28 May 2010

Short Takes: Russian Jokes

[Much Russian humor, both before and after the Communist take-over, is bleak and pessimistic. I heard many Russian jokes and humorous sayings while I was studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in the early ‘70s. My Russian teachers were all émigrés from Soviet Russia.]

* * * *

In keeping with the official atheism of the Communist state, the phrase ‘thank God’ (in Russian, slava Bogu, literally ‘glory to God’) was prohibited. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin decreed that, in its place, Soviet citizens should say, slava Stalinu, or ‘thank Stalin.’

The story is told of a Red Army guard walking his post on the eastern side of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. An American soldier is doing guard duty on the western side of the crossing point. It's late, and their tours of duty are almost over. As they pass each other marching in opposite directions, the American mutters, "Thank God, I've only got 15 minutes to go."

As they pass again, the Russian soldier says, "Thank Stalin, I only have 10 more minutes left."

Later the young Russian remarks: "I noticed you said, 'Thank God.' What would you say if there were no God?"

After a moment, the GI replies: "I don't know. But I heard you say, 'Thank Stalin.' What would you say if there were no Stalin?"

"Thank God."

* * * *

In 1964, some may know, as many as 40 listening devices were discovered within the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. A new embassy was built decades later, but the building was abandoned before it could be occupied because security breaches made the presence of eavesdropping equipment a likelihood.

Do you know the Soviet formula for concrete?
It’s one part cement, one part sand, and one part microphones.

* * * *

This joke—really a common saying in the Communist days—plays on the fact that the titles of the two major papers, Pravda (the party organ) and Izvestia (the official government daily), mean, respectively, ‘truth’ and ‘news.’ It confirms that at least some Soviets recognized the failings of their media well before glasnost and the fall of the Soviet state.

There is no news in the Truth, and no truth in the News.

* * * *

Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism—it is just the opposite.

* * * *

How's life going?

It’s just like being on a ship. You get sick, but you can't get off.

* * * *

A man in a restaurant is eating a 30-kopeck bowl of soup.

Suddenly he spoons a steel bolt out of the bowl. The angry diner demands to see the chief cook.

The cook comes out of the kitchen, none too pleased.

“What is this?” asks the man indignantly, pointing to the hardware.

“A steel bolt,” responds the cook.

“Why is there a bolt in my soup?” bristles the customer.

“What do you want for 30 kopecks,” the cook asks incredulously, “the whole damned tractor?”

* * * *

“Did you hear that the Politburo awarded the Order of Lenin to the director of our match factory?”

“No, what for?”

“A saboteur tried to set an explosives factory on fire using our matches and they wouldn’t light."

* * * *

A man goes into a Moscow restaurant and tells the waitress: “A cutlet and a kind word, miss.”

The waitress brings the food and starts to walk away.

“Wait! What about my kind word?” jokes the customer.

The waitress comes back and whispers in the man’s ear: “Don”t eat the cutlet.”

* * * *

The head of personnel called Levsky into his office.

Tovarishch Levsky, why did you lie on your personnel form?”

“Lie? Where?” said Levsky in shock.

“On the line where it asks if you have any relatives living abroad, you answered ‘No.’” You have a brother in Israel, don’t you?”

“Yes, but he’s at home. I’m the one who’s abroad.”

* * * *

An old woman has a stall in a market under a sign reading: Chernobyl Mushrooms For Sale. A man stops and asks her, "Are you nuts? Who'd buy mushrooms from Chernobyl?" The woman looks at him and says, "Oh, a lot of people. Some buy them for their bosses, others for their mothers-in-law . . . ."

* * * *

"Nurse, where are taking me?"

“The morgue."

"But I’m still alive!"

"We haven't gotten there yet."

* * * *

This anecdote isn’t so much a joke as a wry account of how life was for Russians in the days of the Soviet Union and its (mis)managed economy.

A woman was walking along a street in Moscow when she spotted a long line in front of a store. “What are they selling here today?” she asked a man on line.

“Sugar,” he replied.

“Sugar! I haven’t been able to get any for months,” said the woman as she stepped to the end of the line.

After waiting for several hours, the shopper was finally in front of the counter inside the store. “I’ll have two kilos of sugar, please,” she told the salesgirl.

A few moments later the clerk returned with the two bags of sugar, which she placed on the counter. “Here’s your sugar.”

“And here are your four truck tires,” she added, hefting the tires onto the counter, too.

"Truck tires? I don’t want any truck tires.”

“Then you can’t have the sugar.”

The shopper took the sugar. And the tires.

* * * *

A man came home and found his wife making love to a stranger. The furious husband yelled, "My God, look at you! What are you wasting your time for? They've got eggs for sale at the store down the street, and there are only three cartons left!"

* * * *

A man sees a woman carrying a bag of toilet paper down the street.

"Hey, lady,” he shouts, “where did you buy all that?"

"Buy it? Are you nuts? You can’t buy toilet paper these days! These rolls are five years old. I’m just getting them back from the cleaners."

* * * *

Joe and Bill, two American communists, decided to move to the Soviet Union. They didn't believe the American propaganda about the conditions in the USSR, but they decided to be prepared in case. Joe would go to Russia first to check things out. If he found it a good place to live and the reports about KGB persecution untrue, then he’d write Bill using black ink to signal that the letter should be taken at face value. If, on the other hand, Joe saw that the situation in the USSR was bad, but he was afraid to write the truth, he’d use red ink to show Bill that his letter wasn’t factual.

After a few months, Joe sent Bill his first report. In black ink, he wrote, "Dear Bill: I'm really happy here! It's a great place with a high living standard. I have total freedom; everything the capitalist press says is a lie. You can get anything here you want! Only one thing’s in short supply: red ink."

* * * *

A judge walks out of his courtroom, laughing loudly. A colleague asks, "What’s so damn funny?"

"I just heard a great joke!" the judge says, wiping away tears of laughter.

"A joke? Tell it to me!"

"Are you crazy! I just gave a man ten years for telling it."

* * * *

This gag always reminds me of a Monty Python sketch. You can almost see the Pythons acting it out!

A woman walks into a food store. "Do you have any meat?"

"No, fresh out."

"What about milk?"

"We only deal in meat. The dairy store across the street is where they don’t have milk."

* * * *

The occasions on which an observant Jew says a broche, a blessing, are many and varied. There are specific prayers for almost any occasion you might encounter. Leo Rosten recounts, for instance, that when S. Y. Agnon was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature (1966 – the only writer to receive the honor for writing in Hebrew), he was glad to hear he would have to go to Sweden to accept the award from the king. “Good,” Shai Agnon is supposed to have said, “I have never had the opportunity to say the broche one makes upon seeing a king.” There was even a proper blessing for the Czar—according to Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish writer:

May God bless and keep the Czar . . . far away from us!

23 May 2010

Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass

[Nineteen-year-old Samuel Clemens, not yet Mark Twain, moved to Keokuk, Iowa, in 1854 to join his older brother, Orion, who’d established himself there to start a newspaper. Up to this time, Samuel Clemens had worked as a typesetter, first for Orion in Hannibal, then on his own on the east coast (New York and Philadelphia), but in Keokuk, the young man turned his hand to writing short, humorous pieces. By 1856, Clemens had become good enough at his new vocation to be commissioned by the Keokuk Saturday Post to write a series of humorous letters relating his adventures on the way to South American. Clemens never made it to South America, but his three letters—under the pseudonym of Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass—en route down the Mississippi ran in his brother’s paper back in Iowa. In one, Clemens took up the conceit of a sort of amateur drama critic and filed this “review” of Julius Caesar in St. Louis.

[The letter below is written in what may have been Clemens first attempt to emulate local dialect. Snodgrass, furthermore, is a country bumpkin, a rube in the big city. Today we might find this portrait precious or even degrading, but it was the fashion of the day and quite popular. Though Clemens displays flashes of the wit and charm that would imbue the writing of Mark Twain a decade later, this is clearly a juvenile and amateur attempt by a very young writer just feeling out his literary persona and voice. (Like his later writing, too, the author here uses language which today is considered unacceptable. I have not censored the text, however.) This letter also marks one of Clemens’s early attempts to confront a life-long fascination that he never quite mastered—the theater.]

