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Back catalogue: Sarah Kane

'The Element That Most Outrages': Morality, Censorship and Sarah Kane's Blasted by Aleks Sierz (2001)

'Censorship is censorship and it sucks!' Ben Elton, Popcorn


The question of how far the intention, production and reception of theatre can help bring a better understanding of justice and morality to the wider community is a large one, so I will limit myself to looking at one particular aspect of the role of theatre censorship. My argument is that abolishing censorship doesn't stop people being censorious; those who wish to impose a traditional notion of morality can still use a variety of other judicial devices. At the same time, censorship is a blunt instrument and its effects are often paradoxical. By trying to impose a traditional morality on the stage, censorship often gives the oxygen of publicity to criticism of that morality. By provoking a public debate that goes far beyond the walls of any individual playhouse, censors are more than just 'smut hounds' - they are a necessary evil. And ceratinly not out of place in a culture of spin. Playwrights who want their ideas discussed in the wider community can always use shock tactics to get publicity. Sometimes writers and censors need each other - their relationship can be one of symbiosis. To illustrate such propositions, I will look at some of the characteristics of censorship in 1990s British theatre, before examining Sarah Kane's 1995 play Blasted.

Cultural liberation?

In 1998, the 30th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship in Britain is being quietly, if cheerfully, celebrated. But before we pat ourselves on the back for abolishing censorship 30 years ago, it's worth pointing out - especially since this conference has an international perspective - that Britain was one of the last countries in what used to be called the Free West to abolish stage censorship. Since most other countries managed to do it several years before we did, it's best to avoid the temptation of being too complacent. (1)

What we're looking at is usually constructed as a narrative of cultural liberation. Before 1968, the story goes, an authoritarian model of censorship ruled British theatre. All plays had to get a licence from the Lord Chamberlain's office, and the list of things routinely banned included nudity; swear words; risque stage business; representations of God, the Royal family or anyone living; homosexuality - and no actor and actress could appear together in bed under the same sheet. But if in theory the censor was authoritarian, unaccountable and undemocratic, in practice the process was one of negotiation: his edicts were contested by liberal artists, and a compromise reached. One of the paradoxes of this is that while progressive opinion argued that censorship was a bad thing, the late 1950s and early 1960s were a golden age for British dramatists. Was the conflict with the censor one element that contributed to creativity?

The other problem with the narrative of cultural liberation is that it ignores the fact that the will to censor remains alive and well. As playwright John Arden once wrote: 'Since [the Lord Chamberlain's] time, there have always been more than enough people about to interfere in various unacceptable ways with a dramatist's scripts, ideas and intentions.' (2) The authoritarian model has simply been replaced by what I call the plaintiff model. Since 1968, the nation's moral guardians are no longer concentrated in the centre, but are diffused throughout society. These include not only pressure groups such as the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association, Christian groups or other moral vigilantes, but also the media. Indeed, in the past 30 years, the role of religious groups as moral guardians has been increasingly supplimented by newspapers such as The Daily Mail or The Daily Telegraph. Open censorship is replaced by invisible censorship, whose aim is mental closure and the imposition of banal and unquestioned conceptions of justice and morality. Aesthetically, blandness becomes the norm.

What the shift between these two models amounts to is a gradual move away from a traditional idea of moral guardianship (which believed in absolute values) to one of a populist moralism (which is much more opportunistic, believing mainly in whatever the polls or the media claim that Middle England thinks). For theatre, the problem is that while you can contest moral absolutism by appealing to reason, there's very little you can do when the argument is reduced to the discourse, current in many areas of culture since the 1980s, of 'bums on seats' and 'give the public what it wants'. (3) This discourse marginalises arguments about the right of artists to take risks, to investigate uncommon notions of morality or to criticise what the mainstream considers to be just and proper. So abolishing censorship doesn't stop people being censorious, it merely makes them more ingenious in their methods. Even though stage censorship was abolished 30 years ago, the will to censor remains deeply ingrained in the puritanical aspects of Anglo-Saxon public culture. Mrs Mary Whitehouse may have retired, but her spirit lives on.

