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David Stallings, The Family Shakespeare

By Marjorie Heins

(April 23, 2011) - It is always risky to create a work of art with an unambiguous message, and an anti-censorship message is no exception. Ambiguity, irony, and multiple meanings are the stuff of good art; an unambiguous message, no matter how right or passionate, risks sliding into agit-prop.

Playwright David Stallings’s The Family Shakespeare, which recently opened at the June Havoc Theater in Manhattan, avoids this trap. It comes down decisively on the side of freedom, but also gives Thomas Bowdler, famous for his early 19th century expurgated versions of Shakespeare’s plays, a chance to make his case. And its imagined riff on Thomas's sister Henrietta as champion of the uncensored life clearly exposes its perils: charming though she is, Henrietta is also reckless, and mendacious when it suits her. Her flights of unrepressed fantasy in the play have some unfortunate results.

The historical Henrietta was not the rebel of Stallings's imagining. She was in fact the first in the family to have published some of the plays purged, as she put it, of “anything that can raise a blush on the cheek of modesty.”1 But as Stallings explains in his program note, "because this is a fiction I chose to take this historic family and write them with strong literary license. I chose to go beneath the black and white of research and infuse gray. Because only with the color gray do we have art."2

Stallings and his director, Antonio Miniño, weave deliciously appropriate quotations from Shakespeare's plays and poetry into the melodrama of their imagined Bowdler family. The two brothers and two sisters argue over morality in both life and art: in Stallings’s rendering, brother John is a serial seducer of servant girls; brother Thomas is a prude; sister Jane a hypochondriac; and sister Henrietta is the most intelligent and free-spirited of the brood. Henrietta gets the good lines opposing the censorship that her beloved but stuffy brother Thomas advances. “Oh Thomas,” she says after he is shocked by her use of the word “castrate”:

a child on a farm knows what castration is. A youth with a dog knows what intercourse is. And they should be able to open a book and see that the life they know is there. Or else why would people read? People will not know how to relate to the beauty in the poetry if it is not brutal and honest and true. Even a child can detect the dishonesty in censured reality.

But Thomas, earlier in the play, has argued his case for change, abridgment, what we today might call fair use. He has arrived in the family manse from London, where he has just seen the celebrated actor David Garrick in Othello. Garrick has over his career not only made many “prunings, transpositions, or other alterations”3 in Shakespeare’s plays; in this case, he has changed the title to “Iago.” Henrietta objects:

“Thomas, it’s ‘Othello.’”

Thomas: He called it “Iago.”

Henrietta: Why?

Thomas: Because he was playing Iago.

Henrietta: That’s not a reason.

Thomas: He seemed to think it was.

Henrietta: The play is not his.

Thomas: It isn’t yours either.

Thomas’s point, of course, is that Shakespeare belongs to all of us. As the real Henrietta wrote in defense of her enterprise, “there are many editions of Shakespeare, ‘with all his imperfections on his head’”4; and the real Thomas later added:

The great objection which has been urged against The Family Shakespeare, and it has been urged with vehemence by those who have not examined the work, is the apprehension, that, with erasure of the indecent passages, the spirit and fire of the poet would often be much injured, and sometimes be entirely destroyed. This objection arises principally from those persons who have confined their study of Shakespeare to the closet, and have not learned in the theatre, with how much safety it is possible to make the necessary alterations.5

A fair point, especially for theater aficionados. What most troubles Stallings, in fact, is not the Bowdlers' expurgations of "the obvious swear words," but their censorship of the "gray adult colors of intent and comprehension": the Shakespearean speeches "questioning God, questioning mankind, questioning ideas that in the Bowdlers' home should never be questioned in front of women and children."6 It is this suppression of ideas, not just sexually explicit scenes or words, that gives the verb “bowdlerize” its resonance today.

The impulse to censor is human and universal; only the words and ideas considered dangerous have changed in the two centuries since the Bowdlers did their snipping and pruning. There is no such thing as absolute freedom of speech—think of the exceptions for defamation, invasion of privacy, threats of violence, blackmail, commercial fraud, and incitement to crime—so why not bowdlerization?

The difference is that in the realm of art and literature, the very ambiguity and multiplicity of meanings make it difficult to agree on what is dangerous or harmful. As Stallings put it, "only with the color gray do we have art." It is almost impossible to identify predictable and tangible harm from exposure to art; people’s—including children's—reactions are too variable. Falsely shouting fire in a theater is likely to cause a panic because most people will react in the same way. Delineating extreme violence or sexual raunchiness in a painting, a play, a comic book, or a video game will not have such a readily predictable and uniform effect.

The Family Shakespeare tackles issues beyond literary censorship. Henrietta stands not just for creative freedom but for breaking the bonds of womanhood, 19th century-style: corseted, cosseted, and sexually deprived. She does not do much about the last of these plagues, as far as we can tell, but she does forge a sort of erotically charged sisterhood with a young woman who arrives in the household as a servant and manages to surmount multiple forms of oppression, both economic and sexual. The play ends with the two of them trading verses from Sonnet 66, which consists of a long list of complaints about the injustices of life, including “art made tongue-tied by authority/and folly, doctor-like, controlling skill.”

Stallings has deftly chosen these and many other gems to enrich his script; what better collaborator for a playwright, after all, than Shakespeare? I don’t think the family drama in the play is wholly successful, but there is more than enough wit and erudition to move things along, and much food for thought in the Henrietta-Thomas debate.


1. Henrietta Bowdler, Preface to The Family Shakespeare (1st ed. 1807), quoted in Colin Franklin, “The Bowdlers and Their Family Shakespeare,”

2. "A note from playwright David Stallings," MTWorks, The Family Shakespeare, April 13-30, 2011.

3. Francis Gentleman, a colleague of Garrick’s, in 1774, quoted in Colin Franklin, supra.

4. Preface to the The Family Shakespeare (1st ed. 1807), quoted in Colin Franklin, supra.

5. Thomas Bowdler, Preface to The Family Shakespeare (4th ed.), quoted in Colin Franklin, supra.

6. "A note from playwright David Stallings," supra.

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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