* * * *

KEOKUK SATURDAY POST, November 1, 1856
Saint Louis, Oct. 18, 1856


I want to enlighten you a leetle. I've been to the Theater—and I jest want to tell you how they do things down here to Saint Louis—the Mound City, as they call it, owin to its proximity to the Iron mountain and Pilot Knob.

Last night as I was a settin in the parlor of my Dutch boardin house in Fourth street (I board among the crouters so as to observe human natur in a forren aspeck) one of my hairy friends proposed that we mought as well go down and see Mr. Nealy play Julius Cesar. Now I had see Mr. Belding's Atheneum in Keokuk, and allers had a hankerin to get inside of it—so I told the Dutchman (who is for all the world like other humans, eats like 'em, looks something like 'em, and drinks a good deal more like 'em) that I was anxious to patronize the Drammer.

We hadn't gone more'n about six squares till we come to a tremenjous dirt-colored house, with carriages, and omnibuses, and niggers, and penut boys tearin around in front of it, indiscriminate like, and Dutch (I couldn't put in his name without using up too many of your type) said that was the place. We bought some green tickets and follered some fellers up nigh unto four hundred flights of stairs, and finally got into the concern, which was built into three or four round stories, with men and fiddlers in the first, along with a right smart chance of ragged boys, eatin penuts and cussin like militia majors. The second story had men and gals in it, and above there was nothing but masculine genders. We very naturally went into the second story, and got round where the side of the house (least ways I thought it was part of the house) was painted to represent Alexandria, or Venice, or some other small village settin in the water.

Gee Whillikens! Mister Editors, if you could a been there jest then, you'd a thought that either old Gabriel had blowed his horn, or else there was houses to rent in that locality. I reckon there was nigh onto forty thousand people setting in that theatre—and sich an other fannin, and blowin, and scrapon, and gigglin, I hain't seen since I arrived in the United States. Gals! Bless your soul, there was gals there of every age and sex, from three months up to a hundred years, and every cherubim of 'em had a fan and an opery glass and a-tongue—probably two or three of the latter weepon, from the racket they made. No use to try to estimate the oceans of men and mustaches—-the place looked like a shoe brush shop.

Presently, about a thousand fellers commenced hammerin on the benches and hollerin "Music," and then the fiddlers laid themselves out, and went at it like forty millions of wood sawyers at two dollars and a half a cord. When they got through the people hollered and stamped and whistled like they do at a demercratic meeting, when the speaker says something they don't understand. Well, thinks I, now I've got an old coarse comb in my pocket, and I wonder if it wouldn't take them one-hoss fiddlers down a peg and bring down the house, too, if I'd jest give 'em a tech of "Auld Lang Syne" on it. No sooner said than done, and out come the old comb and a piece of paper to put on it. I "hem'd and haw'd" to attract attention, like, and commenced Doo-doo—do-doo—do-doo. "He, he, he," snickered the gals. "Ha, ha, ha," roared the mustaches. "Put him out." "Let him alone." "Go it, old Country." "Say, when did you get down? " and the devil himself couldn't a hearn that comb. I tell you now, I was riled. I throwed the comb at a little man that wasn't sayin nothin and ris right up. "Gentlemen and Ladies," says I, "I want to explain. I'm a peacable stranger from Keokuk, and my name is Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass—" "Go it, Snodgrass." "Oh, what a name." "Say, old Country, whar'd you get that hat?" Darn my skin if I wasn't mad. I jerked off my coat and jumped at the little man and, says I, "You nasty, sneakin degenerate great grandson of a ring tailed monkey, I kin jest lam—" "Hold on there, my friend, jest pick up your coat and follow me," says a military lookin gentleman with a club in his hand, tappin me on the shoulder. He was a police. He took me out and after I explained to him how St. Louis would fizzle out if Keokuk got offended at her, he let me go back, makin me promise not to make any more music durin the evening. So I let 'em holler their darndest when I took my seat, but never let on like I heard 'em.

Pretty soon a little bell rung, and they rolled up the side of the house with Alexandria on it, showin a mighty fine city, with houses, and streets, and sich, but nary a fire plug—all as natural as life. This was Rome. Then a lot of onery lookin fellers come a tearin down one of the streets, hurrayin and swingin their clubs, and said they were going to see Julius Cesar come into town. After this they shoved Rome out of the way, and showed the inside of a splendid palace, they call it, and then some soldiers with bob-tailed tin coats on (high water coats we used to call 'em in Keokuk) come in, then some gals (with high water dresses on) and then some more soldiers, and so on, gals and soldiers and soldiers and gals, till it looked like all the Free Masons and Daughters of Temperance in the world had turned out. Finally Mr. Cesar hisself come in with a crown on, folks called it, but it looked to my unsofisticated vision like a hat without any crown about it. He had a little talk with Antony, durin which he was uncommon severe on a Mr. Cashus (who was a standin within three feet of him, but the derned fool didn't hear a word of it) reflectin on his personal appearance—saying he had a "lean and hungry look," which was mighty mean in him to say, though he was in fact, for the feller couldn't a looked more like a shadder if he'd a boarded all his life at a Keokuk hotel. It's no use expatiating on every thing they done, so I'll jest mention a few of the things which I happened to see when the gal that sot in front of me took her turkey's tail head dress out of the way a minute to say somethin to the owner of an invisable mustash that had got wilted by coming out into the night air.

Arter a spell, a lot of fellers come out, along with Mr. Cashus, and they all laid their heads together like as many lawyers when they are gettin ready to prove that a man's heirs ain't got any right to his property. Presently Mr. Brutus come a marchin in as grand as a elephant in a menagerie of monkeys, and then the people stamped like Jehu. I kinda liked his looks. He 'peared like a man and a gentleman. The gal with the turkey's tail clapped her spy-glass to her eye, and says, "Ther's Brutus—oh, what a mien he has." I didn't like that, so leanin forward, says I, "Madam, beggin your pardon, them other fellers is a consarned sight meaner'n him. There's that Cashus—" "Hold your tongue, sir," yelled the wilted mustasch—and in half a second there was enough double-barrelled opery glasses leveled at me to a blowed me into chunks no bigger'n a mustard seed if they'd only been loaded. Rememberin the music scrape, I dried up and kept quiet, letten the fellers in the lower story holler at me as much as they wanted. Dr. H. had been settin purty close to me, and 1 thought I'd get him to explain this time, but I found he'd gone out between the acts to see a intimate friend, and hadn't got back yet. Cashus and the other fellers was for killin Cesar and makin sausage meat of him cause they couldn't be kings and emperors while he was alive, but Brutus didn't like that way of doin the thing—he jist wanted to kill him like a christian, jist for the good of Rome. Then the people stomped again. It 'peared to me kind of curus that they should kick up sich a noise every time any body raved around and ripped out somethin hifalutin, but went half asleep when anybody was tellin about poor Cesar's virtues.

Arter that, Misses Brutus come out when the other fellars was gone, and like Mr. Clennam at the Circumlocution Office, she "wanted to know." But it warn't no use—Brutus warn't going to publish jest then, and it 'pears that wimmin was the only newspapers they had in those days. You see all them fellers was conspirators, got together to conspirit a little again Cesar, and Brutus didn't consider it healthy to tell the secret to everybody. (Mr. Editors, as I'm acquainted with a right smart chance of gals in Keokuk, why, if it's jest as convenient, I'd ruther you wouldn't send your paper only to the men, this week.) At last it come time to remove Mr. Cesar from office, like they say the Buchaneers are going to do the Fremonsters extinguish him entirely,—so all the conspirators got around the throne, and directly Cesar come steppin in, putting on as many airs as if he was mayor of Alexandria. Arter he had sot on the throne awhile they all jumped on him at once like a batch of Irish on a sick nigger. He fell on the floor with a percussion that would a made him feel like he'd been ridin bare back on a Keokuk livery stable horse for a month, if he'd lived. When he drapped, the turkey tailed gal flinched, and grunted a sympathetic "ugh," and everybody in the neighborhood laughed at her. But it wasn't the gal's fault—she had for once got wrapped up in the play, and I spose that was the only part she entirely comprehended, cause I seen her slip down in the street the other day.