Restricted viewing

The main paradox here is that although theatre has moved from being one of the most heavily controlled art forms to one of the least censored, the stage can still be affected by a whole variety of restrictions. Of course, the main constraint on creativity is not legal but economic or financial: playwrights are constantly being told that they should limit the number of actors in their plays, and everywhere cutbacks in subsidy and the growth of business patronage have deleterious effects on the free development of talent. In this kind of climate, theatre is particularly vulnerable to those who attack subsidy - and this vulnerability makes it an easy target for moralists of both right and left. Nevertheless, it is worth looking at three cases of how laws which were originally meant to control morality can be used to impede theatrical work.

The first example concerns Mrs Whitehouse, who in 1981 managed to make life hell for the director and writer of a play that had been put on at the National Theatre. The play was The Romans in Britain by Howard Brenton, and because it contained a scene which showed an attempted homosexual rape, its director, Michael Bogdanov, was charged under Section 13 of the Sexual Offences Act of 1956. Oddly enough, this is a law which is usually used against anyone who's suspected of pimping or procuring 'an act of gross indecency'. It's usually invoked in cases of indecency in public toilets, so Mrs Whitehouse's prosecution seemed to suggest that she equated the National Theatre with a public loo. (4)

Two things are worth emphasising about this prosecution: first, this use of the law deliberately confused a staged representation of a sexual act with the act itself; and, second, Mrs Whitehouse never actually saw the production - it seems that moral outrage is easier when you're in total ignorance of the object you disapprove of. The case was thus, in Brenton's words, 'a bizarre affair that dragged on for well over a year, through three hearings in a magistrates court, before we ended up in the Old Bailey'. In March 1982, after four days of trial, the prosecution was abandoned because Mrs Whitehouse's lawyer no longer had any confidence in his client's case. Brenton comments: 'My comrade, friend and fellow innocent, Michael Bogdanov, was set free from a court of Olde England, acquitted of being a pimp because he told actors to act.' (5) The result of the case was paradoxical: although the defence was completely successful, the play has not been revived since. (Of course, you cannot rule out another explanation - that The Romans in Britain is not Brenton's best play.)

The second example of strange laws being used against theatrical productions is much less serious but significant nonetheless - if only in its absurdity. In 1996, Sonia Friedman, the producer of Mark Ravenhill's play Shopping and Fucking, was advised by two lawyers - one acting for director Max Stafford-Clark's Out of Joint theatre company and the other for the Royal Court which was putting on the show - that the play's name could not appear on posters and in adverts. The reason for this is that the word fuck - now routinely used in films and on television - is still banned from public notices. The law which bans it is the Indecent Advertisements Act of 1981, which updated the original Indecent Advertisements Act of 1889, a Victorian law designed to stamp out the explicit adverts that prostitutes apparently used to put in shop windows. Once again, a law designed to curb a real-life activity was used to attack adverts for the representation of that activity (there's some postmodern irony here). In the event, the first posters for Shopping and Fucking used the image of a splintered fork to obscure the offending word. The next solution was to use asterisks to represent the word, so the title became Shopping and F***ing. In a display of postmodern self-irony, the promotional postcards advertising the play featured a quote from the London Evening Standard which is peppered at random with asterisks of its own: 'Entert***ing, Sh*cking & St*mulating'. (6)

A polemical account of the implications of these restrictions on a play's title appeared on the Royal Court's website in a piece on censorship written by director Carl Miller. He pointed out how little has changed since Kenneth Tynan first said fuck on television (on 13 November 1965 - in a debate about censorship!) and provoked a storm which resulted in questions being asked in parliament: 'Over 30 years later, we still can't tell people the name of one of the plays in the autumn season. If you see posters, leaflets and advertisements for Mark Ravenhill's new play in the Theatre Upstairs, they will coyly censor the title [...] If you ring up to ask what the title is, the box office staff still cannot tell you. Thanks to the Indecent Advertisements Act of 1889, they lay the theatre open to prosecution if it is called anything more explicit than Shopping and 'Effing [...] only once you have committed to buy a ticket, can the full horror of the title be revealed.' (7)

I have also found out that while the posters with the splintered fork were acceptable to local authorities in seven of the towns that the production visited on tour, in three towns the local authority rejected even the asterisk version. This means that in Bracknell, Warwick and Newbury, the good citizens were encouraged to go and see a play which was advertised as Shopping and (a title which, of course, sounds nonsensical). (8) The paradoxical result of all this brouhaha about the title is that it advertised the play in a much more effective way than anything else. (I suppose the moral of this story is to always make sure you choose a good title.)

