Republican Theater Festival: Debrief
So, the Republican Theater Festival occurred, and all in all, it was really not that big a deal. No fights broke out; I was not required to do karate on disruptively rowdy patrons; I was not asked to use the power of my atomic intellect to rhetorically break a man down into his component parts. So, some disappointments, obviously. But for what had ostensibly seemed like it was going to be a pretty controversial event — one that filled up listservs and email inboxes with hatemail and poorly-worded screeds — it turned out to be a surprisingly non-controversial night on the town.
I am now going to write some things about the plays, and you may consider that, unless I say otherwise, I’m generally just not including the play that I worked on (“Running Amok,” by Quinn D. Eli) in my analysis, for no reason other than I don’t expect you to find my analysis of it objective. Good or bad or what, it’s pretty much off the table. So.
Were the plays any good?
No, not really. Structurally, most of them languished after they’d established their premise, and it was not uncommon for realistic or interesting dialog to leap out of the way in order to make room for some didactic moralizing, though the many actors who worked on these plays did their best to make it all sound very nice and natural, and for that they should be commended.
In fact, though, I wouldn’t say that there was any higher or lower a degree of quality in the writing than there is in a regular play festival, which…I don’t know if you’ve seen regular one-act play festivals, but they are basically the fucking WORST. History provides us no real evidence to suggest that one-act plays for festivals like this are chosen based on their quality, so it is pretty reasonable to believe (as some of the playwrights for this festival contend) that the lack of airtime their works have received is, indeed, the consequence of politics.
On the other hand, I’m not sure that the problem isn’t the kind of flaws that these plays exhibited. The best one — by which I mean the one that is the most structurally sound — I’d argue is “Volley”. It’s a satire of modern political debates in which two candidates — their teams apparently indistinguishable — just hurl buzzwords and contradictory adjectives and nouns at each other, while a scoreboard behind them changes randomly (I think randomly, or anyway it SHOULD be randomly; I’d have liked it more if instead of just numbers going up at random intervals, it started to devolve into weird pictograms, i.e., “Point to the red team, the score is Shamrock to some squiggly lines”), until one of the candidates flips out and has a stroke. It’s pretty funny, and I think makes a pretty trenchant point about how stupid and arbitrary our political debates are. The primary flaw it suffers from is just that it’s about 30% too long (it is, after all, just variations on the same joke told over and over).
That’s a basic kind of flaw that you see in most one-act plays, especially one-act plays that are predicated on the premise as a joke, as opposed to the premise as a foundation for a plot — since you have to reveal the punchline of the joke early on (or else…just not have any jokes, I guess), you end up with a lot of plays that get off to a good start and then kind of just peter out and stop after some arbitrary length of time.
And you also get a lot of plays that are just dumb, or kind of gross, or what have you. And I think this is true, I haven’t done a survey but I’d be willing to bet on it, it’s not usually the case that you get a LOT of plays that are just people shouting the playwright’s ideas to the audience for fifteen minutes. “Occupy This,” for example — a play that seems like it’s a satire of the Occupy Wall Street movement (though, happily, reserves plenty of criticism for Ethnics, such as fiery latinas who speak in their incomprehensible native speech when agitated, and for Financial Consultants, who are portrayed as condescending, humorless scolds) — doesn’t actually feature any kind of action at all after a brick is thrown in the first minute. Now, you can make any kind of play that you want, but my feeling is if you’re going to start off with one brick getting thrown, you need to build on that, not replace all the brick-throwing with lectures about the merits of capitalism.
Everyone — even capitalists — would rather see someone throw a brick than hear someone talk about how great capitalism is.
Objectively, I don’t think this is any worse of a play than one that’s just about, say, two dumb guys getting stoned on their couch and making movie references in place of jokes; it’s just a different kind of bad. But I do think that particular kind of bad does seem a lot worse than the aforementioned pop-culture-stoner-comedy, because of how aggressive it comes off. So, I don’t know, I guess this is a judgment call, but in my opinion, this Republican Play Festival does not provide sufficient evidence to suggest that Republican voices are being cut out of the conversation specifically because of their content; certainly, that could stil be true, and it’s even PLAUSIBLE that some of these plays haven’t seen more festival time because of their content, but as it stands, what we got didn’t prove anything. Maybe the problem was that they were Republican, maybe the problem was that they weren’t very good in a way that was specifically more irritating than the way one-act plays usually aren’t very good.
Did They Convince You?
Hahahah, no. No, not at all. And I don’t want to sound like I’m just some dyed-in-the-wool liberal fanatic, I was here ready to have my mind changed, you know? I told Cara Blouin, who produced the festival, that in my opinion basically all Republican policy ideas are immoral, impractical, or specious — obligingly, she found me one of the two plays in the festival that weren’t either of those things to work on — and that I was willing to be convinced if I found one that wasn’t, but every play in this particular round leans very, very heavily on the specious.
