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Editorial | Sunday, 01 February 2009

The blasphemy of censorship

There is something deeply hypocritical behind the Censorship Board’s recent decision to ban a play outright, apparently on the grounds that some scenes may be upsetting.
The play in question is ‘Stitched’, by Scottish author Anthony Neilson, and to be fair this is not the first time it has elicited controversy. UK newspaper The Guardian reported that some members of the audience walked out during a performance at the Edinburgh festival in 2002. And by all accounts, it is not a spectacle for the faint-hearted... featuring, among other graphic images of crudity, characters assaulting each other with a dildo, as well as a woman mutilating and stitching up her private parts (hence, presumably, the name).
Nor is it the first time that Malta’s Stage and Film Censorship Board has taken this sort of initiative with regard to controversial themes. Past examples of plays or films to have been censored, in whole or in part, include the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s ‘The Bible: Complete Word of God’; Webster’s ‘The Duchess of Malfi’; Martin Scorsese’s ‘Last Temptation of Christ’ and, earlier still, Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, among others.
However, this particular example of State censorship stands out from the others, if nothing else because there has to date been no official explanation whatsoever.
Considering that the censorship board has taken upon itself to shield us all from indecency, one would assume that the decent thing to do would be to also tell us why. After all, this has always been the case with previous decisions. For instance, when former chairman Tony Mifsud announced an immediate ban on the RSC’s ‘Bible’, he explained that the play would have been doubly offensive to Catholic sentiments, because it was intended to be staged during Lent.
Similarly, decisions to cut out individual scenes from William Peter Blatty’s ‘The Exorcist’ were backed up at the time by references to the Criminal Code, which ostensibly prohibits the profanation of religious symbols in public.
On this occasion, however, we are expected to simply take the Censorship Board’s word for it that the play is “unsuitable” to be staged at all... and this assumes sinister implications, when one considers that the play also discusses abortion: a contentious social issue, which has in the past given rise to all sorts of legal misconceptions.
When the government proposed entrenching the abortion ban in the Constitution in 2005, there were some who argued that even expressing a pro-life point of view should be made illegal. This in turn prompted a retired judge to write to a newspaper in order to explain what should be common knowledge in any democracy: i.e., that breaking the law is one thing; but campaigning to change a law is something else entirely.
Now, a play dwelling on the same subject has been banned outright with no explanation whatsoever – creating the impression (most likely unfounded) that any mention at all of this issue is somehow illegal in this country. This is clearly not conducive to healthy debate, neither to democracy, nor the fundamental freedoms that this political model implies.
But there is another anomaly staring us all in the face. Unlike past censorship acts, this one appears to have less to do with religious sentiments, and more with public decency. Two objections immediately spring to mind: the first is that, in these days of Internet access, when lewd and/or violent images are available at the click of a mouse, it makes little sense to train all the big guns only on theatre – which, when all is said and done, attracts only a few thousand viewers in Malta – while nothing at all is done about a medium that gains access into all our homes.


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