Saturday, December 20, 2008

I get letters

I expected to get letters about my December 12 review of “Run for Your Wife,” which I criticized for its anti-gay slurs, and I did. Here are a couple of letters and my answers (names omitted). Please forgive the repetition as I made some of the same points in each letter by copying and pasting.

The first letter:

Thanks for attending and reviewing Run For Your Wife.

Having said that, I'm very surprised - astonished is not too strong a word - at your reaction to the play itself. As it seems churlish to me to say anything more, I'll merely ask if you'd like to discuss whether or not Run For Your Wife is offensive. I believe it is not, and would enjoy a mild debate via email. If not, we'll have to disagree without the discussion.

My answer:

I know how dedicated and hard working theater people are and wish them only the best. It pains me to criticize any play, but I write theater reviews. I have to state my honest opinion -- it is what I am paid for.

In the case of "Run for Your Wife," I don’t believe that the cast and crew meant to be malicious. I believe that they thought the gay jokes were in the spirit of good fun. I have seen plays and movies in which actors (usually but not always gay actors) make fun of gay stereotypes, and it can be funny when it is done right. But that is a tight rope to walk. Hank Azara and Nathan Lane's characters in "The Birdcage" comes to mind. The difference is those characters were written sympathetically. They are good people and the audience cares for them.

In "Run for Your Wife" there was one gay character who served no purpose in the script other than to poke fun at his stereotypical portrayal. We laughed at him, not with him. Plus there was an endless array of gay puns and innuendos that were juvenile at best -- tittery, childish uses of words like fag and queer. And again, while those words can be used in ways that are not offensive, that is a risky place to tread without crossing the line.

I am not alone in my belief that the play was offensive. I quoted a New York Times critic: "It is, however, one's responsibility to report that 'Run for Your Wife' also has so many potentially offensive references to homosexuality that it could set off a new wave of activism and protest against anyone who finds all that intolerable."

Similarly, the blog dandanaka.blogspot said: "If I had planned the play, I might have removed about 30 percent of the dialogues in each scene, and alltogether removed one homosexual character. Infact I would have removed all jokes relating to homosexuality..."

On a personal note, I am the president of the Olympia chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) and a trainer with the Safe Schools Coalition. In both of these capacities I see the dire results of casual gay remarks and jokes that may or may not be specifically intended to be malevolent. I know. I lost a son because of gay bashing. He was 17 years old. He was attacked and beaten up because he was bisexual. He constantly heard anti-gay slurs. His friends were beaten up. He thought that was all he had to look forward to the rest of his life, so he ended his life. Knowing this, I hope you can understand why I have no tolerance for gay slurs, even if no harm is intended. The unintended consequences can be horrible.

I wrote the criticism you object to for two reasons. First – that potential audiences are forewarned so they can make an educated decision about whether or not to see the production, which I take seriously for every show I review. Second – that the company who produced the play, and other companies who might consider it, might realize that they do so with responsibility to their audience and to our community for what messages they send with the show they produce.

No, I don’t think your comments were churlish, and I would be glad to discuss it further with you. Just let me know.

Sincerely,
Alec

The second letter:

Catching up on some back issues, I ran across this review. Your comments regarding the offensive nature of the humor would carry more weight if they included the infidelity and deceit material. Evidently you think this kind of stuff is funny and acceptable. Cheating and lying are not funny either and are horribly wounding to the people who are victimized by these behaviors. I myself cringe reading the so called funnies in the newspaper. If it weren't for Dennis the Menace and a couple of other strips which refrain from certain subject matter and maintain a modicum of innocence, I myself would find this a totally cynical, dreary world. If subject matter is going to disturb you, I suggest you redirect your career where you will not be confronted with undesirable and distasteful ideas.

My answer:

I’m not necessarily bothered by undesirable and distasteful ideas in drama or literature. Murder, deception and infidelity have been the mainstays of drama and comedy from Shakespeare to Hemingway to most of the stuff you see on stage, screen and television today.

There are huge differences between what people DO (lie, cheat, murder, steal, etc.) and what they ARE (fat, disabled, black, Asian, gay, etc.). In this play what I thought was funny was not that John Smith cheated and lied but how ineptly he did it.

I don’t believe it’s acceptable to ridicule people because they happen to be attracted to people of the same sex, and in "Run for Your Wife" the gay character, Bobby Franklin, served no purpose in the script other than to have someone to make fun of by depicting him as stereotypically campy. Plus there was an endless array of gay puns and innuendos that were juvenile at best – tittery, childish uses of words like fag and queer. While those words can be used in ways that are not offensive, that is a risky place to tread without crossing the line.

I’m not alone in my belief that the play was offensive for the reasons that I stated, and at the same time I don’t believe that the cast and crew meant to be malicious. I believe that they thought the gay jokes were in the spirit of good fun.

I wrote the criticism of this play for two reasons. First – so that potential audiences are forewarned and can make an educated decision about whether or not to see this production. I take this seriously for every show I review. Second – so that the company who produced the play, and other companies who might consider it, might realize that they do so with responsibility to their audience and to our community for what messages they send with the show they produce.

You wrote, “If subject matter is going to disturb you, I suggest you redirect your career where you will not be confronted with undesirable and distasteful ideas.” I believe that the arts, including theater, are able to confront and address “undesirable and distasteful ideas” in ways that make this world less dreary, which is one of the many reasons I love being a critic.

Sincerely,
Alec Clayton

1 comment:

Beth Reis said...

Alec, I have not seen the play. And I won't. Thank you for the beautifully articulated criticism of its homophobic subtext.

I don't expect critics to be blank slates; I value your criticism for the personal perspective you bring to it.

Thank you.

-- Beth Reis