Republican Theater Festival: Debrief

Posted: November 16, 2012 in Braak, Politics, theater, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

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.

  1. Josh Wimmer says:


  2. Velly interesting! I don’t know your background, but you are certainly angry and opinionated– your right. My right was to dramatize an incident that was published across the U.S. and instigated by The Freedom From Religion ( an atheist group headquarted and founded in Madison WI). Previously the same group made crosses and other religiously displayed pieces taken down across the state. This made me mad!! I felt this dramatization would reveal how the opposition felt. That’s what plays do– use characters to display emotion during dramatic incidents I fictionalized the ending, my right. I’m so sorry I did not see the production, as the bits were great, and the acting superb. I don’t like your use of language– but you have that right. I don’t like a lot of what you say– but it’s your right. And since there have been no other reviews as of this date– you’re standing alone as the lone opinionater. And obama had nothing to do with my play— it was written long before he usurped the country. I stand by my opinions and thus far I have a right to do this. And thank heavens for Cara and her founding and working with this Festival. We need more such as her in theatre. And more unbiased critics.

    Thanks for your time, concern, and opinions.
    Republican Theatre Festival Playwright of “BATTLE HYMN”
    Ludmilla Bollow

  3. braak says:

    You seem to have wildly misunderstood my criticism, here. I’m not suggesting you don’t have a RIGHT to make a play like this, any more than I’d credit for an instant the notion that I didn’t have the RIGHT to write about it (so, while I appreciate you assurances, I am fully aware of the fact that I have the right to say whatever the fuck I want on my own website). No one’s talking about whether or not the government should prohibit your plays from being performed here or anywhere — and, certainly, if I thought there was some indication of state censorship of your plays, I would be opposed to that censorship.

    What I am criticising are the actual dramatic and narrative choices that you made in the play — the choice, for instance, to “dramatize” an incident that actually showed that Christian iconography on private land is now, as it has always been, constitutionally protected by making it into a play that suggests to Christians that atheists are trying destroy their churches.

    In other words, you created a character with a paranoid fantasy (“Soon we won’t be safe in our own churches!”), then changed the details of a historical event to legitimize that fantasy even though it is not actually legitimate.

    I understand that these events made you mad. What I am saying is that 1) you don’t have anything to be afraid of (which you know, because you actually know what happened in reality, as opposed to what happened in your play), 2) it is morally irresponsible of you to try to make other people afraid of it.

    Finally, I assume you’re suggesting that I’m biased in some way? Can you explain how? Furthermore, can you explain what, exactly, an unbiased critic might respond to in reviewing a play? I was under the impression that the purpose of the play was to dramatize its content; in what way could a human being criticise that play without engaging with that content?

  4. braak says:

    Also, I hate to break it to you, but Barack Obama was legitimately elected (twice), so he is not, technically speaking, a usurper of anything. Also, the part where I said “thanks, Obama” was obviously a joke, since the Establishment Clause was written into the Constitution in 1787, so Barack Obama couldn’t have had anything to do with it, anyway. (Moreover, Barack Obama is the president, not the Supreme Court or Congress, so even if he had been in charge of the country in 1787, he wouldn’t have been responsible for either writing it or interpreting it.)

  5. CJ Ehrlich says:

    Hi Braak,

    Thanks for sharing your reactions to the Republican Theatre Festival. As writer of the comedy “Occupy This” I’d like to remind you that it’s both important and polite to identify the creators of copyright works, whether these are poems, songs, plays, etc. and obviously all quotes should be attributed. Each of the plays, including Quinn Eli’s, had an author who should be credited for his or her work.

    Also, there’s no “plenty of criticism for Ethnics, such as fiery latinas who speak in their incomprehensible native speech” in my play. The actress who played the salon owner is a Latina; we co-wrote her dialogue. She told me she was thrilled to play her first Nuyorican character.

    best regards,
    C.J. Ehrlich

  6. Josh Wimmer says:

    Going to go ahead and assume the first part of C.J.’s comment is a satire on the tendency of present-day Republican politicians and pundits to gripe about minutiae and civility rather than grapple with actual arguments. Wickedly artful; well done.

  7. braak says:

    @C. J. Ehrlich: Hahahahah, ahhhhhh.

    Okay, for the sake of argument I’ll concede that it is implicitly polite and just say that I am not particularly interested in being polite. In what way, though, is it important that copyrighted works enjoy a specific author attribution in this particular circumstance? Do you feel like there’s some danger that someone is going to read this and wonder if the “Occupy This” that I wrote about is the SAME “Occupy This” written by C. J. Ehrlich? If they did wonder that, do you think they could just ask, and maybe I would tell them? Or discover it by googling “Republican Theater Festival”? I guess someone might confuse it with the “Occupy This!” photography exhibit at the Katzen Arts Center in DC, but I think that the context makes it pretty clear that I’m talking about a play.

