10 Controversies That Rocked the 20th-Century Theatre World

News   10 Controversies That Rocked the 20th-Century Theatre World
 
On May 10, 1849, a melee arose in Astor Place in lower Manhattan. Thousands took to the streets. By the time the riot was over, more than two dozen were dead, more than 100 injured and the militia had been called out. The cause? A tussle between pro-abolitionist and pro-slavery forces? Labor unrest? Gang warfare? No: It was theatre. The rioters were made up of factions that supported American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Macready, who were simultaneously presenting productions of Macbeth in the city, mere blocks apart.

Alexander Woollcott
Alexander Woollcott

As with all art forms, theatre occasionally inspires high feelings that spill out beyond the walls of the theatre. Playbilll.com has asembled a collection of ten notable theatre controversies that grabbed headlines during the past century.

SHUBERTS THROW OUT THE TIMES
Alexander Woollcott was known for his sharp tongue, both in person and in print. He didn’t exercise that talent much in reviewing Taking Chances in 1915, when he was the dramatic critic for the New York Times, saying only the play wasn’t "vastly amusing." But the Shuberts, the show’s producers, banned him from all Shubert theatres anyway. They also stopped advertising in the Times. The case was taken to court and the Shuberts won, but they lost the long race. The incident made Woollcott much more famous than he had been, and the Times rewarded him with a byline. (His reviews had been unsigned up until then.) Eventually, the Shuberts relented, letting Woollcott back in.

THE ACTORS' STRIKE OF 1919
American actors didn’t have many rights until 1913, when the fledgling Actors’ Equity Association was formed. But producers, used to holding all the cards, were steadfast in their refusal to recognize the union or hold to any standard contract they introduced. The frustrated actors stunned the world by striking Aug. 7, effectively shutting down Broadway. Producers tried every tactic — courting the media, suing through the courts, creating a rival union — to undermine the strike, but lost ground at every turn. And the likeable, colorful actors easily won the battle of public opinion. The strike spread to Chicago, Washington and Boston. One month later, Sept. 6, it was over. Equity had won, overturning the very way their profession was viewed and treated by both the theatre community and the public.

Jeanne Eagels
Jeanne Eagels

EQUITY VS. JEANNE EAGELS
Equity’s steel in disciplining its own was tested early on in the union’s history when the unprofessional antics of one of the stage’s biggest stars, Jeanne Eagels, became too much. A national celebrity owing to her legendary performance in Rain, she had become an erratic figure, failing to show up for work after nights of partying. When she failed to appear for a Milwaukee staging of the play Her Cardboard Lover in 1928, in which she starred, the union suspended her for a whopping 18 months. Eagels vowed to appeal, but it never happened. Her short, tumultuous life was over by 1929.

THE CRADLE WILL ROCK
Congress always viewed the Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s with distrust, suspecting the government-backed program, which produced theatre and employed actors, to secretly be a subversive organization bent on preaching “anti-American” (that is, anti-capitalist) sentiment. That antagonism reached a head in 1937 when FTP head Hallie Flanagan, under pressure from Congress, shut down The Cradle Will Rock — a Marc Bliztstein opera about the unionization in the steel industry, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman — just before it was set to open. The cast and crew reacted by marching uptown to the Venice Theatre on 59th and staging the show there. To get around union rules, the actors performed from the audience, and Blitzstein himself played the score. The incident embarrassed the FTP, which expired soon after, but sparked the beginning of Welles’ and Housman’s glorious theatre careers. THE BLACKLIST
The blacklist was not a controversy that lasted a brief spell, as most controversies do, but one that lingered for years in the ‘40s and ‘50s. The atmosphere of suspicion and fear that permeated the Cold War era seeped into the arts as well, with lead redbaiter Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee dragging many artists from Hollywood and Broadway before Congress to testify and, if cooperative, “name names.” Those artists who were named were blacklisted, suffering the end of their careers and, in some tragic instances, their lives. Others who chose to play ball, such as Elia Kazan and Jerome Robbins, bore the taint of having done so for the rest of their lives. Of all the arts, the less corporate and more community-based world of the stage resisted the efforts of the witchhunts most steadfastly.

JOE PAPP VS. ROBERT MOSES
Joe Papp was a scrappy little producer of Shakespeare who wanted to present free plays in Central Park. Robert Moses was the parks commissioner and the most powerful man in New York. In 1959, they came to blows and, improbably, David beat Goliath. Stuart Constable, Moses’ top aide, and a political conservative who disliked Papp, issued an edict that free Shakespeare in the park must end, and that a fee must be charged. Moses, taken by surprise, nonetheless backed him up. Papp, aided by his longtime press agent Merle Debuskey, took the fight to the media, where Moses, for the first time in his long career, was painted as the villain. When a timid City Hall refused to intervene, the matter went to the courts, where Papp eventually prevailed. Free Shakespeare in Central Park was saved, and Papp’s reputation as an artistic titan was made. Moses' reputation, meanwhile, began a steady decline.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Religion and theatre haven’t mixed very well since the Middle Ages, when Pageant Plays were common entertainment. When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock-opera telling of the Passion Play reached Broadway in 1971, it seemed no religious body was happy about it — not the Protestants, Catholics or Jews. They all protested what they considered a blasphemous work. On opening night, there was a police presence and holding pens for the various groups of protesters. It all ended up being good publicity. The reviews weren’t good, but sales were strong. It ran for years.

Jeff Fenholt and company in the original Broadway production
Jeff Fenholt and company in the original Broadway production Photo by Friedman-Abeles

MISS SAIGON
Megamusicals from London seemed to breed controversy in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Miss Saigon, a retelling of the Madame Butterfly story set during the Vietnam War, was already a hit in London when it was announced it would come to Broadway. The only problem was producer Cameron Mackintosh was insisting the show’s original star Jonathan Pryce recreate his performance at the Engineer. The role was Eurasian; Pryce was definitely not. This didn’t sit well with some actors, particularly Asian-Americans. They took their concerns to Actors’ Equity, which refused to allow Pryce to make the trip. Mackintosh, furious and stunned, pulled the plug on the production rather than allow the union to interfere with his production and artistic freedom. A media melee ensued, with Equity taking the brunt of the criticism. In the end, the union, facing dissent even within its own ranks, reversed itself and Mackintosh got his way. But Equity, while losing the battle, arguably won the war; in all subsequent mountings, the Engineer was played by an actor of at least partial Asian descent.

CORPUS CHRISTI
Organized religion and professional theatre butted heads again in 1998, when Manhattan Theatre Club produced the Terrence McNally play Corpus Christi. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, the subject was a new interpretation of the story of God’s only son. And the Catholic League, despite not having seen the play, didn’t like McNally’s take on the topic — Jesus and his apostles were depicted as gay men living in Texas. In reaction to the protests, MTC withdrew the play. The company was then pilloried with criticism from the artistic community, which accused the theatre of cowardice and self-censorship. The play was reinstated. Picketers marched outside while theatregoers had to pass through a metal detector. Regional productions of the play have continued to draw protests ever since.

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