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Problematic Content

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I returned from my fall trip to New York City just two days ago. I go several times a year, but fall is always my very favorite time to go. The air turns crisp, I celebrate my birthday, the nut vendors are more attractive (because of their warm wares, not generally because of their appearance), and I always treat myself to any Broadway play that I want to see. I crave the theater, I love the way it makes me think, the way it makes me feel human, I like when it makes me feel slightly uncomfortable, and I relish in how it makes me feel alive.
Yesterday, I was intrigued to read this article about the BYU stopping a U of U production on Monday. BYU’s official statement was as follows:
“While we respect the work of our colleagues at the University of Utah and plan to continue to have the Annual Greek Festival perform at BYU, ‘The Bakkhai’ itself presents difficult material and the approach of this production could be problematic for members of our audience.”

Also in the article was a response from the play’s director:

“Director Larry West said questions addressed in the play could be applicable to Latter Day Saints students and regrets the opportunity to not be able to perform the play at BYU.
‘The Bakkhai’ on its surface is about sex, wine and losing one’s inhibition and at its core is about defining God,” West said. “I would have loved to discuss this in the BYU setting.”

In a writing exchange with an old friend from BYU, one who went through the drama program around the same time I did, I was impressed with his observations on BYU’s decision:

“They’re always pulling stuff like that. The guy in the article, Roger Sorenson, who pulled the plug on the production, is a friend of mine and a really good guy. But the theatre department at BYU is unusually hamstrung whenever there are public performances: no swearing, no nudity, no adult themes.

Which means most of the plays written in the last 50 years are off-limits.

There are two interesting consequences of that:

1) BYU does a lot of Shakespeare. The texts are just as bawdy as the modern stuff, but since the audience won’t get most of the lewd jokes and Elizabethan cursewords (‘Zounds! = “God’s Wounds”), they sneak it under the radar. And they couldn’t really get away with NOT doing Shakespeare.

2) The do a lot of original playwrighting. Turns out, this is very very cool.

Also: most BYU theatre classes (especially the upper division dramatic lit & contemporary theatre classes) have no censorship at all. The censors only show up to regulate the mainstage stuff.”

As a BYU student in the arts, I was constantly rolling my eyes at their silly public-facing censorship (canceling the Rodin exhibit, preventing plays with swear words from being performed on the mainstage, etc). But I really really really enjoyed my education there, and got a lot out of it. The acting teachers and playwriting programs were excellent. Also: it was fun to be in an upper-division dramatic lit class, reading aloud from a David Mamet play and hearing some of the other students willing to say “f*ck” out of their respect for the author’s artistic intentions.”

I’ve seen my share of Broadway (and off Broadway) plays over the years. I remember clearly the first time I saw a play where someone was totally naked on stage. It was five years ago, I was still very active in the church, and I kept to mainstream ideas about media and entertainment. It was the musical Dracula and at one point Lucy’s entire dress was ripped from her body and you saw her standing on stage completely naked. It was a bit of a shock to me, I’ll admit.

Since then I’ve seen many productions where “problematic content” has been portrayed. It seems to me, in theater, that it’s much less sensationalized than in film. It’s more raw. It’s more human and basic. Most recently, I saw Equus starring an incredibly young Daniel Radcliffe. In the play there is a fifteen minute time period where you get to see Harry and his magic wand do all sorts of things from a sex scene (with another character who is completely naked) to stabbing out the eyes of seven horses. It was a highly reflective play on why and how people worship, dealing with our inner demons, and analyzing our interactions with others. It was one of the best productions I have ever seen.

It makes me wonder what the general ideas are in regards to the arts. Does BYU’s decision represent a wider audience agreement? What role should censorship play in the arts? Do you agree or disagree with BYU’s decision? I have to admit that I’m not familiar with the play that BYU stopped, but after reading the article, all I want to do is get my hands on a copy of it.

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17 Responses

  1. FoxyJ says:

    I did my undergrad and a master’s at BYU (in English and Spanish, with a bit of a side trip to Art History). Like you, I found that the ‘public’ face of things was not really reflected in my experience in class, especially not upper-division and graduate classes. For example, you really cannot study literature in Spanish without reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez. 100 Years of Solitude is a landmark text, but it also has quite a bit of ‘problematic content’. My teacher for the Latin American novel started the semester by telling us that we would be reading it, she didn’t think it was pornographic, and that if we could not handle mature content than we shouldn’t be literature majors. I’ve heard a similar speech from other professors, especially in literature and film classes. When I went elsewhere to do my PhD I felt completely prepared as far as literary theory and background and didn’t feel I’d missed much at all by going to BYU. I had a fellow Mormon grad student who had not attended BYU express surprise that I had studied theorists like Lacan, Freud, and Cixous there, but it would silly/stupid to have a graduate program in literature without that kind of theory.