The last example of laws designed to regulate one area of life being transposed and used to harass theatrical productions is Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988, which made it illegal for local authorities to 'intentionally promote homosexuality'. Unlike the other two examples, which were both widely reported, it's extremely difficult to find cases of theatre groups which have been put off from putting on a play about homosexuality in a local context such as a school or a local-authority funded theatre because of a fear of prosecution. In fact, although there have so far been no prosecutions under Section 28, there is some anecdotal evidence that local government arts officers were inhibited from supporting touring acts that may have been open to prosecution. This part of the Act might have been intended simply to produce a climate of unease and to discourage people from putting on plays that in any way celebrate gay sexuality. In other words, indirect and sneaky self-censorship takes the place of direct state censorship.

Psychological war

Court cases such as those outlined above are, of course, few and far between. The use of the law is an obvious and rather crude way of maintaining public morality. Nowadays an easier way of preventing theatre productions is not by censoring them, but by discouraging them. In this regard, there are several tactics available to would-be censors. Most obviously, cuts in arts funding to groups which do radical or experimental work has been a well-documented feature of the past two decades. (9) So even when the law on censorship is abolished, economics can be - to adapt Karl von Clausewitz's phrase about war - the continuation of censorship by other means. But, and this is the point, in order to make such cuts acceptable to the general public, censorious groups have had to wage a psychological war against anything they regard as too dangerous, too immoral, too difficult or too experimental to be subsidised by the state. A psychological climate may be harder to document than the use of laws but it can have acute effects on theatre.

One area where the creation of a negative psychological climate - or public mentality - can interfere with freedom of artistic expression is to libel a play, in other words, to give it a bad image. For example, Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice was part of the 1998 season at Shakespeare's Globe, the tourist-friendly reconstruction in Southwark, London. For this occasion, the theatre's education department conducted a survey of about 1,000 teachers in 12 different countries. They found that about 40 per cent of teachers thought that the play is anti-Semitic - in other words, politically incorrect, offensive to moral decorum. And a small percentage, 5 per cent, thought that the play should never be taught at all. (10) Although the sample was tiny, this example indicates that teachers can feel so strongly about a classic author that they support an image of his work that is one-sided. This risks making some of his plays - not only The Merchant of Venice but also Othello and The Taming of the Shrew - difficult to study or even to find sponsorship for. The thoughts (or rather prejudices) of these teachers thus create a climate of censorious disapproval, altering the canon and imposing severe limits on the horizon of ideas.

Business has similar psychological limitations. When the National Theatre tried to get sponsorship to put on John Ford's 'Tis Pity She's a Whore in the late 1980s, none of Britain's major companies felt that the play's title had the right image. Corporate sponsors don't want to be associated with art that looks or sounds immoral, difficult or controversial. It may be relatively easy to get business sponsorship for a Shakespeare play (even for The Merchant of Venice) but it's much harder to get private funding for contemporary drama. Michael Billington, the theatre critic of The Guardian, was one of the first to point out that, now that business sponsorship of theatre is increasingly widespread, a play's image is more important than ever. In this context, a public mentality may become as much an inhibitor of creativity as overt censorship. (11)

