By Aaron Wigdor Levy, member of the 2011 Emerging Writers Group
I use the “F” word a lot in my plays. I use it in all sorts of combinations. It wasn’t a conscious choice or an attempt to be edgy, but soon after I started writing, language more associated with dockworkers and angry drivers began finding it’s way into my scripts. I never thought much about it. It was just the way my characters’ communicated or, rather, didn’t communicate with their world. Since Mamet, Shepard and countless other playwrights made profanity commonplace in the seventies, I just viewed it as another tool to tell my characters’ story. Then one day I had a conversation with a literary manager friend that made me think it was in fact a much bigger deal.
“The Major Artistic Director of this Major Regional Theater hates the “F” word.” (I’m leaving out the person who told me this and the person it was about.) I was actually kind of shocked. I can understand why some people wouldn’t like excessive use of the “F” Bomb and some audiences may be put off by it, but it’s one word, and a very prevalent word in both our society and new plays. Isn’t that being a bit puritan? I started asking around. The same person told me that he’s heard a person within the theater community say that “profanity is the placeholder for an articulate idea” and that “only lazy playwrights use profanity.” He also told me how a major regional theater wouldn’t consider a play because of mild profanity. This seemed pretty extreme to me. I don’t think I’m lazy. I don’t think I’m that inarticulate.
Some chalk it up to playing it safe, which is true, especially in commercial theater. If you’re taking the family to the theater you don’t necessarily want them coming home with a new vocabulary. I don’t think Broadway is quite ready for Taxi Driver: The Musical yet. Another friend who works at a regional theater says it’s all about informing the audience. If they come in expecting family fare, they might not want that entire season dedicated to Sarah Kane. Downtown New York and Peoria are still very different places. But why do we expect theater to be politer than other forms of entertainment? To me the best part of theater is that it investigates the world we live in, and part of the world is profane.
In my own experience I have found the audience surprisingly willing to go with some of my plays that are a bit saltier. After a performance of one of my plays a woman who must have been in her seventies came up to me. I was expecting her to tear me a new one (in polite language of course), but she gave me a hug and told me how much she liked the play. Here I was already so defensive about what I’d written and this woman just wanted to give me a compliment.
Should I be concerned about the language in my play? Am I hindering my options for production with a flurry of “F” Bombs? I’m not sure, but I think by peppering my characters’ dialogue with the occasional four-letter word I’m able to show their frustration, place in the world and further define them.
Aaron Wigdor Levy's profanity laced short play, TRUBIE, was commissioned and recently produced by the American Theater Company in Chicago for their 10X10 Play Festival.
This post is part of a weekly series from the Emerging Writers Group community of playwrights. The EWG is two-year playwriting fellowship at The Public Theater seeking to target playwrights at the earliest stages of their careers. In so doing, The Public hopes to create an artistic home for a diverse and exceptionally talented group of up-and-coming playwrights.