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