These psychological aspects of the creation of a moralistic or censorious public mood also suggest that public morality is, as always, a sharply contested terrain. With the diffusion of the censorious impulse, so-called concerned citizens now use a variety of laws and threats to attack plays they don't approve of. It is also rather disturbing that ministers of state in the current New Labour government also employ a kind of authoritarian populism. One example of this is Education Secretary David Blunkett's outburst, in March 1998, against Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking. It was, he said, 'full of foul language and apparently designed to shock' and he warned that 'great care needs to be taken before public money is spent on things that push the boundaries of respectability'. At the time of his comments, Blunkett was widley reported as having neither attended nor read the play. (12) The worrying thing about his outburst is that it echoes that of other censorious agents such as the populist media in its use of a simple, indeed crude, but apparently effective rhetoric. Instead of discussing moral choices and justifying values, the discourse has shifted to much more practical grounds: the impulse to censor accepts that the battle over traditional morality is increasingly hard to win, and moves on to dispute the right of theatre companies to get state funds for work that may offend the sensibilities of Middle England.

Blasted nusiance

As a case study of how this new discourse works in practice, I'd like to consider Blasted by Sarah Kane, who committed suicide in February 1999. To put the play in context, it is worth remembering that, since about 1994, British theatre has enjoyed a rash of what I call 'in-yer-face' drama: examples include new plays by young authors, such as Anthony Neilson's Penetrator and The Censor, Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, Harry Gibson's stage version of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, Jez Butterworth's Mojo and a host of other, lesser-known 'boys' plays'. As with Shopping and Fucking, their titles can be relied on to alert you to what they're about: sex, drugs and violence are represented in a provocatively 'in-yer-face' way, usually in order to explore questions of social mores and morality.

The reason I've chosen Sarah Kane's Blasted is that it is a good example of a play that explores, by means of disturbing sexual and violent images, contemporary issues about war, gender and the media's manipulation of news. Kane is perfectly conscious of how theatre can further the better understanding of justice and morality in the wider community: 'If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experience engraves lessons on our hearts through suffering, whereas speculation leaves us untouched.' Her intention was 'to tell the truth about human behaviour as I see it'. 'I did not set out to shock,' she said. 'I wrote [Blasted] to tell the truth. Of course, that's shocking. Take the glamour out of violence and it becomes utterly repulsive.' (13) If her intention was never just to shock, the shock tactics she uses are an effectively theatrical way of waking up the audience's moral sensibilities.

In Blasted, Kane's argument explores the congruence between the media's need for horror stories which help sell newspapers and an aggressive masculine psychology which, she argues, both causes war and enjoys it. Kane said: '[The play] caused a great deal of offence because it implied a direct link between domestic violence in Britain and civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Blasted raised the question "What does a common rape in Leeds have to do with mass rape as a war weapon in Bosnia?" And the answer appeared to be "Quite a lot."' Of course, Kane is not the only 'in-yer-face' playwright to have a moral intention. The national tour of Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking advertised the play as 'a blackly moral fable. It pitches a group of twentysomethings into a world of cheap sex, fast food and designer drugs and asks if love and morality are possible in a society which defines itself by the values of the market.' (14)

Aptly enough, Kane's upbringing was overtly moral. 'I was a Christian until I was about 17,' she said. For a while, her whole family was into born-again Christianity: 'It was spirit-filled, born again lunacy. So the reading I did in my formative years was the Bible, which is incredibly violent.' (A facetious counter-argument against the censorious could easily conclude that the Bible should be banned.) Blasted includes a brief argument about the existence of God, which occurs when one of the characters wants to kill himself. Here, 'God wouldn't like it' sums up traditional morality. The play also ends in hell, which Kane, with typically bleak humour, defines as 'exactly the same place [as earth], only it's raining'. It is also significant, for students of the connections between biography and literature, that Kane's father was a tabloid journalist who worked on the Daily Mirror.

Kane's intentions also underline the point that theatre is a place that attracts writers because it involves fewer restrictions than, say, film or television. Kane's work could not exist without subsidy. Unlike Trainspotting or Mojo, Blasted has not been made into a commercial film. Talking about her 1998 play, Cleansed, she said: 'Theatre will always be a minority interest, but the lack of a mass audience is compensated for by the lack of direct censorship.'