Finally, the play was done, and I reached over to the wilted mustache, and says I: "Squire, can you tell me what Mr. Cesar's agoin to play next?" He wheeled hisself around sudden, and says he: "Don Cesar—he be damn'd, sir." "Oh, gracious sakes, don't swear so hard," says I, horrerfied. "I ain't swearin," says he, and he pinted out the play on the bill of fare—"I said Don Cesar de Bazan, sir." I seen through it, then, in a minnit, so I told him it was sufficient—no apologies wasn't necessary.

I changed my seat now, and took a pew in front, so I could see plumb back into the kitchen of the concern, if they should take away the cities and woods and things. Proppin my feet up on the railin, I thought I'd take it comfortable like. Jest then, them fellers in the pit, as they call it (and I guess, Mr. Editors, some of 'em'll get into a dern sight deeper pit than that, afore you git to heaven) went to hollerin "Boots. Boots. Boots." like all natur. Thinks I, that's fun, and I went to hollerin too, though I didn't know what it meant. When I got at it they all pitched in louder'n ever, and that gal like to a shook all her tail feathers out a laughin. Dutch says to me, "Take your feet down, you dern ledderhet, it's you vot makes all dish fuss." Dang my buttons if I wasn't a rarin and chargin when I found they was makin fun of me, and I ris right up, puttin my hat on the extreme side of my head, and stickin my thums in the armholes of my vest, and commenced a little oration, so—"Gentlemen and Ladies—I'm a peacable stranger from Keokuk, and my name is Thomas Jefferson—" "Put him out." "Hurrah for old Keokuk." "Go it, Snodgrass," yelled the purgatory fellers, and in a twinklin a couple of police had sot me down in the street, advisin me to go to the devil and not come back there any more. Now, Mister Editors, Saint Louis may fizzle out and be derned.

Yours, with lacerated feelins,

* * * *

Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass
[pseud. Samuel L. Clemens, AKA Mark Twain],
“CORRESPONDENCE: Saint Louis, Oct. 18, 1856,”
Keokuk Saturday Post [Keokuk, IA] 1 Nov. 1856: 4.

18 May 2010

Samuel L. Clemens’s Letter to the Muscatine 'Journal'

to[In 1855, the 19-year-old Samuel L. Clemens, later to be known worldwide as Mark Twain, wrote a letter to a small paper in Muscatine, Iowa, edited by his older brother Orion. Clemens described what he had seen back east, including an amateur production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in St. Louis. As young as he was, Clemens was self-assured enough to think that he knew how theater ought to be staged, and he was especially critical of the actors who appeared in the performance he’d seen.

[At the time of the letter, the country was seeing some political and social turmoil, some of it in the form of the American Party, a nativist political movement often called the Know Nothings. Clemens's remarks in the letter display, among other attitudes, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant, and especially anti-Irish sentiments that we today might find distasteful. I haven’t edited the text of Clemens’s letter; these and other views, not uncommon in that era, remain for us to read and make of what we will.]

* * * *

Muscatine [IA] Tri-Weekly Journal, February 28, 1855

St. Louis, Feb. 16, 1855

Eds. Journal: Whether it is because of the wagon loads of valentines, or the huge heaps of delayed mail matter that have just come to hand, I cannot say; but there has been a heavy run on our Post Office for about a week. It is almost impossible to get into the office at all, so great is the rush—and to get to the deliveries, after ten in the morning is an impossibility. For a week or so, nothing could be seen in the bookstores but thousands upon thousands of valentines. One of our stationers has sold about $1,200 worth of this kind of nonsense.

A widow woman with five children, destitute of money, half starved and almost naked, reached this city yesterday from some where in Arkansas, and were on their way to join some relatives in Illinois. They had suffered dreadfully from cold and fatigue during their journey, and were truly objects of charity. The sight brought to mind the handsome sum our preacher collected in church last Sunday to obtain food and raiment for the poor, ignorant heathen in some far off part of the world; I thought, too, of the passage in the Bible instructing the disciples to carry their good works into all the world—beginning first at Jerusalem.

An extension of the city limits seems to be exciting a good deal of attention just now, and meetings are held every day or two to consider the subject.

The first train went through from Washington, on the Pacific railroad, on the 9th. The cars started from the new depot in Seventh street. The work on this road is progressing finely, and I hear no more complaint about a want of funds.

A new evening paper is about to be started here, to be called the Evening Mirror. I do not know who are to be its editors. A new Catholic paper (bad luck to it) is also soon to be established, for the purpose of keeping the Know Nothing organ straight.

The livery stable of T. Turner, Broadway, near Carr street, was burned on the night of the 14th. Seventeen or eighteen horses perished, among which were "Know Nothing," worth $800, and another fine horse valued at $500. The whole loss is about $13,000, with an insurance of $8,000. The building burned very rapidly, and threw a light into my room (it was but a square and a half distant) sufficient to read by. Though half-asleep, I could hear the shrieks of the poor horses as they madly struggled to escape from the cruel element.

Policemen are queer animals and have remarkably nice notions as to the great law of self-preservation. I doubt if the man is now living that ever caught one at a riot. To find "a needle in a hay stack" is a much easier matter than to scare up one of these gentry when he's wanted.—Late last night, hearing a fuss in the street, I got up to see what was the matter. I saw a man—somewhat inebriated—marching up the street, armed with a barrel stave, and driving a woman before him. He was talking very energetically, and applying the aforesaid stave most industriously to the poor woman's shoulders. The following remarks, which I overheard, will serve to enlighten you as to his reason for "lamming" the lady: "Curse you! (bang I went the stave;) by this kind of conduct (energetic application of the stave,) you have grieved me till you have broken my heart!; (bang!) and I'll break your d—d neck for it!" (bang!—bang!—bang!) And thus the gentleman amused himself until out of sight and hearing, and failed to stumble upon a single policeman. I felt sorry for the poor heart-broken creature, and wished with all my heart it might please Providence to remove him from his troubles by putting it into the Sheriff's head to hang the scoundrel before morning. On this beast's account am I sorry that there is no purgatory for the brute creation.

A Thespian Society, called the Young Men's Dramatic Association, have played once or twice lately at the Varieties Theatre. I saw them play "The Merchant of Venice." I had always thought that this was a comedy, until they made a farce of it. The prompters found it a hard matter to get the actors on the stage, and when they did get them on, it was harder still to get them off again. "Jessica" was always "thar" when she wasn't wanted, and never would turn up when her services were required. They'll do better next time.

Rev. Dr. Cox will deliver the last of his course of historical lectures before the Young Men's Christian Association, soon. He is an eloquent and interesting speaker, and never fails to attract large audiences.


* * * *

Samuel L. Clemens,
Correspondence of the “Journal,”

Tri-Weekly Journal [Muscatine, IA] 28 Feb. 1855: 2.

[This letter will serve as an introduction of sorts to another one Clemens wrote a year later for another Iowa newspaper. It’s more pointedly about theater, but the Muscatine Journal letter may have given the young writer the security to write it. While this Samuel Clemens may have seen himself as a reporter, chronicling events as he saw them, the Samuel Clemens of the later letter is clearly a budding writer and humorist. I will post the subsequent letter in a few days; come back and see where Clemens was heading.]

13 May 2010

'War Carnival'

[The mid-1960s were a turbulent time in the United States. The civil rights movement was getting heated, women and other disenfranchised Americans were becoming vocal and activist, the threat of nuclear war and destruction was increasing and, above all in those years, the U.S. involvement in Southeast Asia was a focus of the young Americans who were subject to the draft and their families and friends. Anti-war activism was becoming increasingly common all across the country and the war’s popularity was plummeting. The war and its images were being projected into the living rooms of America daily, and the war’s managers in Washington and its supporters around the country had become the villains of much of America’s youth. In 1967, New York University hired British playwright John Arden (Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance) as a visiting lecturer in the undergraduate theater program at the brand-new School of the Arts and he taught a course on politics and theater.

