A Western Playboy, Jerry Springer and violence: 10 plays that shocked audiences

Theatre’s most controversial moments, from John Millington Synge, Lynn Nottage and more

From left to right: Tony Flynn, Aoibhéann McCann, Frankie McCafferty, Jo Donnelly in the Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival co-production of The Playboy of the Western World in 2019. File photograph: Mark Stedman

From left to right: Tony Flynn, Aoibhéann McCann, Frankie McCafferty, Jo Donnelly in the Lyric Theatre and Dublin Theatre Festival co-production of The Playboy of the Western World in 2019. File photograph: Mark Stedman

 

The Playboy of the Western World
John Millington Synge (1907)
This lyrical comedy tells of a young runaway who claims to have murdered his father. Nationalists saw John Millington Synge’s play as an offensive caricature. Outrage was sparked in the heaving crowd while police were called to break up the brawling.

Jerry Springer: The Opera
Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee (2001)
Sensationally vulgar, this musical take on the TV host was taken to court for blasphemy. Featuring tap-dancing members of the Ku Klux Klan and Jesus dressed as a baby, it was designed to distress. “For all its shock and schlock tactics,” wrote Michael Billington at the time, “the show implies that TV has a moral responsibility.” The BBC received 63,000 complaints after airing the musical in 2005.

Terrence Mann in ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times
Terrence Mann in ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’. Photograph: Caitlin Ochs/The New York Times

Le Laboratoire des Hallucinations
André de Lorde (1916)
Known as a dramatist of terror, the French author presented this gory medical horror at Grand Guignol, the Parisian theatre famous for its blood-soaked stories. In this particularly gruesome production, a doctor operates on his wife’s lover, taking the opportunity for revenge by performing some bone-tingling skull chiselling.

Por’Knockers
Lynn Nottage (1995)
Intended as a satire, the comedic aspect of this play from the Pulitzer prize winner went out the window when it was staged soon after the Oklahoma City bombing. The story, which saw a group of bombers discuss an attack on a federal building, was now too close to home. Patrons ripped up their programme. It has never been staged since.

Blasted
Sarah Kane (1995)
One of the most graphically violent plays ever staged in the UK, Blasted is unrelenting. A failed seduction in a hotel room gives way to passing seasons and increasing abominations, with rape, suicide, eye-gouging, cannibalism and a dead baby topped off by a mortar attack.

Sacramental Melodrama
Alejandro Jodorowsky (1965)
Having faced censorship in Mexico, multidisciplinary artist Jodorowsky moved to Paris to form an experimental theatre collective. This grisly four-hour performance included a crucified chicken, and live turtles thrown into the audience.

Behzti
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti (2004)
Meaning “dishonour”, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s controversial play centred on a troubled Sikh family dealing with the shame of the father’s suicide. Its depiction of a scene of extreme violence in a Sikh temple outraged members of the Sikh community, with violent protests leading to the performance being pulled just two days after opening night.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan as Kaneisha and Jim in ‘Slave Play’. Photograph: Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times
Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan as Kaneisha and Jim in ‘Slave Play’. Photograph: Sarah Krulwich/The New York Times

Slave Play
Jeremy O Harris (2018)
A couple’s therapy session is realised by role-playing slave-master relationships in this polarising and provocative show that forces white members of the audience to reckon with their gaze. Despite petitions trying to shut it down, the play received rave reviews, celebrity fans and a Broadway transfer that recently resulted in 12 Tony award nominations.

Kunst und Revolution
Gunter Brüs (1968)
You don’t need to venture far into the world of performance art to find graphic acts of transgression, but this explicit event was uniquely startling. In a rebellion against the Austrian government, the group urinated, defecated, masturbated and made themselves throw up on stage, all while singing the national anthem. Brüs quickly fled the country.

Saved
Edward Bond (1965)
The now infamous baby-stoning scene in Saved shook British audiences when it was first staged at London’s Royal Court. The Lord Chamberlain had refused to allow the show to be performed, but by claiming the theatre was a private club, the producers got away with a full run and a small fine. In 2011, the play was revived in London for the first time in 27 years.

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