Last Monday, the locals were talking about the news. (Okay, so I provoked the conversation.) You’ve heard them probably, the limits of free speech have been debated this month.
Instead of going straight to those cases, however, I’d like to go back a hundred years and more. Freedom of speech has been an issue since Ancient Greece.
As a writer, one of my heroes is Aristophanes. No, I haven’t read all of his work (most of it is in fragments or has been completely destroyed), but I’ve read adaptations, translations and the great body of comedians who have been directly or indirectly influenced by his genius.
Aristophanes did not write timeless theatre. He wrote very much for the moment. What he had though, was freedom of speech. For one festival a year, dramatists could mock the military, government officials, rich and prominent citizens, even the Gods themselves, and get paid for it. No need to worry about libel, national security, or any other rules. Just make it funny.
Of course, when Athens was conquered by tyrants, the free speech died out along with democracy. Festivals were slowly adapted to the new situation, but tyrants didn’t really have a sense of humor.
The Ancient Greeks weren’t the only people to have theatre festivals where they could say anything they wanted. In Antwerp in the days before Philip II, the city had balls, parades, and little skits were no powerful person or group was spared mockery. Sure, the writers and troupes showed some restraints, but these were primarily their own consciences and the size of their pocketbooks.
Again, war, tyranny, and forced social change brought an end to free speech. Though the theatre and festivals still came back, it was never again as lively as it was in the glory days. And, it has not been as free since.
Now, let’s see how current are the “current affairs” we are discussed. If you are aware of the works of Voltaire and Cotton Mather, or even Salmon Rushdie, you’ll know that this hasn’t been the first time an art work has questioned the religion of the Mohammedans. What makes this unique is that before the 21st century, I can’t find historical cases of previous American or European leaders apologizing for the works of their subjects, or distancing their governments from it. In the old days, it appears, people just accepted that individuals wrote plays and books.
I can find cases, however, of violence that has allegedly been sparked by fiction.
There are too many to list, many of which I probably don’t know about, so I’ll limit myself primarily to American history.
But first, one of my favorites. You know Moliere? You probably would if you studied French. Even today, his plays bring about full houses in France, Belgium and other French speaking countries. Although some say he doesn’t follow the three act structure, his rhyming couplets and deep character development brings down the house even today.
The first Moliere play I ever saw, when I was a youngster in Belgium and didn’t speak a word of French, was Tartuffe (aka, the hypocrite). My dad and I seemed to be the only two men in the whole building, apart from the men in the cast and perhaps a ticket collector. In fact, when we used the urinals in the intermission, we found that the old Belgian ladies lost patience waiting in line for their own bathroom, and flooded the men’s toilets like locusts to a pot of honey.
The most memorable part of the play was the laughter. The old ladies were laughing at the stupidity of the paternal character, at his credulity towards Tartuffe, who was said to be representative of hypocrisy within the Catholic church.
Like the fictional character Dewi, I didn’t yet speak a word of French (beyond Miss Piggy’s “Oui” and “Moi”), yet I felt the life in the play from that author. In fact, I’ve never seen a Belgian audience laugh as much before or since (or any audience for that matter, but Belgian audiences seem generally reserved.)
Critics have said that Moliere doesn’t follow the three act structure, that he isn’t a true master. His defense has always been that he wasn’t an academic, he just wrote plays to “please”, or please the audience (and they succeed.) Frivolity was a virtue of the entertainer.
How surprised I was to find out, years later, that when Moliere’s play first showed in France, there were people out to get it banned. Perhaps they were extremists who considered themselves “catholic.” Tartuffe made a mockery of hypocrisy, not the church itself, its defenders said. Yet actors were threatened with hell, and Moliere himself was said to be in fear of his life.
But, instead of apologizing to the hotheads, the King of France found the play funny and took Moliere under his protection.
Theatre provides a lot of examples of the limits of free speech, but in America the stage was surpassed in value by the novel. And one of the most popular novels in American history was Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
While Moliere was just out to entertain, Stowe had an agenda. As well as a writer, she was an abolitionist. And abolitionism was dangerous business in the mid 19th century America.
Newspapers were burnt down, writers tarred, feathered and murdered, freedom of speech didn’t seem to count for much when many state governments were unwilling to defend that freedom. (Abolitionists weren’t the only ones who had their newspapers attacked by mobs. However, the other victims of mob censorship are beyond the scope of this article.)
Stowe received an ear of a slave in the post, among other gruesome responses to her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Protestors said that Stowe made up the cruelty of slavery, yet they were cruel in their protests against her work. Though Stowe later found evidence of every abuse she wrote in that novel, it was her work and not just a compilation of documents (she defended the copyright in court.)
Now, today no one blames Stowe for any abuse on slaves that may have been “provoked” by her novel, but we still quote Abe Lincoln saying “so you’re he little lady who caused this great big war.”
With the inventions of the Lumiere brothers, Edison, and eventually Hollywood, and with a large amount of immigrants who didn’t speak English too well, the cinema overtook the novel and the theatre as the most popular form of American fiction.
And with its popularity, came a new case for censorship. During the year 1912, when feature films started hitting the market, it was said that the cinema was not covered by the first amendment, but this would be later tested in court.
(To be continued, pending sufficient response.)