I recently spoke with a senior citizens’ group, where I met a charming, intelligent 85-year-old woman who had some strong ideas. She said she doesn’t tolerate “dirty” language in plays and movies. She reminded me of a woman I knew who attended just about every local theater production with her mother. Whenever a vulgarity was used onstage, she’d walk out of the auditorium and spend the remainder of the production in the lobby reading her Bible.
Of course, everyone’s entitled to their tastes. But sometimes I fear that people don’t understand what the purpose of language is.
The latest instance of concern was the opening last week of “Big River” (a vibrant musical playing tonight and Saturday at Las Vegas Academy). The show is an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” about a boy who emotionally grows up when he witnesses the abuse heaped on a runaway slave. The racial taunts in the script include words that some consider obscene today, and director John Morris doesn’t back away from them. That’s in contrast to the school textbook companies who have substituted the word “slave” for the more blunt quotes in Twain’s book.
Why are we so afraid of language? I look to the theater to give me an insight into people’s lives. If I’m watching a play about being black in 1800s America, I don’t want the details cleaned up for me. Sure, I might feel nicer about the world, but I’d be depriving myself of a chance to get to know another person’s truth.
If I see a realistic play about gang life, I don’t want to hear the members saying, “Golly gee, I’m mad at you.” I’d much rather get a genuine feel for how the members talk, live and think. Then, too, if I’m watching a story about a very gentile, proper family, obscenities might seem very out of place. So it works both ways. But I’ve never understood why words are often considered more important than their intent.
Perhaps I’m jaded by a teenage experience. I had a friend who detested his father, rarely spoke to him. But his father demanded the boy call him “Sir.” He adored his mother. They grew into friends. One day they were searching for tennis shoes, and when he looked at the price tag, he involuntarily let out an obscenity. His mother began crying and said, “How can you disrespect me so much that you would use language like that in front of me?” He apologized profusely. But the irony shook him. Because he called his father “Sir,” people thought him a good boy and a dutiful son — even though he was seething whenever he said it. And because he used an obscenity over the price of shoes, he was considered disrespectful — even though he respected his mother more than anyone else on Earth.
Maybe we worry too much about the wrong things.
Anthony Del Valle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can write him c/o Las Vegas Review-Journal, P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125.