Playwrights Talk Censorship; or, the Edward and Terrence Show

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The east side apartment of Jane Friedman, CEO of OpenRoad Integrated Media, was the setting for an event held last month by the National Coalition Against Censorship, an alliance of pro-free-speech, pro-First Amendment organizations around the nation. The NCAC’s innovative Arts Advocacy Project should be on all of your radars. (We modestly ask the NCAC to visit the CFR’s Arts Advocacy Update, too.)

A subgroup of the NCAC, called the Free Speech Leadership Council, includes “intellectual, cultural, legal and business leaders” putting their imprimatur, not to mention their pocketbooks, at the forefront of the ongoing fight to preserve, protect and defend free speech. It was this council, which Friedman chairs, that spearheaded the event. Called “Playwrights on Censorship,” it gathered Edward Albee, David Henry Hwang, Terrence McNally and Adam Rapp in Friedman’s fine, elegant living room and asked a simple question: What is censorship? (David Cote moderated.)

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Like any philosophical query, the answer is in the eye of the beholder. Indeed, much of the conversation involved one or more of the four scribes suggesting or proposing to exclude this or that definition of censorship for purposes of the discussion, which itself, it was noted, was a censorious impulse. Albee, the great (and greatly maddening) 82-year-old dean of American playwriting, ignited the dialogue from the very start by observing that “censorship” is a vague term that muddies the canvas: religious, governmental and what he termed “commercial censorship” are all unique animals, each deserving of their day in the rhetorical sun. No question, though, that this last example of censorship was Albee’s favorite. Having thrown the very idea on the table, he seized upon it to bash and diss hyper-commercialism and its vast domination of Broadway. Commercial theater, he said, “has nothing to do with excellence” and all to do with the odious milking of profit. When commercial pressures too heavily influence what gets produced on Broadway, Albee said, that constitutes a kind of censorship of the stage.

Albee also had another issue to get off his chest. Drolly, he reminded the room that just as the musical Next to Normal won, despite the recommendation of the Pulitzer jury to the contrary, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was then overruled by the Pulitzer board), back in 1963, another play, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, was at the center of a similarly terrible typhoon. That year, the Pulitzer board chose to give no award rather than give it to Albee. When the Pulitzer board vacates the choice of the Pulitzer jury, he said, that is censorship as well.

It is worth nothing that of all the nice drinks served at this event, bitters was not among them. There was plenty of that coming from Albee, though, and at a certain juncture the tone seemed odd, even for the playwright. I bow to no one in my admiration and love — love! — for his plays, even the decidedly less-then-stellar ones, and also for the man himself: I spent more than two hours with him in 2008 when I profiled him for Back Stage, and if a brusque curmudgeon could be characterized as kind and endearing, that would neatly describe Edward Albee.

So his remarks at this event, while perhaps unsurprising, given the playwright’s penchant for the persnickety, begged a new question: What does Albee really have to kick about? In its totality, his career has been remarkable, enviable, and, given the fragile, perilous state of American playwriting, probably unrepeatable.

You got the sense that McNally deeply understood this — and there was, throughout the event, a brittle back-and-forth between the men, who most theatrical insiders will remember were mentor/protege as well as lovers during the 1960s. Dear friends today, their casual bickering was a delightful sideshow that often revealed more about their personalities and biases, or at least their presumptions, than many of the actual statements they were making.

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McNally, too, has nothing to kick about in terms of the epic scale of his success. At the same time, no one can question whether McNally’s relationship to censorship is more palpable, more sympathetic, more noteworthy than Albee’s. Not only did McNally receive death threats when his Corpus Christi, which imagines Jesus and the apostles as actively gay men, was produced by Manhattan Theatre Club back in 1998, but a dozen years later the play is still making news — and not the type any playwright would dream of. This spring, at Tarleton State University in homophobe-rich Texas, some students wanted to do scenes from the play, McNally said. When some educational poobahs objected, the university’s decent president, F. Dominic Dottavio, sided with the students, confident that the First Amendment applies to the Lone Star State as much as the Second. David Dewhurst, Texas’ lieutenant governor, thought otherwise; he declared that the matter boiled down to whether public money should subsidize theatrical content some people might find offensive. In detail, McNally described the circumstances under which the scenes were ultimately performed — at which point it was clear, at least to the playwright, that Texas should really hang it’s head in shame (or just secede already).

