Prof. Martin Puchner
Drama, Theatre, Theory
November 1, 2000
Censorship and Ratings in Theater
For as long as theater has existed, there have been critics who are wary of its power to negatively influence its audience. This debate goes back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle and continues to this day. In his theoretical utopia Republic, Plato proposes that theater can have a dangerous impact on citizens, especially children, by establishing a weak or immoral role-model. Aristotle, his most famous student, responded with his own essay Poetics, in which he acknowledges some of Plato’s esoteric criticisms but refutes his major point that audiences will simply imitate the actions they see on stage. He proposes that not only can art and theater avoid having a negative influence on society, but they can even have a very beneficial effect on people through catharsis, a therapeutic emotional release. In the twentieth century, this debate has been extended to modern variations on theater such as movies and television, where it has taken on an interesting new dimension because of the creation of content ratings systems.
According to theater scholar Jonas Barish, “Plato provides a philosophical framework for the debate over all art, and most of the key terms for a controversy that raged for two millennia after his death and still smoulders today.” But there are actually two distinct components to Plato’s critique of art and theater, one of which is abstract and conceptual and another which is more pragmatic. The theoretical aspect, which is developed primarily in the final book, is an argument against all forms of art in general because they are merely imitations. According to Plato’s metaphysics, the true version of an object is the perfect idea or form we have in our mind. Art distracts us from the truth because it is only an approximation of the objects we perceive in nature, which are themselves just imperfect versions of these ideal forms. Since drama is the ultimate example of mimetic art, “what is alleged against mimesis in general will apply to drama with particular force.” Actors are particularly disturbing to Plato because they imitate many different roles and thus undermine the strict job specialization that is essential for the utopia to function efficiently.
This theoretical aspect of his argument has not really been relevant since Plato’s time, because most subsequent thinkers agree with Aristotle that imitation is not inherently bad and that human endeavors, even if imperfect, are worthwhile. Plato’s practical arguments, however, are still very much alive today. In his third book, he declares that art is dangerous because it sets a bad example for people to follow, especially for children. In Plato’s Athens, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were standard educational texts, and he found much of the content of these poems and the plays based on them to be inappropriate. Among his specific objections are depictions of jealous, anthropomorphic deities, cowardly men seized by fear, and a particularly unpleasant representation of death. His solution, which has also been the answer of nearly every society since ancient Athens, is censorship. Socrates declares, “we must supervise such stories and those who tell them and ask them not to disparage the life in Hades” or use “frightening and dreadful names for the underworld,” because we do not want our citizens to fear death. “The more poetic [these plays and poems] are, the less they should be heard by children or by men who are supposed to be free and to fear slavery more than death… We are afraid that our guardians will be made softer and more malleable by such shudders.”
A proper society, according to Plato, must carefully monitor what art it permits. People are naturally impressionable, and if they are exposed to violence, hatred, or fear, “they’ll feel neither shame nor restraint [at imitating these actions].” The same danger applies to comedy, because “whenever anyone indulges in violent laughter, a violent change of mood is likely to follow.” Moreover, theater is particularly perilous because it is an art form which relies on various characters and is therefore all the more likely to corrupt someone’s formation of their own character or ethics. Since the Republic is primarily concerned with educating and preparing children to become future guardians, anything that provides weak or corrupt role models is subversive. Socrates argues that poets and playwrights should not be allowed to influence children, because they are unqualified to be teachers of virtue. Indeed, the efforts of the poet or playwright, says Barish, “are explosive and dangerous, for they excite in us the very faculties which stand in most need of restraint, and they paralyze those that most need encouragement… Artists invite us to sympathize with men racked by emotions we should be ashamed to yield to in our own lives. By fomenting our irrational selves, they carry us away from the true, the good, and the beautiful.”
To defend theater, Aristotle responds to both components of Plato’s critique. Regarding the theoretical argument, he seems to concede that watching a play is probably less pure than reading a fully diegetic or narrative piece, but he finds the spectacle and vividness of live theater too exciting to resist. Diction, melody, and spectacle all give theater unique merit because of their entertainment value, even if they are mimetic. (Ironically, Plato seems to understand the importance of this since his books are written in entertaining, dramatic dialogue, while Aristotle’s books are much drier and more descriptive.)
