Thursday, July 10, 2008

Final Thoughts on the Word "Ass"

Posted by Bruce Miller
As I and others have mentioned previously on this blog, the word "ass" and its appearance in Peter Pan seem to be causing increasing consternation these days. On Monday of this week I received what I hope will be my last letter from a disappointed patron. I responded (it is my practice to respond to every communication) with this iteration of the letter I wrote to address the controversy.

It's about the 50th response, so I might as well share it with the world.

"Dear xxxxx,

Thank you for your support of Theatre IV, for purchasing tickets to Peter Pan, and for writing to express your concern. I appreciate your bringing your grandson to our shows. We work very hard on behalf of the children, families and schools of Central Virginia. I hope you and your grandson have enjoyed our work and will continue to attend. We want and need you both in the Theatre IV family.

I value and respect your concern, and appreciate your sharing it with me. In your letter, you state that you are “very disappointed” in Theatre IV and in me because the word “ass” was spoken during Peter Pan. It was not my intention to disappoint or offend you and your family. I apologize for having done so. I offer the following to explain my thinking. I’m not trying to change your mind. I’m offering another point of view.

You are correct in noting that the word “ass” occurred in our production of Peter Pan two times. I didn’t cut the word for three reasons.

1. The word “ass” is not inherently vulgar. I do not deny that some people, perhaps many people, hear it and use it in a vulgar way. But children, throughout their lifetimes, will hear it also in its correct usage. I believe I would be betraying the trust of countless parents and educators if I were to treat a generally acceptable word as vulgar only because it is sometimes used in a vulgar manner.

2. It’s inappropriate and ill advised for me to rewrite the words of great writers. Again, I believe I would be betraying the trust of parents and educators if I were to presume to do so. Perceptions of some words do change over time. I believe this makes it all the more important to preserve the words of the great writers, so that students of all ages can know and understand the true meanings of words that are going through periods of transition.

3. It is illegal for me to rewrite or omit this word, or any other word, from the play. Had I done so, the good people at Music Theatre International who represent the estate of J. M. Barrie would be legally entitled to shut down our production of Peter Pan, and sue Theatre IV for breach of contract.

In support of the above three points, I offer the following.

I don’t mean to overstate the obvious, but it’s good to remember that the word “ass” is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “any of several hardy gregarious African or Asian perissodactyl mammals (genus Equus) smaller than the horse and having long ears; especially an African mammal (East asinus) that is the ancestor of the donkey.” That is the first and only proper definition of the word. All subsequent definitions are preceded by the phrase “sometimes vulgar.”

Being a man of great character and conscience, J. M. Barrie was not writing a vulgarity in 1904 when he created Peter Pan. When Peter translates Tinkerbell to Wendy, after Tinkerbell has called Wendy “a silly ass,” both Peter and Tinkerbell were referring to the donkey-like animal.

The same can be said for the authors of the Bible. The word “ass” appears in the King James translation of the Bible as follows:

GENESIS 22:3, GENESIS 22:5, GENESIS 42:27, GENESIS 44:13, GENESIS 49:11, GENESIS 49:14, EXODUS 4:20, EXODUS 13:13, EXODUS 20:17, EXODUS 21:33, EXODUS 22:4, EXODUS 22:9, EXODUS 22:10, EXODUS 23:4, EXODUS 23:5, EXODUS 23:12, EXODUS 34:20, NUMBERS 16:15, NUMBERS 22:21, NUMBERS 22:22, NUMBERS 22:23, NUMBERS 22:23, NUMBERS 22:23, NUMBERS 22:25, NUMBERS 22:27, NUMBERS 22:27, NUMBERS 22:28, NUMBERS 22:29, NUMBERS 22:30, NUMBERS 22:30, NUMBERS 22:32, DEUTERONOMY 5:21, DEUTERONOMY 22:3, DEUTERONOMY 22:4, DEUTERONOMY 22:10, DEUTERONOMY 28:31, JOSHUA 6:21, JOSHUA 15:18, JUDGES 1:14, JUDGES 6:4, JUDGES 10:4, JUDGES 12:14, JUDGES 15:15, JUDGES 15:16, JUDGES 15:16, JUDGES 19:28, 1 SAMUEL 12:3, 1 SAMUEL 15:3, 1 SAMUEL 16:20, 1 SAMUEL 25:20, 1 SAMUEL 25:23, 1 SAMUEL 25:42, 2 SAMUEL 17:23, 2 SAMUEL 19:26, 1 KINGS 2:40, 1 KINGS 13:13, 1 KINGS 13:13, 1 KINGS 13:23, 1 KINGS 13:24, 1 KINGS 13:27, 1 KINGS 13:28, 1 KINGS 13:28, 1 KINGS 13:29, 2 KINGS 4:24, JOB 6:5, JOB 24:3, JOB 39:5, JOB 39:5, PROVERBS 26:3, ISAIAH 1:3, ISAIAH 32:20, JEREMIAH 2:24, JEREMIAH 22:19, HOSEA 8:9, ZECHARIAH 9:9, ZECHARIAH 9:9, ZECHARIAH 14:15, MATTHEW 21:2, MATTHEW 21:5, MATTHEW 21:5, MATTHEW 21:7, LUKE 13:15, LUKE 14:5, JOHN 12:14, JOHN 12:15, and 2 PETER 2:16.