Just as some of Albee’s comments were astonishingly in their bitterness, some of McNally’s remarks were, well, pretty astonishing. If anyone in the room didn’t know the theme and plot of Corpus Christi, they were educated with alacrity about it by the playwright, who stated that it never occurred to him that anyone might find a play in which Jesus and the apostles were actively gay men to be offensive. [Pause.] Really?

Perhaps McNally didn’t expect Manhattan Theatre Club to try initially to throw the play under the proverbial bus — no theater wants death threats flitting about, or to bear witness to the feckless water-carriers of the far-right marching in lockstep before their front door. Indeed, it was only when the matter of the production itself became a pre-millennial cause celebre, with such playwrights as Athol Fugard threatening to withdraw their own works, that MTC managed to gussy up its courage.

But to say he didn’t think the subject matter of Corpus Christi would prick, if you’ll pardon the pun, certain members of the public? Come on.

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Fortunately, McNally’s hesitation to indulge in introspection was countered by Hwang, who also did a masterful job of ignoring certain kinds of received wisdom without ever sounding like a wiseass. Fairly early on, when the round-robin debate about the definition of censorship was still raging, Hwang declared himself a “civil libertarian” — an audacious stance in a living room full of upper-middle-class, mostly white (??) Manhattan liberals. Then again, Hwang isn’t what you’d call a Rand Paul civil libertarian: “People who don’t like [certain plays],” he said, “can complain as long as [theater artists] don’t lose the work.” That is a fair approach.

It is also probably the only approach that Hwang could embrace with total credibility. As the playwright himself noted, his career has not been influenced by acts of censorship or attempted censorship (rewriting Flower Drum Song doesn’t count, right?), but how, as the nation’s most prominent and critically garlanded Asian-American playwright, his task is to represent “a community of people who are generally not represented on stage.” Talk about high stakes: if he doesn’t cover out a particular territory or topic or point of view, Hwang said, he is vulnerable to charges of self-censorship by members of the very same community whose stories and dramas he tells. An accomplished screenwriter, Hwang added that there is deep censorship in Hollywood, where hyper-commercialism is as old as the movie business itself.

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“All art is an act against the status quo,” Albee deadpanned about midway through the discussion. That sounds right on the face of it. Yet as Rapp rapturously recalled the story of his own brush with censorship — his graphic novel, The Buffalo Tree, was literally ripped out of the hands of students in Muhlenberg, PA — the playwright neither fumed nor ranted, neither screamed nor fulminated with purple-faced indignation. Rapp’s contribution to the conversation was the most meaningful because as he described how The Buffalo Tree ran afoul of the morality police in Muhlenberg (he more dramatized the experience in the play The Metal Children), he carefully explained how he came to understand the “other side” as well.

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It was, I think, not entirely what the presenters of the evening wanted to hear: censorship is easier to delineate in terms of good vs. bad or right vs. wrong, whereas what Rapp presented was our values vs. somebody else’s values, and there is no final winner in that argument. To be sure, the playwright didn’t agree with what the mandarins of Muhlenberg did. But he noted that their plain, earnest defense — “We were just defending our values” — is almost impossible to counter. After all, communities must decide, and have a right to decide, what works of literature are right for their young folk to read. Sometimes, however obscene or absurd it may seem to the rest of us, they are going to make choices that do not enliven the hearts of free-speech advocates. Good and bad, right and wrong — these are each in the eye of the beholder. It’s the conversation, then, that’s pivotal — and therein lies much drama.

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