    Also, I would like to remind you that you’re not my fucking English teacher, so you may find that lecturing me on the subject of proper attribution is somewhat less than productive.

    Now, yes it is true that there is actually no criticism of Latinas in your play, nor (I assume) was there any criticism of Wall Street Consultants. I was utilizing something called “sarcasm”, whereby I delivered something that resembled a compliment in such a way as to indicate that I think that your characters were badly drawn and annoying. I’m not sure why you’d want to fob off the responsibility for that on the actress in your piece (who, I assume, also has a name? I don’t know, maybe not; I don’t have a program, but I figure if she does have a name, you can let me know); that doesn’t seem cool, madam.

    Also, I guess someone should let you know that you don’t really have to sign blog comments. They aren’t letters, in the first place; in the second, it pretty clearly says your name right there at the top, so everyone knows that it’s you.

  8. braak says:

    @Josh Wimmer: Aw, your comment is much better, I wish I’d read yours first.

  9. Josh Wimmer says:

    I’m not above admitting that I thought it was a really good comment, too. [Terrorist fist-bumps self]

  10. Jason Ford says:

    Actually, I thought “Battle Hymn” was the best play in the festival. My interpretation was that the play was about whether the Establishment Clause is appropriate in cases when something has historical significance. The play makes the point that the statue was there before the park was there.

    The conflict between the two characters was whether people should adopt hopeless resignation at a legal ruling they disagree with, or come up with a creative solution. The creative solution wins. And what a solution it is! Okay, so it isn’t exactly what happened in real life, but Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t exact representations of what happened either. That’s just the nature of theatre.

    The larger question of whether historical significance can justify religious imagery is a question that gets debated all over the country. Back in 2004, for example, the County of Los Angeles removed a cross from their official seal. I thought was a mistake, since Christians founded the city and County and gave it a very Christian name.

    One point in favor of maintaining religious symbolism is that just about everyone in this country–believer and atheist–benefits from the Judeo-Christian heritage. When atheists talk about “secular values” they essentially take the Judeo-Christian values and alter a few things. (In fairness, many atheist thinkers acknowledge this.)

    Atheists don’t go around advocating child sacrifice, worship of God-kings, setting leaders as being above the law, and slavery. But throughout history, whole societies believed these things. The Jews of the Old Testament days got rid of the first three, and the 19th century Christians in England and America got rid of slavery in most of the world.

    So while I respect atheist’s right to believe or not believe what they want, I would prefer they acknowledge their heritage and their debt to Judeo-Christian values. If we abolished all Judeo-Christian values and took our chances with other traditions, most atheists would be far worse off. So in respect to this heritage, we should respect Jewish and Christian public symbolism without demanding anyone join any religion.

    Now, you may disagree. People disagreeing with the playwright’s views is part of theatre. The question is whether the playwright put forth her viewpoint in an interesting fashion. This play laid out the argument and raised timely issues. It definitely kept my attention.

  11. braak says:

    Now, you may disagree.

    Yep, I do. With everything that you have said, up to and including the debt that atheism has to Judeo-Christian values. It is, in fact, flatly absurd to suggest that Christianity deserves credit for eliminating slavery in the 19th century, when Christians (and the Christian bible) accepted and even endorsed slavery for the prior eighteen hundred years. You cannot suggest that “Judeo-Christian values” encompass just every good thing that every Jew or Christian has believed throughout history.

    But, no, I don’t think that I do have a “debt” to Judeo-Christian values (as though, wait, hold a second — you’re not seriously suggesting that “secular values” like, for instance, honesty, personal liberty, bodily autonomy, &c., are values that no one who didn’t come from a Judeo-Christian culture could have ever thought of?), and I especially don’t think that even if there IS a debt to Judeo-Christian culture the state should ever, EVER support the privileged position of one religion over the other, regardless of its purported historic significance. That’s a fine thing to write about in history books — I’m sure there are plenty of books about the history of both Christian and secular religious thought — but when the state uses the symbolism of a particular religion, it unmistakeably privileges that religion in the cultural dialog.

    Finally, you know that no serious historian or theologian uses the term “Judeo-Christian,” right? There’s not a specific throughline between Jewish and Christian values (and, in fact, there’s something that many people find kind of insulting about the notion that Christianity is a more developed form of Judaism); really, the term was established in the 30s to promote Christianity in a way that wasn’t anti-Semitic. And while I’m sure that there are many Jews who appreciate being included in the ruling body of religious ethics in America, the rest of us are still waiting for the religiously-neutral government that is the explicit promise of the Constitution.

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