The Anti-Smoking Zealots Go To A Show

…and it really looks cool in the stage lights!

Once again I am embroiled in a battle with bullies, in this case bullies whose motivation I support, but whose application, attitudes and methods I both oppose and despise. The bullies are the anti-smoking zealots. I am very happy with the culture’s success in discouraging smoking, and most of the government’s efforts to make smoking expensive and difficult, though I would support the U.S. being straightforward and just banning tobacco products. The bullies, however, buy tickets to the theater company that employs me as its artistic director, and that theater produces only written or about the 20th Century, especially the middle of it, when people smoked a lot. This often requires some smoking on stage, at the discretion of the director and the requirements of the plot. Whenever this happens, I catch hell. And I give it right back.

Most of the objectors to the smoking are not genuinely allergic to tobacco smoke, though they furiously object to it. I enjoy watching the audience when someone on stage lights a cigarette—the coughs come immediately, as if smoke travels with the speed of light, and sure enough, the instant coughers are  the ones who get in my face after the show. Few shows require sustained smoking, or many actors smoking at one time. We’re not trying to annoy people; smoking is kept to the minimum required to serve the period, mood, character and plot. There is good ventilation: when we use fog machines and the theater is bathed in smoke, it dissipates in less than a minute. The actual smoke cigarettes give off, however, are not the issue. The zealots want smoking and all evidence that it ever existed wiped from the face of the earth and the annals of human history, and no artists’ vision or writers’ intentions are going to stand in the way.

So I get the same, predictable arguments, usually introduced by “How dare you have smoking on stage?”:

  • “This is a public building! Smoking isn’t allowed.” It’s allowed when it is part of a performance, and proper fire rules are observed.
  • “I’m very sensitive to smoke!” I figured that out, since you coughed at the sight of it. We warn patrons about smoke, loud noises, obscenity, water flying into the audience and strobe effects. You, like anyone else, are welcome to skip the performance.
  • “It’s unhealthy!” Five minutes of smoking in a ventilated theater isn’t unhealthy for anyone, including the actor doing it.
  • “Other theaters have banned smoking!” That’s their [cowardly and anti-artistic] choice, to yield to the anti-smoking zealots. They use herbal cigarettes, which smell like pot and are, to my nose, more annoying than cigarette smoke, or talcum powder-spewing fake cigarettes, which look as fake as they are, or e-cigarettes, which are too long and don’t fool anyone. Our theater has the action close to the audience, and there is no substitute for the real thing.
  • “Having actors smoke sends the message that smoking is acceptable!” Oh? My actors also suffocate babies, rape, murder, engage in racism and genocide, sexual harassment, adultery and every kind of violence imaginable. Why is smoking the one activity, among all of these, that you find socially objectionable?
  • “It’s unnecessary!” You are welcome to start your own theater company. In “Agnes of God,” the chain-smoking psychiatrist’s tobacco addiction is central to the plot. In “Lady in the Dark,” one of the great Broadway musicals that you never get to see, feminist professional woman Liza Eliot’s smoking is central to her neurosis. In “Twelve Angry Men,” about a 1950’s jury of men deliberating in a closed room, smoking defines mood, time, period, gender and atmosphere. Don’t tell me it’s unnecessary. It’s my job to decide how to make these shows most vivid and effective, and I say it is sometimes necessary.

In the current production that is causing the controversy, “J.B.” by Archibald MacLeish, a modern day Job is lectured by three “comforters” after his world falls apart, representing science, organized religion and history. MacLeish wanted them all smoking as the intellectualize Job’s dilemma, the swirling smoke indicating that their various explanations and rationalizations often make life less clear, rather than more; their cigarette, pipe and cigar, blowing smoke in J.B.’s face, indicating their arrogance and authority, and also linking them together. It’s a vivid and useful device, and the playwright’s choice. We try to honor the artist, not toss away artistic choices because of the ire of anti-smoking bullies. The director of “J.B.” has the pipe and cigar put out after a couple of puffs, leaving only the single cigarette burning during the scene.