    Anyways, I do feel bad for professors at BYU because they have to walk a fine line. I know one of the banes of the humanities department were students who ran home to tell their mom/stake president/GA uncle that their BYU professor read something naughty. My professors were always pleading with their students to come speak with them instead of going to a ‘higher authority’. From my completly anecdotal experience it seems like most of my fellow students were fairly open-minded, but there were always those one or two students who would make a big deal out of everything.

    As an institution BYU has a lot to deal with, because of their offical Church sponsorship. They tend to err on the side of catering to the minority of people who are likely to be offended rather than the majority of those who are not. I’m not sure whether I agree with this or not. From what I read, it sounded like the play itself wasn’t as much of a problem as the particular production was. I’m not sure what the answer is, but I keep getting embarrassed every time stuff like this comes up in the news.

  2. Caroline says:

    This is fascinating. If this play is what I think it is, it’s a play from Euripides. (Usually spelled ‘Bacchae’.) Not only is it about wine and inhibitions and god, it’s also (and more centrally, I think) about a bunch of women who reject their domestic roles and their husbands’ demands and run off to the mountains to embrace their primitive, animal nature. It can be easily read with feminist undertones – maybe that’s another reason why BYU rejected it?

    I think it’s sad when BYU goes overboard with censorship of the arts. Though I didn’t go there and have no ties to it, so this is not something I have a lot of vested interest it. I do remember my cousin telling me that when BYU showed The Princess Bride and the guy tells the woman that she has the most perfect breasts, they bleeped out the word ‘breasts.’ That’s just pathetic, I think.

  3. FoxyJ says:

    I thought these two articles added a little bit more information about the production and the reasons for cancelling it:

    http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13393687
    http://www.sltrib.com/ci_13396853

    I guess my main concern with this is that, like many other well-trumpeted cases of censorship at BYU, it just comes across as silly. I suppose the only thing that would stop it is if people completely stopped going to BYU productions and protested their decision to cut stuff like this. I’m not sure that will ever happen. At least there are a lot of other good options locally for theater (and the same production can still be seen in other venues in Utah) so BYU is not the only place for theater in Utah or even in Utah County. Like you said, I do like the fact that the environment in the theater department does encourage a lot of creative original scriptwriting. And BYU arts productions are almost always quite affordable 🙂

    Another thing I was thinking about with this issue, is the fact that it so often goes back to the visual. Like Shakespeare–bawdy jokes are one thing, scantily dressed women are another. Especially in this case where the problem was more in the costuming and music than the play itself. The Spanish department has been putting on seventeenth century plays for several years now and I’ve noticed the same thing–costuming, gestures, and set design matter a lot more than what words are actually being said (barring obvious profanity)

  4. Emmelyn says:

    Great questions. I graduated from BYU’s acting program in 2000 (D’Arcy, do we know each other?), and loved my time there, even whilst rolling my eyes at the Rodin sculpture debacle, and the audience members who wrote angry letters because an actor put a cigarette to his lips onstage for approximately 3.2 seconds . . .

    Like your friend said, because many modern plays are deemed objectionable, the focus gets placed on classical theatre (and not just Shakespeare – Shaw, Chekhov, Ibsen, Wilde, etc). And that focus has amazing benefits: the playwriting program he mentioned is one. Four BYU students won the national Irene Ryan Competition in rapid succession, and most did classical pieces. The Old Globe’s classical MFA program accepts 7 people a year, and 6 of us were accepted over a short period of time. Intensive classical training in an undergrad program is a rare thing, and BYU grads in the industry are often told how fortunate we are to have had it.

    Do I agree with BYU’s decision to censor the play you mentioned? I’d have to see it first in to form an opinion. Does it represent a wider audience agreement? Probably. I think that, in general, Provo audiences don’t want to be challenged by theatre; they want to be entertained by it. And they want their entertainment to be free of subject matter and language that are typically deemed objectionable by mainstream Mormon culture. And I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with that. I can think they’re missing out on a lot of great theatre, but that’s the thing about art. It’s subjective. A production that moves me profoundly might be incredibly offensive to some of my loved ones. And vice-versa. Does that mean their opinions are wrong? Or mine?

  5. republicanwithasmallpenis says:

    hey this is a pretty interesting forum, hope i’m not intruding… I’d had an impression of LDS women that I have to re-think now, pretty cool…

  6. Bean421 says:

    Emmalyn, I think you hit the nail on the head about Provo and theatre. My brother’s high school did a production of Children of Eden. A beautiful show, but many in the audience were not happy with the portrayal of God and the way he interacted with the other characters. My husband and I found the themes of intriguing and were disappointed that others couldn’t see the value in exploring the message of the show.

  7. D'Arcy says:

    Thanks for all your comments. I agree that many at BYU have to walk a fine line that I doubt some of them want to walk. Each has their own opinion, however, I do think that many of the classes I took could have pressed the button about ideas a little bit more. I felt less prepared for my grad school education at BYU because I hadn’t questioned a lot of things that most people had at my age.