[Out of this class came a remarkable performance project, conceived, at the behest of the students, by Arden, an artist long associated with leftist causes (including Irish independence); his wife, actress Margaretta D’Arcy; and NYU theater games instructor Omar Shapli, a onetime member of the improvisational troupe The Second City in Chicago. The students of acting, directing, and playwriting developed the project and events in New York City around the time of its conception bore on the theme of the project, presented beginning in the afternoon of Saturday, 13 May 1967, 43 years ago today. One of those directing students was a young Leonardo Shapiro, the future leader of The Shaliko Company about whom I’ve written in the past. Already a political radical and anti-war activist, Leo (whom Arden described as a “balding bearded-weirdy”) was drawn to Arden, whom one writer characterized as “a mix of English establishment and international bohemian.”

[On 30 December 1966, members of the Bread and Puppet Theater picketed St. Patrick’s Cathedral “wearing black cowls and carrying grotesque masks impaled on poles” to protest Francis Cardinal Spellman’s public support of the war in Vietnam. One marcher set a doll spattered with red paint on the cathedral steps; another carried a sign reading “I am Mary. My Baby was napalmed in Vietnam.” At the Spring Mobilization on 15 April 1967, between 100,000 and 400,000 people demonstrated against the war at the U.N., where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the rally and Pete Seeger sang “This Land Is Your Land.” Some demonstrators gathered in Central Park where one activist burned an American flag in protest to the war. The next day, Chuck Connors, the actor (The Rifleman), raised a flag that had flown over the Capitol on the spot of the flag-burning as if to expiate the “desecration.” Earlier on 13 May, the very day the NYU performance, which became known as War Carnival, a "Support our Boys in Vietnam” parade, partially organized by the Johnson administration, moved down Fifth Avenue. Some of the 70,000 marchers, who included uniformed police officers and firefighters, nuns in habits, and veterans’ groups, stopped along the way to assault spectators who carried anti-war signs; one bystander, who wasn’t involved in the opposition movement, was tarred and feathered because the marchers took exception to his long hair and sandals. For students already focused on the war, such incidents so close to them in both time and location were bound to affect their imaginations. In this atmosphere, War Carnival came to be.]

John Arden, calling himself a “Britnik” playwright, characterized War Carnival, conceived as a day-long “episodic show,” as an “unscripted under-rehearsed attempt at something new.” A protest against the Vietnam conflict in particular and the military in general, War Carnival was performed free at NYU’s School of the Arts’ Central Plaza Building at 111 Second Avenue in the East Village beginning at 2:00 on Saturday afternoon, 13 May, until sometime after midnight the following morning.

Described as a “combination medieval passion play and modern day Play-In,” the piece came out of seminars Arden and D’Arcy conducted with playwriting and acting students. According to Arden’s recollection, it was principally D’Arcy who conceived the notion of the show. NYU had hired Arden as a lecturer for a course called Politics and the Theatre but then had asked him to lead some students in a performance project. D’Arcy was not formally on the payroll, but Arden agreed to conduct the workshop if his wife could officially direct the practical work, which Arden felt was more within her experience than his. In his preface to The Workhouse Donkey (1963), Arden had proposed a day-long event, with spectators coming and going and “rival attractions” offered in the atmosphere of a “fairground or amusement park” with “all sorts of thematically-relevant interludes” intermingled. Arden conceived of “a kind of ‘promenade theater,’ with performances running in a desultory fashion all day long,” and the NYU students wondered if such an event could actually be realized. Furthermore, Arden and D’Arcy, like Brecht, believed that theater must make spectators—and participants—more cognizant of the day’s important questions and provoke action. “I have been challenged by my class of drama students at NYU to put this theory [of the promenade theater] to the test,” said Arden. According to one student, the classes had been contemplating theater that was relevant to its time and audience and which involved the spectators, and some students were already concerned about Vietnam. “Why do we never discuss serious matters?” he said the students complained. So D’Arcy challenged the students: “You want to act: So act against the War.”

Arden and D’Arcy engaged Shapli, who was teaching theater games and improvisation at NYU, and they developed some material around which the student playwrights and directors (one of the latter being Leo Shapiro) built 24 small plays which formed what Shapli, who served as MC at the event, described as “a running soap opera about a family whose grandmother is Vice-President of the United States.” The Grandma cycle was presented as an “allegory of US involvement in S.E. Asia,” Arden asserted. Making use, too, of Hovey Burgess’s circus classes, the performance included war gods on stilts and actual military recruiting speeches MC Shapli used to get the audience to participate, while U.S. Army training films were being shown on a tarp behind them. (To make sure the point was obvious, another training film of similar content was also screened—one from Nazi Germany.)

Declaring that a “play should come out of the crowd,” Arden intended War Carnival to evoke the atmosphere of a Happening, the audience free “to arrive when it wants and leave when it wants,” then moving at liberty among the events and demonstrations. All around the hall were skits, films, songs, and midway games of various kinds. The visiting playwright asserted that he’d concluded that “spontaneous ensemble improvisation is perhaps the only force to jerk the theatre forward from the successive ruts in which it sticks.” One of Arden and D’Arcy’s major focuses was the investigation of theater as communal expression.

At 2:00, spectators began to flow into the Central Plaza. Signs directed them to stairs or the elevator which took the spectators to an upper lobby where they found more signs, vendors, cotton candy, balloons, and a Coke machine. Admission was free so there were no ushers or ticket-takers at the door to the large, open studio with platforms with bleacher-like seats on opposite sides, a curtain across a third side, and a tarp stretched across the fourth wall. Before the planned performance started, the space presented the appearance of a fair, with carny games like a ring-toss or one where a player throws a ball into the navel of a life-sized painting of naked woman. Suddenly, a scuffle broke out between two students and quickly became a brawl. A young woman shouted, “My God he’s dead,” and flung herself on the motionless body of a classmate. The stilt-walking war gods appeared immediately and Arden made a funeral speech ending with a call for “Peace.” In the Orwellian parlance of the event, that meant war and the events of the occasion began.

The effort in War Carnival was to encourage the spectators to engage in the Game that was at the center of the event, filling the interstices between the student-created Grandma plays. This involved members of the audience, “recruited” into either the green army or the red, each “soldier” marked with a green or red dot of greasepaint. They all wore placards hung around their necks with arbitrary character traits (“Hysterical Jewish Philosopher”; “Talkative Holy Conservative”) written on envelopes stuck to the signboards. After the soldiers were “trained” (with the help of the films projected on the tarp) by two “sergeants,” Shapli called each soldier at random to engage in “combat” which the MC designated. This consisted of verbal contests (“Make up proverbs, first man to falter is dead”; “Construct a rhyming poem, alternate lines to each player, first man who drops meter or rhyme-scheme is dead”) or physical conflicts (a race between “One-Legged Dutch Sailor” and “Athletic Russian Interpreter”). Reminiscent of Brecht’s Man Is Man, and related in a way to such experiments as Stanley Milgram’s (in)famous exercise at Yale, the Game, Arden explained, was a demonstration of how easy it is for “unprincipled demagogues” to whip up people’s emotions.

“Campaigns,” each comprised of several “combats,” occurred at intervals throughout the event; in between, the Grandma chronicle unfolded in “partially scripted, partially improvised scenes” with minimal props and costumes—including masks cut from cereal and cracker boxes—varying in style and approach but united by their focus on opposition to the Vietnam war. Forming a wildly complex tale, Grandma begins when an Air Force bomber accidentally drops a nuclear warhead on the Appalachian Valley, irradiating a family of share-croppers who “begin to glow in the dark.” In a political maneuver, Johnson (played by now-well-known actor Larry Pine) enlists Granny to run as his V.P. in the upcoming election and they win. Granny gets Johnson impeached on the grounds that the war in Vietnam is unconstitutional and she assumes the presidency. While President Granny’s on a mission of mass destruction to Vietnam, she finds that her conscientious-objector son, Obadiah, has started a revolution at home. Aided by the war gods, who’d been exhorting spectators and participants “to acts and thoughts of violence,” Granny and Obadiah confront one another.

