Just last year, NewSouth Books published a new edition of Mark Twain’s literary classic Huckleberry Finn. Their version eliminated each usage of what some consider to be the most inflammatory and offensive racial epithet in the English language.
I thought about that this summer as I watched the Utah Shakespearean Festival’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird, where that same unspeakable epithet was used several times in the course of the play. Four of my children were in the audience, too. They bristled alongside me as vicious characters used that odious word to dehumanize a man who was sentenced to death as a result of their testimony.
But here’s the thing. Never once did I wish that they’d sanitized the play by replacing that hateful smear with something gentler. At no time did I feel it necessary to cover my children’s ears to prevent them from hearing such foul language. In fact, had they decided to mar this beautiful story by flinching from the ugliness at the heart of it, both the performers and the audience would have been diminished as a result.
Remember, we live in a country that once enslaved an entire race of people because of the color of their skin. Changing the way we depict this evil allows us to dull our collective conscience and forget by degrees. I mean, sure, we enslaved people and treated them like subhumans for decades after we ostensibly emancipated them, but at least we can pretend that we never called anybody names.
Hearing that awful word in the proper context puts the lie to that kind of thinking. It forces us to confront our past in order to prevent us from repeating it.
Of course, as with everything else, context is critical.
Two other plays at the Shakespearean Festival included dialogue that some would consider inappropriate. Both contained a single usage of a scatological vulgarity that is, from my perspective, far less explosive than Mockingbird’s epithet, but it’s a word you still can’t say on television.
The first such play we saw was Scapin, a breezy, screwball farce that, along with its single bad word, also featured several off-color jokes and double entendres. The next morning, a large number of patrons went to the festival’s free literary seminar to complain that the production was unnecessarily crude and unsuitable for families.
The following afternoon, we attended the festival’s production of Les Miserables, which made use of the same naughty word in one of its featured songs. And where Scapin’s sexual situations consisted mainly of innuendo, Les Miserables explicitly depicted the depravity of a 19th Century French brothel, leaving no doubt as to the vile conditions in which Fantine, one of the primary characters in the story, found herself as she attempted to earn enough money to support her daughter. At the end, audiences are moved to tears when the actors sing, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” That’s only because they have seen enough of the ugly circumstances the characters had to overcome in order to achieve such a lovely end.
The morning after Les Miz, nobody complained at all. That’s because stories that matter aren’t offensive, even if they might not seem that way at first glance.
Then, of course, there was Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s gory revenge fantasy in which everyone gets killed and folks get their limbs severed and two guys are butchered up and baked into pies. I’m not sure what the moral lesson is there, except that To Kill a Mockingbird might be a better date night choice.