From ‘Sex’ to ‘Superstar,’ 10 Plays That Caused a Stir

The marketing campaign for the Broadway-bound “Slave Play” is following the time-honored tradition of leaning into its controversy, with pull quotes like “Gaudily transgressive” and “Gruesomely sexy.” Assuming the transgressions and sexiness carry through to the Golden Theater, “Slave Play” will find itself part of a rich history of productions — many of them transfers from the more licentious lands of Off Broadway and London — that shocked audience members upon opening on Broadway.

To this day, classics like “Lysistrata,” “Tartuffe” and (as any Fox News viewer can attest) “Julius Caesar” can raise hackles centuries later. Here are several more plays that caused controversy — and frequently made sure to point that out in their ad campaigns.

“It’s much my best play,” George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “but it makes my blood run cold.” Temperatures ran a good bit higher during a protracted war of words in the press between one of the performers and the much-feared Anthony Comstock of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. The profession in question was the running of a brothel, after all, and the cops busted up the first United States performance of this play. New York’s police commissioner supplied what would have been the perfect pull quote — “revolting, indecent and nauseating where it is not boring” — had he not canceled every subsequent performance.

As with “God of Vengeance” and “The Captive,” homosexuality was at issue in this Lillian Hellman drama. It was banned in Boston the following year, and the New York Drama Critics Circle sprang into existence in the wake of the Pulitzer Prize committee’s refusal to award Hellman. The play was so incendiary that Hellman not only removed any mention of lesbianism but even changed the title — to “These Three” — for the film version in 1936.

Drug use and irreverence toward the American flag had as much to do with the furor that rose around this “American tribal love-rock musical” as its famous — and famously brief — nude scene. Not one but two Supreme Court decisions weighed in on contested productions (including one in, you guessed it, Boston); the Apollo 13 astronauts made headlines by leaving at intermission; and members of the touring casts were issued an eight-page guide on how to handle the local police.

The “Hair” director Tom O’Horgan struck again with this freewheeling adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice concept album. But there’s a thin line between boisterous and blasphemous, and both Christians (who didn’t like seeing Judas as a protagonist) and Jews (who worried about the villainous depictions of Herod and Caiaphas) ended up protesting the work. Charges of impiety would also arise in later years over “The Book of Mormon,” “The Testament of Mary” and especially the Off Broadway play “Corpus Christi.”

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