Unlike his mild concession to the theoretical element, Aristotle addresses Plato’s more important practical argument head on. Rather than finding violence or jealousy or fear a dangerous inspiration to impressionable audiences, Aristotle claims that we all already have these emotions within us. Moreover, by seeing them enacted in art, we are able to come to terms with these passions and deal with them more rationally. Watching a tragic scene performed, our emotions become aroused and we are moved to fear and pity. This intense emotional experience can purge us of pent-up negative energy. This release is what Aristotle calls catharsis. And this relieving potential is what makes art more than just entertaining but valuable and even necessary. Instead of inspiring us to imitate horrific or cowardly acts, theater can potentially even prevent us from committing them. This is the reasoning put forth today by proponents of pornography, who suggest that sexually frustrated men are less likely to commit rapes than they would be if their desires were repressed. Of course, many critics are skeptical of this and think, like Plato, that more people will be aroused to commit violent acts when they are exposed to them in art without achieving catharsis.
Most people after Plato and Aristotle have tended to find themselves somewhere in the middle on this issue. Societies insist on some degree of artistic license and some degree of censorship. This debate usually takes the shape of what content a society should allow its artists to exhibit and its children to see versus what should be censored or restricted for the common good. Those who agree with Aristotle tend to err on the side of less censorship, while others insist that the threat of someone being roused to fear or violence is greater than any possible benefit from catharsis. Today, the question is usually how old must children be in order to access art that might be disturbing or offensive, and should public or government money be used to support artists who create controversial material.
As the dominant and most mainstream art form, theater has always been censored to some extent. As times change, the specific rules about what types of content are permitted change as well. The ancient Athenians were troubled by characters who acted irrationally or were weak or afraid to die. In Elizabethan England, plays were strictly forbidden to portray anything that appeared politically subversive or seemed to speculate on the current or future state of the British monarchy. Three hundred years later, English laws prohibited plays from dealing with certain religious or Biblical subjects, which resulted in Oscar Wilde’s Salome being banned from the London stage. (Incidentally, the text of the play was not banned because the censorship rules were much less rigid for books than for performance of public speech.) In this century, the dominant form of theater has shifted from the stage to the recorded formats of movies and television, so this is where people have been concerned with censorship. After all, this ancient debate is only relevant to the most mainstream forms of art because that is where there is a significant threat of offending people or corrupting children.
By the 1920s, movies had become the mainstream form of theater for people all over the world. Unlike a stage production, which only runs in one theater for a certain amount of time and thus has a relatively small audience, a hit movie might be shown all over the world several times a day for many years to come, even beyond the lives of the cast or crew. This made movies extremely dangerous to people concerned about their potential influence on society. Movies could be used as propaganda for governments or certain political or economic ideologies. They also might incite some people to violence or to be sympathetic with a certain group, such as the Ku Klux Klan in Birth of a Nation or the mafia in films like Scarface.
Because film was a relatively new art form, it was not initially protected by the same provisions that protect free speech in books. Just as the stage had been regulated for thousands of years, censorship boards were set up in many countries to ensure that films shown or produced there did not violate their particular ethics. Outraged audiences had demanded censorship when they were offended by the immoral content of the films or licentious lifestyles of the actors. To avoid government interference, Hollywood established its own self-regulating board called the Motion Picture Academy of America (MPAA). In the 1930s, however, American bishops set up the Legion of Decency which created a draconian code of rules for movies. These rules prohibited “profanity, racial epithets, any implication of prostitution, miscegenation, sexual aberration, or drug addiction, nudity of all sorts, sexually suggestive dances or costumes, excessive and lustful kissing, [etc.]… It was forbidden to show the details of a crime, or to display… [any] illegal weapons, or to discuss weapons at all in dialogue scenes.” These guidelines are surprisingly similar to those Socrates suggested 2300 years earlier: “Poets and prose-writers tell us … that many unjust people are happy and many just ones wretched, that injustice is profitable if it escapes detection, and that justice is another’s good but one’s own loss. I think we’ll prohibit these stories and order the poets to compose the opposite kind of poetry.”
Ironically, because of their comparatively small audience, laws regulating stage performances have become very lax. Although there are still rules about what can be said over the radio or shown on television or in movies, there is very little intervention over what can be done on stage, including the unrestricted use of language or nudity. This recent change reflects the modern view that artistic freedom of expression and a spectator’s individual liberty to choose what he wants to watch are more important than protecting society from potentially dangerous or offensive subject matter. One important exception we still make, however, is for children. While most people today feel that an adult should be able to regulate his own entertainment, we also feel, as Plato did, that children are too inexperienced and impressionable to determine for themselves what is appropriate. This admits that at least some people can be influenced by art in a negative way and that not everyone is mature enough or able to experience every performance in a state of catharsis.
