About three lifetimes ago when I was in grad school, I remember a conversation I had with a friend in a hallway outside two separate rehearsal rooms. I had been the guy to work on shows like As You Like It and My Fair Lady. Meanwhile the "cool kids" were working on a cross-gender-cast production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore. Why didn't I get to be part of the sexandviolence (yes, in the U.S.A., it's one word) shows? I always did the family entertainment show.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that I was a pornographer.
In the latter part of the last decade, I discovered that I had a group of fine young women and very few men – not far different than many theatres in many places. So what show to do? Wendy Wasserstein's Uncommon Women and Others sprang to mind. (Many readers know the play, I hope.) One of Wasserstein's early works that mirrored her own college experience with a group of women.
I realize that what I'm about to say will come as a major shock to many of our male readers. Those of you with testicles might need to sit or pause using heavy machinery. It turns out that college-age women sometime engage in sexual congress without benefit of matrimony. I pause for a moment for the weaker willed of you to take a sip of water.
More than that. It turns out that these same women sometime engage in frank and candid conversation about sex. Indeed, I say more. It even appears that these same women sometime converse about the relative performance and/or prowess of male partners. They talk about their own sexual health. And, occasionally they sometime talk about class.
Have you heard the like?
In many ways our production of Uncommon Women and Others turned out to be quite a success in a community constituted of a majority of college age women. A mother came to see and hear a show that her impressionable daughter praised so highly.
Well, that's when it hit the fan. It turns out that the play was porn. I was a pornographer for asking a group of fine young women to take part in such filth. How could I live with myself. Who was this Wendy Wasserstein anyway?
Like many such teapot tempests, this one quickly blew further and further away leaving behind a mildly funny anecdote. In the event, I don't even blame the mother. She was a good woman who wanted nothing but the best for her daughter. And she was likely embarrassed to be confronted with sex talk in the presence of her daughter. The only way to relieve her anxiety on multiple levels was to attack me as the pornographer I clearly was.
So I got the porn "badge" without even being close to the sexandviolence play.
But in reality, in truth. There is no real obscenity in the arts. That's twaddle.
There is always a place in the arts for that which is transgressive and subversive. The only way to keep valuable tradition from ossification and petrification is through the test of the transgressive and the subversive. By challenging the mores, the unspoken truths, the local gods; the transgressive and subversive arts whisper in our ear, "See? These people are still recognizable. They're human. I'm human with them. Do I need to commit incest and cut the living heart out of my sibling and commit public suicide for my transgressions? [Spoilers: Part of the plot of 'Tis Pity She's A Whore.] No, I won't do those things. That'd be really gross." As a result we know more about ourselves and how we can live in this world.
Watching consenting adults actually engage in consensual sex activities may be alternately racy and mostly skeevy – but it's not obscene. Folks having sex together in public for the viewing public? Not my cup of tea, but not obscene.
Unfortunately we live in a world that makes no mistake about the obscene.
Childhood hunger is obscene. Childhood poverty is obscene. Nations ravaged by disease in Africa – like AIDS and malaria – is obscene. That, in the face of these obscenities, the U.S.A. spends more money on defense than most of the world combined is obscene.
The most obscene thing is that we know of these problems. We know there are homeless people going without food in our towns and cities. We know children tonight will experience want, cold, and hunger. The most obscene thing is that we know these things, and we look away. We know these things are obscene, so we don't want to watch. It's all understandable.
So what do we do?
We make the art we make. We do the holiday play. We do the Shakespeare. We do the transgressive and the subversive.
And occasionally. Once in a while. A little bit. We use our art to shine the briefest, the smallest, and the most granular corpuscle of light on the truly obscene. That which is truly obscene is hard to look at. So we need to remind ourselves there's work to do, and we can do that work.