Let's Applaud The Huck Finn Censors for Their Honesty
“jam” is different from “fruit spread”, “ice cream” from “frozen dessert”
by Joel Fishbane
With the media whirlwind surrounding New South Books and their bowdlerized edition of Huckleberry Finn, censorship has been a hot topic for bloggers and tweeters. It’s an important debate, of course, but in this case, the debaters have entirely missed the point. The true surprise about the controversy is not that the publishers altered Mark Twain’s work - it’s that they told us they had done it.
The work of public domain authors has been quietly altered for years. From their earliest beginnings, Disney has been removing the sex and violence from fairy tales while abridged editions of “classic” works still adorn many bookstore shelves. Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables can often be found in a truncated form while J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy is often published with a new title that removes Wendy from the equation.
In the theatre world, meanwhile, long-deceased playwrights have long-rolled in their graves while their work is manhandled by well meaning others. The word “bowdlerize”, after all, comes to our language courtesy of the Bowdler family, who in 1807 published a version of Shakespeare’s canon that was lacking in sex, gore and all the other naughtier bits that makes the Bard so much fun.
...although we have generally stopped removing the sex and gore, directors continue to abridge the text so it conforms with a personal artistic version...
The Montreal English-Language Theatre (MELT) community is not immune to this trend – although we have generally stopped removing the sex and gore, directors continue to abridge the text so it conforms with a personal artistic version. (To be clear, I am referring to textual changes, rather then modernizations, which is a different crime altogether). Centaur's Comedy of Errors, Scapegoat Carnivale's Medea and Repercussion's Romeo and Juliet are all examples of productions in 2010 in which the original text was adapted to various degrees. The most recent example comes from a production of Henry V by Persephone Productions (of which I was a part). Here, we did not present Shakespeare’s play, but rather an edited version compiled by directors Gabrielle Soskin and Christopher Moore. Soskin and Moore were in good company: Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh both claimed their filmed versions of Henry were also by Shakespeare, when in fact they had each made significant changes of their own.
Over the years, Montreal audiences have only been occasionally told when they were walking into an adaptation. As a theatre community, we should consider this to be an intolerable trend. Artists have an obligation to inform their audience whenever they have made changes to a public domain text, no matter how minute those changes may be. We are not allowed to cut even a single word from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, yet we have no trouble quietly axing monologues from Shakespeare or Ibsen. In the case of Shakespeare, it is equally important that audiences know whether they are seeing a version taken from the Folio or Quarto, two primary sources which sometimes feature radically different versions of the same play (the Folio version of Henry V, for instance, opens with a scene not featured in the Quarto).
When we choose to perform Shakespeare or publish a new edition of a classic work, we are effectively announcing a decision to celebrate an author’s work.
Audiences have the right to know when they are being presented with a work that is even slightly different from the one that the writer wrote – otherwise, those unfamiliar with the original piece might be left with a maligned impression of both art and artist.
Whether or not these adapters have improved the original work is hardly the point - this will always be a matter of opinion. But it is essential that we always be honest about our changes. New South Books has altered Huckleberry Finn, but we know they have altered it and we are now welcome to compare both versions and decide which we prefer. When we choose to perform Shakespeare or publish a new edition of a classic work, we are effectively announcing a decision to celebrate an author’s work. To then present a version that has been quietly abridged is both hostile and self-defeating.
Makers of food products have to adhere to strict guidelines in labeling their food so as to ensure the consumer is protected – “jam” is different from “fruit spread”, “ice cream” from “frozen dessert”. When one presents an altered Romeo and Juliet and claims it is Shakespeare’s work, they are essentially advertising orange juice and giving the public orange drink. There’s a word for this in law: it’s called fraud. We should use it in the theatre too.
joel fishbane is a Montreal based freelance writer, author and playwright