Friday, November 21, 2014


Does Profanity Have a Place in the American Theatre?

URI Theatre | By Sergio Suhett

URI Theatre's Avenue Q Set Designed by Kent Homchick
This weekend when I went to see URI Theatre’s production of the musical Avenue Q, I was struck by a warning appearing in bold on the poster outside that it was not suitable for children. This is due in part to the “adult” language employed by some of the actors on the stage. Similarly, URI’s previous production of Theresa Rebeck’s comedy Seminar had also been considered a somewhat “blue” piece because of its use of profanity. Both of these are fairly recent shows that underscore the fact that language once considered unacceptable to theatrical audiences (and which was largely kept out of them due to censorship) is now incorporated in a frequent and freewheeling manner in the 21st century. Which begs the question: was the theatre better off without the f-word?

One thing worth considering before answering that question is how it has already been answered in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Last May, the increasingly despotic Russian president signed into law a ban on swearing in films, television broadcasts, concerts, and theatrical performances. The law, which went into effect on July the 1st, is just part of a wave of totalitarian oppression in Russia that hearkens back to the bad old days of the Soviet Union.

Now, I must admit that while I was watching Avenue Q with several members of my family including my mother-in-law, I found myself occasionally glancing over at her to see if she was offended by some of the words being spoken (and in some cases sung) on the stage, words that my own inner censor automatically identified as “bad.” In the end, I needn’t have been concerned as she loved the show unreservedly – but even if she had been bothered by the language, it wouldn’t have altered my conviction that it should not have been altered or removed for her or anyone else’s sake.

As English blogger Robert Sharp has written of the new Russian law: “Swear words exist in every language and are part of everyday speech. Russian artists will no longer be able to reflect genuine, everyday speech. Instead, they will have to sacrifice authenticity in order to please a committee of censors…The government claims it is ‘protecting and developing culture’, but the effect will be to ensure that culture becomes staid, uniform and boring.”

The theatre should be for everybody, and fortunately for many of us outside of Putin’s Russia, it is now more than ever, f-bombs and all.

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