Trinidad and Tobago



June 27, 2000
By Terry Joseph

Because few people are brave enough to champion any cause that may be perceived as furthering the society’s descent into wanton depravity, over-zealous moral crusades flourish and are often extremely difficult to dismantle; no matter how archaic, irrelevant or erratic the original premise may have been.

Therein lies the problem with that section of our Theatre and Dance Hall Act, which prohibits the use of obscene language on stage, even where the context demands it and the actor is merely attempting to portray honestly, scenes that are commonplace in the very society that informed the playwright.

It is widely believed that The Act, implemented in 1935, was primarily designed to censor calypsonians, whose frank comments were beginning to create uneasiness at the level of the Legislative Council. It cleverly placed on the proprietor of the venue the onus to enforce the prohibition. Last week it effectively censured De Vices, a brilliant work currently running at the Central Bank Auditorium.

But societies evolve.

It is useful to remember here that activities considered normal or harmless in our time, like the wearing of bikini bathing suits or dancing the lambada, were once thought to be highly immoral. In Brazil, where the lambada originated, legislation was enacted to outlaw it.

Particularly where laws concern the arts, a government must not just have, but communicate sound reasons for prohibiting freedom of expression, lest the state be seen as repressive.

Throughout history, censorship has created more victims than it has helped. The Greek philosopher Socrates, the first person to formulate a philosophy of intellectual freedom, preferred to sacrifice his life rather than accept censure. In 1928, Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Lonliness was wholly destroyed because a judge felt that a passage which implied that two women had been to bed would induce “thoughts of a most impure character” and “glorify a horrible tendency”. James Joyce’s Ulysees and DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, now regarded as classics, just managed to escape the flames.

Although those examples appear to be culled only from times past, the concept of imposed morality is still with us. In the continuing zeal to protect the public from depravity, a local magistrate recently banished two transvestites from the court, even though the decision remains indefensible at law.

The Theatre and Dance Hall Act is largely based upon this kind of fervent protection of the society and therefore has annoyance to others as one of its elements. Its most noble cause, therefore, is to prevent offence to members of the audience. But if the audience is voluntarily there, knowing fully well that the performance contains components that may be shocking, the Act should not invoke punitive measures against performers. When people pay to go see a horror movie in the cinema, neither the proprietor nor actors run the risk of being charged with scaring them. And art has such individualistic appeal, that in the same performance the insensitive derives only obscenity because his attention is arrested, not by the artistic allure or message that he cannot comprehend; but by what he can see. The intellectual will quite likely leave the arena with a different view.

What the Act in its current form therefore implies, is that we must forever play to the lowest common denominator, while avoiding works about his lifestyle or language. The theatre must limit the public to material suitable for the most vulnerable or insensitive potential member of the audience, who rarely attends such performances. This is a posture at variance with the artistic vision of remaining true to human experience. Art imitates life. The truth could be presented in realistic, symbolic or surrealistic form, but the audience, drawing from its deepest experiences, must find it both recognisable and sincere. In addition, the laws concerning obscenity seldom view items separately, so that an entire work may be found offensive, if only one word, or a fleeting scene – assessed in isolation – is felt to be abhorrent.

Under the act as it is currently worded, we will be confined to presenting only those fluffy farces that have overtaken the local stage, or perhaps just passion plays – if we could convince the authorities that the passion is relevant and crucial to the script.

It is a worn cliché among academics to declare that the law is in need of reform, but this is certainly true in the case of The Theatre and Dance Hall Act. In fact, even the word “dancehall” now means something quite different from the 1935 interpretation.

The Attorney General and Minister of Legal Affairs must first understand, however, that unclear and inconsistent laws can neither protect art nor public morality. They only hamper creativity, suppress honesty and perpetuate false impressions about the society in which we live.

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