Censorship & Postmodern Theatre

Postmodern performances do not propose ways of intervening these realities, but simply illustrate their existence and raise awareness. The more challenging and risqué the subject matters become, the more susceptible the performance is to censorship.

My previous posts on postmodern performance have highlighted how such performances  can challenge audience perception by confronting them with ‘unpleasant realities’.

Censorship & Postmodern Theatre

Censorship has not existed, as such, in the British theatre since 1968, with the introduction of the new Theatres Act and the demise of the Lord Chamberlain. It is important to note, however, that under the 1968 Theatre Act it still remains an offence to give an obscene performance of a play (viz one which, as a whole, tends to deprave or corrupt those likely to attend it).[i] How does censorship, then, affect postmodern performance?

In its plainest form, censorship is in place to decide the morality and experience of another, or a number of, individual(s). Censorship is a problematic area for postmodern performance in that owing to “the range of artistic expression in our postmodern culture [being] so diverse and multiplex”[ii] and the ever-fluctuating consideration of what should be defined as serious art, the policies governing the public presentation of serious art are ‘necessarily vague’, meaning the legal terms are constantly challenged and redefined. In this country censorship laws are determined through four basic pillars:

  • Obscenity – broadly defined in the Official Publications Act 1959 as: being anything that tends to corrupt or deprave persons who are likely, having regard to all relevant circumstances, to read, see or hear the matter contained within it. This includes : foul language (profanity), gratuitous sex (particularly where violence is involved), gratuitous violence, gross racism and sexism. “A Private Member’s bill of 1987 tried and failed to widen its remit still further by designating obscenity as ‘whatever a reasonable person would regard as grossly offensive in relation to sex, violence or drug-taking”[iii]
  • Pornography – nudity, sex, rape and, “more recently homoeroticism and other forms of so-called ‘perverse’ sex – sadomasochism, bondage and highly contentious areas such as paedophilia and bestiality”[iv]
  • Blasphemy – irreverent language towards the ‘sacred’
  • Profanity – excessive use of cursing and swearing


As society has changed and developed, becoming increasingly liberal, the regulations regarding blasphemy and profanity have become more lenient; allowing the arts to change (to degrees) with the societies for which they are produced. Censorship is continuously ridiculed by current society as they constantly break it by assuming the right to fix personal censorship barriers through personal moral judgement.

However, by observing the pillar of obscenity above, we can understand the legal problems censorship causes for performance, since any production deemed by censors to be ‘obscene’ is committing an offence. Although, so far, in this country the theatre has been (with a few sporadic legal cases – including the Mary Whitehouse/Howard Brenton trial over simulated buggery in The Romans in Britain, which was thrown out of court) left fairly alone since 1968. This is partly owing to the nature of ‘live’ theatre and dance varying from performance to performance, as a performance itself cannot be edited in the censor’s office unless in text form. Even this is not practical since, as Patrick Campbell notes, “Today’s signifiers are not necessarily tomorrow’s signs.”[v]

Moral Corruption

With regard to this it is important to understand that a performance can be censored if deemed necessary under the Theatres Act. While literature may pass the censor as acceptable the public performance of that literature may give cause to being censored. The reason for this is that censorship tightens as art progresses to interpretation. To explain, art as writing on a page must be spoken to enforce interpretation. What may have seemed harmless in text form has the potential to ‘morally corrupt’ when it is performed and interpretations are developed.[vi] Censorship attempts to prevent this.

Postmodern performance, by its nature, seeks to confront audiences with ‘realities’ that, as a tendency, shock or astonish. The danger for postmodern performance is that the presentation of ‘realities’, such as the violent sexual relations in Bausch’s work, could morally corrupt audience members. This genre of theatre bypasses this danger by deconstructing the underlying meaning of the subject matter and opens itself to an open translation dependant on the individual. Indeed, in certain areas postmodern performance pushes the censorship boundaries such as homoeroticism in DV8s work, but by never enforcing interpretation it works around them.

Annie Sprinkle, however, a renowned and self-proclaimed ‘performance artist/pornographer’ pushes the moral boundaries of performance art and gender issues at the same time as opposing censorship. Her performance art is the complete subjectification of her own body in what can only be described as a live sex act. Through the use of tools and aids (including torches and fibre-optic lenses inserted into her vagina), Sprinkle uses the audience to explore her body as an art form itself. This poses a moral question – how much should artists subjectify/objectify their bodies in performance?

Post-Porn Modernism

Performance art places emphasis on performance, on how the body or self is articulated through the performance. The body is central to such presentations.[vii]

Adult entertainment on the stage is becoming increasingly popular with the rise of shows such as The Puppetry of the Penis, in which two men stand naked on stage and “play with their penises and testicles and scrotums, manipulating them into various unexpected and silly shapes”[viii] in non-sexual adult humour. This model of theatre is conventionally acceptable since, while showing gratuitous nudity, there are no sexual connotations. The work of Annie Sprinkle, however, is gratuitous and sexual.

