I just read that another local company is mounting a production of David Auburn’s Proof. I wish them amazing success. While many surrounding theatres have been staging retreads of R&H princess stories, “direct to community theatre” derivative farces, and 1950s dramas on life support, this brave theatre has launched Hairspray, Legally Blonde the Musical, and Bonnie and Clyde. With any luck, Proof may yet help them overcome an addiction to Ken Ludwig.
Back in 2005, because I so powerfully longed to bring Proof to my local audience, I made Faustian bargain: The board agreed to greenlight the show, but only if I agreed to replace or remove the offending language. At the time and still now, in this latitude and longitude, “offending language” meant the word “fuck.” “Bullshit” made the cut. Over a month or more, this writer who had never written more than a 15-minute scene barely passable for the 5th season of “Raising Hope” and some naughty songs I would sing to myself while riding my bike in junior high school, set out to rewrite a PULITZER PRIZE WINNING PLAY. I thought myself quite shrewd as I decided which “fucks” to delete and which to replace. Needless to say, I’m sure that I never matched the beautiful alliteration and precise emotional expression of Claire suffering a horrendous hangover and therefore vitriolically profaning “those fucking physicists.”
The show was beautiful. I was graced to assemble the most talented and appropriate cast that anyone might wish for in a rural Mid-western crossroads. The set that I had roughly drawn on a scrap of paper was fully realized as the rear patio of a two-story turn of the century home with weathered siding, a neglected potting table, a cleverly disguised rear projection screen, and a suggested interior and surrounding neighborhood that disintegrated into chalk drawings. I found a composer who offered his prerecorded violin score specifically written for the show at an entirely reasonable price. Most importantly, I found an audience, who were so invested that they immediately and quite audibly gasped when the Act One blackout fell EVERY NIGHT. For our efforts, I received the greatest and saddest compliment of my directing career, “This show shouldn’t be here.”
Shall I be the first to let the cat out of the bag? Here goes: Guess what Samuel French, Dramatists Play Service, Tams-Witmark, and Music Theatre International? My literary transgression has been perpetrated time and time again by theatre companies trying to shoe-horn good theatre with regionally uncomfortable content into the realm of acceptable for their audiences. My f-bomb shell-game is child’s play compared to the rewriting, song switches, and gender and racial recasting, done to make shows possible for production in the conservative, Caucasian, and x-chromosome dominant demographic of most community (and high school) theatres. I’m guessing that most of us are doing it without the blessing of expressed written permission. If you say, “No,” we’ve got a season to reconstruct, a budget to re-write, and marketing to re-think. Some of us march ahead holding noses and wearing waders. Others jump in to the sullied waters head first. After all, which theatrical licensing agency is going to pay to send an auditor to see a $2000 production of Pippin in Funkley, Minnesota?
Without new work, what can we produce? There is always the cadre of aforementioned retreads and low quality, second-rate, royalty free fare. It is with some sadness, but an understanding of necessity, that one local theatre dropped its 20 year restriction of shows previously produced. “New work” is a relative term. Often a show less than 40 years old has ethnicities we cannot responsibly cast, moral challenges for which we fear backlash, and a dearth of the familiarity that sells tickets.
Let’s face it. The people who write the checks that keep the roof over our heads and ticket prices under $100 dollars truly fear that if the blasphemy of “fuck” occurs within the confines of this sacred house of feathers and glitter, the Lord himself may well move up the scheduled date of Armageddon. A word that falls easily from the lips of many 11 year-old boys and has been gymnastically adapted to five of the nine parts of speech has a visceral impact on the faces and bodies of the bedrock demographic of our subscriber base. I don’t blame them. It is good that language has its rules and place. When I bang my thumb with a hammer, I need a word that expresses my dismay with more zeal than “applesauce!” or “durn!” With my religious beliefs however, I am personally more uncomfortable with exclaiming “Jesus Christ” for comic effect. Personally, I’m shocked that our patrons seem to care less about defaming deities than they do about that naughty F-word, even when an actor might exclaim that they don’t give one. Don’t get me wrong, my 16-year old daughter deserves a detention and my stern reprimand when she uses it in the hallways of our local high school. Every American (even playwrights and librettists) should strive to develop a vocabulary that increasingly includes the incredibly descriptive but rarely used words of our beautifully rich English language, and decreasingly make use of yet another mutation of “the fuck,” “fucking,” and “fuck me.”
Playwrights don’t write the words that people should speak. Modern playwrights write dialogue, with hopefully more elegant metaphor and coincidence, in the broken and profane reflection of how we do speak, and rightfully so. Shakespeare said it more eloquently than I ever could:
“.. the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.” (Hamlet, III, ii)
How can theater artists continue to speak to a modern audience, if we do not speak their language? True, we still do Shakespeare, but as any trained actor knows, even in King Lear, there’s always a dick joke. All art that continues to rely on patrons walks a delicate balance between the sacred and the profane. We attract with beauty and entertain by titillation. Language, even profane or vulgar, plays both parts.
Such is the balancing act. I truly think that I’ve recently heard someone being called a “dick” on network television. I remember when to say that something “sucked” didn’t mean it “sucked eggs” and deserved a trip to the principal’s office and a call home. What would happen if “fuck” became another word everyone accepts? It would no longer be funny when the little old man uttered it in the latest comedy. It wouldn’t quite express the angst of the embittered teen in a cinematic tour de force. It would just be a passable utterance ignored like the so many “damns” and “hells” in a day at the office or on the line at the grocery store. But maybe, just maybe, I could hear Claire actually say “fucking physicists” out loud, in the dark, with 100 other people in folding chairs on a Saturday afternoon in Funkley, Minnesota.