  • “My clothes stunk of smoke!” Right.
  • “It made me uncomfortable.” You see, this is what is slowly killing live theater. Theater has the capability to put audiences in the middle of the action, to make them experience what the characters are experiencing. Audiences used to appreciate and understand this; now they want theatrical experiences to be as sterile as watching TV. If theater won’t make audiences uncomfortable to bring them into the play, then there is little reason to go to a stage show, when you can sit in your living room with a bag of Doritos, chatting away on your iPhone and pausing the DVR to go to the bathroom. Sometimes we have the air conditioning off in the theater, as when we re-enacted the infamous trial of Henry Wirz for Civil War war crimes, an event that took place in Washington, D.C. in a hot July. Sometimes our audience members get wet, as when we produced Orson Welles’ amazing stage version of “Moby Dick.” Sometimes, they find themselves participating in a slave auction, or yelling for blood at a dance marathon, or having to cope with an obnoxious or crazy audience member who is actually part of the show. Sometimes, we want them to smell smoke. Quite apart from opposing the effort to make art bend to political correctness, I view this objection–“I was uncomfortable!”—as a threat to live theater itself.

Most of the world eventually buckles to bullies, because it just isn’t worth it to them to endure the harassment and criticism to preserve a principle, no matter what the principle is. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Arlington County eventually forbidding our company from using real cigarettes on-stage—bureaucrats care about votes, money and power, not art. Until that day, however, or until this theater replaces me with a weenie, I’m not going to let the anti-smoking zealots dictate how we present our productions.


Graphic: Science Clarified


25 thoughts on “The Anti-Smoking Zealots Go To A Show

  1. I agree with all your points except one. Using smoking to set the mood. Using smoking to set the mood is a cheap trick and can be done other ways.

    Personally as a heavy smoker I love plays where I can smoke on stage and hate seeing people smoke on stage becuase it makes me want one.

    • In theater, there are no cheap tricks. There are tricks that work, and those that don’t. If you are doing a political drama about a “smoke-filled room,” real tobacco smoke is both the cheapest and the best atmospheric trick there is..

      • Most actors I see smoke on stage are very self aware of the ciggerette in their hand when in reality a smoker isn’t. Too many actors use it to make the character look cool or menacing. And directors use it to show that the play is set in a certain time and place when they could have done the same thing with better costumes or haircuts. Also the biggest gripe I have is when a actor smokes on stage and it is obvious the actor doesn’t smoke. The play is better served by them not smoking then looking like an idiot .

        • The same arguments can be applied to poo-poo any directorial choice. As such, either no play is possibly okay, or your argument must be invalid. My money’s on th latter.

            • I’ll take your opinion on theatre over mine, but this isn’t opinion. This is logic, and if the argument is good for the goose, it’s good for the gander,

              In this case, the gander is every possible choice: accents, cadence, facial expressions, casting decisions, wardrobe, sets, props, movement, stages, venues, etc…

              • Bill, I don’t see how you can disagree with tgt here; I think you just want to. The fact that there are other ways to accomplish effects on stage doesn’t mean that smoking, or gun-fire, or strobe lights, shouldn’t be used if that’s the effect that the director thinks will be most effective, and the fact that some audience members complain is irrelevant. God help anyone who tries to tell YOU your choice is wrong…

        • That’s an irrelevant point, though. Walking is bad on stage if the actor can’t walk—it’s up to the director and the actor to make sure that the smoking is as convincing as anything else. Film noir effectively used cigarettes to look cool or menacing—when it works it works. The fact that you cn accomplish this in other ways—so what? Staging is about choices, and I don’t need mine constrained by zealots who don’t care about the play, just the particle levels.

          Actors learn to do a lot of things for parts, and smoking is one of the easiest. Again, if they don’t learn how to do it,, that has nothing to do with the level of smoke in the theater.

          • I don’t think you should be constrained zealots either , the only point I was trying to make it most of the time the smoking adds nothing and ends up detracting from the show. In 12 Angry Men those guys would smoke no doubt about it. Its not so much setting the mood but used as an indicator of the amount of stress they are under. In Stalag 17 those men had to smoke. Cigarettes are talked about constantly and if they didn’t smoke it would have looked stupid. But take The Autumn Garden, those people would have smoked, its true to the time period but not having them smoke doesn’t detract from the story.