Some, like “Propaganda”, were actually so specious that I not only didn’t know what the author was arguing for or against, but I didn’t even have any idea what the fuck he was talking about. It was about ten minutes of a college professor angrily yelling incendiary things about terrorism at a woman who’d had her tongue cut out and was planning on blowing him up for having tortured her, and then finally telling the audience that they’d be familiar with this propaganda technique and pointing to a white board that conspicuously says, “Yes We Can.” So…torture, terrorism, something, because OBAMA. I don’t…I really just don’t know what the fuck I’m supposed to be getting out of it.
The actors did a real good job with it, though.
Others, like “501(c)me” — which was actually one of the best structured plays in the festival, and even included actual jokes that were pretty funny — thankfully had slightly more modest ambitions than “batshit paranoid fantasia”. This one set its sites specifically on non-profit funding and does, indeed make a compelling — well, not “compelling”, exactly, but certainly a “reasonable enough” — case that, hey, we probably SHOULDN’T allow people to just incorporate themselves, to get non-profit status to support their personal lifestyles, or to create 501(c)3 organizations that don’t have some kind of obligation to provide something of value to the community.
And hey, lo and behold, you can’t do any of those things. The tax codes all explicitly and specifically prohibit all of the things that happen in this play. And while I think you could make an argument that OBAMA, the fact is that the president has expressed an interest in improving small business loans, changes to the tax code that benefit American businesses and American workers, increasing access to education grants and loans, and pretty much NO interest in making it easy for everyone to become their own non-profit organization and lock their lips on that delicious NEA free-money teat.
Now, I agree, maybe this is just jokes, and maybe even if it’s not just jokes, maybe it’s something we should keep an eye on, like let’s not make it TOO easy for theaters to get free money, sure. But 1) I’m not going to worry about that today, specifically, considering all the other things I have to worry about, and 2) I actually really would prefer it if it were easy for theaters and libraries and museums to get free money, and the Pentagon had to have a bunch of fundraisers at the pub the next time they wanted to build a gigantic aircraft carrier.
ALLLL of which is leading me up to the play that I liked the least, because it actually DID make me really mad, and the more I found out about it, the madder I got. That play was “Battle Hymn”, by Ludmilla Bollow.
Ooo, Tell Us About That One
ALL RIGHT. This play is about two people who are in a park, and they are very sad. They’re talking about someone who is nearby and who is about to be killed/destroyed, and it’s this that has got them down in the dumps. It is gradually revealed that the “He” that they’re referring to is a statue of Jesus that ONE ATHEIST (as the female character, Mabel, describes, “so full of hate”) didn’t like and, after enlisting the aid of a number of OUTSIDE ORGANIZATIONS (it doesn’t say which ones, but I assumed the ACLU), sues the township and forces them to DESTROY THE STATUE. The Christians try everything to save it, but they’re too poor to afford good lawyers. They even buy the land — they buy the land and offer to take care of the statue themselves, but this isn’t enough for the atheist. He uses his vast wealth to bully the courts into metaphorically bulldozing the poor Christians of this town, and then not-metaphorically bulldozing the statue, crushing it into rubble. Then, the male character — John — explains to Mabel that he knows a guy named Jim Packard who’s got a plan to take the broken bits of the Jesus statue, somehow remake them into a statue of an ordinary man and an ordinary woman, and then put them up in the park anyway where everyone will see Jesus only they won’t know it, and this will somehow make everyone happy, I don’t know.
When I first heard this play, I did get a little riled up. Upon further consideration, I came to think that this was an issue that didn’t merit a play so much as it merited a youtube video of someone with a soothing voice explaining how the fucking Establishment Clause works. John complains about how he doesn’t like to see bumper stickers and THOSE are in public, how he can’t complain about T-Shirts and THOSE are in public, so why can’t his statue of Jesus be in public? “Soon,” he cries (he actually literally says this in the play), “We won’t be safe in our own churches!”
Obviously this is all completely wrongheaded. Just…staggeringly wrongheaded. First of all, and let me get this out of the way, as I pointed out in my criticism of the Faitheist article over on Salon, if you’re going to defend yourself against accusations of dehumanization by atheists, you can’t do that by refusing to understand where atheists come from, and it’s a glaring flaw of the play that the atheist responsible for all this is a bodiless force of unlimited malignance that we never see and whose side of the story is never told. And you can SAY that in regular plays, Christians are just as often portrayed as evil motiveless maniacs, but that’s a load of horseshit. There’s not a decent critic around who’s going to let you get away with reducing the Christian Adversary in your play into a crude stereotype, so stuff it.
