The Playgoer: "Gangsterism" and the Arts: Shanley on the record

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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

"Gangsterism" and the Arts: Shanley on the record

I've finally transcribed the full quote from the Brian Lehrer show.

"The motives of the people who were going to produce this play Off-Broadway in New York are not adequately known and I think that they should be aired...But it highlights a larger phenomenon which is an international gangsterism towards the arts at this time. I consider the New York Times not publishing the cartoons about Mohammed to be an act of editorial cowardice and inappropriate--obviously it was major news--and this idea of it being 'sensitive' to religion, respectful to religion, not to air differences, not to air slurs, not to air slights, is just giving into intimidation of different kinds. Now the theatre in New York may not have been afraid that they were going to be killed, they may have been afraid they were going to lose funding from somebody, that I don't know. But I do know there is intimidation across this country in the arts, where plays like Grease are being vetoed by local organizations as being too racy and cartoons are being called unworthy of publication because the sensitivities of people of a certain religion trumps the need of people of every persuasion to know. And I think it has to be looked at. There's a certain degree of cowardice involved and I think people are going to have to get used to the idea that doing these things--like what happened to [documentary film maker Theo] Van Gogh in the Netherlands--may lead to them being killed."

-John Patrick Shanley, author of the Tony-winning Doubt, which deals with scandals rocking the Catholic Church, and Dirty Story, an allegory of the Arab-Israeli conflict. From an interview on the Brian Lehrer show, WNYC, March 22. (Transcribed as excerpted on the March 24 broadcast.)

Needless to say, the closing words are not a threat. And in the full context, the chilling statement is not made glibly. It's a challenge to the artist: are you willing to go ahead saying what you have to say even though others may want to go as far as killing you for it.

If you agree with this quote, please circulate it widely. Shanley should be thanked for speaking out when so many of his peers still remain silent. Maybe he can inspire such relevant artists to this story as Doug Wright and Terrence McNally to finally let us know whether they think political intimidation of a play is ok.

PS: To be fair, I should also here credit Tony ("Where's Tony?") Kushner for indeed speaking out even before Shanley, even if not immediately, given my initial disappointment with him on this blog.

PPS: For Andrew Sullivan readers, welcome to The Playgoer! If you're into theatre, the arts in general, and the larger cultural/political issues that occasionally factor into them, please continue to drop by. Links to my theatre reviews are to your right. And the comments box below is always open on every post, so please do join the conversation.


Anonymous said...

In a way, Shanley's comment reminds me of something I heard a few months ago, which sounds more glib but has its truth: If you can't live without writing, by all means do it, but if you can stand to do something else, maybe you should.

It also occurs to me (though I may sound like a leftover 60s peacenik in saying it) that what the world has too much of is not "international gangsterism toward the arts" but gangsterism of all kinds. We haven't yet left behind the century of ideology, i.e., the era of deadly faiths and fatal causes.

Anonymous said...

If your theatre isn't willing to produce plays that might offend some patrons or audiences, you shouldn't have a theatre.

Anonymous said...

Who cares, we can go see Rent, that musical about radically political Lower East Side bohemians, for $2000 a ticket. Where shall we have dinner beforehand?

Scott Walters said...

Hmmm. So what we're fighting for, what free speech has come to mean, is the right to be insensitive, disrespectful, and to air slurs? How marvelous! At what point do artists shift their focus from their right to outrage to the responsibility to contribute something of value to our culture? When do artists create an adult definition of themselves that goes beyond the adolescent right to shout fuck in a crowded theatre? Surely there is something more important to be said. And a connected question: when to artists stop promoting the equally adolescent and simple-minded gestures and political "thought" of adolescents like Rachel Corrie, and instead give us some ideas worthy of adults? The speech being trumpeted throughout the blogosphere thanks to Walters Davis as an example of depth -- "“It’s just a shrug—the difference between Hitler and my mother, the difference between Whitney Houston and a Russian mother watching her son fall through the sidewalk and boil to death. There are no rules. There is no fairness. There are no guarantees. No warranties on anything. It’s all just a shrug, the difference between ecstasy and misery is just a shrug.” -- reflects the naive relativism and fashionable despair that I hear daily from freshmen chatting on their cell phones between classes. There certainly IS more than a shrug's difference between Hitler and Corrie's mother, and anyone with a moral code developed beyond high school knows that is true.

It is time for theatre to grow up, and quit defining itself in terms of pathetic adolescent rebellion. It is a 2500 year old art form, and it should speak with wisdom.

Anonymous said...

To answer Scott's question:

So what we're fighting for, what free speech has come to mean, is the right to be insensitive, disrespectful, and to air slurs?


Anonymous said...

So what we're fighting for, what free speech has come to mean, is the right to be insensitive, disrespectful, and to air slurs?

We should be fighting for the the right of free speech, and yes, if it includes tasteless or just plain 'wrong' speech, most certainly yes.

Free speech, for better or for worse, INCLUDES things that me or others might find offensive, distateful or even blasphemous. Free speech doesn't necessarily mean nice, AGREEABLE speech.

freespeechlover said...

