Theatre, Literature, and Moral Panic

I was doing some reading on The Playboy of the Western World after finishing watching it, and was intrigued to learn that the play caused riots after it opened in Dublin in 1907. The audience was offended by its depiction of backwards morals and believed that it gave a bad name to Irish people. The points that prompted the largest objections were the glorification of patricide as committed by Christy Mahon, and the mention of women’s undergarments. People attended the show and threw objects at the stage to protest its subject matter, and this continued when it opened in New York in 1911. The cast of the play even got arrested at one point for putting on an immoral show. I would find it very interesting to explore how this play moved across the Atlantic, and how the change from an Irish audience to an American audience affected the public’s understanding of Irish customs and culture.

Theatre in general has a long history of causing moral panic and outrage. As we discussed in class, The Octoroon also stirred up a lot of controversy after it was released, because of its portrayal of interracial relationships, slavery, and the inclusion of a Native American character. Much of the content we are reading for this class has been incredibly subversive, for depicting the lives and stories of historically marginalized groups. I don’t know if this is a stretch in thinking, but this reminded me of the current push to ban books happening in many states in the U.S. Proponents of this idea have stated that books with LGBTQ+ themes or discussions of race are inappropriate for children, and they have backing from wealthy Republican donors. The protests against and censorship of plays from the 19th and 20th centuries shows just how long these types of moral panics have been prevalent. I am very grateful that these plays have survived, and that we are able to discuss and learn from them.