The Playgoer: Censorship in/on the Air

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Thursday, March 23, 2006

Censorship in/on the Air

Call it what you want but script-writers (theatre, tv, cartoons) are feeling the chill. Or, more accurately, feeling the chilly silence from the producers who they hoped would support them. Corporate or not, this is going on. (And even in the nonprofit world, the money is corporate, right?)

Andrew Sullivan proposes his own Playgoer-style timeline about how the Scientologists got to Chef Isaac Hayes. (Wait. Now his update suggests they actually even put words in Hayes' mouth and it's all a big misunderstanding?)

Meanwhile, the Times' Bill Carter doesn't hold back from the C-word in his headline: "WB Censors Its Own Drama for Fear of F.C.C. Fines."

Believe it or not the second article is the funnier. Especially with such punch lines as this from Warner Brothers Chair Garth Ancier: "The WB takes its responsibility as a broadcast network very seriously."


Anonymous said...

I know an actor on the WB/Tom Fontana show. He says the series is a very mature and complex look at sexuality. Of course this is why it must be censored, while much more superficial shows, which exploit sexuality, are allowed to air without any editing (and whose near pornographic imagery gets posted for perverts, sans context, on sites like youtube).

Like with the cartoons, there is a irrational fear of sexuality (in the Danish case, sexuality as symbolized the representation of "the body" of Muhammed) creating the pressure for censorship. Violence on TV -- and extremist Muslims blowing things up -- occurs without comment. But sexuality must be suppressed at all costs!

Scott Walters said...

You know, to me Nicola and Moffett make a reasonable case. Certainly nothing to "weep" about. If you think this is a fatal blow to the non-profit theatre world, I think you have lost perspective.

Playgoer said...

Well, we'll have to agree to disagree on this one, Scott...

I admit to a bit of cliched hyperbole about the theatre world in general... But it certainly is not an inspiring example of how to handle a politically challenging play, shall we say?

If you believe NYTW at face value, then you must be willfully overlooking the considerable evidence (not to say logic)against them--as documented in The Nation and on this site. Not to mention their own self-contradictions.

Let me put it this way--if YOU were the playwright here, would you appreciate a theatre handling your play this way?

Scott Walters said...

Well, I would be of two minds, which would probably moderate my response. First, and foremost (and I have said this on my blog), I would feel as if this was a decision that reflected artistic cowardice.

But I also would look at their feelings concerning the (for some reason demonized) "contextualization" issue. While we may all feel as if a play speaks for itself, I think a theatre that gives great import to the creation of community dialogue, as NYTW does, would want to assure that the work led to an open exchange of ideas, and not simply angry conflict. I don't find NYTW's focus on contextualization to be a cop-out, but rather the concerns of a reasonable, adult group of people concerned that the issues raised by a play be addressed in a way that brings people together, not tears them apart.

Anonymous said...


Which case is reasonable? The case that "theatre logistics" were the main problem? Or that the Jewish community was "edgy" and that it "seemed reasonable" to postpone the play on that basis?

Or that NYTW had a responsibility to "prevent false and tangential back-and-forth arguments from interfering with Rachel’s voice"?

Any one of these justifications may be reasonable. (Obviously I firmly disagree with the last two.)

But taken together, aren't they sort of embarrassing? Isn't it at least a little bit sad that a theatre whose mission is to produce provocative plays is now sputtering around, desperately looking for a way to justify its decision to cancel a play the artistic director of the company says he believes in?

(Those aren't rhetorical questions.)

Anonymous said...


Our comments seem to have crossed in the ether. But I do think your second comment has a lot more going for it than the first. (Even if I still find the urge to contextualize, on balance, more destructive than constructive.)

One additional point:

Where is the evidence that NYTW *has* taken "contextualization" particularly seriously in the past? (Having Tony Kushner sit down with a Islamic scholar doesn't count in my book.)

Have they ever held *nightly* talkbacks after any of their previous plays? What kind of outreach did they do around PATRIOT ACT--a thoroughly political piece? I don't know the answers to these questions. But everything I've read and heard points to the conclusion that this play was treated as a *special* case.