SECONDLY, obviously all of the legal facts of this issue are wrong. The law doesn’t prevent Christian imagery IN public (as the millions of crosses, statues of Jesus, pictures of Jesus, stained glass windows of Jesus, bumper stickers featuring Jesus, t-shirts featuring Jesus, tattoos featuring Jesus, and bilboards featuring Jesus all attest — plus, obviously, our roughly one-church-per-square-mile house of worship density), it prevents Christian imagery on things OWNED by the public. Privately owned things, like your bumper, or your shirt, or your billboard, or your church, or — IMPORTANTLY — private land that you have just bought from the city, can have basically anything you want on them. And what’s more: the Establishment Clause, the VERY SAME LAW that allowed the Wicked Atheist to destroy the beautiful Jesus statue, actually PROTECTS all those things. So, there’s no slippery slope here, no gradual outlawing of Jesus in public that will somehow lead to the outlawing of Jesus in private. It’s the same law! The only way you could make it possible to outlaw Jesus in private would be by giving the public the power to make laws respecting the establishment of religion — which, let’s be honest, in this fallen and heathen age is far more likely to lead to state-sanctioned Christianity than it is state-Sanctioned atheism.
AAAAAUGGGGGH, so look. Thirdly, this is generally not a thing that most atheists care about. Yes, it is technically against the law for your town to have a big statue of Jesus in a public park. Sorry. I know you’ve had it for fifty years, since before America gave a shit about the feelings of Jews and atheists and Hindus, and so nobody gave you any trouble. It was still against the law, though! That whole time! You just didn’t know, or care, because it didn’t bother anyone; but now since it does bother someone, you have to rectify it. And I’m sure there are some assholes going around, trying to get all the Jesus statues removed from the parks mostly out of spite, sorry. I don’t care about Jesus statues, and I think most atheists don’t care that much, I think we’re resigned to the notion that our national, state, and local governments are always going to make it clear that they’re here for the Christians (re: Americans) first, and the rest of us second.
Whatever. We’re generally more interested in making sure things like Evolution and Geology remain in scientific textbooks, that people like Todd Akin don’t get to stay on the House Committee for Science and Technology, and that we don’t ever have to seriously consider not doing anything about Anthropogenic Climate Change because of the imminent return to earth of Jesus Christ than we are in taking “In God We Trust” off the fucking money.
So you see my problem with this whole misadventure. Ludmilla Bollow is pretty clearly trying to get people ascairt by creating a 100% one-sided story in which an impossible legal scenario creates a world in which Christians MUST be allowed to break the law in order to maintain their unfair and unearned cultural dominance because otherwise the 1% of evil asshole atheists are going to start Molotov cocktailing their churches or something. This seems less like Ludmilla Bollow is trying to reveal a previously hidden side of the argument (because oh, yes, when will CHRISTIANS finally have some voice in America? When will THEY be allowed to write books and make shitty movies and meet openly to discuss their beliefs? Perhaps one day, a Christian may even become president), than it is that her ignorance about the American legal system is obscuring what’s actually a slightly more complex, and actually not at all controversial, conversation.
This all made me a little mad, but I tried to be considerate, because I promised Cara that I wasn’t going to go around yelling and headbutting people. I tried to say to myself, “Oh, you know, remember that while Christians have had a stranglehold on Western culture since about the 8th century, they don’t realize that. As far as they know, they’re all still one bad emperor away from being thrown to the lions. So every time you take a little bit of their overwhelming and ubiquitous domination of the culture away from them, they feel like they’re being persecuted.” And okay, FINE. I understand that. I’m even sympathetic to it — I really am. I get it, I know what it’s like to have unknowingly enjoyed a privilege my entire life only to realize that it was unfair for me to have it, and I’ve been paranoid about giving it up, and I’ve felt like people were attacking me for no reason and were out to get me, &c. I know what that’s like, and that’s a shitty feeling. And while it doesn’t change my opinion about whether or not there should be statues of Jesus on public property (short answer: no), it is important to recognize that feeling, and to remind Christians that no one wants to burn down their churches.
So, I got really worked up about this, all smug and condescending about my superior knowledge of the Establishment Clause, my certainty in my liberal worldview, et cetera and so forth. And then I made a surprising discovery: this play, “Battle Hymn”, this was based on a true story! A story that happened in Marshfield, Wisconsin!
I started to feel really bad at that point. I had been so sure, so smugly LIBERAL… but there it was, staring me in the face. This wasn’t an impossible legal scenario at all, it wasn’t a warped, paranoid fiction, this had REALLY HAPPENED. I resolved that if I was an asshole, I’d have the guts to admit it, no matter how embarrassing it turned out to be. I prepared myself to eat crow and everything, courage of my convictions, et cetera, and read the article about the Marshfield Jesus.
It turns out, this angry atheist was being kind of a jerk, and he wanted to tear the statue down, even though a rabbi even said he wasn’t bothered by it. This atheist enlisted an outside organization (not the ACLU, but the American Center for Law and Justice) and they helped him file a lawsuit. And the Christians of that town pooled their money and bought the statue so that it was on private land, and the atheist STILL had it bulldozed!
Oh, no wait. No he didn’t. No, actually the Christians won that fight. They bought the land, and he couldn’t bulldoze it because ESTABLISHMENT CLAUSE (thanks, Obama) and the statue of Jesus is still there. Look, here’s a picture:
Are you fucking kidding me.