Saturday, March 04, 2006

To a Man With a Hammer

Sorry for the slowness in posting -- as I mentioned below, it was a very busy week. Of course, I have been dying to join the discussion of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, and Isaac's prompt combined with the time afforded by Spring Break (which begins today) finally has goaded me to do so.

First of all, I want to take what I suspect will be a very unpopular position regarding one part of this issue: I think using the word "censorship" in this case isn't justified. Producing organizations cancel productions every day, and for reasons less defensible, without cries of censorship. I remember that the initial production of Assassins was cancelled because it seemed inappropriate given the geopolitical situation (if I am remembering correctly, Desert Storm), and I don't remember an uproar over censorship. To me, censorship comes from outside the theatre community, and means "the play can't be done -- period; or it can't be done unless certain changes are made." NYTW has no formal obligation to produce this or any other play. I'm sure they have cancelled plays in the past without cries of censorship, so what makes this different except that there are some who want the play heard? Nothing prohibits another Off-Broadway theatre from deciding to produce it, and if they did, they would likely sell a lot of tickets -- nothing sells like controversy these days.

Perhaps the issue is self-censorship, which George Hunka calls "the worst kind of censorship." At the risk of sounding like Socrates, define self-censorship. What it sounds like to me is: putting any considerations other than your own to the fore. Apparently it is wrong because we should put individual artistic will ahead of group responsibility, which I see as artistic libertarianism. "If it feels good artistically, do it. Nobody tells me what to do." But the fact is that we self-censor every day. There are things that I do not say in front of my students, not because they aren't true, but because they are inappropriate in that context. And this is right and proper. James Nicola decided this play was inappropriate at this time for his community, that to do it would lead to the play being examined within a context he didn't wish it to be. Again, I think this is his right as artistic leader, and the act of considering such issues is not an act of intellectual or artistic self-betrayal. I would like all artists to ask such questions.

Saying that Nicola has the right to cancel a show, and that he was right to consider his audience in his decision, is not, however, to say that I think he made the right decision. He didn't.

For me, this is the damning quotation: "the fantasy that we could present the work of this writer simply as a work of art without appearing to take a position was just that, a fantasy." [ital mine] If he ever held such a fantasy, it reveals a depth of naivete that borders idiocy. Nicola wants to have it both ways: he wants to present a play that is deeply embedded within political events, that will receive attention only because of its politics, indeed a play that has value only because of those political events (surely no one is saying that this play, which was not written but rather edited from documents, is an artistic masterpiece that will survive the ages), in short he wants to present a play with an actively committed political purpose -- but he wants to maintain a Kantian belief that the work is "simply...a work of art" that he hopes will be regarded through an aesthetic lens outside of political debate. This is breathtaking in its simple-mindedness. In justifying his actions, Nicola seems surprised and horrified that "there was a very strong possibility that a number of factions, on all sides of a political conflict, would use the play as a platform to promote their own agendas." Well, of course they would! After all, that is purpose of a provocative play, and it is what the play asks you to do. How could it be otherwise? This will not be changed by the passage of time, unless Nicola postpones its performance until after the Israeli - Palestinian conflict is ancient history. Then we might be able to regard it in the same way we do the politics of Shakespeare's Henry V. But not now, and not in foreseeable future.

When I read this story, what I see is what I have been writing about for several months now (and thus the self-referential title of this post): the desire of so many artists to provoke the audience as long as there is no chance that the audience will actually respond to that provocation with equal force. I can punch you, but you can't punch me back, which doesn't work on the playground and shouldn't work in the playhouse. Nicola seems afraid that a play that has a clear political purpose will be reacted to politically. Duh.

Why the surprise? Because he has bought into an artistic belief that provocation is a one-way street. That spectators are supposed to play subs to to artistic doms. Thank you, sir, may I have another? And suddenly, he found that this wasn't the case. That plays affect people, and when affected they respond, and not always politely, and sometimes the artist's voice will be eclipsed by "the din of others shouting for their own purposes." Welcome to the real world.