Between episodes of Grandma and further combats, there were visiting groups such as Joe Chaikin’s Open Theatre performing songs from Peter Brook’s 1966 documentary anti-Vietnam war protest play US; Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theatre. which at this time hadn’t moved from New York to Vermont yet; and the New York Knickerbocker Theatre, which performed scenes about civil rights. Musicians and singers, including the African-American Bethel Baptist Church choir and a rock-and-roll band, and speakers like political writer and Irish activist Conor Cruise O’Brien, poet Ned O’Gorman, and novelist John D. Caute (introduced by Arden as the British “minister of defense”) also performed. Enlisted by D’Arcy (whose idea it had been to have outside groups), the visitors presented “interludes” and multi-media displays as they came and went, demonstrating “the function of the arts in wartime.”

Following one of the frequent interludes, some planned, some spontaneous—and some of uncertain impetus, Granny, to punish her son for turning the people against her, and Obadiah, to preserve the country, kill one another and the war gods are stripped of their elaborate accouterments, revealing, like the wizard in Oz, that they were mere students. The end of the Grandma saga (which I have greatly simplified here!) was followed by a symbolic destruction of national symbols—that is, small paper flags—and Arden made as if he was about to burn an American flag that had been hanging on one of the nearby walls. “I won’t burn it because it belongs to the university,” the playwright explained, “but I would rather burn a piece of cloth than a piece of flesh.” He then spread the banner on the floor and trod on it.

War Carnival received very little coverage. Aside from a chapter in Arden’s own To Present the Pretence (1977) and a lengthy description and analysis from someone who was there (Victoria Manchester, “Let’s Do Some More Undressing: The ‘War Carnival’ at New York University,” Educational Theatre Journal 19.4 [December 1967]: 502-09), there was only one newspaper report and it came out before the event: Robert Pasolli, “John Arden’s Theatre: Rich Tibetan Nun vs. Mad Malaysian Dentist,” Village Voice, 11 May 1967: 25, 30. Not even the Washington Square News, NYU’s student paper, reported War Carnival (though it did run a very short announcement on 8 May). There is surprising little about the project in the Tisch School (the successor to the School of the Arts) archives at NYU’s Bobst Library—a few memos and letters, mostly concerning logistics and equipment requests. According to Ted Hoffman, the director of the Theatre Program, journalists were present at the performance, but none of the papers published anything on it. Arden complained that the university didn’t publicize War Carnival conscientiously, but Hoffman asserts that the university sent out releases and publicity to all New York media and to other schools. The playwright himself designed the poster, which Hoffman described as a “gem of witty Sacred Cow self-depreciation.” (Hoffman may have meant ‘self-deprecation,’ but that’s not what was published! Indeed, the title of the program director’s “postscript” to Manchester’s article was rendered as "Reconniotering Arden's 'War.'") Whatever the state of the promotion, Hoffman reported that the audience reached the capacity for the room (250 people) and that “we had to hold people outside until others left.” Manchester recorded that by 11:30 Saturday night, “the audience had increased to overflowing, sitting and standing wherever they could.” (Forty-five minutes later, Manchester wrote, the audience went “through one of its periods of turnover” as some of those Hoffman wrote of waiting outside came in to replace spectators who had left.)

Arden had participated in the event as a sort of ringmaster-cum-commentator, helping War Carnival progress. At the same time, he revealed his own feelings about the place of NYU and its community in the show’s development. He blamed the “nearly impossible conditions” imposed on his group on “the structure and attitude of the University” and assailed the “‘subconscious’ attitude” of the NYU administration which “stifle[s] creativity,” disparaging not just Hoffman, but Dean Robert Corrigan of the School of the Arts (whom the playwright compared to Alger Hiss, accused of spying for the Soviet Union in 1948) and NYU President James M. Hester. Arden essentially called the university a shill for the federal government and the Johnson administration, suppressing dissent and independent thought. In fact, at one point in War Carnival, Arden announced that he was being paid by the CIA—explaining later, “We don’t really know where my money comes from,” and since the government subsidized schools like NYU, some of his salary could, indeed, come from the same coffers as CIA funding.

Though Hoffman disputed Arden’s interpretation of the facts regarding the university’s support, an April letter from the theater chairman to Arden and D’Arcy protested any elaborate scenography in the Central Plaza space due to cost and the availability of personnel. Hoffman told Arden that the space was committed to both rehearsals and performances during the time Arden planned War Carnival and many of the students were already involved in other performances for which they were currently in rehearsal. While Hoffman’s concerns as expressed in the letter may have been wholly legitimate and reasonable, the litany of obstacles reads as if the School of the Arts administrator was throwing roadblocks and impediments in the way of Arden’s project. Nonetheless, Hoffman described War Carnival in the end as “a remarkable experience.” Whether because of Arden or despite his efforts, it was almost certainly that.

08 May 2010

The First Amendment & The Arts

On 29 March, the New York Times reported that a student production of Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi, which depicts a gay character who resembles Jesus, was canceled by Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas. The university authorities cited “safety and security concerns” for the cancellation.

The next day, the Times announced that the New York Theatre Barn would present a new musical based on the 2008 cancellation of a Texas high school production of Rent. Speargrove Presents, which the company has presented as a reading in February and a benefit concert on 5 April, relates the story of Rowlett High School’s intention to stage Rent: School Edition, a milder version of the 1996 Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning play which depicts gay and straight characters contending with AIDS, drug use, poverty, love, and homelessness. Some parents in Rowlett felt that the choice of Rent for a student production “was inappropriate because it glamorizes drug use and homosexuality.” (In the actual incident, the Rowlett High students performed the songs from Rent at Southern Methodist University. They weren’t permitted to do the show at their school and they never got to perform the whole play.)

Similar barriers have been thrown up at schools in Newport Beach, California, and Bridgeport, West Virginia. School productions of Grease (for the drinking, smoking, and kissing) and The Vagina Monologues have also run into objections resulting in cancellations in recent years.

Corpus Christi, Rent, and The Laramie Project, Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project’s 2000 documentary play about the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard and its repercussions, have been prime targets for censorship and suppression across the country—indeed, around the world. So have other plays from Damn Yankees to My Name Is Rachel Corrie. The suppressors have been government officials from senators and congressmen to local officeholders, religious leaders, and other authorities like the Texas university president as well as organizations and ad hoc groups with agendas or axes to grind. The targets have been well-known artists like McNally and big theaters like the Manhattan Theatre Club to teenaged authors and college or high school theater programs. Lawsuits, political and social pressure, withdrawal of funding and support, threats of violence and death, and just about any other tactic you can imagine have been levied against theaters, producers, playwrights, and casts to make them stop playing or creating scripts some people don’t like. The reasons range from political to religious to social and occasionally even personal—but the attempts to censor performances, some of which have been successful while others have failed, have all had one thing in common: some group unilaterally decides that no one ought to see a play because they object to something in it. (I’m focusing here on theater incidents because . . . well, that’s my field. But we all know of identical efforts to stop art exhibits; book publications; film productions and distribution; TV broadcasts; and musical performances, recordings, and sales.)

This drive to prevent provocative plays from being seen is not an exclusively American phenomenon; there have been prominent incidents abroad as well. For example, Behzti, a British play by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman, depicts murder and sexual abuse in a Sikh temple. It caused a furious response in the Sikh community in Birmingham when a local rep theater produced the play in 2004 and the company was forced to withdraw it to avoid violence. Other countries, however, don’t have a First Amendment that’s supposed to protect artistic expression and which is enshrined in the basic law of the land, namely our Constitution. Not only are our governments not supposed to suppress free expression, even of ideas abhorred by the majority of the people, but they’re supposed to protect us from attacks by others who want to prevent us from speaking out. Law enforcement authorities and judges aren’t supposed to side with the suppressors (unless an actual law is broken, such as incitement to violence). Now, in many of the cases of would-be censorship by intimidation, the civil authorities have stood up for the First Amendment rights of the artists and audiences—but not always.