The opening night of Blasted was on 18 January 1995 at the tiny Royal Court Theatre Upstairs. Stripped down to its bare essentials, the 90-minute play's plot is this: located, according to the stage directions, in 'a very expensive hotel room in Leeds - the kind that is so expensive it could be anywhere', it begins with the arrival of Ian, a middle-aged hack, and Cate, a naive young woman. Ian's first words are: 'I've shat in better places than this.' He takes a bath, coughs like a man with lung cancer and rifles the mini-bar. With his shoulder holster, it's clear that he's more than just a journalist; Cate, who sucks her thumb, stutters when agitated. She's also prone to epileptic fits. Ian wants to fuck her - after one of her faints, he rubs himself against her. Later, he tells her about the paranoia of being an undercover agent, and she gives him a blow job - then bites his penis. When a nameless soldier arrives, she escapes. The soldier pisses on the bed, then the hotel is blasted by a bomb. In the ruins, the soldier tells Ian about the horrors of war. Ian comments: 'This isn't a story anyone wants to hear.' The soldier then rapes him, sucks out his eyes, eats them, and shoots himself. Cate returns, with a baby. It dies and she buries it under the floorboards. She leaves to get some food. Helplessly blind, Ian wanks, shits and eats the baby. By now he's under the floorboards, with only his head pocking out. He dies. In hell, rain falls on him. Cate returns, blood running down her legs. She shares her food with him. His last words are: 'Thank you.' (15)

Most outrages

The most important fact about the Royal Court production of Blasted is that it started very naturalistically - this means that the sudden shift of gear in the middle of the play, when a bomb crashes through the walls, was for some a bit hard to take. In aesthetic terms, the play was attacked, according to critic Clare Bayley, mainly for 'lacking formal unity because the detailed naturalism of the first half disintegrated in the second into the disquieting metaphorical landscape of chaos and random events'. (16) Kane's explanation was that 'war is confused and illogical, therefore it is wrong to use a form that is predictable'. She also pointed out that 'the element that most outrages those who seek to impose censorship is form'.

No account of Blasted would be complete without mentioning both the vividness of its stage pictures - when Ian's blind head pocked out of the floor, it recalled Beckett as much as Bosnia - as well as the commitment of its actors: Pip Donaghy as Ian; Kate Ashfield as Cate and Dermot Kerrigan as the soldier. It's also worth pointing out that in the Royal Court's old Theatre Upstairs there was only room for about 62 people. For reasons of scheduling, the play had a very short run, so as few as 1,100 people in total saw it. This leads to another paradox: Blasted is one of the least seen and most talked about British plays of the 1990s.

The reception of Blasted was dominated by the reaction of the critics, who created a classic moral panic. If they hadn't over-reacted, the play would have been a quiet success, perhaps playing to half-full houses of Royal Court regulars. Instead, it was the extreme, highly emotional response of about half a dozen people that turned the play into a phenomenon that crossed over into the news pages of the papers and then onto television. At the time, many film critics were denouncing violent films such as Pulp Fiction and Natural Born Killers, so perhaps theatre critics were tempted to create a moral role for themselves. Incidentally, the main reason for outrage among middle-aged male critics seemed to be that Kane, the author of such horrors, was young (23 at the time) and a woman. The play's director James Macdonald tells the story of the premiere. (17) He reminds us that in such small theatres there are usually two press nights. For Blasted, however, most of the critics were only free on one night so on 12 January about two-thirds of the audience were sitting with notepads on their laps. According to Macdonald, they completely missed 'the strand of wry humour' in the production and lacked 'any sense of sympathy for the characters'.

