Does Theatre Ever Go Too Far?

Anthony J. Piccione

When mainstream audiences – particularly in the United States – go to the theatre, they usually expect to be treated to a simple night of entertainment that is fun and friendly for the entire family. As a result, most shows that are frequently produced at local theatres reflect such desires among theatergoers. However, not all shows are as accessible as others. Some shows contain scenes with explicit violence, full-frontal nudity, and in some cases, even scenes depicting sexual acts on stage. As one can imagine, this often provokes controversy and often can spark outright negative reactions from the audience.

In cases such as this, it is worth asking: Are there instances in which theatre goes “too far”? If so, what would they be?

Depending on the demographics of the audience attending the show, the answer would likely be different. Some audiences might barely be able to see the sight of a fully naked man on stage in a show like Equus. In the 2007 revival of that play, for example, Daniel Radcliffe received a good deal of hate from parents of young Harry Potter fans who hated the idea of him portraying a role involving full-frontal nudity, worried about the “bad example” he would be setting by acting in a role that was very different from what they were used to.

Even among non-parents, this attracted a great deal of attention simply due to the nature of the role he was portrayed, which as it is, was already a controversial role among some audiences when the original production first premiered. This reflects just how opposed to nudity on stage certain people can be. Then again, others might take offense from even a show like Sweeney Todd, which is bloody and gory, but only in an almost cartoonish sense, at best. Despite how hilariously fake the violence in that show is, some parents still might cringe at the idea of a musical that is so dark and bloody being produced at local theatres in their area. However, these are just very tame examples, compared to some of the more extreme types of theatre out there.

If those people thought that mere acts of violence and nudity went too far, those same audiences have no idea what the meaning of shock theatre really is. For a concrete example of what some of the darkest and edgiest theatre that there was been over the past century, all you need to do is go back two decades ago. Going back to the 1990s, the in-yer-face plays of that time period – such as Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill – are among the most extreme examples of shock theatre out there. While largely forgotten outside of the theatre community, these plays troubled audiences with scenes that contained explicit acts of rape, torture, and even cannibalism. (While I’d think this would go without saying, it should be noted that the actors did not, in reality, commit these horrific acts during the performances.)

 Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.

Lea Michele and Jonathan Groff in Spring Awakening.

When these plays were premiered, they received largely negative reactions from mainstream audiences and critics, due to the nature of the acts that they depicted, and it’s easy to understand why. They went far beyond anything that mainstream audiences had been accustomed to seeing performed on stage. It should come as no surprise that when the musical adaptation of Spring Awakening – a very dark story with controversial content – had to be “toned” down for the sake of being slightly more accessible to mainstream audiences. If they actually depicted certain acts that took place in the story, they would risk alienating a sizable portion of the typical Broadway audience. Even then, some theatergoers who watched the musical thought it to be controversial, despite showing less than the original story.

When looking at the shows that the average theatergoer might consider to be shocking or controversial, and comparing them to some more obscure plays that depict the unthinkable, it shows just how far some playwrights and some directors are willing to push the limits, in terms of what acts and behaviors are and aren’t taboo in live theatre. If it weren’t for these kinds of plays, we would not know what contemporary audiences were and weren’t ready for, in terms of what material is okay to depict on stage.

There are some who might argue that certain mainstream shows might be too controversial already, but when you dig a bit deeper into theatre history over the past century, it’s not too hard to see how much further you can really go. However, as the reaction plays such as the works of Kane and Ravenhill suggest, there may be a line that even some of the most open-minded of theatergoers won’t be willing to cross, in terms of what they are willing to sit through. Whether this will be the case in future generations, as more taboos could be broken and more boundaries are pushes, remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, at least for now, this does suggest that for most theatergoers, there is a line that ought not to be crossed when it comes to what is and isn’t acceptable in theatre.