We saw this same attitude at work with the artistic reaction to the uproar over the Danish cartoons: wait, you're not supposed to talk back! It's "just a cartoon," for crying out loud! We want to play politics until somebody responds, and then we want to scurry back to our Kantian safehouse and plead "art." Literary and legal scholar Stanley Fish, in a provocative letter to the editor in the NY Times about the Danish cartoons, wrote: "The first tenet of the liberal religion is that everything (at least in the realm of expression and ideas) is to be permitted, but nothing is to be taken seriously." [ital mine] James Nicole suddenly found himself in a situation where ideas were taken seriously, where provocations were responded to, in short where the rules of the genteel game of artistic provocation, where anything can be said as long as it isn't taken too seriously, were not accepted.

I say: stand up straight and face the music, Mr. Nicole. You scheduled a provocative play, now have the courage to defend the play forcefully and with all the integrity you can muster. Schedule public discussions, put together forums to examine the issues, write a damn good program note -- grasp a prime teachable moment. You have an opportunity to advance this debate -- sieze it, don't run from it. The time for considering your community has passed -- Sharon and Hamas may have made them "edgy," but this play would have made them feel edgy at any time, and that didn't seem to bother you when you first scheduled it.

And to the theatre community: Nicole and NYTW have a history of doing good work and promoting new playwrights, so you have done well not to rip his throat out publicly. But that doesn't mean maintaining a complicit silence. Like others, I hope that prominent NYTW alums are speaking backstage about this issue. Others should be taking this opportunity to discuss with Mr. Nicole and his board the larger issues involved, and making sure they know the errors of this decision. Write letters, contribute to blogs, and think broadly about how this whole thing might reflect larger issues in the way we think about the theatre. And question yourselves -- would you have responded differently? If so, how? And how might that approach have worked?

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Howard Zinn

While I don't have enough time to actually write something (I'm dying to join the fray over the NYTW controversy), at least I have time enough to cut and paste. Here is something from historian Howard Zinn:

On Getting Along
By Howard Zinn

You ask how I manage to stay involved and remain seemingly happy and adjusted to this awful world where the efforts of caring people pale in comparison to those who have power? It's easy.

First, don't let "those who have power" intimidate you. No matter how much power they have they cannot prevent you from living your life, speaking your mind, thinking independently, having relationships with people as you like. (Read Emma Goldman's autobiography "Living My Life". Harassed, even imprisoned by authority, she insisted on living her life, speaking out, however she felt like.)

Second, find people to be with who have your values, your commitments, but who also have a sense of humor. That combination is a necessity!

Third (notice how precise is my advice that I can confidently number it, the way scientist number things), understand that the major media will not tell you of all the acts of resistance taking place every day in the society, the strikes, the protests, the individual acts of courage in the face of authority. Look around (and you will certainly find it) for the evidence of these unreported acts. And for the little you find, extrapolate from that and assume there must be a thousand times as much as what you've found.

Fourth: Note that throughout history people have felt powerless before authority, but that at certain times these powerless people, by organizing,acting, risking, persisting, have created enough power to change the world around them, even if a little. That is the history of the labor movement, of the women's movement, of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the disable persons' movement, the gay and lesbian movement, the movement of Black people in the South.

Fifth: Remember, that those who have power, and who seem invulnerable are in fact quite vulnerable, that their power depends on the obedience of others, and when those others begin withholding that obedience, begin defying authority, that power at the top turns out to be very fragile. Generals become powerless when their soldiers refuse to fight, industrialists become powerless when their workers leave their jobs or occupy the factories.

Sixth: When we forget the fragility of that power in the top we become astounded when it crumbles in the face of rebellion. We have had many such surprises in our time, both in the United States and in other countries.

Seventh: Don't look for a moment of total triumph. See it as an ongoing struggle, with victories and defeats, but in the long run the consciousness of people growing. So you need patience, persistence, and need to understand that even when you don't "win," there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that you have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. Okay, seven pieces of profound advice should be enough.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Folks -- It is the week before Spring Break here, which is usually pretty hectic, but in addition I also have to coordinate the annual Dorr Lecture for the Arts and Ideas Program, which this year is bringing in poetry critic Helen Vendler from Harvard. I have been running quite a lot, and haven't had time to have a coherent thought. I hope you'll bear with me, and I will try to post something soon (perhaps my response to p'tit boo, which I have begun writing). Don't abandon me, folks, I'll be back.

Think Again: Funding and Budgets in the Arts

Every once in a while, I think I'll post a link or two to posts written earlier in the life of Theatre Ideas that seem worth revisiting ...