Posted by Bruce Miller
Warning: To add clarity to this discussion of "offensive language," a few words are used that you may find "offensive." Continue at your own risk. Thanks.
Under U. S. copyright law, it’s illegal for any theatre to rewrite or edit a single word in any play published after 1923 without first receiving written permission from the author or his/her agents. It’s not only a legal issue; it’s an ethical issue. If you’re going to tell people that you’re producing a play written by, say, Tennessee Williams, then the only honest thing to do is present the play as Williams wrote it. Williams no doubt chose his words carefully and with purpose, and it’s unethical to “sanitize” his language and then market the play as the authentic original. That’s why Barksdale, along with every other professional theatre worth its salt, presents plays as they were originally written.
Our 2004 production of The Man Who Came to Dinner starred Jill Bari Steinberg and Joseph Pabst (pictured to the right), and was written by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart in 1939. During the run I received several letters from audience members complaining that I’d “added” profanity to the play. Of course I hadn’t. The few mildly profane words that were spoken from our stage all came from the minds and pens of those beloved, iconic American playwrights, Kaufman and Hart (pictured below and to the left). In the popular culture of 1939, their language caused nary a ripple. In today’s cultural climate, heavily influenced by the rise of the religious right, these same words prompted a small parade of conservative audience members to march to the exits in a huff.
When I assured the complainers that I had not added profanity to this cherished American script, they told me I was lying. They had “seen the movie,” they said (and perhaps a couple high school or community productions), and “those words were not spoken." What they may have failed to consider is that the film codes of the ‘40s were more Puritanical than the Broadway codes, and so Kaufman and Hart apparently chose to cut a few words from the movie version while keeping the original stage version in tact. The high school and community producers who had removed the words on their own accord most likely did so illegally.
Yes, I know this happens all the time and I'm making no judgements about high school and community theatres. They face their own challenges and I applaud their work. I also believe that professional theatres are held to a different standard.
As we engage in Part II of this discussion about “offensive language,” I’m using “profanity” as the catch-all word. At its root, “profane” means “worldly,” as in the opposite of “spiritual.” Profane language—profanity—can be sub-divided into four categories:
· blasphemy (taking the name of a diety in vain),
· obscenity ("crude" words for sex acts or private body parts),
· scatology (having a fascination with excrement or urine), and
· cursing (“damn you,” “go to hell” etc. and their abreviations and euphemisms).
There are other offensive words having to do with race, but we’re going to discuss race in a separate blog entry. Slurs and profanity are not really the same thing.
By far the most objections I hear relate to blasphemy and stem from offense to religious principles. (If you like, you can read my thoughts on “offensive language” and Christian faith in Language – Part I: From Potter to Shakespeare to Jesus and Beyond, Jan 12, 2008.)
Sometimes it almost seems ludicrous. We produced The Lark in 2006, written by Jean Anouilh and adapted by Lillian Hellman, and the central character of the play was Joan of Arc (pictured to the left in a painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti). This is, of course, the same Joan who was at first persecuted and later sainted by the Catholic Church. A couple audience members were offended when Joan cried out to God in her moments of greatest spiritual despair. “Why did you have to make Joan of Arc use the Lord’s name in vain?” one chastiser wrote. IN VAIN!!?? What on earth led any audience member to think that Joan’s cry to God was in vain?
When we produced The 1940's Radio Hour in 2002, one congregant really let me have it over the telephone for performing “Satanic music.” “That old black magic has me in its spell,” she eerily chanted into the phone. “That old black magic that you weave so well. Those icy fingers up and down my spine…” Finally the images became too much for her to continue.
Sometimes religious concerns cross over into moral situations. When we produced Winnie the Pooh at Theatre IV, a very sweet grandmother called me to ask if we couldn’t rewrite A. A. Milne to make it clearer that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit were married. “I mean they keep talking about having all those babies, and you never really make it crystal clear that they’re married.” When I reminded her that Mr. and Mrs. Rabbit were, in fact, rabbits, and that rabbits didn’t get married, even in the days of A. A. Milne, she simply said, “Oh, you know what I mean.”
I did know what she meant. But still...
Another animal that never ceases to rile the religious right at Theatre IV is the ass referred to in Peter Pan—come see it this spring; my mailbox is ready and waiting. When Tinkerbell becomes frustrated with Peter’s attentions to Wendy, she calls Wendy “a silly ass.” Of course, Tinkerbell “speaks” only through the tinkling piano (or is it a flute?) that represents her fairy voice. Peter giggles when Tink calls Wendy the name. When Wendy inquires as to what funny thing Tinkerbell just said, Peter translates, and you can often hear the gasps.
I’m frequently told that language is so much more coarse in popular culture now than it used to be—and in many ways that’s true. But what’s also true is that there’s a growing group that becomes offended far more easily than people used to. When Mary Martin (pictured to the left) said “a silly ass” on the national airwaves in 1954's TV version of Peter Pan, no one batted an eye. Everybody accepted the word “ass” as another word for donkey. Today, some people hear “ass” and all they can think of is someone’s buttocks.
So is the problem with the word or the person hearing the word?
Thousands of audience members have loved our current production of Moonlight and Magnolias (pictured to the right, starring Dave Bridgewater, Scott Wichmann and Joe Pabst). And 20 or 40 audience members have been really offended by the language. A group of well-meaning folks from Good Samaritan Ministries called and asked for comps to one of our shows. They do amazing rehabilitation work with indigent men dealing with addiction in Richmond's South Side, and we were eager to help them out. We gave them comp tickets to the show of their choice, and they selected Moonlight.
The woman who set up the group called the box office to double-check the language. “No, the language isn’t bad,” our box office representative assured her. “They say the d-word once…I’m a little embarrassed to say it over the phone…but other than that, the language is fine.”
The woman thought, well, they only say “damn” once, and I think we can handle that, so we’ll accept the 15 free tickets and have a lovely evening out. What she didn’t know—what we didn’t make clear—is that “the d-word” was not “damn” but “dick,” as in Selznick’s graphic line about Hollywood pandering, “We suck the collective dicks" of our audience.
In fact, the actors in Moonlight say “damn”—and the far more controversial “God damn”—several times long before they get to the “collective dicks.” Our box office representative never even noticed that language when he saw the show. It simply rolled by him without calling any attention to itself. I'm not faulting him for this. He is pure of heart and more power to him. I'm just telling the story the way it happened.
When our urban missionaries arrived at the theatre and took their seats, they lasted only about 10 minutes before they couldn’t take it anymore. They stood up en masse and beat a hasty retreat to the lobby. Others in the audience looked at them and hadn’t a clue as to what was the problem. I called them on the following Monday, after hearing about their departure, and learned the whole story.
One of the challenges we face is finding the correct way to communicate with our audience about the language they can expect in any particular production. It is never our intention to surprise or offend. It is also not our intention to bowdlerize the language of the great playwrights to meet the particularly sensibilities of our times.
Coming soon – Language Part III: a history of censorship