After the show, Jack Tinker of The Daily Mail said the play was a news story and the sub-editors headlined his review 'This Disgusting Feast of Filth'. (18) Not to be outdone, other papers also argued that 'taxpayers' money had been squandered'. But Macdonald's account is not completely accurate - he says that the critics of the liberal broadsheets 'banged the (self-) censorship drum loudest'. In fact, Michael Coveney of The Observer was one of a handful of critics who praised the play, although only after it had closed. Although 'only one person walked out of the press night', the critics competed with each other to express their disgust: the Independent on Sunday's Irving Wardle couldn't recall having seen 'an uglier play'; the Daily Mail's Jack Tinker was 'utterly and entirely disgusted' and found himself 'driven into the arms of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells'. Sheridan Morley thought the Royal Court should 'close for the winter' rather than put the play on, while Tinker attacked Kane for wasting public money: 'The money might have been better spent on a course of remedial therapy.' Several critics questioned the wisdom of the Court's artistic director, Stephen Daldry, in selecting Blasted. What's On's Roger Foss even said that the Jerwood Foundation, the play's sponsors, 'should be asking for its money back'. But despite these cries of outrage, it is worth remembering that some reviewers mingled humour with disgust. For example, Billington commented 'ah, those old familiar faeces', while Charles Spencer said that 'hardened theatre critics looked in danger of parting with their suppers' and Jonathan Miller pointed out that the lack of a lavatory meant 'poor Ian' had to 'do his poo on stage'.

Hot ironies

With no distracting interval, many felt that Blasted was a gruelling 1 hour and 30 minutes of atrocity. When I saw the play, its power to shock was obvious. It clearly made the tiny audience uneasy: two people walked out, others hid their eyes, some giggled. For anyone studying gendered responses to plays, it may be of interest that I at first disliked Kane's play while a close female friend thought it was magnificent. Does this mean that men find it more difficult to recognise a new female voice when it arrives in the theatre? Perhaps. But when we both saw Cleansed, our responses were reversed: I loved it, she disliked it. At the time, it seemed as if all the critics condemned Blasted. As with the reception of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger in 1956, the cultural memory is that the play was savaged. In fact, reviews were more balanced. If you read them all, many mention Kane's youth and recognise her potential as a dramatist. Most give the reason for the failure of Blasted in reasonable, if literal, terms: the world of the play is incoherent and its message is lost in unrealistic plotting. Even so, the play was defended by Louise Doughty in the scarcely liberal Mail on Sunday and, at greater length, by John Peter of The Sunday Times. After commenting on its 'moments of squalid power' and 'moments of preposterous clumsiness', he defended it against the charge of gratuitous violence. Peter pointed out that violent plays 'make you question values' and that Kane's vision was 'born of an unleavened, almost puritanical moral outrage'. So while condemning her theatrical handling of them, he justified the play's themes: 'We need these moral ordeals.' 'Theatre,' he concluded, 'is only alive if it is kicking.'

Because of the controversy, Macdonald also felt obliged to defend Blasted. Praising the 'assurance, wit and economy' of the writing, he pointed out that because theatre is a forum for debate, it should be used to address the issue of violence in society and our fascination with it. 'A moral and compassionate piece of work' with 'great heart and dramatic skill', Blasted talks 'honestly about violence, but in order to do so it has to shock'. In the face of a barrage of media attention, playwrights such as Edward Bond, Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill also offered support. Kane herself said: 'The thing that shocks me most is that they [the media] seem to have been more upset by the presentation of violence than by violence itself.' Once again, we have a conflation between the real and its representation.

One of the interesting spin-offs of the controversy was that for once the media tried to find out what ordinary members of the audience felt about the show. On 19 January, for example, the London Evening Standard reported that 'so far, eight people have walked out of performances'. The next day, the Guardian asked James, a Paris resident, why he'd left before the end. 'It was too vulgar [...] so unpleasant,' he said. By contrast, a 25-year-old student, Andrew Lukas, said: 'It was more educational for me than therapeutic. It showed an aspect of moral degradation and there was something that everyone could learn from it.' To prove that the British media's moral panic says more about society than about the play, you only have to compare its reception in other countries. In Romania, for example, 'The idea of a soldier bursting into a room and raping the inhabitant isn't particularly difficult,' said Kane. 'What shocked them was the language as they've only recently got rid of theatre censorship. They are used to doing things through strong images but not to saying "fuck" on stage.'

