The Play’s the Thing to Censor the King

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Christopher Plummer portrays John Barrymore

On Friday night, PBS’s “Great Performances” presented Barrymore, the 2011 filmed version of William Luce’s 1997 play starring the great Christopher Plummer.

Plummer’s sensitive and powerful performance suffered only from some minor flaws in the script and one major gash because of being shown on television: blips of censorship in his extensive monologues. And while the blips-though a handful- were irritating to the ear, and distracting to the scene’s mood, and could even spoil a thought or a joke, there’s a deeper, more disturbing problem which profiles one of the reasons this nation’s in trouble.

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Christopher Plummer portrays John Barrymore
Christopher Plummer portrays John Barrymore

National public television, via Congress’s funding power, has come under the subtle, cutting control of neoliberals and, to a certain extent, the religious Right. It’s a strange and creeping phenomenon, in that it doesn’t involve entire censorship, is irrational and even selective. While Plummer’s monologues received Nazi nicks to words like “fuck,” “shit,” and “fellatio,” other base blurts like “dick,” “hump,” and “faggot” passed the fearful surgeon’s muster.

This is supposed to be educational television. But PBS’s judgment appears pretty shaky when, through its programming, it will censor portions of the art of stage performance and not censor the constant junk, including lies, which politicians spew forth over the public airwaves. If PBS thinks it’s really educating the public by slamming ears shut to the literary art of the English language while pumping those same ears constantly with the pabulum of political speech, and the hackneyed analysis of that pabulum by Washington “journalists,” then we’re all in trouble.

censorshipOf course, it’s doubtful that PBS execs dedicated to true education want this lurid practice to exist. But they’re subject to the whims of Congress, a major funder, and subject to the “private eye” through corporate funding. Neoliberal Congressional efforts have existed for decades to try to do everything from cripple to scrap public television. So execs have had to bow, take the blows, and hang on. They’ve had to seek private funding, for one thing, to meet the major expense of going to high-definition television, which Congress required. And they’ve had to “watch your mouth” to placate neoliberals in Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates broadcasting in the U.S.

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This dependence on private funding for educational TV showed a distorted angle earlier Friday night at the beginning of Washington Week. It opened with an ad from Boeing, showing how a corporate mainstay of the military-industrial complex serves the nation by supplying the armed forces with a plethora of technology, including unmanned drones-a prime weapon through which the CIA continues to kill people in foreign lands, including innocent women and children. A practice which most of our nation accepts without question.

That disturbing attitude of political acceptance also prevailed at different levels during the “Washington Week” broadcast, where a Washington scribe panel analyzed the State of the Union address, trying to give it substance. The most troublesome remark came from moderator Gwen Ifill, a journalist of intelligence and experience, who seemed to have fallen prey to the Washington “attitude.” At one point, she noted that the president’s State of the Union speech was followed by as many as four broadcast reactions from his Republican opponents. But her tone indicated that having a number of rebuttals was dumb rather than democratic. When a journalist of her ability takes that tone, it is indeed troubling.

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But what’s most troubling is that our nation is slowly turning to a state of inaction and acceptance-accepting a journalism that allows political pabulum and force rather than truly challenging it, and educational television that will censor spoken literature.

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There’s obviously still hope, though. First of all, PBS did air Barrymore, and most of the hour and a half was unruffled by interruption. Then that airing was followed by American Masters profiling the wonderful Pete Seeger, the American folk singer and activist who at one point was banned from TV for his antiwar activism. Seeger died this week, and the program was a repeat from 2011.

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Such important programs exist, PBS tells us at their beginnings and ends, because of grant monies and also funding “from viewers like you…Thank you.” If you, the public, keep that funding coming through your individual giving-and also remind your Congressional reps that you want educational television to continue receiving funding with your, not their, tax money, or you’ll vote for someone else-then maybe we can not only continue to get wonderful programming, but move away from creeping censorship.

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