Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

Unlike film, theater in America does not have a ratings board that censors content. So plays have had more freedom to explore and to transgress normative culture. Yet censorship of the theater has been part of American culture from the beginning, and continues today. How and why does this happen, and who decides whether a play is too dangerous to see or to teach? Are plays dangerous? Sinful? Even demonic? In our seminar, we will study plays that have been censored, either legally or extra-legally (i.e. refused production, closed down during production, denied funding, or taken off school reading lists). We’ll look at laws, both national and local, relating to the “obscene”, as well as unofficial practices, and think about the way censorship operates in American life now. And of course we will study the offending texts, themselves, to find what is really dangerous about them, for ourselves.

Course Goals

At the end of the course, students will be able to discuss modern American theater in the context of censorship, including the legal, political and historical discussions of obscenity, sexuality, gender, racism, socialism, and global politics. Students will also be familiar with research tools in the field, primary and secondary, and how to incorporate research and theory into their own writing and thinking.

Course Reading

Readings for the class include original plays, analysis of censorship in the theatre, and more general consideration of censorship issues in society. See the complete list in the readings page.

Course Assignments

Over the course of the semester, you will asked to do the following:

  • Two written weekly questions/comments, on one or more reading from the week’s assignment.
  • Paper: 4-page close reading of assigned passage from Mrs. Warren’s Profession and its relation to the play as a whole.
  • Paper Project (15 pages) in 2 drafts. Discuss a modern or contemporary example of theatrical daring and repression not covered in the course. The paper will focus on a single play or performance as detailed example.
  • Presentations: approx. 20 minutes; 2-4 students: either
    • a 5-minute scene from one of the plays studied in the course followed by a discussion of performance choices and methods, or
    • a presentation on a theatrical production you have attended this semester. This includes a review (typed for submission), a discussion of the theater group and its history, and an analysis of the promotional materials for the production (paper, Web, etc.)

Course Grades

Attendance and class participation 20%
4-page close reading of assigned passage (2 drafts) 10% / 15%
Paper project (15 pages) in 2 drafts 15% / 20%
1-page presentation of topic, thesis and research 5%
Group presentation 15%

MIT Literature Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.

Course Calendar

1 Overview; questions; what’s “obscene”?  
2 Shaw, “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” (1893)  

Freud, “Negation”

Foucault, “The Repressive Hypothesis”

Close reading paper due

Houchin, “Overture: Theatrical Censorship from the Puritans to Anthony Comstock”

Obscenity law readings

Comstock, “Frauds Exposed” (1880); US Code: obscene materials (current law) 1460; 1461; US Statutes: obscene literature (1873 “Comstock Law”); Massachusetts: “An Act to Punish Unnatural and Lascivious Acts” (1887); Massachusetts Sodomy Law; Massachusetts: “Obscenity”: definitions

5 Ibsen, “Ghosts” (1881)  
6 Aristophanes, “Lysistrata” (411 BCE) Close reading rewrite due

Odets, “Waiting for Lefty” (1935)

Research proposal presentations

Presentation of topic due
8 Hellman, “The Children’s Hour”  
9 Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire”  
10 Parks, “Topdog/Underdog” Parks 8-pp draft of long paper due
11 Corrie, Rickman, Viner, “My name is Rachel Corrie” (2005)  
12 Hughes, “The Well of Horniness” (1984) and “Clit Notes” (1994)  

Ensler, “The Vagina Monologues” (1996)


Final draft of research paper due

Last class

Papers returned


Ideas for the future

Course Info
As Taught In
Fall 2008
Learning Resource Types
assignment Presentation Assignments
assignment_turned_in Written Assignments with Examples