The Most Controversial Plays of the 20th Century

Stage Dramas That Pushed Social Boundaries

Tragedy and Comedy Masks
CSA Plastock / Getty Images

The theater is a perfect venue for social commentary and many playwrights have used their position to share their beliefs on various issues affecting their time. Quite often, they push the boundaries of what the public deems acceptable and a play can quickly become very controversial.

The years of the 20th century were filled with social, political, and economic controversy and a number of plays written during the 1900s addressed these issues.

How Controversy Takes Shape On the Stage

An older generation's controversy is the next generation's banal standard. The fires of controversy often fade as time goes by.

For example, when we look at Ibsen's "A Doll's House" we can see why it was so provocative during the late 1800s. Yet, if we were to set "A Doll's House" in modern day America, not too many people would be shocked by the play's conclusion. We might yawn as Nora decides to leave her husband and family. We might nod to ourselves thinking, "Yep, there's another divorce, another broken family. Big deal."

Because theater pushes the boundaries, it often evokes heated conversations, even public outrage. Sometimes the impact of the literary work generates societal change. With that in mind, let's take a brief look at the most controversial plays of the 20th century.

"Spring's Awakening"

This caustic critique by Frank Wedekind is one of hypocrisy and society's flawed sense of morality stands up for the rights of adolescents.

Written in Germany in the late 1800s, it was not actually performed until 1906. "Spring's Awakening" is subtitled "A Children's Tragedy". In recent years Wedekind's play (which has been banned and censored many times during its history) has been adapted into a critically acclaimed musical, and with good reason.

  • The storyline is saturated with dark, brooding satire, teen angst, blossoming sexuality, and tales of innocence lost.
  • The main characters are youthful, likable, and naive. The adult characters, in contrast, are stubborn, ignorant, and almost inhuman in their callousness.
  • When the so-called "moral" adults rule by shame instead of compassion and openness, the adolescent characters pay a heavy toll.

For decades, many theaters and critics considered "Spring's Awakening" perverse and unsuitable for audiences, showing just how accurately Wedekind critiqued turn-of-the-century values.

"The Emperor Jones"

Although it is generally not considered the best play by Eugene O'Neill, "The Emperor Jones" is perhaps his most controversial and cutting-edge.

Why? In part, because of its visceral and violent nature. In part, because of its post-colonialist criticism. But mainly because it did not marginalize African and African-American culture in a time when openly racist minstrel shows were still considered acceptable entertainment.

Originally performed in the early 1920s, the play details the rise and fall of Brutus Jones, an African-American railway worker who becomes a thief, a killer, an escaped convict, and after journeying to the West Indies, the self-proclaimed ruler of an island. Although Jones' character is villainous and desperate, his corrupt value system has been derived by observing upper-class white Americans. As the island people rebel against Jones, he becomes a hunted man -- and undergoes a primal transformation.

Drama critic Ruby Cohn writes:

"The Emperor Jones" ​is at once a gripping drama about an oppressed American Black, a modern tragedy about a hero with a flaw, an expressionist quest play probing to the racial roots of the protagonist; above all, it is more highly theatrical than its European analogues, gradually quickening the tom-tom from normal pulse-rhythm, stripping away colorful costume to the naked man beneath, subordinating dialogue to innovative lighting in order to illuminate an individual and his racial heritage.

As much as he was a playwright, O'Neill was a social critic who abhorred ignorance and prejudice. At the same time, while the play demonizes colonialism, the main character exhibits many immoral qualities.  Jones is by no means a role model character.

African-American playwrights such as Langston Hughes, and later on Lorraine Hansberry, would create plays that celebrated the courage and compassion of Black Americans. This is something not seen in O'Neill's work, which focuses on the turbulent lives of derelicts, both Black and white.

Ultimately, the diabolical nature of the protagonist leaves modern audiences wondering whether or not "The Emperor Jones" did more harm than good.

"The Children's Hour"

Lillian Hellman's 1934 drama about a little girl's destructive rumor touches upon what was once an incredibly taboo subject: lesbianism. Because of its subject matter, "The Children's Hour" was banned in Chicago, Boston, and even London.

The play tells the story of Karen and Martha, two close (and very platonic) friends and colleagues. Together, they have established a successful school for girls. One day, a bratty student claims that she witnessed the two teachers romantically entwined. In a witch-hunt style frenzy, accusations ensue, more lies are told, parents panic and innocent lives are ruined.

The most tragic event occurs during the play's climax. Either in a moment of exhausted confusion or stress-induced enlightenment, Martha confesses her romantic feelings for Karen. Karen tries to explain that Martha is simply tired and that she needs to rest. Instead, Martha walks into the next room (off-stage) and shoots herself. Ultimately, the shame unleashed by the community became too great, Martha's feelings too difficult to accept, thus ending with a needless suicide.

Although perhaps tame by today's standards, Hellman's drama paved the way for a more open discussion about social and sexual mores, ultimately leading to more modern (and equally controversial) plays, such as:

  • "Angels in America"
  • "Torch Song Trilogy"
  • "Bent"
  • "The Laramie Project"

Considering a rash of recent suicides due to rumors, school bullying, and hate crimes against young gays and lesbians, "The Children's Hour" has taken on a new-found relevancy. 

"Mother Courage and Her Children"

Written by Bertolt Brecht in the late 1930s, Mother Courage is a stylistic yet grimly disturbing depiction of the horrors of war.

The title character is a cunning female protagonist who believes that she will be able to profit from war. Instead, as the war rages on for twelve years, she beholds the death of her children, their lives vanquished by the culminating violence.

In a particularly grisly scene, Mother Courage watches the body of her recently executed son being tossed into a pit. Yet she does not acknowledge him for fear of being identified as the mother of the enemy.

Although the play is set in the 1600s, the anti-war sentiment resonated amongst audience during its debut in 1939 -- and beyond. Over the decades, during such conflicts as the Vietnam War and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, scholars and theater directors have turned to "Mother Courage and Her Children," reminding audiences of the horrors of war.

Lynn Nottage was so moved by Brecht's work she traveled to war-torn Congo in order to write her intense drama, "Ruined." Although her characters exhibit much more compassion than Mother Courage, we can see the seeds of Nottage's inspiration.


Perhaps the perfect example of the Theater of the Absurd, "Rhinoceros" is based upon a deviously strange concept: Humans are turning into rhinos.

No, it's not a play about the Animorphs and it's not a science-fiction fantasy about were-rhinos (although that would be awesome). Instead, Eugene Ionesco's play is a warning against conformity. Many view the transformation from human to rhino as a symbol of conformism. The play is often seen as a warning against the rise of deadly political forces such as Stalinism and fascism.

Many believe that dictators such as Stalin and Hitler must have brainwashed the citizens as if the population was somehow fooled into accepting an immoral regime. However, in contrast to popular belief, Ionesco demonstrates how some people, drawn toward the bandwagon of conformity, make a conscious choice to abandon their individuality, even their humanity and succumb the forces of society.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Bradford, Wade. "The Most Controversial Plays of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Bradford, Wade. (2021, July 31). The Most Controversial Plays of the 20th Century. Retrieved from Bradford, Wade. "The Most Controversial Plays of the 20th Century." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).