It is rare that stories about theatre make the mainstream news. ‘Celebrity to star in a play’ is reasonably common, with ‘Mobile phone goes off in the theatre’ and ‘Are tickets too expensive?’ creeping in occasionally.
At last, there’s a new one. ‘Should plays have trigger warnings?’ has been bubbling under for a couple of years now and it’s getting increasingly mainstream.
A 2018 New York Times report on the rise of the phenomenon in US theatres was followed up by an article detailing the (often furious) reader responses it had generated.
Some London theatres have warnings sections on their website (most advise you to phone up if worried), but the subject resurfaced after the Donmar Warehouse introduced a low-key ‘content advisories’ section on its website, offering specific breakdowns of the most upsetting bits of its upcoming plays.
A Guardian article is largely responsible for this recent brouhaha: it delves into the Donmar’s new system at great length. It seems highly likely that it prompted the intervention from Telegraph columnist Allison Pearson, who took a break from ranting about Brexit to train her barrels on the Donmar.
She reflected on the premiere of Martin Sherman’s Bent in 1979. “Would Bent have made the same shocking impression on me if the programme had contained ‘trigger warnings’ about the ‘disturbing content’?” she asks. She doesn’t answer the question – presumably because the answer is ‘yes’.
There is almost no real argument against content warnings that makes sense if pursued logically, given that they are entirely avoidable, relatively mundane and receiving them is a matter of personal choice. If Pearson had read a review of Bent before booking, she’d have effectively had a warning, given they all dwelled on the shocking nature of the production.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to see a theatre content advisory as approximate to a film certificate. Imagine a Telegraph columnist campaigning to scrap certificates on films or video games. Imagine suggesting someone was a snowflake for not wanting to see a film containing graphic scenes of rape or murder.
It’s fascinating to note that the term ‘trigger warning’ isn’t used by the Donmar. The Guardian article introduces the phrase via a tortuous analogy (“The move could be seen as mirroring the ‘trigger warnings’ that are increasingly used by universities”), while Pearson dives in and uses the term wilfully.
That the term is used in media coverage is telling. I doubt this would even be reported on were it not for the rise of trigger warnings as a superficially related phenomenon within academia. Some theatres do use the term (the Old Vic, Theatre Royal Stratford East), but it’s notable that the Royal Court has replaced it with the phrase ‘emotive content’.
Should plays have trigger warnings? Sure, they’re fine, maybe don’t call them that though. But don’t expect this question to go away, as theatre is dragged into a wider cultural conflict.
Andrzej Lukowski is theatre editor at Time Out London and a regular contributor to The Stage. Read more of his articles at thestage.co.uk/author/andrzej-lukowski