I should point out that the First Amendment constrains only government action—local, state, and federal—not private conduct. In my house or my private business, I’m allowed to censor your speech. Public schools, whether primary and secondary schools or state colleges and universities, are arms of the government, however. Though courts have carved out some exceptions to civil liberties within school buildings, the Constitution and its First Amendment do apply there. Private schools may operate under different rules, but the spirit of the First Amendment and the free exchange of ideas and opinions should nonetheless exist within their walls. After all, what should we be teaching our citizen students? How to use authority and control to suppress ideas we fear or of which we disapprove? Or to confront them with argument, reason, and truth? I know where I come down.

I ought to confess here that I’m pretty much a First Amendment absolutist. One of my favorite theater lines is from Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards’s musical 1776. Stephen Hopkins, the iconoclastic and cantankerous delegate from Connecticut, declares, when asked to vote for or against an open debate on independence, declares: “Well, I’ll tell y’—in all my years I never heard, seen, nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything . . . !” That fairly well sums up my feelings: we should be allowed to talk about anything in this society, even stuff most other people don’t want to hear. The only proper response to speech we don’t like is more speech. You don’t cut people off when you don’t like what they’re saying, you debate them.

The First Amendment gives people the right to speak, write, or print whatever they believe even if it offends others. It does not, however, insulate them from the repercussions. People have the right to express their opinions, but that doesn’t mean the rest of us must accept or condone them, or allow them to go unanswered. Anyone may preach what he pleases, including anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, racism, fascism, and any other ugly idea man has devised, but he may not escape public opprobrium. Your right to say what you want, in other words, doesn’t trump mine. That, too, is guaranteed by the First Amendment. The government may not stop you, but I may respond in kind—or even unkind—if I’m so moved. When the Catholic Church found Rolf Hochhuth’s The Deputy objectionable in 1964, Church representatives wrote editorials and preached sermons in response—and Rev. Edward A. Molloy wrote and staged The Comforter in New York and Juan Antonio de Laiglesia composed God’s Deputy (El Vicario de Dios, 1965) for production in Madrid. When we hear ideas that we feel are detrimental to the society in which we live, we may not suppress them, but we must speak out against them. Our response to objectionable speech or ideas must always be to speak out loudly in opposition, not simply allow them to pass under the mistaken impression that the Constitution permits their dissemination but not their contradiction. The former is a right; the latter is its concomitant responsibility.

We are, in essence, required to answer noxious ideas with opposing words. The government can't punish someone for constitutionally protected speech, but the rest of us can shun her, berate her, denounce her, boycott her business and appearances, editorialize against her, hold her up to public ridicule and opprobrium, and so on. If she's a politician, we can turn her out of office (or not elect her to one). We need to remember that we have the power to act against people who say things we don't like—we aren't constrained to let people spout off with impunity; we just can't use the government to act for us. We have to let people say what they want. We don't have to just sit and take it. I think we forget that a lot of the time. If someone promotes racism or xenophobia, we may have to let him express his beliefs—but we should make sure that all of us who oppose him let him know it as loudly as we can. Thomas Aquinas admonished: "The law cannot command all virtues and forbid all vices"—indeed, it should not. We have to do some of it on our own as citizens—through the marketplace and the public forum.

I don't hold with censorship either by official fiat or by intimidation. Shutting My Name Is Rachel Corrie down at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2006 because it presents a sympathetic view of an opponent to Israeli policy (with which, by the way, I didn't agree myself) and might "offend" some Jews is about as wrong an act as I can imagine short of killing the playwright or bombing the theater (which some protesters threatened in the case of Corpus Christi and other performances). The Constitution guarantees freedom of speech—but there's no guarantee against having your feelings hurt!

I’d make exceptions for true national security—not the phony kind governments often invoke—and actual danger of injury or the protection of innocents like children and crime victims. A school, particularly a primary or secondary school, might be a special case because of the ages of the audience and the participants and because the society is sort of captive, but when I read that a Connecticut principal canceled an Iraq war play in 2007, I was disturbed. Since the script of Voices in Conflict had been drawn from first-hand accounts of soldiers fighting in Iraq, everyone, even high-schoolers (who could be joining the soldiers in a year or so), ought to hear what they say. (One letter was from a 19-year-old graduate of the school who’d been killed in combat a few months earlier.) Even if the script was edited to favor one perspective, then you write or speak about the alternative viewpoint; you argue with the play, but you don't censor it. That's the lesson the school ought to be teaching. Not censorship and suppression.

I once said that if someone wrote and produced a pro-Nazi or anti-Semitic play, I might not go see it, but I hoped I wouldn't join a campaign to shut it down. During the heated dispute over the original New York staging of Corpus Christi in 1998, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, placed an ad in the New York Times announcing the Broadway production of Shylock and Sambo, a fictitious play Donohue characterized as featuring “gay Jewish slavemasters who sodomize their obsequious black slaves.” In a subsequent press release, Donohue asked, “Would the Arthur Millers of this world rush to defend [such] a play?” Of course Jews and African Americans would be exercised if a play like the one Donohue describes were mounted, and I'm sure there’d be protests and denunciations. I can’t speak for the late Arthur Miller, a fierce advocate of freedom of expression, but as a theater person myself, I’d hope that there wouldn’t be calls for censorship—and certainly not violence. (I vehemently reject the stance taken by the opponents to the NYTW’s proposed presentation of Rachel Corrie, but in their favor I note that the strongest element in their protest was the withdrawal of financial support. That may have been tantamount to blackmail, but it’s hardly a bomb threat. It’s also the right of people not to donate money to any institution they don’t want to support, for whatever reason. I just don’t think their cause was righteous in this instance.)

As Leonardo Shapiro, a director I knew, said, by way of analogy: “The point of an oracle—you support the oracle, you don’t support what it says. . . . When Oedipus went to the oracle and it gave him essentially his death sentence, he didn’t say, ‘Well, I’m not going to fund you anymore.’” This was his argument for supporting artists, whom he saw as oracular, who don’t always say what we like. We can look at this another way—that we need to hear what our rogue artists say because it’s vital to our society’s health. The best voice for this viewpoint is that of Walter Lippmann. (I’ve quoted this passage in an earlier, related ROT column, “Degrading the Arts,” 13 August 2009.) In "The Indispensable Opposition" (1939), the political commentator cautions:

It is all very well to say with Voltaire, "I wholly disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it," but as a matter of fact most men will not defend to the death the rights of other men: if they disapprove sufficiently what other men say, they will somehow suppress those men if they can.

Lippmann goes on to argue, though, that we need to hear these opposing, unsettling voices since, "because freedom of discussion improves our opinions, the liberties of other men are our own vital necessity." He likens the situation to a visit to a doctor whom we pay "to ask us the most embarrassing questions and to prescribe the most disagreeable diet." While we are free to seek additional opinions, we must listen to them all to determine the best course. As Lippmann observes, "[A]ny . . . sensible human being . . . learns more from his opponents than from his fervent supporters." We may not like what Rachel Corrie, Terrence McNally, or those soldiers in Iraq have to say, but we (yes, even high-schoolers) should hear it. We need to hear it.

There seem to be two strains of objectionable art which raise the hackles of the suppressors. One group, like Rachel Corrie and Voices in Conflict, expresses or even espouses political ideas or positions with which some segment of the society disagrees. In Rachel Corrie, it’s support for Palestinians and criticism of Israel; in Voices, it’s criticism of the war in Iraq. The other category raises a social objection: The Laramie Project is accused of promoting or defending a “gay lifestyle”; Rent depicts homosexuals and drug use. The latter group also includes socially objectionable art that contains a religious aspect, such as Corpus Christi and Behzti. McNally’s play raises objections among Christians, especially Catholics, not because it depicts gay characters (or even gay Christian characters) but because it depicts a gay character who resembles Jesus. Protestors find this blasphemous and have attempted to stop the play from being staged by one means or another ever since it first appeared. (When the 1999 London première of Corpus Christi was staged, a British imam issued a fatwa against McNally.) The violent threats against Behzti (the title means ‘dishonor’ in Punjabi) were prompted, the protesters claimed, because it was set inside a temple, not because of the subject matter.

