First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Community Theatre and the "F" Word
A new theatre company in Pleasant Grove, Utah, was recently in rehearsal for a two-week run of Neil Simon's play, Rumors, when Neil Simon pulled the plug.
You see, the play contains "nine utterances of the four-letter 'F' word," according Sharon Haddock of Salt Lake City Deseret News (8 Aug. 2003). The producers wanted to cut those words -- though they left in the damns and hells -- because their local audience would be offended by the R-rated language and would probably not come back to the theater.
But Neil Simon is worried about the integrity of his art. The statement from the company that leases the play is: "This author does not allow changes to his scripts under any circumstances. He understands that many communities may not be accepting of certain language or situations that may take place in his scripts.... Therefore, he asks that, instead of making unauthorized cuts and changes, groups not produce his plays."
Ah! What a noble posture to take! True to his heart!
In the first place, Simon sells any of his plays to Hollywood that he can. Quite apart from the changes that are made to adapt them for the screen, he allows those movies to be cut into special airline editions, so they can be shown on planes without offending a mixed audience.
I know he allows this, because you don't get movies made if you don't. The studios won't pass up airline revenue just because some "artiste" doesn't want his sacred words changed.
In the second place, Simon is a practical playwright, however lofty and condescending he might have become in his wealth and fame and newfound artistic respectability (which began, like Woody Allen's, when he stopped being very funny).
If lines with the "F" word in them were not getting laughs in New York, he would have cut them immediately.
No playwright is going to put up with that most horrible of all possible events: laugh lines that are met with silence.
Simon made cuts and changes in every one of his plays based on audience response.
So those noble, artistic sentiments really mean: This played in New York, and what works in New York is what is going to work everywhere, or else.
Except he doesn't mean that, either. Because he allows foreign translations of his plays.
No matter that his characters would "really" have been speaking English. He still allows them to be put on with every single word, including the "F" words, replaced by words in a foreign language.
To do otherwise would be ridiculous, as if Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet in Italian, because that's what the natives of Verona would have spoken.
Not only that, you can bet he doesn't check with the translators to make sure the words that replace the "F" words are exactly as obscene or offensive as the words in the English original.
So if a translator felt that an obscene word would not be funny to the audience that would view the play in his country, he would choose a less-obscene word that would have the same comic effect that the "F" word would have had in New York.
He would go for the laugh.
The result is that the only places where Simon is not willing to have his plays' words altered are those "provincial" small towns in America where people don't routinely use the "F" word and so it falls painfully on the ear, killing the laugh.
And the only producers unable to make changes in his plays to fit the language of their community are those trying to bring New York theatre to English-speaking audiences that haven't reached the same level of crudeness as New Yorkers.
To which the obvious answer is -- fine. Simon has decided to speak to everyone in the world -- except Americans who have preserved a degree of politeness in their lives that New York has lost.
And lest people accuse the producers in Pleasant Grove, Utah, of hypocrisy -- "They use the 'F' word too!" -- let me affirm that the overwhelming majority of the people in that area do not, in fact, use the "F" word. Its use there still absolutely marks the speaker as being low class and beneath contempt.
The "F" word is funny to so few people that a theatre company would go broke very quickly putting on plays that only "F" word users would enjoy.
The obvious solution is for the Grove Theater to put on productions by local playwrights, written in the local language.
Except that you can't escape the fact that Simon is America's most successful playwright ever, and naturally, as Americans, people in that town want to see Simon's plays. He is -- or was, anyway -- a master of the verbal comic take.
A new playwright's work is a gamble. Most new plays are awful. Most of the rest are merely passable. And comedy is the hardest thing to write well.
Simon's stuff is the best. Ever. The funniest. You know it will work. You know audiences will love it. If you could make just a few changes.
Among American intellectuals, you know Simon will be generally regarded as an artistic hero for putting those provincial Utahns in their place.
But then, American intellectuals are generally elitist, bigoted twits who are incapable of questioning the biases and shibboleths of their own narrow-minded community.
Let's just suppose, for instance, that the new Greatest Comic Playwright brought a play to New York in which several characters routinely used a four-letter epithet for "Jew" that begins with the letter "K." Let's suppose that the characters in the play used the "K" word in exactly the places where the "F" word is used today. ("Give me that k--ing gun!" "Go k-- yourself." "Go get k--ed." "K-- off.")
Never mind that the use of that word in those contexts is ludicrously without meaning -- so is the use of the "F" word.
The difference is that the "K" word has not lost its power to shock the people of New York.
What do you think Simon's opinion of that language would be? Do you think he'd insist that the playwright's artistic choices be respected, regardless of the effect on the audience?
