- The censoring of theatre existed from its beginnings, and in America this proclivity initially stemmed from Puritans who viewed the stage as a den of idleness and iniquity. Over time, censorious forces focused on controversial thematic content, certain forms of human behavior (especially sexuality), and language. In the mid-19th century, performances featuring scantily clad women both titillated and outraged audiences, culminating in a major controversy over Adah Isaacs Menken's Mazeppa (1861) and the musical melodrama The Black Crook (1866); the latter was decried for its chorus of ballerinas dressed in little more than tights.After 1880, the focus of censorship began to shift toward the content of social problem plays and realism, with frequent closings (and arrests) associated with the earliest American productions of plays by Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. James A. Herne's Margaret Fleming (1890), written in the Ibsenite mode, was not permitted performances in either New York or Boston. In 1905, when Arnold Daly produced Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, which had been written in the early 1890s, both he and leading lady Mary Shaw were arrested. Other plays running afoul of authorities include Clyde Fitch's Sapho (1900) and George Scarborough's The Lure (1913).While musicals, revues, and burlesque were able to employ limited nudity and risqué subject matter, the legitimate stage met with greater difficulty. Eugene O'Neill encountered resistance to several of his plays, including moral objections to Desire Under the Elms (1924) and his Pulitzer PRiZE-winning Strange Interlude (1928), as well as considerable distress over race issues in All God's Chillun Got Wings (1924). The antiwAR sentiments and soldierly language of Laurence Stallings and Maxwell Anderson's What Price Glory (1924) incited calls for censorship, and Edwin Justus Mayer's The Firebrand (1924), Sidney Howard's They Knew What They Wanted (1924), John B. Colton's The Shanghai Gesture (1926), and Edward Sheldon and Charles MacArthur's* Lulu Belle (1926) all raised hackles. Censors focused particularly on the plays of Mae West, whose sexually liberated play, Sex (1926), in which she also played the lead, led to her arrest for indecency. She spent 10 days in jail and was fined $500, but attendant publicity made her a major star. West's next play, The Drag (1927), depicted a homosexual ball and was closed by authorities before it could reach Broadway. West's exploits led to the enactment of the Wales Padlock Law of 1927, which permitted authorities to arrest personnel, lock theatres, and ban productions viewed as indecent. This law was rarely enforced, partly because defining indecency proved complicated, but it remained on the books until the 1960s and was significant in forcing producers to tread lightly in sensitive areas.
The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. James Fisher.