At least on the surface, these slightly different kinds of art seem to demand different approaches. While superficially they all look like the same kind of targets for suppression and censorship, they’re not exactly alike. The plays which express political thought that some (even most) people don’t like are the simplest to defend. Political speech is exactly what the First Amendment was carved out to protect. According to the most fundamental belief upon which this country was founded, we’re all allowed, even encouraged, to speak our minds about the ways and means by which we’re governed and how our society is organized. We’re even allowed to preach communism and fascism, even theocracy or monarchism. And no one can say us nay. If Katherine Viner and Alan Rickman, who compiled Rachel Corrie from the subject’s diary and her letters and e-mails home, want to oppose the Israeli practice of bulldozing the homes of Palestinians whom the government accuses of supporting terrorism, they’re not only allowed to do that here, but we’re supposed to applaud them for speaking their minds. We’re supposed to listen to what they have to say, as long as they don’t promote violent acts, and then respond with debate, argument, and speech. Denying them the stage, as the opponents to the NYTW production did, not only doesn’t really work—the play was produced Off-Broadway later that year—but it also forces those unpopular views underground where they fester and roil until they eventually burst out in uncontrolled rage and violence. That’s why the First Amendment was created—so we can all hear the many voices and respond openly so that the best ones, the reasonable ones, the beneficial ones move to the front, but the rejected ones don’t feel ignored and disenfranchised. That’s what Stephen Hopkins means: “Hell yes, I’m for debatin’ anything!” As he reminds us, no idea is so dangerous that it can’t be talked about. If you aren’t convinced after you listen, fine. That’s how democracy works.

The art that offends someone’s moral sensibilities, especially their religious beliefs, seems to be a different case. A difference of political opinion with a play’s point might make you angry, but it won’t hurt you. If a playwright opposes the war in Iraq (Voices in Conflict), supports the Palestinian cause (Rachel Corrie), objects to the existence of the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay (Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo, 2004), or disapproves of the use of torture (Christopher Durang’s Why Torture Is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, 2009), you might feel strongly about their positions but they won’t harm you. When a personal ox is gored, however, people do feel hurt. They feel as if the axioms of their lives are being disrespected or dismissed. How do you defend that? It’s easy to say, like Voltaire, “You have to let them say their piece. It’s their right”; but it’s not so easy to abide by that injunction.

First, there are different ways that art addresses these kinds of topics. The most prominent in this country, the plays we see and hear about because they get high-profile press coverage and are created by recognized artists, fall into the category I’ll call criticism. It was never McNally’s purpose simply to tear down Catholicism. He didn’t want just to insult Catholics; he’s a Catholic himself. He set out to make a statement about feeling left out of the church to which he belonged, being rejected by his own faith. He had a point to make—a valid one, I think, one that should be heard—though dissenters can disagree with his methods and effectiveness. The Tectonic Theatre people weren’t intending to “promote a gay lifestyle.” The Laramie Project is examining a murder for which the creators perhaps indicted an entire community, and for which they blamed lack of tolerance and acceptance, but they didn’t compose Laramie as an argument for living a gay life. A plea for tolerance is not an indictable offense—it’s supposed to be a tenet of our democracy. Moisés Kaufman and his company think we should extend that tolerance to gay people; you may disagree, even vehemently, but hearing their argument won’t hurt you. Remember, there’s no “issue . . . so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about.” To the best of my knowledge, no one has been damaged by having seen Corpus Christi: the Earth did not split nor the Heavens rend.

Let’s also make a clear distinction between assault and criticism. What McNally, Kaufman, and others are doing is criticizing—they’re not attacking anyone. Many of the protesters don’t distinguish among disagreeing, questioning, attacking, and blaspheming. Any opposition, no matter how reasoned, is seen as betrayal.

The other kind of art to which people object on grounds of moral values is more troublesome. I’d call it “insult art.” We don’t see that much here, though it does occur. (The most prominent examples are the notorious caricatures of Jews that appeared in Der Stürmer in Nazi Germany. I’d categorize those 2005 Danish anti-Muslim cartoons as deliberately insulting. The cartoonists and editors seemed to want to generate the kind of reaction that they got so they could point to the Muslim world as inherently violent and intolerant. It makes Muslims easier to hate.) I think this kind of art is rare in the U.S. for several reasons, and this isn’t the place to analyze this phenomenon. Basically, there aren’t enough radicals here to produce that kind of art outside a small, dedicated group. There are, for instance, musical groups allied with the white supremacist/neo-Nazi movement, and they cut CD’s; but the music doesn’t circulate much outside that movement. We also have too many checks and balances in our production process for public art of that ilk to come to the fore. Too many hands have to get hold of a play before it gets before an audience and a gratuitously insulting script isn’t likely to get past many before someone just spikes it.

(The recent episode of South Park, the satirical TV show, in which Mohammed is portrayed wearing a bear costume, raised threats from a New York-based Islamic group. The group issued a warning that the show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, might “wind up like Theo Van Gogh,” a Dutch filmmaker who was murdered because he produced a film to which some Muslims objected. I’m not sure that South Park’s satire fits the insult art criteria since Parker and Stone poke sticks in almost everyone’s eye sooner or later. Satire is closer to criticism to my way of thinking; however, knowing the prohibition among Muslims of depicting the Prophet, Parker and Stone do seem to be deliberately provoking a reaction they must have known would come in some form. Caution and forbearance could be construed as cowardice—which is exactly what Parker and Stone have accused their network, Comedy Central, of displaying. On the other hand, how can you justify openly triggering death threats and potential violence just to make a point? It’s a hard call to make. I am sure of one thing, however: making the threat is unequivocally wrong in this society, no matter how aggrieved you are.)

Still, in the end, the same argument holds for this kind of art, however reprehensible it may seem. If a play—say, like the one William Donohue invented for his ad (and we should note that it’s an imaginary script)—does say awful things about someone’s religion, personal beliefs, or ethical system, we need to let it be seen and heard because it’s a safety valve. It’s painful to get the splinter out, but you have to to let the wound heal. If the sentiment festers and goes underground, it will just grow unseen until it explodes with more force than the simple play, song, essay, or painting. (I wonder how famous Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ or Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary would have become if Al D’Amato and Jesse Helms, in the first instance, and Rudy Giuliani, in the second, hadn’t made a clamorous fuss over them. The cause to which the defenders thronged was the suppression, after all.) However offensive it may be, blasphemy is not a crime in this country. Furthermore, allowing such expressions out into the light not only exposes them to the scrutiny and opprobrium of the people, it also exposes those who harbor those ideas. Let them come forth and be heard—and seen.

We can, however, simultaneously defend the right of bigots and agitators to publish what we find repulsive and exploitive and still speak out against the content of that art. We have the right, even the duty, to call attention to what we find objectionable in it, to explain why it’s unacceptable and call for our fellow citizens to repudiate the philosophies expounded in it. We can campaign against the ideas expressed while, at the same time, protecting the right of our opponents to publish these ideas. Ideally, the result of a convincing campaign of speech will connect with another founding principle of our society: the market economy. If we persuade enough people that what’s being sold in the marketplace of ideas is wrong or harmful, they will stop buying what’s sold in the marketplace of merchandise, too. Admittedly, this is a longer and less certain process than simply banning the product by legislation or threat, but it’s the correct way to go about it in a democracy which truly believes in the principal of free speech.