Ironically enough, the negative media reaction in Britain proves Kane's central thesis that the media is sexist, irresponsible and hysterical. For example, the Express ran a story headlined 'Rape Play Girl Goes into Hiding', which made Kane sound as if she had written a play only about rape - and the play seem as if it was a news story, not a fiction. The story was also untrue: Kane attended all the performances. She remembers that 'there was one night when the front row was filled with a group of lads determined to prove how funny they found it'. Because of media attention, 'no one could see the play any more'. The paradox of publicity is that while it enables more people to participate in an event than can attend it, it also blinds those that see it.


The best way of answering the question of whether the theatre can help to bring the wider community to a better understanding of notions of morality is by looking at the public controversy that occurs around a production: the public debate about a play, more than the play itself, is the arena where ideas are contested. Here the paradox of censorship is that it advertises what it wants to ban. And if censorship is a bad thing, it sometimes has good results - it creates a debate, which rallies liberals as well as moralists. In this sense, Kane's Blasted was aided by the media, which opened up the discussion. However, since this opportunity was dominated by a utilitarian discourse about 'public money', valid questions about morality and justice were submerged by fulminations about funding. Of course, it is scarcely news that journalists tend 'to look at things like Thersites, the ugly, cowardly, "thrower of words" in the Iliad, who abuses everybody and "argues nothing but scandal"'. (19) Of more interest is the fact that many critics have since recanted. First among them is Billington: 'I didn't like the play, but I deplore the tone with which I reviewed it, which was one of lofty derision. I can now see that it was a serious play, driven by moral ferocity.'

Despite such changes of heart, what is significant is that critical discourse is shifting from old-fashioned moral rhetoric about 'evil' plays corrupting young people to a new, utilitarian rhetoric which focuses on the abuse of subsidy and how 'filthy' plays are a waste of public money. The implied threat is that if plays don't meet public approval, the theatre is at risk. What I think this shows is that the greatest threat to artistic freedom is no longer new-right groupings or moral guardians but the mainstream media - led by papers such as The Daily Mail - which represent Middle England, and that the main threat is censorship through the withdrawal of subsidy. The trouble with this kind of utilitarian discourse is that it completely colonises the moral debate: questions of right and wrong, justice and injustice get buried under calls for cuts in subsidy. This is even more pernicious than open censorship and is a threat to all attempts at innovation in subject matter, style or form - what Kane calls 'the element that most outrages'. As always, only the will to contest such discourses can protect artistic freedoms and cultural creativity.


1 The Theatres Act of 1968 abolished censorship on 26 September 1968. See Richard Findlater, Banned! A Review of Theatrical Censorship in Britain; Phyllis Hartnoll, 'Censorship' and 'Lord Chamberlain' in The Oxford Companion to the Theatre; John Johnson, The Lord Chamberlain's Blue Pencil; J. R. Stephens, 'Censorship' in Martin Banham (ed), The Cambridge Guide to Theatre; Kenneth Tynan, 'The Royal Smut-Hound' in his A View of the English Stage 1944-1965, pp 364-380; the 'Theatre Censorship in Britain' display case, Theatre Museum, London, 1998.

2 John Johnson, op cit, p 250.

3 See Michael Billington, 'What Price the Arts?' in Norman Buchan and Tricia Summer (eds), Glasnost in Britain? Against Censorship and in Defence of the Word, pp 162-170.

4 Richard Boon, Brenton the Playwright, London: Methuen, 1991, pp 173-211. Brenton also suggests that Mrs Whitehouse's lawyers had to trawl through many laws before they found one on which to base a prosecution. Even so, the injustice was that they targeted the play's director rather than its writer (Brenton on BBC Radio 4's Desert Island Discs, 19/24 July 1998).

5 Howard Brenton, Hot Irons: Diaries, Essays, Journalism, Nick Hern, 1995, pp 95-137, esp 95, 136.

6 The splintered fork appears on the cover of the first edition of Mark Ravenhill, Shopping and Fucking, Methuen, 1996; the asterisks in the second edition, 1997; the publicity postcard was produced for the West End revival, 1998.

