- The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theater in Nineteenth-Century Europe
In The Frightful Stage: Political Censorship of the Theater in Nineteenth-Century Europe, editor Robert Goldstein has assembled a useful collection of essays that concisely chronicles the methods of and motivations behind political censorship of the performing arts in continental Europe throughout the nineteenth century. The six chapters are each about forty pages in length, titled simply with the name of the country it covers: “Germany” (Gary Stark), “France” (Goldstein), “Russia” (Anthony Swift), “Spain” (David Gies), “Italy” (John Davis), and “The Hapsburg Monarchy” (Norbert Bachleitner). The volume omits Britain since, as Goldstein explains, its theatre censorship has been thoroughly covered by previous scholars, and the intention of this book is to provide accessible histories of censorship in non-English-language nations. Indeed, scholars looking for more information on censorship in each country will find the thorough bibliographical essay that follows each chapter helpful. Although there is no explicit theoretical framework that informs the collection, each chapter is organized chronologically and focuses largely on politically motivated, class-based censorship.
In his introduction, Goldstein provides a concise overview of the political state of continental Europe during the nineteenth century. He lays out the oppressive educational, governmental, and socioeconomic conditions that dominated those countries and unfolds the book’s central argument: that theatre in particular was rigorously, if inconsistently, censored, because its appeal to an illiterate population was perceived as a threat by the ruling classes, who viewed the medium as capable of inciting political unrest. This argument is echoed and well-supported by the evidence in each of the six chapters, giving the book a coherence and through-line that make for a pleasing and consistent assessment of the topic at hand.
Each chapter begins with a short summary of that country’s theatre history, mentioning major practitioners though focusing mainly on the role that [End Page 466] theatre played as a cultural force. This summary is then linked to a brief history of the country’s political developments, setting the groundwork for the rest of the chapter. After summarizing a century of massive political instability in Spain, for instance, Gies surmises that “it is hardly unexpected that the theatre, which captured both the anxiety of the literate classes and the aspirations of the masses, would be subject to rigorous control” (163). From such an introduction, each chapter chronicles the various approaches to censorship undertaken by each nation’s governments and rulers, with solid details on their methods and motivations. For example, Stark covers an 1851 Berlin censorship ordinance responding to concerns that the theatre was being used to criticize the government. The law required commercial theatres to submit scripts to the local police force for approval two weeks before performance or face penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment. Each essay does an excellent job of reproducing the original texts of various decrees and edicts (translated into English), as well as making clear the ideological reasons behind the restrictions, which nearly always boil down to a fear of lower-class unrest.
The Frightful Stage also offers some assessment of the impact that censorship in nineteenth-century Europe had on the creation of theatre. Swift’s chapter on Russia provides a telling quote from Leo Tolstoy on this subject: “What matters is not what the censor does to what I have written, but what I might have written” (155). Bachleitner concludes his coverage of the Hapsburg Monarchy by citing strong statistical evidence—for example, diminished numbers of new theatres or expansions of existing ones—illustrating the negative impact of censorship on the development of Austrian theatre, a conclusion echoed by Goldstein in his essay on France. There are also scattered discussions of resistance to censorship, such as actors changing words during a production or troupes staging plays that were in technical compliance with regulations though clearly executed in a spirit of defiance. By and large, however, these are passing references, as the book focuses less on the creation of theatre (or lack...