Theatre has ruffled conservative feathers at least since Aristophanes’ Lysistrata premiered to Greek audiences more than 2000 years ago. Whatever peoples’ opinions about the most controversial plays ever staged, the intention of the writers has never been to shock for the sake of being shocking.
They pushed boundaries in ways that highlighted artistic freedoms, tackled social issues, critiqued religion, and approached the taboos of women’s sexuality and same-sex attraction. If you want to see how drama has been a force for change while getting audiences all worked up, start with the following shockers.
Lysistrata – Aristophanes
A woman, determined to bring the Peloponessian War to an end, leads others in a strike that sees them withhold sex from men in Aristophanes’ anti-war comedy. Men in the audiences did not like it in 411 B.C., and almost unsurprisingly, almost every staging of it ever since still attracts ire.
Of course, that has not stopped producers, directors, and writers from staging, filming, reimagining, and retelling it. Like the best Australian online pokies, true classic plays never get old.
Tartuffe – Moliere
Penned in 1664, Tartuffe is a scalding satire that targets fanaticism and power within religious and social structures. King Louis XIV attended the 1667 premiere, and he appeared to enjoy the production.
However, it clearly touched a nerve in the Parisian archbishop. The Sun King’s confessor, he influenced Louis to ban the play. Public performances were allowed from 1669 onwards, after the playwright had made a few changes to the text.
A Doll’s House – Henrick Ibsen
Henrick Ibsen’s 1879 masterful drama, a Doll’s House, tells the story of Nora, a woman whose spirit is free enough for her to turn her back on being a wife and mother. Such a situation may be a familiar one to many in modern audiences, but in the 19th century, such behaviour was almost unheard of.
Audiences, critics, and community leaders lambasted the production. They claimed that the play was an offence to decency, and that it denigrated marriage and family life.
Sex – Jane Mast/Mae West
Before making her way to Hollywood, Mae West was a playwright and a theatre actress. She published her works using the pen name, Jane Mast. One of her most controversial plays is called Sex, and it ran for more than 300 performances in 1926.
The play is a farcical comedy about a prostitute based in Montreal. Audiences could not get enough of the production, despite, or because, it was panned by the New York Times. 10 months after it opened, the city’s acting mayor had the entire cast arrested and sent to prison for eight days.
Corpus Christi – Terrence McNally
If one controversial play is always going to attract death threats, petitions, and protests, Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi is it. The play opened in October 1998, and recasts Jesus Christ and his disciples as a group of young gay men living in Texas.
During its initial run, audience members had to pass metal detectors, to ensure no one had brought weapons. Even more recent productions of the play have attracted such furious protests, they had to be cancelled.