            Film noir is film not stage. They cant be compared. You know one of my biggest gripes is the effect that film and television has had on the audiences attention span and expectations from stage work. And if you want to get the smokey back room effect on stage you can do it with a smoke machine, while I don’t see why this would be less offensive to the zealots. There are also herbal cigarettes but you have to make sure you get ones that are tobacco free which isn’t always the case plus someone will complain about the damn smell..

  2. I was surprised you didn’t use the “N-word” for the anti-smoking zealots (google “Godwin’s Law”).

    Anyway: first time I saw “12 Angry Men” nobody smoked onstage. Kept me on the edge of my seat despite the lack.

    • 1. Why are you surprised? I considered it, though. Still, while Nazis were zealots and bullies, that doesn’t make all zealots and bullies Nazis.
      2. “12 Angry Men” is a great show. I didn’t say the it depended on cigarette smoke, now did I? The show can be riveting with famous state actors in the role or with lesser actors in the role—the fact that you would still be riveted with the lesser cast or production values doesn’t mean the production wouldn’t have been better with a more accomplished cast. The objective in professional theater is supposed to be to make the production “the best it can be” not “good enough so the audience doesn’t know what it’s missing.” So I think your last comment is completely irrelevant to the topic at hand.

      • It is a great show. agreed. I haven’t seen these, but I’ve seen it advertised as “12 Angry Women”, and mixed-gender as “12 Angry People”. Playwright Reginald Rose reworked his original 1964 script for mixed-gender “12 Angry Jurors”, broadcast on BBC television.

        • Are you sure? I spoke to Rose shortly before he died, and he gave me the imppression that he detested the mixed gender version, since he wrote the show to be specifically about men. He had lost the stage rights to the play by 1964.

  3. I enjoy watching the audience when someone on stage lights a cigarette—the coughs come immediately, as if smoke travels with the speed of light, and sure enough, the instant coughers are the ones who get in my face after the show.

    I’d be an instant cougher who didn’t complain later. Our bodies do jump ahead of themselves sometimes. For instance, when playing ultimate, a game with player called fouls, there are occasionally times when someone calls a foul automatically based on what appears to be happening… even if the actual foul never comes. It occurs to pretty much everyone, and the ethical people apologize, retract, and keep play moving.

    The body sees something and the body reacts based on what usually happens next.

    Other than that minor detail, and the offhand backing of prohibition, I’m with you here.

    • That’s a good point, and I didn’t mean to suggest that the coughs were intentional, though some are, I think. I think the reflex is like the retch reflex, as you describe it. A helpful addition.

  4. Here in CO, there is no exemption for performances. The handful of times we’ve needed it, we use the e-cig, which still sets off the coughing despite the assurance that it’s just water vapor before the show. And we STILL get the complaints of ‘was it really necessary?’

    • This shows a serious problem with Colorado, in several ways. It also shows that it isn’t the fact of the smoking, but the thought of the smoking that the bullies are after. Ugh. I wouldn’t do well in Colorado…

  5. For me, I’d never ask an actor who didn’t already smoke to smoke, because I wouldn’t want them to get hooked. That’s not the issue here, of course. For me, I’d just use candy cigarettes that the actor clearly chews on with a loud snap after every fake puff. Or a pipe that emits bubbles. Or beef jerky in a snuff can.

    • Jeff said: “Or beef jerky in a can.”

      Maybe you need to be my age to remember a certain brand of pipe tobacco. When we were 11-12 years old, we thought it howlingly hilarious to phone a tobacconist’s shop and ask: “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?”

      When they answered Yes, we’d give them the snapper: “Well, you’d better let him out before he smothers!”

      (Far as I know, none of us ever succeeded as a stand-up comic.)

  6. Now that’s the Jack Marshall I know. Well said “Defender of the Arts”. I can almost see your red cape waving in the breeze as your fists rest boldly at your belt.

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