A high school rendition of the musical “Big River,” based on Mark Twain’s incomparable treatise on the injustice of slavery, “Huckleberry Finn,” featured a black student as Huck and a white one as the runaway Jim, apparently using political correctness to once again distort the meaning of what many scholars believe is the greatest of American novels.
In the Washington suburb of Loudon County, Va., a female student’s one-act play about a gay football player brought instant response from high school authorities and has kicked off a nationwide debate about what is appropriate for high school drama production. The county’s school board has taken up the matter of the play, “Offsides,” amid cries for banning any drama that not only mentions that there is homosexuality abroad but also touches on any subject considered unhealthy for teenagers to consider.
Since then a production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” at the same school was edited to eliminate what the drama teacher regarded as potentially offensive. According to reports, instead of singing about a dress being “tres sexy,” as written, the actress was instructed to say “tres lovely,” and the boss’s nephew no longer stepped outside for a “smoke” but for a “soda.” Apparently several lines in the play that portrayed sexual tension in the workplace also were eliminated.
Have we gone completely mad? Well, quite possibly.
While the absurd overreaction by teachers who wish to avoid the painful and distracting attacks of censorious zealots is understandable in some ways, it is a sad capitulation to ignorance, particularly for those allegedly answering a higher calling. The truth, of course, is that the only people offended by the dramatization of life’s seamier (no matter how bland) aspects are adults. Certainly, it doesn’t bother high school students, most of whom became quite aware of sexual differences and preferences long before they ever got to that level in their learning process.
In fact, they deal with those stresses daily, thinking of very little else through a period when all the scientists tell us the hormones of both sexes begin raging and their curiosity about all the social taboos is at its height. Boys, even the so-called nerds, dream of very little except sex and sports, and girls spend about the same time in heightened anxiety over boys and clothes that will make them more attractive to the opposite sex. That doesn’t mean they are bad students or bad actors; some are, most aren’t. It just means they are normal human beings.
There is very little new about attempts at public school censorship. But in the past it has been mainly leveled at books and not the dramas that students produce and act. Considering the sudden evangelical fervor infecting American life these days, it should come as no surprise that even the classics of the theater, no matter how innocent, have become targets of self-righteous stupidity. The nation’s school boards as never before face thorny decisions, including whether to give in to demands by creationists that no mention of evolution should be allowed to creep into the curriculums or, if educators are permitted to teach Darwin’s theories, they must explain that they are unproven. Yeah, right! And creationism has been?
Why some parents believe that a lack of knowledge will protect their young ones from the harms of life is a mystery. The more one knows, the more likely he is to avoid the pitfalls. Yet there are always those who want to deny the existence of biological urges and others who think that protection comes from pledges of abstinence alone. Wow.
Although it may seem harmless to change a few words in a play like “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” as silly as that act was, the danger lies in what it portends for the future. What comes next, “Romeo and Juliet”? While I have not seen the play “Offsides,” what it presents is a fact of life that is not inappropriate for discussion in an enlightened society. Actually, no theme should be off limits in the upper grades. It has been my experience that most teenagers discuss most subjects openly among themselves.
For those who think plays and books contribute to potential profligacy it would be wise to read the Bible, which includes examples of every kind of behavior in the human experience from incest to murder. The self-appointed guardians against prurient material would consider a lot of what is printed in the Old and New Testaments unfit for dramatization in the public schools.
Suggested reading for a better understanding in a more modern setting: “Splendor in the Grass.”
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)