengeance” yielded its own dramatic adaptation in “Indecent,” this pop-opera “Madame Butterfly” update — which starred a heavily made-up Jonathan Pryce in the role of a Eurasian pimp called the Engineer — spawned David Henry Hwang’s “Yellowface.” The producers did away with Mr. Pryce’s makeup before the transfer from London, but it wasn’t enough to mollify the protesters who gathered outside the Broadway Theater. Every subsequent Engineer on Broadway and on national tours has been played by an actor of Asian heritage.

The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (2002)

Edward Albee’s plays have rankled everyone from Maoists (“Box and Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung”) to the Pulitzer Prize board (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). But it wasn’t until this Tony Award-winning drama, in which Bill Pullman and Mercedes Ruehl’s characters find themselves in a love triangle with the titular ruminant, that death threats started coming to the theater. “I wanted to write a play examining the limits of our tolerance,” Albee told The Hartford Courant, and he soon found out. He was nonplussed that a climactic father-son kiss proved too much for some audience members who had previously handled the vividly described (though not actually depicted) bestiality: “What are we, all Republicans or something?”

The_____ With the Hat (2011)

So many plays have tried employing profanity in their titles that The New York Times’s standards editor, Philip B. Corbett, finally had to weigh in with an explanation about all the hyphens and euphemisms put into service. But only Stephen Adly Guirgis’s Broadway debut brought this debate to Broadway, with a Playbill that bleeped just two of those 12 letters — and a website that offered the sound of Elaine Stritch lustily declaiming every _____ing word in the title.




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