by Dolores Quintana
What offends you? Is it a word, a concept, or a work of art?
Human society has rules and woe to the person who breaks those rules. Shame, ridicule and side eyes will be flung at the interloper who dares flout the tenets of polite behavior. But when you are talking about art, why is this necessary? Art exists to pour light on taboo subjects and issues that society refuses to deal with adequately as well as entertain and thrill audiences. It is a form of communication that can put our own touchy subjects in fantasy constructs to make it easier for us to deal with them and eventually fix them.
This year, The Theatre @ Boston Court presented a play with a title that had a curse word in it, Stupid Fucking Bird. Wigs were flipped. One of the myriad reasons why theater has a weaking grip on the cultural landscape is because much of what is produced theatrically is unchallenging, staid, and recycled material that aims strictly for the lowest common denominator. What is confounding about the situation is the reaction to a very small vulgarity that created a big brouhaha. What upset people most? The themes of suicide or the shallowness and self delusion of people who consider themselves to be artists? No, the word: fuck. My theory about profanity is that if you do it, as an adult, you should be able to say it or type it. But even in 2014, I see full grown adults using substitute words in daily conversation or while using social media on The Internet. If you are angry, what’s wrong with expressing yourself in what you find to be an appropriate manner? If you cuss like a sailor in real life, why type “Frack” when you really mean Fuck? Do you imagine small children are reading your Twitter feed? A well known comedian said it pretty succinctly. When you say the substitute word, everyone knows what you are saying. The brains of people receiving the sensory input instantly translate it. You just said the word to everyone anyway. You simply lack the courage to say what you really mean.
They are just words. They have only the meaning and heft that we give them.
Additionally, one of the tools of the artist is to deploy shock and outrage to open the way for new thinking in its audience. Shock value. There are whole schools of thought within theater devoted to it. Hello Antonin Artaud. When you see something that disgusts, angers, or confuses you, your defenses go down, even if it is just a tiny rolling down of the window. It is increasingly used badly and irresponsibly but the guru of shock John Waters has used it for his entire career and has made great inroads in mainstream American culture for the acceptance of weirdos. It’s a big club that thwacks you over the head and makes you pay attention to things you normally would ignore. It works. Example: one of the things that society recommends to its people is travel. Travel and broaden your horizons, they say. It means when you live in one city or town and hang around with a small set of people that you are comfortable with and never go out in the world and meet people and cultures different from you, you will remain boring and conservative for the rest of your life. Your thought processes become set and you stop learning about new things and figuring out that things you don’t understand shouldn’t necessarily frighten you. As H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. Lovecraft would know as his own upbringing was responsible for his own fears. Refusing to face things that make you uncomfortable makes the fear that much stronger and make you that much more of a small minded human with a low ceiling on their life and outlook. In other words, the type of person who usually only attends revivals of well known plays and jukebox musicals on tour from Broadway.
As with most everything else, intent is what matters. When a bigot or racist uses words to shame and hurt people, that is a deplorable and hideous use of language. That is wrong. But when a playwright or actor uses the word to expose violent and cruel behavior of those types of cowards, it’s done to expose the hypocrisy and hatred in their hearts. Do not make the mistake of confusing the two in a knee jerk reaction. You were born with the ability to discern the difference. The more you do it, the better you will become at recognizing one from the other.
Routine and rote are deadly for the progression of human society and human thought. You should also know that Stupid Fucking Bird was also one the the best selling shows to date at The Theatre @ Boston Court. Bravery in art is sometimes rewarded. Polite behavior and societal rules exist for good reasons, but we can never let the rules crush the human spirit and the wonder of art, theater and the human experience. Check out things that make you uncomfortable and plays outside your experience. Growth is uncomfortable and sometimes painful. But that’s how you know you are progressing. Putting blinders on might make you feel safe, but it is at the expense of becoming the person you could be.