Now, I want to say something about the impulse some among us have to make public insults to other people’s backgrounds or beliefs. Pleading a political or social cause, however unpopular, is sacrosanct. I don’t believe there should be any restrictions on that kind of speech in art or any other medium. (I’ve already carved out the few exceptions I accept for free expression.) There are, however, things we’re permitted to do that we shouldn’t necessarily go ahead and do just because we want to and can. I’m free to walk down the center of a narrow sidewalk so that no one can pass by in either direction, but it’s thoughtless and inconsiderate to do it. I can slip into a newly-vacated parking space even though I see that someone’s been waiting for it (“Face it, lady, we're younger and faster”), but it’s mean and selfish. As we become more and more civilized, as we have when we decided that owning other human beings or passing laws that disenfranchised certain groups wasn't right, we expand the notion of what proper behavior includes. Now we’ve learned that calling people "nigger," "kike," "broad," or "faggot"—or even "baldy," "gimp," or "four eyes"—is wrong, too. I have always felt that what’s called "political correctness" is really just another term for politeness. Now, I don't think that politeness and courtesy should be legislated or coerced, but they certainly should be encouraged. Essentially, as I see it, being "politically correct" is simply refraining from calling people derogatory names or saying ugly things about them because of their ethnicity, race, gender, sexual preference, or religious beliefs. Those who disparage this behavior by putting it down as "political correctness" are saying it's all right to be mean because it expresses true feelings and the First Amendment gives them the right to say what they want, no matter whom they hurt. Well, yes, it does (outside of libel and slander). That, obviously, is where courtesy comes in. It fills the gap between what the law prohibits me from doing (such as murder and assault) and the anarchic savagery of the jungle. It teaches, "Yes, you can say or do such and such—but you shouldn’t." It says, "The law permits this act, but for society to work smoothly for everyone, it's counterproductive and unpleasant." The First Amendment permits the exhibition of art that insults and disparages others, but my response is that it should be the responsibility of the rest of us to display our disgust and opprobrium for any artist who does. I fall back on my earlier assertion: the Constitution protects the right to speak freely, but it doesn’t indemnify the speakers from the response of their fellow citizens. We get to let those people know how we feel about their creations and their ideas—and we should, as forcefully as we can (within the law, of course).

Artists are the oracles and whistle-blowers of society. Painter David Wojnarowicz, vilified by the forces of suppression because he used sexually explicit images in his art and bitterly indicted the American establishment for ignoring homelessness and the AIDS epidemic, was described by Leo Shapiro as "like the canary in the mines—the ones that die first." (Wojnarowicz did die, of AIDS in 1992. He was 38.) Do we dare lose these essential voices? Or even muffle them? If art "hold[s] the mirror up to nature"—including our own nature and that of our society—can we afford not to hear what it tells us? Even if we don’t want to, and even if we disagree with what it says? Like Lippmann’s unwilling patient, we imperil the health and survival our democracy if we don’t.

03 May 2010


By Kirk Woodward

[My friend Kirk Woodward went to see David Mamet’s Race on Thursday night, 22 April. Since I’ve seen so little theater this season, I asked Kirk to tell me about the production, which is directed by the playwright, and Kirk has allowed me to post his report. ~Rick]

I saw David Mamet’s new play Race at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre in Manhattan, and I often felt I was watching not so much a play as an essay on Mamet’s playwriting, his style of directing, and his theories about acting.

The play takes place in a law office. We meet three members of the firm: two are law partners, played by James Spader (of Boston Legal fame), and David Alan Grier (first familiar from In Living Color). Spader and Grier are white and black, respectively. (Curiously, in a play about race, Mamet doesn’t delve into the complexity of the relationship between these two – what made them start the firm, how have they managed to work together for so long, what is the real racial dynamic between them?) Also in the firm is Kerry Washington as a young, black female associate.

Into this mix comes a wealthy man, played by Richard Thomas (The Waltons), looking for lawyers to defend him against the charge of raping a black woman. It wouldn’t be fair for me to give away the mysteries of the plot, such as they are, but the case is not open-and-shut, so the challenge of crafting a defense brings all sorts of racial issues to the forefront. These issues are not trivial: can the races ever be comfortable with each other? How do women’s issues relate to racial issues? Can whites and blacks ever live without taking advantage of each other? For that matter, can anyone?

To some extent, even race is not the ultimate subject of this play. Mamet’s plays are often about fierce competition, and that’s the case in Race, too. It’s always a dog-eat-dog world out there for him. So in that sense the play fits firmly in the Mamet canon. Another way it fits is that Mamet is well known for writing aggressive, punchy, clipped dialogue.

But in Race the dialogue is so clipped that I halfway suspected that Mamet first wrote a longer play and then cut every third line or so. “Elliptical” (defined by my dictionary as “expressed with extreme or excessive economy”) barely begins to describe the effect of the dialogue. Ideas dash furiously past each other. You can practically hear the lines themselves gasping for breath. The result is mentally strenuous, and in a sense stimulating, but the pell-mell haste calls attention to itself and pulls the viewer, or at least this viewer, out of the play.

However, I doubt that Mamet would object to that result. For Mamet, I suspect, the stage is a platform in more than one sense. Mamet directed Race in a style that I can best describe as “stand and deliver.” The actors, particularly in the first act, say their lines rapidly to each other in firm, emphatic tones. The lines don’t seem to spring from emotional sources; in fact, “emotion” is hardly the word the play evokes at all, even though its situation has a high emotional charge.

This effect is consistent with Mamet’s theories on acting, which he has documented himself. In his book True or False, Mamet insists that only two things should happen in a rehearsal period: “1. The play should be blocked. 2. The actors should become familiar with the actions they are going to perform.” This approach reminds me of a story Uta Hagen tells in her book Respect for Acting. As I recall, she tells of a director giving a well known actor a series of instructions for a scene, like “Stand here, then cross there, and look at her.” “I will,” the actor says to the director, “and meanwhile I’ll do all those things they pay me for doing.”

As this story suggests, we are used to seeing actors take their lines as starting points for emotional exploration. Mamet will have none of that. It’s not an actor’s duty to emote, he says; it’s an actor’s duty to present. The results are there to see in Race. For me the effect is bloodless and restrictively intellectual – a Thinker’s Theater, if, of course, you can think that fast.

A case can be made that Mamet’s approach is a useful reminder that the “standard” American acting style, out of Stanislavski by the Actors Studio, is not the only style possible. The excesses of “method acting” are well known, and alternative approaches to acting exist. But whatever the underlying technique, I find I want to see people on stage, not speakers. Back in the eighteenth century, people would talk about going to “hear a play.” Today we talk about going to “see a play”; even more than that, I want to feel a play. This fact may well be a result of my conditioning, but there it is.

Interestingly, I find that the actors in the play feel the same way. The acting style is not consistent – and I suspect the play would be close to unbearable if it were. (Or perhaps not – Race is short, and has an intermission it doesn’t need. It’s almost a long one-act.) I don’t usually pass along theater gossip, or at least I try not to, but I have it on reliable authority that after Mamet left town, the actors in Race began to do what actors do – to allow the conflicts in the play to affect them emotionally.

In other words, by the time I saw the play it contained some “Mamet” acting and some “regular” acting. So the first act of Race is more in Mamet’s style, and the second act more in the style of realistic acting we’re accustomed to. James Spader, a remarkable actor, is particularly moving as his character realizes he is flummoxed, not just about the case but about his understanding of life as a whole. David Alan Grier and Kerry Washington also expand the emotional worlds of their characters as the play goes on. (Richard Thomas’s role does not call for the same kind of development.)

And then the play stops. I am reluctant to say it “ends;” it simply turns out the lights. The effect, if I may use an analogy, resembles the moment at the end of the Beatles’ song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” when the music abruptly vanishes in mid-measure. “There’s no ending,” as someone said to me.

In a sense Race is about moral ambiguity, so isn’t it appropriate for the ending of Race to be ambiguous? And do the strands of a play’s plot always have to be neatly tied up in a ribbon? Or did Mamet simply stop writing? Ellipsis may be a style. It may also be an evasion.

[For the record, Race began previews on 17 November 2009 and opened officially on 6 December. The producers announced on 21 April that the show has recouped its entire $2.5 million investment, the second play this season to do so. The play is scheduled to complete its Broadway run on 13 June. Look for Kirk’s next contribution to ROT, “Kirk Woodward’s King Lear Journal,” 4 June.]