  8. Kelly Ann says:

    D’Arcy, I too wish i would have questioned more but I have to say I am glad that BYU slowly pushed me. I read books in my English classes that I had protested in high school. I wish I would have questioned more but it did set me on a good path that I further pursued with my own time. And I enjoyed my education there far more than the classes I took at other schools. But I’ll admit that I would never teach at BYU because of the limitations and fine line that needs to be walked. I am too out there now and I am in the sciences …

  9. esodhiambo says:

    While I have no problem with a free market when it comes to theatre (you see Disney musicals because you want to smile, I’ll see Mammet because I want to think a little, etc), I can understand why “the arts” at BYU cannot have a truly open market.

    The fact is, too many BYU stakeholders interpret something being produced/read/discussed/watched at BYU as an endorsement by God. When the content is problematic, it causes them great distress.

    True, “the artists” at BYU could rally and say “we want to show/read/discuss/produce what we want to produce” and do all sorts of edgy stuff, but I suspect they would find themselves closed down. BYU doesn’t NEED a theatre department, does it? Students could easily get their theatre fixes elsewhere. But the theatre department needs BYU. So they stay safe. I think that is a fine choice. I also think it would be a fine choice for people who DON’T like that kind of censorship by omission to not involve themselves in that theatre department.

  10. Craig says:

    “What role should censorship play in the arts?”

    Absolutely none. Not ever, for any reason.

    BYU’s history and perpetuation of censorship disgusts me.

  11. Margot says:

    Craig,

    No censorship at all? So if someone wants to perform a sex act on a BYU stage, that should be allowed? Everyone draws the line somewhere – even the most liberal of theaters. BYU is a private university. They have the right to say what can and can’t happen on their stages. If you owned a theater, you could say what happened on your stage.

  12. Craig says:

    Well a sex act would be illegal, would it not, and even that I think should be allowed to be performed in the right circumstance. I don’t think you realise how anti-cenorship I am.

    But other than that, no, no censorship. I don’t argue that BYU has the right to censor whatever it wants – but I also have the right to say I think it is very troubling, and I find censorship to be quite heinous – especially of the ridiculous and groundless sort BYU routinely engages in.

  13. Kelly Ann says:

    “The fact is, too many BYU stakeholders interpret something being produced/read/discussed/watched at BYU as an endorsement by God. When the content is problematic, it causes them great distress.”

    I think this is totally the reason why BYU over airs on the site of caution.

    I’d like to think that they have made progress over the years but I do believe they have a longs way to go although I will say that they will always probably censor …

  14. jks says:

    I think it is good for BYU to attempt to have some standards and not show some productions. You CAN have meaningful, important plays without objectionable stuff in them. Where do you draw the line? Every person has a different place, I guess.
    I recently bought tickets to a professional ballet production and then noticed they warned some content might not be suitable for children. I had to call and find out if it was suitable for me!
    Almost all sex and nudity is completely gratuitous whether in film or in a play.
    I think that if someone is buying a ticket to something at BYU they are assuming it meets some sort of decency standard. I think BYU should attempt to have standards in productions with their name on them. I am sure no two people will agree exactly where the line should be, but I applaud BYU for attempting to have a reasonable line.
    (I should point out that many times BYU isn’t allowed to put on a production because whoever owns the play won’t let them edit it at all……..Shakespeare, however, doesn’t seem to mind a little editing). I disagree with the artist community that doesn’t like edited movies for sale (yet they are willing for TV stations to edit it, or airplanes to edit it, etc.) My daughter really wants to watch Monty Python and the Holy Grail for her birthday party. How annoying (and often impossible to do accurately) to try to forward through the inappropriate material myself.

  15. benji smith says:

    Very nice article.

    (Incidentally, I’m the person D’Arcy quoted.)

    As a non-Mormon student in the BYU theatre program, I couldn’t have been happier with my education there. The standards they impose are definitely not my own, and I would have enjoyed doing some edgier stuff on the mainstage.

    But I don’t swear in my mother’s home (as much as I enjoy a good, well-placed profanity in my every day discourse) because I know my mom doesn’t like that kind of language in her home. The time I spent at BYU was the same sort of thing. If they want to keep certain content off their mainstage, that’s their own business. The fact that edgier stuff was allowed in the classrooms, especially for upper-division classes, filled in the gap enough for my needs.

    In addition to the excellent classical acting instruction and the top-notch playwrighting program, I forgot to also mention the unexpected amount of one-on-one attention that undergrads can get from their professors. In many cases, I considered my professors to be close friends. Certainly, that’s rare in any educational setting.

  16. benji smith says:

    btw, hi Emmelyn!

  17. D'Arcy says:

    As a follow up, the play that was banned was performed at U of U on Sat and Sun and the audience attendance increased greatly after BYU’s dismissal of the play.

    I think that’s an interesting consequence. And to every side of the story there are definite pros and cons.

    Thanks everyone for sharing your views!

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