A German theater production that invited audiences in China to voice their complaints about society has been canceled over fears of what they might say.
The Schaubühne Berlin company was due to perform “An Enemy of the People,” a 19th-century play by the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, in Nanjing on Thursday and Friday. But the shows were abruptly canceled after members of the audience in Beijing last week shouted criticisms of their authoritarian government.
The theater in Nanjing that was to host the play cited “technical problems,” including a hole in the stage, Tobias Veit, the Schaubühne’s executive director, said in a telephone interview.
But Mr. Veit said the real reason for the cancellation appeared to be that the theater managers deemed the play, first performed in 1883, too risky given the audience comments in Beijing.
“People were saying things like, ‘The biggest problem in China is the question of free speech,’ and things about economic scandals, corruption and how the press is not revealing the truth,” Mr. Veit said. “We thought they might not speak openly, but they did and actually talked about the political and social issues in China.”
After that first show on Sept. 6 at the National Center for the Performing Arts, an egg-shaped landmark in central Beijing, the venue’s management called a meeting with Mr. Veit and his colleagues, and asked them to cut the part where the audience is given a chance to voice grievances.
“They said the risk that things are said by the audience that can’t be controlled is too big,” Mr. Veit said, and that future performances would have to be canceled unless the change was made. After some discussion, the Schaubühne team agreed, deciding that it was better to go on with the truncated show than cancel entirely.
But Mr. Veil said he suspected that news of the controversy had reached Nanjing, the next scheduled site for performances.
“I don’t know if the authorities in Nanjing heard about it, or they were directed by Beijing,” he said.
“I would understand the reaction if we came to China to provoke, but that is not the case,” Mr. Veit said. “We came there to have a dialogue. That is what theater is about.”
Chen Qiwen, a social media editor who watched the second, partly censored performance of the play the next night in Beijing, said he was not surprised that “An Enemy of the People” had set Chinese officials on edge. Under Xi Jinping, the strongman Communist Party leader, censorship and control of culture has reached new extremes.
“To me, it was not surprising at all that they canceled the oncoming performances in Nanjing,” Mr. Chen said by telephone.
He said the Beijing performance had been his best drama viewing experience this year, “not only because of the quality of the drama, but also the ridiculousness and absurdity that has been revealed through the interaction of what happened on and off stage, and the resemblance between the story and this country’s reality.”
The Schaubühne company has performed in China many times before, and Ibsen’s plays and their liberal themes have gone through periods of wild popularity in China — especially during the May Fourth Movement in the early 20th century. But this particular drama would seem to have plenty of potential to unnerve Chinese censors, and embolden their critics.
“An Enemy of the People” is about a small-town doctor in Norway who discovers the public baths are contaminated. He tries to reveal the scandal, but is run out of the town for threatening its tourist business.
The play’s themes of pollution, corruption and a tame, muted news media have clear resonance in many countries, not just China. Productions in the United States have jumped since the election of President Trump, who has used the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe many journalists.
During the second staging in Beijing, the German actors signaled that something had been cut from their performance by pausing pointedly in silence during the censored segment of the play. And even in that second, censored show, one member of the audience shouted, “Freedom for the individual,” Mr. Veit said.
The third performance, on Sept. 8, was also censored.
The Schaubühne’s contemporary production has already toured globally without incident, including at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It adds a 15-minute section to the play in which one of the actors reads a critique of modern society and then asks others what they think. Audiences often break out in criticisms of their own governments and societies, Mr. Veit said.
But the Chinese censors had fair warning of what might happen, he said.
“They invited us, they had the DVD with the complete show and the script, so they should have been aware what was going to happen,” Mr. Veit said. “But I think the hierarchies didn’t realize the potential that if an audience begins to talk, you don’t know what it’ll say.”