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Censorship has a long and colourful history in Canada, and has found its way to the theatre in many instances from the beginning of colonization to the present. It comes in many forms, some of which apply to theatre: official censorship (banning), censorship by ambiguous "policy" (Customs stopping written or visual works at the border), police action (shows being closed or "watched" by the police), church action (productions or artists being blasted from the pulpit), community-instigated boycott, uninformed debate or ambiguous public funding criteria.

Canada, from its origins, seems not to have a cohesive set of rules, though laws have been passed to control so-called offensive material. Much of the time censorship is a question of individuals or small groups of reactionaries responding to something (in some cases, something they have not even seen). Most vulnerable to such attacks are the smaller theatres and those presenting alternative and experimental theatre, Gay and Lesbian Theatre, or Feminist Theatre).

Canada's Obscenity Law bans the publication, distribution or circulation of any obscene material, with "obscene" defined as "the undue exploitation of sex." Motives for such circulation are irrelevant. The Butler Decision of 1992 added a community standards spin, but also added the "Artistic Defence" (the portrayal is "essential to a wider artistic, literary or other similar purpose..."), with any doubt resolved in favour of freedom of expression. In 1993, a section on child pornography was added. Visual depictions of children under 18 involved in explicit sexual acts or depictions of a child's sexual organ or anal region or any written or visual presentation that advocates sexual activity with a child are proscribed. (Some have suggested that realistic performances of Romeo and Juliet and Spring Awakening could thus be banned.)

Cases of censorship and self-censorship of theatre in Canada include the celebrated Affaire de Tartuffe. Proving that the clergy in the New World could be just as controlling as that of the Old, the church clamped down on a proposed production of Molière's Tartuffe, after having allowed performances of works both sacred and "profane" since the colonists arrived. Although the clergy were not fond of spectacles, dances, balls and entertainments in general, these were controlled on a case by case basis by individual clerics. Tartuffe, however, was a very special matter. It was still highly controversial in France, even thirty years after its creation. The Affaire in the New World was actually a battle for power between Governor Frontenac and Mgr Saint-Vallier disguised as a battle over morality. The Bishop produced a letter called Instruction pour l'éclaircissement des consciences touchant les comédies qui se jouent dans le monde (Instruction for enlightening the conscience on [the subject of] comedies which are played in the world). He discussed pernicious comedy in the letter and made clear reference to Tartuffe without actually mentioning the work. The Bishop later amended his letter and got considerably more specific, accusing the director/actor (Lt. Mareuil), who was to mount the work of blasphemy, and he finally named the play as impious. He also prohibited his parishioners from attending any performance. No specific attack was made on Frontenac, but the Lieutenant was his man. The problem resolved itself in a nicely Canadian compromise. When the two antagonists met, the Bishop offered the Governor 100 pistoles (about $10,000 today) to abandon the project of mounting the play; Frontenac, not a rich man, accepted. The Lieutenant, however, was incarcerated from February 1 to November 24 for blasphemy. (It might have been a longer imprisonment if the Governor hadn't intervened and the Bishop not returned to France.)

In 1765, Troupe Comedienne in Quebec had to perform plays by Belgian Waloons to get around Governor James Murray's rules against French plays and players.

In 1789, the church forbade Catholics to see plays at Joseph Quesnel's new theatre, and refused absolution to anyone who went.

In 1859, Bishop Bourget of Montreal issued pastoral letters condemning the theatre, blaming it for debauchery and other moral dissolution. He issued a second letter in 1872.

In 1880, the Catholic clergy of Quebec spoke against all of the tours to Canada of Sarah Bernhardt, attacking the plays and her person. Bishop Fabre prohibited parishioners from attending her performances.

In 1883, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Rev. J.B. Silcox delivered a sermon which used theatre in Toronto as an example of immorality to his parishioners: "Within the last few years, there were scenes on the boards that would cause even the Sodomites to blush, and stop their ears for shame." In 1900, in Winnipeg, a minister wrote, "There is no need to portray the evils of the stage, the man and woman who chooses a career on the stage chooses a dangerous career. They may be strong, but evils allure the players and the theatregoers. The modern stage needs reforming. While the influence is usually degrading, there are plays that are elevating as well as entertaining." In 1904, Winnipeg critic/playwright C.W. Handscomb wrote of Ibsen's Ghosts: "[this] unwholesome, degrading [and] disgusting" play might pollute the "wholesome prairie atmosphere."

In 1955, Canadian Jewish News condemned a Stratford Festival production of The Merchant of Venice (starring Lorne Greene and William Shatner) as anti-semitic.

In 1978, in Montreal, when the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde premiered Les Fées ont soif, the Catholic archdiocese of Montreal denounced the work from every pulpit, and congregations from throughout Montreal picketed the theatre and even bought blocks of tickets to recite the rosary while the play was being performed. Moreover, the arts council of the city of Montreal refused to subsidize the piece and a storm of protest about censorship ensued. Court cases - including an action to suppress the published play - were brought against the work until the Supreme Court refused to hear them in 1980.

In 1992, Banff Centre for the Arts was lambasted for hosting a work, True Inversions from Vancouver's Kiss and Tell, about lesbian sexuality. Alberta's deputy premiere, Ken Kowalski, said, "This is the third time I've had to deal with this abhorrent lesbian show."

In 1993, Councillors at Toronto's city hall questioned the funding of Buddies in Bad Times after columnist Kristina Blizzard of the Toronto Sun had voiced opposition to some of the gay and lesbian content of the works presented at the theatre. While debate proceeded and the Company's grant was being held up (as well as a grant to a Gay and Lesbian film festival), supporters of the arts protested. Buddies got its grant, the film festival did not.

In 1994, Richard Monette, Stratford's artistic director, suggested the Company would no longer be bothering with revivals of "obnoxiously unenlightened works" like The Merchant of Venice and Taming of the Shrew. However, Monette mounted a production of the former at the Festival in 2001. It was not well received by critics, but more for artistic reasons than for the obnoxiousness of the work.

In 1996, Le Grand Théâtre Émotif in Montreal had shown a single performance of a work discussing the effects of nudity on the dynamics between audience and performer. In this case, however, the audience was required to be nude. There was no second performance as the police warned the company that there was going to be a raid.

In 1996, even before Tony Kushner's epic Angels in America: Part II was presented at Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, a Calgary Sun columnist wrote that the work was "pro-homosexual and anti-conservative," while the work was debated in the assembly.

Readings: Mark Leiren-Young. Shylock. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 1996, for a fascinating discussion of the issues of censorship surrounding productions of The Merchant of Venice.

Commentary by Gaetan Charlebois. Additional information provided by Mark-Leiren Young, Joel Greenberg, and Christopher Hoile.

Last updated 2020-10-26