Maybe. But I think it far more likely that he would say, "Too bad such a good playwright is so insensitive to the feelings of his audience that he would wreck his own play by including such pointless, meaningless language solely for the purpose of giving offense."
In New York, the "F" word doesn't give offense -- or at least doesn't give offense to enough people to hurt Simon's ability to make money with his plays.
But Simon is so provincial that he thinks that however things are done in his home town is the right way to do them everywhere else. He's like a tourist who is outraged that the toilet paper in a foreign country is different from what he's used to at home.
In other words, this is indeed about the difference between civilized people and barbarians. Simon is simply confused about which group he's in.
What about Greensboro?
It's pretty simple. You want to make money with plays in Greensboro? Then recognize that you need to address the entire community, not just a tiny group of elitist twits who haven't grown out of their adolescent desire to shock their parents. (Heaven knows I do my share of parent-shocking in my early books -- though never in my plays, which had to face that same audience that the Grove Theater is trying to attract!)
Taking the language and feelings of the general community into accountwon't make you a worse, "less truthful" playwright.
It will, in fact, make you a better one, as surely as learning to work within the constraints of a sonnet makes you a better poet.
Shakespeare wrote in a London that had a vigorous, outspoken Puritan faction that hated theatre and sought for every excuse to shut it down. He also wrote in a London where anything that sounded remotely like an attack on the institutions of government -- most especially the crown -- could lead to imprisonment or worse.
But Shakespeare (and it was man-of-the-theatre Shakespeare, not some effete aristocrat using Bill as a front man -- as anyone who has written plays absolutely knows) understood his audience and learned to write within their cultural expectations and in language they could understand.
Our trouble today is that New York is still regarded as the acme of theatre in America -- but New York culture has become so degraded in some ways, and so inept in others, that in fact most of what is regarded as "successful" in New York is really pretty wretched stuff. Badly written, pretentious, boring, message-heavy -- but invariably politically correct.
Which means that it is designed to offend most people in Pleasant Grove and, I dare say, Greensboro, but it never, never contains anything that would offend the equally touchy sensibilities of New York intellectuals.
And the farther Manhattan floats away from the rest of America, the more desperately the elitists try to drag the rest of America with it.
Why have theatre companies (and academic theatre departments) in Greensboro repeatedly tried to open plays that no ordinary citizen of Greensboro would want to see? These plays are clearly not aimed at entertaining the people of Greensboro, but rather are intended to "teach us a lesson" on how to become good card-carrying members of the American Elite.
But we don't want to join that group. We find them provincial, childish, and generally dim-witted -- for the good reason that they are provincial, childish, and generally dim-witted. (People with any intellectual rigor are quickly repelled by the mass of self-contradictory absurdities that the American intellectual elite insists on believing.)
So their plays, which are designed to entertain that audience and help them feel smug and superior to people who are raising families and actually have to work for a living, just don't have anything useful to say to the community at large.
The producers of such plays look at the large swathes of empty seats and, while they relish feeling smarter than all those rubes who didn't come, they also realize that somebody is going to have to pay the bills, and since it isn't the audience ...
It's the government! It's charitable organizations! Because after all, this is about Art, and it's a noble thing to fund the Art that the common people should attend (because it's good for them) but which they avoid like a pothole in the road.
The sad thing is that theatre doesn't have to be medicine. It's an art that can do things that film and television and books can't do -- and the audience would come, if there were new plays about things they care about and believe in, performed by artists who know their craft.
American theatre isn't "dying." It's being killed.
It's being killed partly by the low quality of directing and acting in most community and academic theatre -- but you can learn how to do better at those arts, if there's an audience in the seats to teach you, by their response, what does and doesn't work; and if you are still humble enough to learn.
Mostly, though, theatre is being killed by the same intellectual pretension that killed poetry as a public art. Art exists as a dialogue between artist and audience, and if the artist stops listening to the audience and instead deliberately drives them away (and here we cheerfully wave to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound), the audience learns to stop looking to that art for pleasure.
It's those producers in Pleasant Grove, not the current incarnation of Neil Simon, who are going to keep theatre alive as a meaningful art in America.
Unless, of course, the intellectuals succeed in dumbing us all down as much as they have dumbed down America's cultural elite.
But I don't think they will. I think eventually good playwrights will emerge who won't try to get their plays to New York, because they'll find other ways to spread their works among the "provincial" communities that comprise "flyover" America.
I say this, however, only because I'm a hopeful kind of guy. Not because I see any actual evidence of it happening.
A letter from Kathryn H. Kidd
Copyright © 2003 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.