For this reason, people in this century sought a way to protect children from potentially subversive mainstream art forms while at the same time not restricting the choices of adults. This eventually led to the creation of ratings systems, which were first applied to film but have very recently been applied to other recorded theatrical media such as television and video games. By the 1950s, the strict codes limiting what films could be made or shown were angering both filmmakers and audiences. The U.S. Supreme Court finally declared that movies are “a significant medium for communication of ideas” and therefore protected by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
But this reopened the problem of how to prevent subversive content from influencing children or offending sensitive audiences. In 1968, the MPAA offered a solution by creating a movie ratings system, “which does not proscribe the content of films but rather classifies them as appropriate for certain segments of the public, according to age.” The ratings system proved to be such a popular solution that most current incarnations of the censorship debate now focus on how to update or improve the ratings system rather than whether or not films should be banned outright. Some newer ratings systems, such as those being used by the cable television and computer game industries, go beyond simply providing an age guide. They list an additional rating that indicates what types of potentially objectionable scenes are present, such as vulgar language, nudity, or violence. This allows parents to better determine what specifically they allow their children to see, and it even warns sensitive adult viewers not to watch something if they are offended by certain types of scenes.
Critics of ratings systems, however, argue that they have “contributed significantly to the decline of high-quality films in the G and PG range and to the sharp increase in exploitative sex and violence in the R and NC-17 classifications. Like the concept of ‘Family Viewing Time’ on network television, it would seem that a system designed to protect children from debasing entertainment has served to debase the entertainment of both children and adults.” Again, however, these critics usually seek to improve the current situation by modifying the ratings system in order to influence writers and filmmakers to create less offensive and more thoughtful work.
Assuming it is correctly enforced, a ratings system addresses Plato’s concerns about children being corrupted without repressing artistic expression. This lets mature audiences watch what they want to and possibly achieve Aristotle’s catharsis. Of course, this doesn’t solve the problem of copycat crimes committed by adults who claim to have become inflamed by watching horrendous acts of violence in a particular movie. Thus, even with ratings systems, the ancient debate resurfaces whenever a wave of crimes is committed following the release of an especially violent movie. This was the case only a few years ago after Money Train premiered, and some films are still banned in certain countries, such as director Stanley Kubrick’s voluntary withdrawal of A Clockwork Orange from Britain almost thirty years ago.
The censorship debate began with epic poetry and theater in ancient Athens and was extended to other art forms such as literature and eventually to film and television, which are today the dominant forms of theatrical entertainment. Ironically, these censorship guidelines and ratings boards do not apply to the stage precisely because it is no longer considered a large enough venue to be threatening. So in this respect, the stage is the only uncensored and unrestricted theatrical venue there is, in which actors and writers can get away with almost anything and with no rules about who they can allow in their audiences. Plato would have probably demanded the stage be rated too.
Aristotle. Poetics. [Reader]
Barish, Jonas. The Antitheatrical Tradition. Berkeley: UC Press. [Reader]
Cook, David. History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996.
IMDb. Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com October, 2000.
Plato. Republic. trans. GMA Grube, CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992.
Puchner, Martin. Notes from class seminars. Columbia University, 2000.
Shapiro, James. Notes from class lectures. Columbia University, 2000.
 Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press. p 5
 Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press. p 5
 Plato. Republic. trans. GMA Grube, CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. 394c-398b
 Plato. Republic. trans. GMA Grube, CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. 386c-387c
 Ibid. 388d,e
 Ibid. p 264
 Jonas Barish. The Antitheatrical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 9-10
 Aristotle. Poetics. 6.1.9-15 (1450a).
 Ibid. 6.1.24-28 (1450a).
 James Shapiro. Notes from class lectures. Shakespeare I & II - Columbia University, 2000.
 Martin Puchner. Notes from class seminars. Drama, Theatre, Theory - Columbia University, 2000.
 David Cook. History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996. pp. 281-284
 Plato. Republic. trans. GMA Grube, CDC Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1992. 392b
 David Cook. History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996. p 513
 Ibid, p 514
 David Cook. History of Narrative Film. New York: Norton, 1996. p 514
 IMDb. Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com. October, 2000.