7 Carl Miller, 'Shocking and fussing', on Internet website (July 1997).

8 Michael Thornton, 'A Shop Window for Outrage', Punch (21-27 September 1996), pp 70-71.

9 See, for example, John McGrath, The Bone Won't Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times, pp 39-52.

10 Patrick Spottiswoode, 'Merchant of Venice Survey Results'. Globe Education press release, Shakespeare's Globe theatre, London, March 1998.

11 See Michael Billington, op cit, and his One Night Stands: A Critic's View of Modern British Theatre, pp 231-232, 248, 273, 309, 375-376.

12 See 'NB', Times Literary Supplement, 27 March 1998, p 16; John Mortimer, 'Diary', New Statesman, 27 March 1998, p 6.

13 All Sarah Kane quotations are from interviews: see David Benedict, 'Disgusting Violence? Actually It's Quite a Peaceful Play', Independent on Sunday, 22 January 1995; David Benedict, 'What Sarah Did Next', Independent, 15 May 1996; Kate Stratton, 'Extreme Measures', Time Out, 25 March-1 April 1998; Simon Fanshaw, 'Given to Extremes', The Sunday Times, 26 April 1998; Claire Armitstead, 'No Pain, No Kane', The Guardian, 29 April 1998; Heidi Stephenson and Natasha Langridge (eds), Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, pp 129-135; and unpublished interview with Aleks Sierz, London, 14 September 1998.

14 'Shopping and Fucking', press release by Guy Chapman Associates, London (January 1998).

15 Sarah Kane, Blasted & Phaedra's Love.

16 Clare Bayley, 'Playwrights Unplugged', The Independent, 24 February 1995.

17 James Macdonald, [Sarah Kane's] 'Cleansed' in Royal Court Newsletter (March-June 1998).

18 Reviews collected in Ian Herbert (ed), Theatre Record, vol XV, no 1/2 (1-28 January 1995).

19 Pierre Bourdieu, On Television and Journalism, p 4.


(Place of publication is London unless otherwise stated)

Billington, Michael (1989) 'What Price the Arts?' in Norman Buchan and Tricia Summer (eds), Glasnost in Britain? Against Censorship and in Defence of the Word, Macmillan.

Billington, Michael (1993) One Night Stands: A Critic's View of Modern British Theatre, Nick Hern.

Boon, Richard (1991) Brenton the Playwright, Methuen.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998) On Television and Journalism, Pluto.

Brenton, Howard (1995) Hot Irons: Diaries, Essays, Journalism, Nick Hern.

Daldry, Stephen (1996) 'Do New Writers Have Hearts?' New Sceptics, session 1, Theatre Museum public platform, (15 October).

Elton, Ben (1997) Popcorn, Simon & Schuster.

Findlater, Richard (1967) Banned! A Review of Theatrical Censorship in Britain, MacGibbon & Kee.

Hartnoll, Phyllis (1990) 'Censorship' and 'Lord Chamberlain' in her The Oxford Companion to the Theatre, (4th edn), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, John (1990) The Lord Chamberlain's Blue Pencil, Hodder & Stoughton.

Kane, Sarah (1996) Blasted & Phaedra's Love, Methuen.

McGrath, John (1996) The Bone Won't Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times, Methuen.

Miller, Carl (1997) 'Shocking and fussing', (July).

Nightingale, Benedict (1998) The Future of Theatre, Phoenix.

Stephens, J R (1992) 'Censorship' in Martin Banham (ed) The Cambridge Guide to Theatre, (updated edn) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stephenson, Heidi and Natasha Langridge (1997) Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, Methuen.

Tynan, Kenneth (1984) 'The Royal Smut-Hound' in his A View of the English Stage 1944-1965, Methuen.

© An earlier version of this chapter appeared as '"The Element That Most Outrages": Morality, Censorship and Sarah Kane's Blasted', in Edward Batley and David Bradby (eds), Morality and Justice: The Challenge of European Theatre, an issue of European Studies: A Journal of European Culture, History and Politics, no 17, Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2001: pp 225-239.

This was an expansion of 'Shocking and Fumbling: Censorship and British Theatre Today', a paper given at the European Theatre: Justice and Morality international conference at the University of London School of Advanced Study, Senate House, London, 17-19 June 1998.

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