Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Letter to the Editor - Does "Scoundrels" Offend?

Posted by Bruce Miller
In this morning's Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Mocking the disabled isn't funny," a gentleman named Miles F. Johnson wrote a thoughtful letter, excerpted below:
"I saw Dirty Rotten Scoundrels now playing at Barksdale's Empire Theater and wonder if I saw the same show the reviewer, Julinda Lewis, did. She wrote in the Times-Dispatch, 'I laughed so hard and so often during this musical comedy that my face hurt.'

Personally, I found the scene regarding brother Rubrecht to be offensive. Scott Wichmann portrays a man who is mentally and physically challenged. The word 'chromosome' is used in the dialogue, suggesting that Ruprecht's problems are congenital. Anyone with such challenges is not funny and certainly not a subject for laughter. The authors, by including this scene, exhibited total insensitivity regarding these challenged folks and their families.

I know this is a musical comedy, but expecting the audience to laugh at Ruprecht is, well, inappropriate. Am I a stick-in-the-mud? A wet blanket? Does grouchy, old curmudgeon come to mind? Perhaps, but when you see the show, ask yourself: 'Is the character, Ruprecht, really funny?' Think about it.

Miles F. Johnson

This letter struck a chord with me. My first "career" was in special education. For four summers in high school and college, it was my privilege to work at Camp Baker for developmentally disabled children and young adults. I began as a junior counselor, then a senior counselor, then creative arts director, then assistant camp director. During each of those summers, I lived for ten weeks with some of the most loving, creative, inspiring individuals I'll ever know. It's not an exaggeration to say that those summers changed my life.

Later, I worked for a year as a teacher at the Developmental Training Center. The reason I left Special Ed as a career was that I was unable to distance myself appropriately from the children and young adults in my care. I took all of their challenges home with me. I wanted to solve problems I couldn't solve; offer cures and corrections when none were available. The pressure wasn't healthy for me.

When I read Mr Johnson's letter, I thought it was appropriate and represented a thoughtful and reasonable point of view. I didn't think he was a "grouchy old curmudgeon"--the phrase he uses. I thought he was a loving, thoughtful advocate. Clearly we hurt his feelings with our production, and I deeply regret that. I take his criticism to heart and thank him for it. He makes an excellent point, and I'm sure he is not alone in feeling the way he does. God bless all loving, thoughtful advocates. I hope I'm one of them.

Having said that, I think there is another point of view that is equally valid. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is about two con men, one skilled and one ridiculous, who do any and everything in the course of 2 1/2 hours to achieve their dastardly, silly ends. It is clearly a comedy without a serious bone in its body. The musical does not ask nor expect the audience to laugh at a disabled person. In fact, Scott Wichmann does NOT portray "a man who is mentally and physically challenged." Scotty portrays a dirty, rotten con man who pretends to be "a man who is mentally and physically challenged."

I'm not trying to split hairs. I'm trying to explain why I and, I believe, most people feel comfortable with Dirty Rotten Scoundrels--why we don't feel like we're laughing at people with disabilities.The musical asks the audience to laugh at the two central flim flam men, both of whom are occasionally tasteless, crude, insulting and inept as they go about their business of conning women out of money. It doesn't give away anything substantive to say that at various points, one of the two antiheroes pretends to be a wheelchair-bound veteran, an Irish priest, a royal prince, a sadistic Austrian psychiatrist, a Spanish real estate tycoon, a mute, a psychologically damaged contestant in a nationally televised dance contest, and, yes, a wacky, misfit brother.

The brother, Ruprecht, is not referred to as "disabled." He is described in song as follows:

Every royal family, by its nature,
Has a sort of price that it must pay.
Every noble lineage has
One loose gene-
Small as a molecule,
Flitting 'round the family pool.

It's the sort of thing
One sees in Appalachia
Or in the odd inbred bichon frise.
It really can be such a
Nasty stain on the escutcheon
When a wisp of DNA
Begins to fray, then goes astray.

Caligula had the tempre,
The Hapburgs had the chin.
George the Third went cuckoo-bird
And Nero had that violin.
Richard, you'll remember,
Had the hump and the withered limb.
The Bushes of Tex
Were nervous wrecks
Because their son was dim.
But look what happened to him.

Alas, our family also carries a bit of a curse.
But darling, it could be a great deal worse.

Ruprecht is a character that the other characters make up. He exists only as part of a scam. The characters in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels offend everyone in sight. That's part of what makes them dirty and rotten. It's their outrageousness that is funny, NOT the people they offend.

One could argue persuasively that the current style of comedy trends purposefully toward the irreverent (think Jon Stewart, South Park, The Book of Mormon, Spamalot, Avenue Q, etc). Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is clearly in sync with that trend.

When our production offends kind, thoughtful men like Miles Johnson, I'm very sorry. But it is not our intent to offend. We're offering a light summer comedy, crude and tasteless as some of the characters may be. Most audiences are laughing their hindquarters off, as mentioned in our five rave reviews.

Last year we produced The Sound of Music; this coming Christmas we'll be doing My Fair Lady. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is not one of these classic American musicals. It adds a welcome variety to what we do. It's contemporary and silly. It is also, arguably, fresh and funny.

We hope all audience members will enjoy the show in the spirit that it is written and presented.

--Bruce Miller


Anonymous said...

Well said Bruce..and I as is sometimes refered to as an old curmudgeon, read his comments and was interested in where he was coming from. I think you described the theme perfectly and I think he would agree.......I look forward to seeing the play tomorrow with renewed curiosity..........
Best to you and admire your past as well as your present endeavors.
Dolly Hintz

Thespis' Little Helper said...

I echo Ms. Hintz' "Well said!"

RaRa said...

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