Anonymous said...


What's wrong with "angry conflict"?

Anonymous said...

Jim Nicola on Democracy Now:

"Well, I think, you know, everyone should have a point of view, and I'm glad, in a certain way, that he has taken that stand, because I think it starts to provoke an important dialogue in our community about how do we talk about difficult, complicated issues and ideas. And I hope this is leading to that kind of conversation."

So when and where will this conversation be had?

Scott Walters said...

anonymous -- What is right with it? Does anything change as a result of two people or two groups of people angrily "expressing" their viewpoints, aside from the personal gratification of feeling self-righteous?

Anonymous said...

The point is, Scott, that I don't believe the purpose of theatre is what Lynn Moffat thinks it is: to foster community dialogue. Emotions like anger are neither inherently goor or bad, but a paternalistic attempt to manage or neutralize strong emotions is definitely misguided, because it assumes that the audience is not capable of appreciating a work on its own terms.

Scott Walters said...

anonymous -- Let me guess: you believe that the purpose of theatre is to allow the full expression of individual artist's view, and that the artist has no responsibility to anyone other than him- or herself. Right?

Anonymous said...

Yes, Scott, I do. Imagine seeing Hamlet and then having a representative of the Queen's come onto the stage to tell the audience that power is not corrupt, and that youths who question the crown should not be believed -- in order to assert order in the community, serve the needs of the kingdom, keep the people in line. Ugh! The art has to stand on its own. Right or left, good or bad. Let the artist take responsibility for himself, and let each member of the audience do similarly.

Mark said...

Scott, I think you've framed the question wrong. The issue is this case is not the artist's resonsibility to the audience. The issue is the institution's responsibility to the artist. NYTW is not the artist in this situation. Alan Rickman, Katharine Viner and Megan Dodds are the artists. I'm not opposed to activities around productions in general, but it seems pretty clear that the proposed activities were intended specifically to put a sort of disclaimer on the work.

And, in this instance, a popular production (spearheaded by a Hollywood celebrity) had the option not to have their work seen in that context and taking it elsewhere. However, if this were a new play from an unknown playwright, they may have had to suck it up and have their play seen in this "context", which I think would be unfortunate.

freespeechlover said...

Of course, this production was treated as a "special case." It isn't rocket science to know why, since Nicola has already told us.

None of this is new or limited to the theater. There are two eminent political scientists from Harvard and U. of Chicago. They've written a paper, a shorter version of which is published in the London Review of Books. One of the scholars is an associate Dean at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The subject of the paper? Israel's lobby in the U.S. So, what's Harvard doing? It's taken the "logo" of the Kennedy School of Government off the paper. It's put on a "special" disclaimer, and now the right-wing Zionist fanatic, Daniel Pipes, and others have been calling for Harvard to remove the paper from its website. Meanwhile, Alan Dershowitz, who is a civil liberties lawyer at Harvard, is calling for the authors' heads.

Talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the U.S., unless you talk about it through a strictly Israeli-centric lens, is not like talking about it any place else, even in Tel Aviv.

I believe that there was a theater in TEL AVIV that wanted to do the play after the Royal Court Theater, but the Corries wanted it to come to America, since Rachel was born here.

Philip Munger went through something similar. We had an enormous brouhaha on my campus last year, because the art museum secured an exhibit by Palestinian American artist, Emily Jacir. Part of the exhibit was in the 2004 Whitney Biennial, not exactly radical art fare. The same rhetoric about "contextualization" and "framing" Jacir's work, so that it could be "heard" went on, until the university endowment officer was going to alter the exhibit to accomodate a local group of "passionate Zionists" as one of them refers to herself.

The artist had to launch an internet campaign on her own behalf to have her exhibit appears without paraphrenalia attached. Meanwhile, the art museum's reputation was hanging in the balance, artists from all over the world emailed the university, and the endowment officer had to reverse herself.

It was the most ridiculous, embarrassing thing I've ever seen. What's eery is how much the rhetoric of the "donors" to the museum and endowment officer sounded so much like Nicola and Moffat. There was backpedaling, an attempt to scapegoat Jacir--which didn't work.