April 2005  | This Issue

Nathan Thomas

The Best Defense...

an people still be offended?

This question provided the impetus for a conversation amongst a group of learned colleagues this week.  At times I wonder if people are honestly offended by anything.  Certainly people say they're offended.  But does that mean that they are truly offended or is the feeling a reaction spring from an idea that they ought to be offended?

For example, a little more than a year ago, there was a mild furor in the USA about the exposure of a female breast with a covered nipple during the half-time break for a major sporting event.  People expressed shock and outrage at the sight of a female breast.  Presumably all of us as human beings have seen a female breast at some time in our lives.  Presumably slightly more than half of us have female breasts as part of our anatomy.  Yet the sight of this particular breast at this particular time seemed to cause offense.  Now, was the offense actual -- or the result of a conscious or unconscious idea that at the sight of a breast one ought to be offended?

Americans betray a notorious hypocrisy in this particular area.  While the good people of America won't have anything to do with "filth" major companies make millions upon millions of dollars selling films of people having sex. Pornography. 

Or, for example, take a small city in the American south.  This city was chosen by a company who has a string of strip clubs as a good site for a new franchise location.  The franchise location would be in the city's downtown a few blocks from tourist hotels.  The company concluded some visitors would visit the club as an evening activity.

Not surprisingly a group of citizens raised a furor about the offensive nature of this kind of business and what it reflected on the community at large. So, one Sunday the city's newspaper's front page was loaded with coverage of the complaining citizens at a city council meeting.  Having finished reading the story about the offensive nature of women in varying states of undress dancing lewdly in our community, one could turn to the Arts and Entertainment section of the very same paper.  

There on the front page of the Arts section was a giant picture of Brittany Spears on her knees, hips thrust forward, in a costume that could barely be classified as a garment obviously singing passionately. From the photo, one doubted that Ms. Spears was singing a song about the passions of intellectual pursuits.  Above the picture rested a huge headline about Ms. Spear's plans to include a visit to this city on a tour.  This was big news and cause for celebration such a big star would add this small city as a tour date.

Hmmmmm. . . . a woman in varying states of undress dancing lewdly in our city . . . . .

The irony was not lost on this writer.

Now I don't criticize Ms. Spear's chosen mode of performing. The question comes back to the issue of offense.  Was the offense at the idea of a strip club real or a result of an idea that one ought to be offended?

The reason I ask the question is that the theatre I see has reached a level of such gentility that one wonders what it would take these days to get the audience to riot as at the opening of The Rite of Spring.  At what point have the audience and actors become so jaded that nothing gives offense? Our offense becomes, in fact, a kind of cultural memory rather than a visceral reaction?

In the next month our theatre will mount a production of Vaclav Havel's The Memo (or, also known as The Memorandum).  In planning the comedy, I keep wondering how our production will incite reaction.  Obviously, as purveyors of comedy, we want people to laugh.  But the play also satirizes bureaucracy, language, and education (among other targets).  Will we make anyone actually a little uncomfortable? I don't know.

I wonder, though, if it's still possible to offend without overly self-indulgent shocks.  Is it possible to provide a performance that wakes up the audience without resorting to gross tricks?  My hope is that it is.  Some things in life are offensive.  It's offensive, for example, that children live in poverty.  But does this actively offend people anymore?  As an American I fear for the loss of our ability to be offended.

While working on the production of Balaganchik (or, "The Puppet/Fairground Booth"), the director Vsevolod Meyerhold said that a strong comedy serves not as a mirror, but a magnifying glass.  Alexander Blok, the playwright, noted that the purpose of the farce is to serve as a battering ram.

So here's hoping that I'm offensive (at least a little bit).

Or, as Alfred Jarry so ably put it, offending many


©2005 Nathan Thomas
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College.

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