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.