Taboo Or Not Taboo? That Is The Question.

I am going to get straight to the point and say nothing is taboo in Theatre. There I said it. Of course everyone has a different opinion on what is meant by taboo and what they believe falls under this label. The Oxford Dictionary’s Online definition is as follows:

“A social or religious custom prohibiting or restricting a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing.”

One of the flaws in this definition is it states that it’s social or religious custom that is the cause of something been perceived as taboo, this implies it’s one or the other. Surely, it could be in some cases a mixture of both. This combination has been implemented from a less accepting society that existed previously, whose ripple effect can still be felt unfortunately today.

Shock tactic, publicity stunt, yes we have all heard those terms when there is nudity in a play. But why is nudity still termed by many as taboo? People are naked all in the time in their own home (ok maybe not all the time unless you are a naturist) so if a play has for example a nude scene set in ones home, as in the case of Kevin Eylot’s wonderful play My Night With Reg the character of John shows full frontal nudity, this is actually rather realistic. Let me point out too without going in to detail of the plot,that nudity was a metaphor for being exposed and secretly afraid.

Religion will inevitably be blamed for being the cause of taboo subjects but it’s as I previously described it’s a mixture of religious and social customs. In the case of sexual intimacy on stage, I don’t believe religion would be the reason if it perhaps being seen as pornographic, this would be more down the social customs that sex happens behind ‘closed doors’. But sex and nudity are a normal part of life that have to be included in some form in theatre. 

When I see a character on stage taking drugs ( prop ones), I as an audience member and as a reviewer, realise this is part of the plot. Even though this character taking drugs is integral to the plot and how their life has descended in to something quite bleak, there would have been more distaste for this characters cosumption of illegal substances. There will still be inevitably an uneasiness from certain audience members, but I feel gritty plot devices are honoured more by the audience in recent times, who realise they are not condoning something simply by watching a piece of theatre.

Theatre is ultimately where stories are told and feelings are expressed. This setting is where an audience have chosen to come and watch that particular piece of theatre. If something is extremley offensive to them or they find distasteful they are free to leave the theatre although the price of the ticket they have bought could hinder that decision. In the same way, if someone is doing something in the street such as preaching beliefs you do not agree with you do not have to listen you can walk away. 

The word taboo I believe is still not a word that exists in the theatrical dictionary. Audiences will always have differing opinions on certain subjects, but isn’t this what makes theatre so exciting?






2 thoughts on “Taboo Or Not Taboo? That Is The Question.

  1. Interesting question, tabboos. I’m pretty much in agreement with you, but it’s tough: I think there is a line most people draw as to when performance goes ‘too far’. Obviously everyone’s line is different, so the question becomes: if the performers are willing to do it, is it too far?

    I’m reminded of a conversation I was having with a student last week, about where the line exists between theatre and performance art (unsurprisingly, we couldn’t find it!) One of the big topics we talked around was the real and the represented (or simulated). So, for example, a performance artist might not be happy to show fake violence: that would be anathema. In the theatre, though, audiences would be horrified to know that an actor is really hurting, or bleeding, or whatever.

    I mean, some performance art takes things REALLY far. Marina Abromovic is a prime example: one of her shows involved her standing completely still next to a table with 72 objects, ranging from cloths, feathers, flowers etc. to knives, scissors and a gun and bullet. The ‘audience’ were told they could interact with her and the objects in any way they could. In short time she had had all of her clothes cut off, multiple cuts on her body, she was visibly crying and distressed (but still not moving), and some of the audience eventually called a halt to the performance when someone loaded the gun and pointed it at her head.

    Some people might say that shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.

    Of course, that’s extremely unlikely to happen in the theatre, in a play. A play is about simulation, representation, using pretence to present what is real. So violence – even extreme violence, is usually fake. Still seems to upset people, though.

    Ditto sex. ESPECIALLY sex. Can you imagine what would happen if a play came out tomorrow and the actors actually had sex, right there in front of everyone? Now, when it comes down to it, I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with that myself, so long as they are both willing, consenting and not coerced, but an awful lot of people would be seriously upset. (Why, though? That’s what I’ve never understood about ‘moral outrages’… just what does it matter?)

    And drugs: you mention prop drugs, but what about if an actor took real drugs onstage? For a moment forget about the health and safety aspect, the legal argument, or that they might forget their lines etc., but say they snorted a real line of cocaine – does that change things? I’m not saying it should or it does, I’m just curious what you think.

    (The Wooster Group did a really interesting show called ‘LSD (…just the high points…)’. Part of the development process involved tripping on LSD, and recording the results.)

    I think you highlight the big problem, though, in that audiences have paid to see a performance, and that’s an issue. Of course, when you buy a ticket you have no guarantee of what’s about to happen, and a ticket absolutely does not promise that the show will conform to your moral perspective. So what does it promise? There’s no absolute definition of what buying a ticket actually means, and different people have different interpretations. I find it interesting that (in my experience with morally outraged people), those who are more likely to complain about having paid for a ticket and not got what they expected are also more likely to complain about perceived moral failings. I wonder what that means? Are they more conservative? Do they have more of a consumer/product based mindset? Or are they simply more likely to complain, on both counts?

    The thing about all this, though, is that I’m extremely liberal, and have something of a ‘live and let live’ attitude so long as nobody else is being hurt. I know that I’m quite far on one end of that spectrum, though. I don’t fully understand people who get morally outraged at theatre, or films, or games, or whatever – and mostly I think they’re just being ridiculous – but there are some really interesting grey areas…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on the subject really enjoyed reading them! I agree if someone is being mentally or physically harmed by something on stage then there is no way this should be tolerated and this is taking a performance too far and unacceptable.
      The grey areas are interesting as everyone will having different views on what falls under this description..


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