Women are presented dehumanised as sexual objects, things or commodities …’ [ix] (Minneapolis Ordinance)

thereby implying that to be a sexual object is always and necessarily to be dehumanised.

Sprinkle first developed an interest in working in the pornography industry in 1973. She was working as an usher in a cinema that was showing the controversial film Deep Throat and met with the director of the film, Gerard Damiano. Sprinkle, who is deeply proud of her career, reminisces on this moment in her one-woman show HERstory of Porn, “I asked Jerry if he would teach me how to deep throat. He did. I became his mistress, followed him to New York City, and the rest is porn HERstory.”[x]

Thus began Sprinkle’s career in pornography and prostitution. After facing a number of confrontations with the law Sprinkle sought refuge in the art world. For her there was more creative freedom, less censorship and more legal protection in this field. Since then Sprinkle has toured eight live shows around the world, produced eleven films, conducted numerous workshops and lectures and written nearly 300 articles on the subject of sex. Her work is highly regarded by the artistic community and she is frequently asked to lecture at museums and universities.

Annie Sprinkle truly embodies postmodernism’s roots in irony, pastiche, and unapologetic political ambiguity. … Her performances and radical sex activism celebrate the experimental, psychically dangerous but inevitably unstable nature of identity.[xi]

How is her work postmodern?

Sprinkle terms herself a ‘post porn modernist’ which she claims is both a clever a pun on postmodernism and implies something artistic that develops after pornography. Sprinkle’s style falls more under the experimental/Avant-garde label, but since these styles are component to postmodern theatre then her work is considered to fall under the postmodern category.

Besides this, Sprinkle challenges and opposes both the traditional aesthetics of theatre and also of pornography. As Gabrielle Cody discusses, “The effect of bringing the pornographic genre into art space is a displacement of both pornography and art through their intertext.”[xii] Her performances are termed as being theatrical, yet culturally and conventionally the theatre does not permit such sexually explicit material. In this way the traditional theatre aesthetics are being opposed, a trait of postmodern performance. The previous notion that in pornography women are objectified and must succumb to the male fantasy is removed by Sprinkle as she adopts an authoritative command over the ‘subjectification’ of her own body.

In one of her shows entitled Public Cervix Announcement, Sprinkle “Lines up the audience members and invites them to peer through a speculum in order to examine her vaginal canal, while she smiles and humours them.”[xiii] During the course of her shows the audience are invited to manipulate Sprinkle herself, using the various equipment lay around her, and literally play and experiment – in essence Sprinkle is deconstructing the semiotics of the female body. Sprinkle states that, “In the first part of my show I’m trying to deconstruct, demystify sex. Take a look at it and show it’s no big deal and then in the second half, I try to make it ‘sacred’ again.”[xiv] In doing this, the audience becomes aware of the body as an aesthetic, organic art form and not just biology.

Sprinkle manages to avoid the censorship and the charge of being pornographic through arguing that her work contains an educational function. Her performances offer women suggestions on how to enjoy sex and overcome their inhibitions through knowing their own bodies. By inviting spectators to peer into the neck of her womb is demystifying one of the obsolete icons in art and literature. In an interview, Sprinkle states that “sex is really scary to a lot of people and one way of dealing with fear is through humour, so a lot of my work is kind of funny.”[xv]

To determine whether Sprinkle’s performances are pornography or art is almost impossible. While her shows are sexually explicit, her audiences generally emerge feeling that they are not pornographic and that her work is more about deconstructing the industry and arousal.[xvi] Ultimately, the performance of prohibited desire is forever going to be preserved in prohibition. However, Sprinkle continually challenges this feeling and through subjectifying herself, yet contradicting the pornographic notion of subversive women by maintaining control, opposes the narrative of traditional theatre and, in true postmodern performance style, exposes the audience to the “fearful proximity of the performer and the consequences of its own desires.”[xvii]


[i] Holt S http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/poli/fymoduleg/kitthree.htm

[ii] Campbell P (ed) Analysing Performance Ch. 16 p.281

[iii] ibid Ch.16 p.268

[iv] ibid Ch.16 p.269

[v] ibid Ch.16 p.271

[vi] ibid Ch.16 p.271

[vii] Carlson M Performance a Critical Introduction Intro p.6

[viii] http://nytheatre.com

[ix] Rodgerson G & E Wilson Pornography and Feminism p.60

[x] Sprinkle A Hardcore From The Heart p.47

[xi] ibid Intro p.3

[xii] ibid p.79

[xiii] Touma Z http://www.sexuality.org/l/art/sprinbio.htm

[xiv] ibid

[xv] ibid

[xvi] Sprinkle A Hardcore From The Heart p.108-109

[xvii] ibid p.82