There is another choice between absolute relativism that ignores that some speech is more easily suppressed than other kinds and some speech incites by design while other speech .

No one said that the NYTW couldn't put a disclaimer on a theater brochure saying they were not taking sides in a political conflict. Right? More importantly, no one said that people can't protest against speech that they find offensive or hateful. If Scott wanted to stand in front of the NYTW and protest My Name is Rachel Corrie I might disagree with him, but I'd support his right to do that.

What doesn't go down well is the lack of laying one's cards on the table by the Theater. I'm not saying they have to tell every last secret; I'm saying a more responsible accounting for their behavior, including an acknowledgement that goes something like "in retrospect, we may have erred on the side of not trusting our audience enough to be able to form their own thoughts and responses to the production" would have saved them grief.

Democracy or even "fostering community dialogue," to borrow the NYTW's words, requires plausible accounting, once people wonder outloud what Nicola meant by "polling" community figures. Transparency doesn't require absolute, literal honesty but it does require greater self-reflexivity than the theater was able to muster.

The reason I raise the question about those who make sweeping generalizations about speech is to underscore that there is a politics to speech in the U.S. about Israel. There was a play on Broadway about Golda Meir--I can't remember the name of it. While I believe the NYTW would do research around it, I have my doubts that it would have decided to contact Palestinian American "friends" or "community" or "religious" leaders about it before putting on the show. I think it's disingenious to suggest otherwise.

freespeechlover said...

Scott you may just be too "adult" for those who want to see the production, and I mean that literally. Apparently, the show has been extremely successful among young people, but that's no different than any show having an audience as distinct from a utopian community where no one is tainted by history, politics, desire, which could also be seen as a kind of pre-pubescent adolescence, no? I'm ignoring your "hateful?" smears of Corrie.

Playgoer said...

2 things.

1) I sent the Shanley quote to Andrew Sullivan who was kind enough to print and link it on his major-major blog.
Those who know Sullivan's politics (conservative-libertarian) know he may not see eye to eye with the play, but he has been dilligently taken up the free speech causes of the Mohammed cartoons and, yes, even South Park.

2) Not to pile on Scott, but...
Let me just remind all of us of one key thing-- To point of defending the right of "slurs" as speech is NOT just to encourage extremes. It may be easy for some to call for "responsibility" and "adult"-ness in just allowing the reasonable free speech and eschewing the ruder stuff. But that's not such a easily drawn line, is it? We who defend the slur-ers ARE defending the more polite discourse as well. Once one is silenced, the fate of the other is not much safer.

Oh, any by the way, let's also remember no one has come forward to cite one *line* of "Rachel Corrie" as being a "slur" against Jews. (Scott's mother/Hitler equivalence example notwithstanding.) While I would equally defend the right of someone to stand on stage and say something like "Fuck Israel and all the hook-nosed Shylocks in it" (how's that for offensive?)...what's at issue here is not that at all. What's at issue the right for a dramatic character to criticize policies of the state of Israel.

Doesn't sound so "extreme" does it?

Alison Croggon said...

To dissent from the politics of power in order to suggest a possibility of justice is, I would suggest, Scott, "offering something back". To urge responsibility towards the experiences of human beings other than ourselves is a lot more than "adolescent rebellion". Freedom is a complex notion, but among the many freedoms real adults embrace is the freedom to be offended, the freedom to permit others the right to make their own minds up about issues without paternalistic interventions, the freedom to turn off a television or not buy a theatre ticket.

I think you've misunderstood Davis fairly comprehensively there as well: his essay seems to me the reverse of nihilistic, and absolutely moral. He is speaking about a space where we have to make up our own minds, not have them made up for us. It can't be reduced to relativism; it seems especially hard to argue that in the light of the kinds of decisions Corrie herself made. Aside from the Corrie issue, it seems to me that he is arguing for adult theatre.

Anonymous said...

This is not to let Nicola off the hook -- not in the slightest; I remain furious about his cowardly and stupid move -- but let's broaden the attack. Think of all the theaters in New York that would never dream of doing MNIRC for political reasons (ie not because they didn't like it as a play-- I have read it and don't think it's so great, but that's beside the point; lots of not-so-great plays get put on in NYC all the time.) I wonder how many theaters here looked at the script and quietly turned it down. Were they censoring?

Anonymous said...

Smells like a troll. No, they were not censoring: they did not schedule a play, then poll Jewish leaders and subsequently cancel it.

NY's non-profit theatres are mostly craven, it is true, but let's not use that fact to distract us from the real issue -- NYTW's censorship of My Name Is Rachel Corrie.

Anonymous said...

That distinction is obvious, anonymous -- It goes without saying.

