Censored: 5 plays and novels banned around the globe

Censorship of the arts has a long history, from ancient Greece to present-day Thailand. US schools regularly add new, and often surprising, books to their lists of banned literature. Here is a list of five plays and novels banned, for a variety of reasons, in regions across the globe:

1.The King Never Smiles

Thailand has some of the strictest laws in the world in terms of criticizing the monarchy, and offenders can be imprisoned for up to 15 years. Thai officials responsible for monitoring defamation of the royal family consider Facebook “likes” of information criticizing the monarchy criminal, according to The Daily Mail.

The 2006 “unauthorized” biography of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej – “The King Never Smiles” by Paul M. Handley – was banned in Thailand, and the website advertising the book was blocked in the country.

Thailand's lese majeste laws are so strict that in 2011, a US citizen visiting Thailand was sentenced to prison for two and a half years for allegedly posting excerpts of “The King Never Smiles” online.  Joe Gordon, a US citizen who was born in Thailand but lived in North America for 30 years, translated part of the banned text into Thai and posted it on his blog. He was arrested five years after publishing the blog post, on a visit to the kingdom of Thailand for medical treatment.

2.The Satanic Verses

Portrayals of the prophet Muhammad perceived as blasphemous by many Muslims have generated tension and violence in the past. A Saudi blogger received threats and faces a possible death sentence for tweets on the prophet’s birthday that were deemed apostate and atheist, and in 2005 Muslims responded to a cartoon of the prophet in European newspapers with violent protests.

Literature is no exception when it comes to the respect that Muslims expect for the prophet. Award-winning author Salman Rushdie’s magical-realist novel “The Satanic Verses” was banned upon its release in all Arab states, plus India, Pakistan, and South Africa. The ban was a response to Mr. Rushdie’s depiction of Islam, and a character, described by The New York Times as “a businessman turned prophet named Mahound – a figure Muslim critics regard as a thinly and perversely disguised representation of the Prophet Mohammed.”

Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on Rushdie in 1989, calling for his death. It still stands more than 20 years later.

3.Catastrophe

In the 1980s, Samuel Beckett’s plays, which include well-known works like “Waiting for Godot,” were banned in communist Czechoslovakia. But the regime’s censorship didn’t stop Mr. Beckett from becoming a hero of the opposition in the eastern European country.  In 1982 he dedicated a one-act play, “Catastrophe,” to Vaclav Havel, a playwright and future president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic who was then serving a 4.5-year sentence in prison.

The International Association for the Defence of Artists, which was organizing a night of solidarity for Mr. Havel to draw attention to the prosecution of artists under communist regimes,  asked Beckett to write the play. It was originally written in French and performed at the Avignon Festival in 1982.

Catastrophe was Beckett’s most overtly political play, according to his biographer James Knowlson.  In it, a director and his assistant subject a mute character to their commands, “preparing” him for the stage. The dehumanized character’s only act of resistance is to raise his head at the end of the play, facing his oppressors. 

Once Havel was released from prison he wrote a response to Beckett’s “Catastrophe” in the form of a play.

4.Le Roi S’Amuse

Victor Hugo’s play, “Le Roi S’Amuse,” or “The King’s Fool” was performed just once before it was banned in 1832 France.  Though the play was set several centuries earlier, the portrayal of King Francois I, who died in 1547, was interpreted as an attack on the reigning monarch, King Louis-Philippe. After the curtain fell, a riot reportedly broke out in response to the play.

Offending the monarchy was a criminal offense in France at the time, and though Mr. Hugo took his case to court, he lost. The play was revived 50 years later, in 1882, and was met by a much more politically forgiving audience. “Le Roi S’Amuse” was not the only work by Hugo to face censorship, though, as historical themes often served as artistic entrees to government criticism. “Napoleon le Petit,” or “Napoleon the Little,” was banned from the stage in the 1820s as well. (Editors note: The original version misstated the year in which the play was revived.)

5.Lysistrata

One of the oldest documented cases of censorship of the theater is the ban of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata,” written in 411 BC, which was deemed “unacceptably subversive” by Greek authorities at the time, reports LA Weekly. It was banned more recently, relatively speaking, in the United States, under the Comstock Law of 1873. The US ban wasn’t lifted until the 1930s.

The anti-war drama touches on “offensive” themes such as the power of women. In order to keep their men from fighting in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta,  Athenian heroine Lysistrata and a group of women from various city-states throughout Greece first agree to withhold sex from their warring partners until peace is declared, and then take over the Acropolis, halting access to much-needed money to fund the war. 

“Aristophanes knew that his audience would find both these strategies ludicrous and treat his play, with its slapstick and doubles entendres, as an extravagant fantasy – for women to assert themselves in a public arena at that time was pure Theatre of the Absurd,” writes The Guardian.