by Christine Hall
It used to be good to be “banned in Boston.” Before the 1950s, publishers used to rush their adult themed books to Beantown, hoping to be able to plaster a coveted “banned in Boston” logo on the cover before releasing the book nationwide. By the 1960s, producers of movies and Broadway-bound shows often worked hard to get their work banned, because being “banned in Boston” meant increased box office receipts elsewhere.
Officially, the “banned in Boston” era ended in 1982, when the city eliminated the position of chief of the licensing division of the mayor’s office. But the final curtain really came down on the era on April 30th with the death of Richard Sinnott, the last of the famed “banned in Boston” censors.
The censorship tradition that Sinnott upheld went back to the pilgrims, who had once banned Christmas for being too much of a spectacle. By the 19th century, the city had gained a national reputation for banning nearly any fun entertainment. In 1929, 60 books, including works by Hemingway and Whitman, fell under the censor’s ax. Book banning ceased in the 1950s, but the banning of entertainment events continued.
In 1963, Sinnott gained a moment of national recognition when he threatened to close Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf for the infraction of “taking the name of the Lord in vain.” For the Boston run, Jesus’ name was changed to Mary Magdalene and Albee swore that he’d never work in Boston again.
As far as censors go, however, Sinnott was known for being fair, which often worked against the plans of producers and publishers. He was also crafty and would sometimes pass a show’s infractions just to keep from helping it make money. “Why whack it and make a bomb a best seller?” he told the Boston Globe in 1964.
In a 1988 interview with the Associated Press, he remembered a particular production that attempted to get “banned in Boston.” “A ballet came into the Wilbur Theater in the early 1960s, and in the first act they removed their breast covers and pranced around the stage,” he said. He decided the choreography fit the setting of the African themed ballet, and when the producer asked if the production would be banned Sinnott replied negatively. “They do that in Nigeria,” he explained. He received a postcard from New York two weeks later that said, “Thanks a lot. The show closed.”
Even popular recordings didn’t escape his scrutiny. In the early sixties he investigated the Kingsmen’s recording of Louie, Louie because of it’s supposed “dirty” lyrics. Like the rest of us, he decided that the song’s lyrics were unintelligible.
Temporarily, at least, the era of “banned in Bagdad” has also come to an end. On May 7th, Phillip Robertson reported on the trendy web site Salon.com that he’d attended a performance of They Passed By Here, the first play to be presented in Iraq’s capital since the falling of the Hussein regime, and the first uncensored play produced in the city in decades.
The play was presented in the bombed and burned-out ruins of the Al Rasheed theater, Bagdad’s most famous playhouse. “The theater doors were shattered and hanging from their frames,” Robertson reported. “The lobby floor was covered with glass that crunched underfoot… There was no electricity and the theater was mostly dark, but someone had rigged up a light so the audience could find their way to their seats.”
The play was a surrealistic set of themes, the sort of avant-garde mismatch that used to be called “guerilla theater” in this country. “It’s so easy for me to kill because it’s so difficult for me to die,” the character called the Dictator proclaimed in the play. “I will kill you all to save my life.” The locals in the audience wept openly and the performance was given a standing ovation.
For years before the war, the Najeen group that presented the play had worked in small theaters where their work would be invisible to the authorities. Nonetheless, they had all had problems with the Baath regime and had grown used to hiding. When asked why they had mounted their production so quickly, while Bagdad was still smoldering and looters roamed the streets, one troupe member replied, “The Al Rasheed Theater was a place where we always wanted to perform and we had been prevented from entering it. Being there was like a dream for us.”
In the play, the Dictator had attempted to conquer the moon. “The moon is the symbol of death and the Dictator was trying his best to seize the symbol for himself,” a cast member explained. “But he could not succeed. He could only succeed in leaving his fingerprints on our memory.”
As Bagdad revels in an artistic freedom that’s been lacking for several decades, may they savor each and every moment. Eventually the Brits and Americans will leave, opening the door for the fundamentalists to take over and end this brief moment in time. For now, however, they have hope.