Thursday, May 16, 2013

Opinion: Censorship by Mark Leiren-Young

Censorship has a body count...
by Mark Leiren-Young
[Republished, with permission, from Playwrights Guild of Canada's Online Journal. For information about the conference "Censorship versus Self-Censorship" which Mr. Leiren-Young will be moderating, click here]
My introduction to gay porn was being shown images and words so disturbing they were blacked out by the guardians of decency at Canada Customs. But if I held the paper up to the light at just the right angle I could see what was considered too dangerous for the tender eyes of Canadians -- condom ads.
Maclean’s Magazine had hired me to research a story about a disease killing gay men and I visited Vancouver’s gay and lesbian bookstore, Little Sisters, to see what they knew about it. The manager of the store showed me the magazines with the disturbing ads and articles suggesting that perhaps the spread of this disease might be stopped with condoms. Then he explained that because condoms implied that gay men were having anal sex the ads were considered indecent.
I was shocked and outraged.
I’d assumed, perhaps naively, that most gay men who bought these magazines might have heard of anal sex, but might not have heard of this disease or thought about using condoms to protect themselves.
I wanted to write all about my shock and outrage for Maclean’s. But in the mid-1980s Maclean’s also wasn’t going to admit that anal sex existed. Over the next few years, I was the lead west coast researcher for several Maclean’s features on HIV/AIDS and the more I learned, the more I found myself wondering... How many people died because some bureaucrat in Ottawa decided that the concept of condom ads aimed at men having sex with men was icky?
The more I wrote about Little Sisters and their battles with Canada Customs, the more I started realizing... Censorship has a body count.
In the early ‘90s I wrote a play called Shylock about a Jewish actor accused of anti-Semitism for his portrayal of Shakespeare’s notorious Jew. The actor in this solo show was playing Shylock as the comic villain in Merchant of Venice, not as a wounded victim. The local Jewish community took umbrage and my imaginary Shakespeare Festival cancelled their production of Merchant rather than risk the wrath of their Semitic patrons. I know... totally implausible... Just ask any artistic director who has tried to stage My Name is Rachel Corrie, a controversial play based on the diaries and emails of a young American woman who died when she was run over by an armored bulldozer while protesting in the Gaza strip.
The premise of my script is that the audience is witnessing a talkback session after the final performance of the controversial production of Merchant and the only actor willing to talk back to the audiences is the one in trouble for playing Shylock.
The script was inspired in part by statements from various Artistic Directors, including Stratford’s, expressing their uneasiness about ever staging Merchant -- because of its anti-Semitism -- or Taming of the Shrew because of its sexism. But mostly it was inspired by my own experiences with censorship and trying to find a way to express what it was like to find myself at the centre of a shit-storm.
My play was set to debut at Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach, but my director (the late John Juliani) sent it to Stratford for their consideration. I had no idea how seriously they’d considered it until I was at an event at Vancouver’s Jewish Community Centre and one of the organizers offered to introduce me to Bernie Farber, the person who looks out for anti-Semitism for the Canadian Jewish Congress. As soon as he heard my name he said something along the lines of, “you’re the guy who wrote Shylock?”
I asked how he knew about my play. “I’ve read it,” he said. Then he told me someone at Stratford had given it to him to check out. You could have knocked me over with a ducat.
I was never sure from my conversation with Mr. Farber whether he’d liked the play or warned the theatre against it -- although no one in Ontario has ever produced it -- but I immediately added a few lines to my script. “Are we only allowed to do Merchant if we do a version that has the approval of the Jewish Congress? Can we only produce Taming of the Shrew if the local Women’s Shelter is on-side? Does every production of every play have to be “comfortable” for everyone in the audience?”
The thing is... I wasn’t upset with Bernie Farber, regardless of what he said - and not just because I was delighted with the new lines our conversation had inspired. He’d been asked for his opinion on my script and I assumed that whatever his opinion was he offered it honestly. I also understood that whoever sent the script to him was trying to do a good thing and avoid giving offense to the Jewish community.
But when I researched the history of Shakespearean censorship I discovered that censors were always trying to do a good thing. And most of them started from the premise that while they themselves could handle offensive ideas and images, these ideas and images were bound to corrupt or damage “other people.” Henrietta Bowdler -- the patron saint of censorship, the woman who helped “correct” Shakespeare for the Victorian era -- was only trying to make the Bard fit for children and ladies when she edited “The Family Shakespeare” in 1807. The book wasn’t just a bestseller, but resulted in her name joining the English language as “bowdlerization” became synonymous with censorship. How many editors end up with their own place in the dictionary?
A few years after 9-11, Shylock was staged at the San Diego Rep Theatre in rep with a production of Merchant. Because reality is always stranger than fiction, the local Jewish community was not thrilled that Shakespeare’s play was being staged or with the way the actor in it was portraying Shylock. Just like my imaginary artistic director, San Diego’s real artistic director was taking flak for staging the show, and he wanted to find a way to calm his critics.
The actor playing my Shylock was also playing Shylock in Merchant so, in order to deal with the controversy, the theatre decided to hold a real talkback session after my fake talkback session.
Some real life audience members were as outraged by San Diego’s Shylock as the imaginary audience in my play. One man at the back of the theatre, who clearly wasn’t keen on my anti-censorship point-of-view, kept demanding to know where I “drew the line.”
I wasn’t sure how to answer the question, so I explained that I was Canadian and one of the things I admired most about America was the First Amendment and the way their country protected free speech.
The man at the back of the theatre shouted that, “even free speech has limits.” Others voiced their agreement. Like I said, this was a year or two after 9-11. Then he asked again, for the third or fourth time, “where do you draw the line?”
I told him, “I’ll know when I get there.”
But as I sat there on stage I thought about the helpful censors at Canada Customs serving and protecting gay men from condom ads and what I wanted to tell him was... your Founding Fathers got the whole free speech thing right... Censorship has a body count.
A few lines from Shylock (published by Anvil Press)...
First they came for Merchant, but I find anti-Semitism offensive so I said nothing. Then they came for Taming of the Shrew, but I find sexism offensive so I said nothing. Then they came for Macbeth for defaming the Scots and Hamlet for being unfair to the mentally ill. But maybe that isn’t going far enough. If Elizabethan attitudes are offensive to modern sensibilities, perhaps we should just wipe out the entire Elizabethan era. Don’t just do away with Shakespeare, make like Stalin and tear all the offending pages out of all our books...
...The next time I play Richard, I fully expect a hunchback rights organization to demand that the King straighten up -- or at least be shown to have some redeeming social qualities. You think I’m kidding. A school teacher in England refused to let her class attend the ballet Romeo and Juliet because of, quote, blatant heterosexual content. A school board, in America in New Hampshire, stopped teaching Twelfth Night because it promotes cross-dressing...Image: Alex Waterhouse-Hayward
Mark Leiren-Young received a Western Magazine Award for his coverage of Little Sisters versus Canada Customs for The Georgia Straight. He has served on the Book and Periodical Council and Canada’s Freedom of Expression Committee for almost twenty years on behalf of the Playwrights Guild of Canada and, more recently, PEN Canada. His new comic memoir Free Magic Secrets Revealed (Harbour) is about a disastrous stage play he wrote and produced when he was a teenager and has nothing to do with censorship. For more on Mr. Leiren-Young visit

Read also Brad Fraser on Censorship
Read also an excerpt of Mr. Leiren-Young's Free Magic Secrets Revealed

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