You needn’t be an English major to recognize that one of the words in my title is out of place. The second word is a verb, therefore unless theatrical texts have become anthropomorphized and begun getting it on with each other, the word is inappropriately used. You likely recognize that the word “fornicating” is a substitution for a common vulgarity, for which it is technically a synonym. Said vulgarity is fairly all-purpose, and is often used as a negative adjective. You will therefore accuse me of bowdlerizing my speech, perhaps to avoid offending some perceived notion of community or even professional standards. You would not be wrong. However, for the remainder of this post, I will abandon all euphemisms and employ, as appropriate, language from which I have heretofore abstained from in my internet and social media discourse. You are thusly warned. Those of delicate sensibilities may excuse themselves.
This morning, Playbill wrote about Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s 2012-13 season of five plays, one of which is a world premiere adaptation of Chekhov’s The Seagull, by Aaron Posner, evocatively titled Stupid Fucking Bird. I know nothing about this particular version, but the title gives me the sense that it will perhaps be updated, and use a more colloquial patois than that usually associated with the master dramatist. Certainly anyone making a decision about whether to see the show will be unable to claim, should the language of the script echo that of the title, that they were caught unawares.
Of course, that decision-making may be impaired by media coverage announcing, featuring or reviewing that play because, in all likelihood, a number of media outlets will refrain from ever using the actual title. Some may drop the second word entirely, others may opt to print only “F——,” as if they’re fooling anyone. The theatre will face challenges in advertising the play, resorting to their own euphemisms if they desire to promote the work in compliance with the standards and practices of print and electronic media. On the other hand, they’ll likely get other coverage precisely because of this conundrum, though it will likely speak more of Carlin (George) and less of Chekhov (Anton).
This is hardly the first title to break the profanity barrier. English playwright Mark Ravenhill confronted us with Shopping and Fucking a number of years ago; Stephen Adly Guirgis confounded copy editors everywhere with The Motherfucker with the Hat just a couple of seasons back on Broadway. Dashes and asterisks got a workout with each of them, as did an entire range of smirks and jokes from on-air personalities. In some cases, advertising campaigns were altered midstream in a capitulation to public mores.
So-called profanity isn’t the only category of language that creates challenges for theatres and for those that cover it. The website address “cockfightplay.com” takes you to the current Off-Broadway hit Cock, since the title alone would apparently evoke undesirable connotations for some, the presence of a rooster silhouette notwithstanding. A number of years ago, a play by the late African-American writer John Henry Redwood, No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs, caused an uproar for the Philadelphia Theatre Company, which premiered it. We may be a country founded on free speech, but our ongoing inability to define pornography and obscenity creates a grey area; inflammatory words employed knowingly for artistic and cultural reasons are verboten.
Now I’m not advocating that every play (or musical) should begin using (and advertising) titles that may run afoul of prevailing sensibilities. But I’m also not one to deny any artist the right to express themselves as they see fit, although they should be aware of the possible consequences that may befall them and their work, no matter how much a producer or theatre company may seek to support them. We’ve seen the phenomenon of ever more outrageous titles and topics being deployed in fringe festivals, but in that case it’s to help stand out from a mass of work and attract attention for brief runs in small venues. I don’t think Ravenhill, Posner, Redwood, or Cock’s Mike Bartlett were naïve in their title choices, they may have wished to shock, but I sort of doubt that marketing was their primary motivation.
Last night, on basic cable, the reboot of Dallas deployed “asshole” as an epithet, and I feel certain that I’ve heard it on various cop shows over the years. While Cock cannot be a title, “vagina” has become a ready punchline on network comedies, as has “penis”; perhaps it is the slang which makes it dirty? South Park, famously, had its characters say “shit” some 175 times in a single episode. I’m not talking about premium channels here; I’m talking about basic cable and broadcast. Frankly, often tuning in for The Daily Show a few minutes early every night, I can’t even believe some of what’s said on Comedy Central’s scripted series.
If we are not quite at a double standard, we are on a collision course when broadly accessible entertainment can be, to use a quaint old term, potty-mouthed, while the relatively narrow field of the arts are precluded from using the names they deem appropriate. Apparently, many fear unsuspecting 6-year-olds will stumble upon a newly profane New York Times Arts section, provoking uncomfortable conversations. Once upon a time, theatre was allowed greater latitude than movies and TV in what could be said or portrayed; the tables are now almost completely turned. Surely if children can be warned nightly about the dangers of a four-hour erection, “shocking” titles for plays aren’t going to do much harm.