But you miss the point: the theaters in this town are generally cowardly and wouldn't touch MNIRC because they have already done their version of polling. That doesn't make Nicola's deed any less indefensible. But it does seem worthwhile to ask some broader questions. I think there's more than one "real issue" to consider here --and I hardly think that anyone reading this blog will be "distracted" from NYTW's action. I mean, just saying over and over that Nicola is a jerk for censoring the play is kind of boring, even if it's true. If Nicola had read the play, polled the community and decided not to do it for the same stupid reasons, none of us would know. And it wouldn't be half as craven as pulling out of an announced plan to do it. But it would still be craven, and I think worth discussing. Why hasn't any other NY theater stepped up and said they will do this play? I'd like to know. But I guess trying to ask some additional questions makes me a troll, so I will shut up. (Though I won't claim I have been censored -- just insulted.)

Anonymous said...

Forgive me if I overreacted. But the oldest trick in the book is, "Yeah, it's bad, but EVERYONE does it..." Shift the blame, make into a "larger problem" -- just like Carmela did with Dr. Melfi on Sunday's Sopranos ("My husband is bad, but there are a lot worse men than him in this world.")

It's like the people who say, "Before you criticize the war in Iraq, what about Saddam killing people," etc. It's not that it isn't right, what you're saying, but at the same time it "broadens" the issue as a way of politely negating it.

freespeechlover said...

I think another New York theater will do it. I was listening to a show on with the folks that organized the Rachel's Words event. I think one of them said that Sept. would be the earliest, because that is when Megan Dodds would be available. Now that it has become a brouhaha someone is going to cash in on the production. I think we'll hear fairly soon about who it is, but I imagine this time around the Royal Court will be getting things in writing.

Anonymous said...

Nice try, but I think your logic is wrong. There's no negating of the issue in trying to understand context and the LESS EGREGIOUS ways in which Nicola's deed is tacitly supported by a generally craven theater community. Someone who opposes the war with all her/his heart and soul (as I do) can ALSO oppose Saddam's tyranny (as I also do). The tyranny didn't justify the war -- but that doesn't make the tyranny okay or beyond the discursive pale. I would go even further and say NOT addressing Saddam's tyrrany and NOT considering how, if at all, the US (or international bodies) should have responded to it (granting, of course, the US role in creating it in the first place) is a dangerous cop-out. I am extremely active in opposing the war -- it is the main focus of my activism: nothing wishy-washy with me about that. Still, I think the left should have some viable ideas about what should have happened instead. (Yeah, "nothing" could be an answer, but it should be argued out.)

Anyway, it's a bad analogy. NY theaters are, sad to say, more or less on the same side as Nicola. Saying so is not to "shift the blame" nor even to spread it around. I just think it's more interesting -- and dare I say more instructive or useful at this stage -- to try to understand why Nicola might even have thought he could get away with this (partial answer: because there's an element of it that is SOP in our theaters) than to confine the discussion to repeating what we all already agree on and have said repeatedly: Nicola/Moffat/NYTW (however you prefer to slice it; I'm inclined to finger Nicola primarily) is particularly, specifically, and profoundly wrong, blameworthy, inexcusable, fucked up, etc. AND (NOT 'but') this debacle creates an opportunity to ask some questions about the general timidity of our theater -- as others on this blog have done without being accused of "shifting the blame." (Maybe I should write a long pompous essay full of lofty quotations and Marxist rhetoric; then maybe my questions will be granted the sincerity with which they are offered.)

Anonymous said...

This last statement is much better argued. Ending your original post by asking if all theatres are censors blurred the issue for me.

Scott Walters said...

No, it didn't blur the issue, it made you think in broader terms that you wanted to. The word "censorship" is bandied around carelessly, and raising the question whether "after the fact censorship" is worse than "before the fact censorship" makes the issue lose its melodramatic simplicty and instead would require the blogosphere to actually think in a complex manner. Nobody has yet explained why it is reprehensible censorship to cancel something after it is announced, rather than to choose not to do a play at all -- especially if done for the same reasons. How is that different, beyond the fact that we were able to SEE it happen?

And on another issue: yes, Davis made that line from Corrie sound like it actually said something interesting, but read it by itself, without Davis' placing it within some philosophic context not found anywhere in the play, and you will see that Corrie is expressing an idiotic idea that, if taken seriously, undermines the very sense of morality that has made her into a saint.

Anonymous said...

So what is your problem, Scott? Davis admits that he doesn't like the play particularly, but that doesn't mean that his own conclusions are without merit, does it? Or, for that matter, that Corrie's own words (her language still limited by her mere 20 years on this earth; as Davis said, if you want to see what a real genius thinks, you can read what Kafka was writing at the age of 20 -- but there's no sun or love for humankind there either) don't open a potential for more radical possibilities?

I fail to see who's calling for Corrie's canonization, and that includes Rickman, Viner and the Royal Court.

freespeechlover said...

Good point, George. And an interesting question is why does Corrie have to be a genius, when so many other productions on and off Broadway fall short of this quality? What is it about this young woman's speech that has everyone so freaked out? How does it matter that she is young, blond, a woman, curiously like Katherine Viner? A British and American female mouthy pair whose speech sends New York into a lot of spilt ink.