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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Theatre For Thought, October 8, 2011

Exploring the lifeblood
joel fishbane

Recently, on the CBC’s the Current, there was a discussion about profanity in the workplace, where Cory Scherer, a Professor from Penn State, argued that profanity could be effective. Mr. Scherer seems to be making a big splash announcing something that writers have known for years: a well-placed cuss word is a beautiful thing. Profanity has long been a part of humanity’s artistic life and humanity has been all the better for it. Argue all you like about whether salty language should be a part of office life; in television, theatre and film, profanity has the potential to elevate a script to new heights.

Profanity is anything which threatens to offend the status quo and it is generally the lifeblood of art.

Profanity doesn’t necessarily refer to curses. Michel Tremblay knew this – joual, the Quebecois argot of his plays – was considered obscene to many listeners of the day. Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession was banned for its content, much as Peter Shaffer’s Equus, recently departed from Montreal’s Segal Centre, continues to court controversy because of its plot. Corporations would consider the closing of tax loopholes to be as profane as a litany of F-words. Profanity is anything which threatens to offend the status quo and it is generally the lifeblood of art.

Every writer has a profanity capital but, like a miser with money, many don’t spend it as wisely as they should. They can’t really be blamed for his; never in my history of professional development has anyone ever offered a workshop on the proper use of the obscene (or on when to use nudity, but that’s another story). This isn’t surprising given the controversial nature of the profane – remember how everyone went haywire after U.S. VP Joe Biden told Barack Obama his health care plan was a “big fucking deal”? This was no gaffe – an overhaul of the US health care system is a big fucking deal – but the cable networks seized on it as if Biden had confessed to cannibalizing his young.

Playwrights  run headfirst into producers, most of whom don’t like courting controversy.

Given this environment, is it surprising that writers are rarely given a chance to explore the potential of profanity in art? Even if they do, they run headfirst into producers, most of whom don’t like courting controversy. And is it any wonder that some, like Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet, take things to the other extreme? Both Mr. Mamet and Mr. Tarantino are known for their shock value – Mr. Tarantino’s films feature graphic language and violence while Mr. Mamet adores tackling controversial subjects head on (note to Quincy Amorer of BTW: Mamet’s latest play, Race, deserves to be produced). And these aren’t the only ones who have resorted to shock. During the 70s, the revue Oh Calcutta hit Broadway with graphic scenes celebrating sexual liberation (it ran for thirteen years). And in more recent times there have been plays like Angels in America, Avenue Q and the Tony-Award winning Book of Mormon (by South Park creators and profanity kings, Matt Stone and Trey Parker). 

Outlandish plots and extreme, over-the-top violence (whether physical or linguistic) is a direct response to our general fear of encouraging writers to develop and discuss the value of profanity and art. As Peter Shaffer showed through Equus, repression always leads to an extreme response. For him it was a naked boy blinding six horses; for Parker and Stone, it’s a chorus of dancers celebrating Joseph Smith, “the All-American Prophet”. But in both cases, it is their embrace of the profane that turns their scripts into something memorable. And profitable. Equus has been performed for over forty years, which, from the way tickets are selling, may be the length of time that The Book of Mormon stays in theatres.

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