None of these Biblical references are meant to be vulgar. As children encounter the word “ass” in the Bible, in classic literature, or in timeless Christmas carols like The Little Drummer Boy and Good Christian Men, Rejoice, I believe it is important for them to know that the word has a proper usage as well as a vulgar one.

Regarding legal issues, I offer this explanation. U. S. Copyright Law and all international copyright laws require theatres to produce plays exactly as written. We (and every other theatre and publisher) have no legal right to rewrite the great (as in the case of Peter Pan) or the not-so-great works of stage literature. When I signed our contract to produce the musical Peter Pan, I signed a legally binding document and promised that Theatre IV would “not alter any line of dialogue or omit any words or phrases” from the script as written by the author.

Copyright laws are written in this way to ensure that producers will respect the language that was purposefully selected by the author. It is illegal for producers to amend the language as they see fit. Every professional production of Peter Pan, including the Mary Martin productions broadcast nationally on television in the 1950s, used the lines as written.

When we first produced Peter Pan in the 1990s, we received only one or two comments about the word “ass.” When we produced it again just after the turn of this century, we received maybe ten comments. Today, in 2008, we probably received 50 or more complaints.

The “zero tolerance” language police are in full force today, and I respect their (and your) motivations. None of us like for children to be exposed to vulgar language. The tricky part with the word “ass” is that it is not a vulgar word. Are we therefore well advised to join with those who would like to turn it into one? Or should we continue to respect the word as it has been properly used in classic literature, in beloved Christmas carols, and throughout the Bible?

When I took my children to Peter Pan in the ‘90s, it presented a wonderful teachable moment. My wife and I had the chance to talk with our son and daughter about the word “ass,” about what it meant when we heard it spoken from the pulpit or the stage or sung by Julie Andrews on our Christmas albums. We also had the chance to talk about how some words can mean one thing to people who use them correctly, and something else entirely to people who use the words incorrectly. Unless that is explained to them, how are children to understand?

Again, I thank you for writing. I honestly mean it when I say that I value and respect your opinion. I take my responsibilities seriously, and try hard to contribute positively to the cultural life of our community. It’s not always easy.

Thanks for your consideration of my thoughts, and for your support of Theatre IV.


Bruce Miller
Artistic Director"


taylor b said...


it is 100 percent the parents responsibility to teach children the proper usage of language. good grief i can't think of a show more precious than this recent production of peter pan. its so sad to me that so many people had a problem with such a little word.

i wonder if they actually don't know that the word would not have been offensive in barrie's time, or if they are just that sensitive? curious. (also, i wonder if our ever growing population of suburban-raised adults and children has contributed to their forgetting that an ass is a farm animal! haha)

Robyn O'Neill said...

I can't believe you're still hearing about this. Just think what your life would be like if Wendy had said "Hey Peter, do you think this nightgown makes my ass looks big?"

Dave T said...

As per usual, you show a great deal of intelligence, understanding, and patience in your interactions with your patrons, more than I believe I would be able to muster if placed in the same position. Words are tools for expression, not the weapons of corruption that some people seem to believe they are. Nice job in bringing your thoughtfulness to the subject.

Joy W. said...

Robyn, I choke laughed on your comment!!

Frank Creasy said...

As always Bruce, well thought and written and placed in proper perspective. To revise history or literature or theatre based on current interpretations is ill advised even when it is not illegal as in this case.

This weekend I wrap what has been a delightful run of As You Like It for Richmond Shakespeare Theatre. Playing the character Jacques, I have the joy of speaking the monologue beginning "All the world's a stage". Earlier in the same scene, Jacques sings a song, which includes the line "If it do come to pass that any man turn ass". Surely, most theatre goers would not equate Shakespeare with vulgarity, and numerous children attend these productions and enjoy them.

I greatly enjoyed your production of Peter Pan, and I plan to attend many more such quality productions at both Theatre IV and Barksdale, as well as participating onstage whenever possible.

Thanks Bruce for your commitment and passion for quality theatrical productions for children and adults in Central Virginia.

James said...

You're good, Bruce. Real good.

Elliott said...

Well done Bruce, well done.