Perhaps the easiest way to be roused from my writing torpor is to write a comment that turns into a post of its own. I know it’s been since January that I’ve written anything here, but I always managed to find a reason not to find the time… plus, it’s spring break here in Curmieville, so that’s a good opportunity to get some writing done.
The impetus for this commentary, then, was a post by Curmie’s netpal Jack Marshall over at Ethics Alarms. (As usual, Curmiphiles are encouraged to check out his page.) Jack has a way of discovering articles I wish I’d gotten to first. Anyway…
This is a scene from the movie. I’m guessing Tappan Zee High School
doesn’t have choristers that look quite like this.
Bob Pritchard, the superintendent of schools in Orangetown, NY, intervened in the Tappan Zee High production of Mel Brooks’s The Producers this week, caving to pressure from the ubiquitous “concerned parents” and removing the swastikas from the musical’s signature song, “Springtime for Hitler.” Mr. Pritchard is a coward and a fool. Seriously, what legitimate educator would argue that “there is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”? To cite some examples noted by Jack: how about a history book? a class project? a screening of “Schindler’s List”? a production of The Sound of Music?
Still, Jack ultimately decided that removing the swastikas was the least bad of a host of bad options. Here’s where we disagree. Below, the last 90% or so of my comment on his post:
First, let me confess to ignorance of the stage version of The Producers. I know the film, of course, but being neither a big musical theatre guy nor made of money, I’ve never actually seen the play. Assuming it to be substantially similar to the film, therefore, is for me (but not for those more informed) a risky proposition.
It is not clear whether the school’s administration formally signed off on the choice of play, but de facto they did: the rights and royalties for a musical will cost—depending on a variety of factors such as venue size, number of performances, and ticket prices—hundreds or (more likely) thousands of dollars, and no high school theatre director can just write a check on a school account for that amount of money. Expenditures of that size need approval.
So here’s where I agree with your point that cultural illiteracy was very much at play from the beginning of this saga. I’m not suggesting that every high school administrator should have seen the movie or the play, but certainly the “Springtime for Hitler” schtik has long since passed into the public consciousness. I was too young (in junior high, perhaps?) to have seen the film on its first run, but I knew about the campy production number long before I actually saw the film when I was in high school or college. Similarly, I know that “I will take what is mine with fire and blood” is a ”Game of Thrones” reference without ever having picked up one of the books or tuned in to the television show. A competent administrator would at the very least have known what s/he was signing off on. Or… you know… asked: that’s an option, apparently.
There are, as you say, many legitimate reasons why this is not a good choice for a high school production, plus one you didn’t mention: it’s very male-heavy, especially in the leads, and most high schools (or universities, for that matter) have a lot more good women than good men in the talent pool.
But the show was approved, implicitly if not explicitly, and, having done so, the administration is to my mind, ethically bound to stand behind the production except in cases of utter outrageousness that are not mandated or at the very least supported by the script. Actually, this one is a tough call in some ways: unless there’s something in the stage version that isn’t in the film, there’s nothing that demands swastikas. And I suspect that whereas the design concept might be compromised by the administration’s intervention, removing the offending objects could be done with relatively little disruption to the rehearsal process in purely pragmatic terms (i.e., outside the realm of aesthetics, ethics, or copyright law). On the other hand, using them is a completely appropriate choice.
Should the director simply have acquiesced? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I’ve been in academic theatre (admittedly at a different level) as a student or a faculty member (or, during grad school, as both at once) for over four decades, and that’s long enough to recognize the thin edge of the wedge. This time it’s swastikas. Next time it will be the word “skank”, or a little authenticity in the choreography in an Elvis-inspired musical, or a very funny, sweet and thoroughly asexual “gay scene,”or—Allah forbid!—a totally innocuous musical in which the central characters happen to be Muslims.
As a practicing theatre artist, I am well aware of the power of symbols, and I do not wish to dismiss the concerns of those who are offended by the image. But the problem with The Producers is not, cannot be, swastikas. The entire scene is intended to be a farce, an idea so inane that no sentient spectator of the play-within-a-play could think it worthy of staging. Our heroes are trying to produce a flop, after all. As you point out, Jack, context matters, and reducing the symbol of the Third Reich to a kitschy backdrop goes a long way to deflating its power. And there is no way any rational person could view the use of Nazi iconography in this play as in any way endorsing Hitler. Does the scene make fun of the Holocaust? No. No, it does not. I kinda think Mel Brooks wouldn’t be the guy to do that.
We can make a case that the play should never have been approved to begin with. We can stipulate that the changes being demanded are probably not that difficult to make. But I still think it’s a bad call, born of cowardice rather than principle.
At its best, theatre, like any other art form, challenges the spectators, incites responses, asks more questions than it answers. I am fond of reminding my students that, linguistically, “aesthetic” is the opposite of “anaesthetic.” Even at the high school level, theatre provides the possibility of engaging in actual dialogue about things that matter, such as, for example, the symbology associated with one of the most repressive and unhuman regimes in history.
The superintendent, though well-intentioned, is ultimately saying, in effect: “You can do this play, but I forbid you to do it correctly.” His decision also capitulates to what amounts to a heckler’s veto. How much better would it be to stage the play the way the director and students choose, and then to have a post-show discussion about the decision to include swastikas: why did you decide to go ahead? would you have the same objections to swastikas if we were doing The Sound of Music or The Moon Is Down? the play isn’t really about Nazis at all (it is not, in fact, “a satirical musical about Adolf Hitler,” even if the idiot on Channel 2 says otherwise), so a). why get so upset, or b). why not just tone it down? (And so on.)
Recognizing and respecting the perspectives of others is central to pedagogy, to a democratic society, and to adulthood. This is a tougher call than most, but in the end, I’m going to side with more speech rather than less, even if some people are upset. As you say, Jack, we live in a time in which “foes of humor, satire, controversy, and even free speech itself are causing Americans to self-censor and be hesitant to utter anything but bland sentiments and consensus opinions.” To me, that’s a rallying cry to create art fearlessly. Of course, I’m not the one taking the angry phonecalls.