Ethic Quiz: “Springtime For Hitler” Ethics

And speaking of Donald Trump…

In South Orangetown, New York, the school superintendent stepped in and cut the swastikas from Tappan Zee High School’s student production of “The Producers” less than a week before the production. Of course, the Mel Brooks musical satire based on his film “The Producers” employs swastikas on Nazi flags and armbands during its famous campy “Springtime For Hitler” number and at other points in the show. Before someone posted a picture of the swastikas on the stage on a Facebook page, this aspect of “The Producers” had somehow escaped the attention of school administrators.

Some parents were shocked, and complained. After checking out the stage, the superintendent cut the costume details and set dressing.“There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate,” South Orangetown Superintendent Bob Pritchard told CBS. Pritchard consulted with local rabbis before making his decision.

Rabbis, of course, would be a natural audience for “The Producers.” (Reports that the rabbis suggested a production of “Fiddler on the Roof” instead have not been confirmed.)

Your spring-is-in-the-air Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Is this example of school censorship of the performing arts fair, responsible and ethical?

Before I weigh in with my assessment, some preliminary points:

  • It is grossly unfair to students who have rehearsed a theatrical production as large and complex as “The Producers” to force them to make material changes so late in the production process.

***

  • This is the scourge of cultural illiteracy in America. “The Producers,” the 1967 film starring Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, is a classic and part of the fabric of American popular culture. The musical was a 2002 Tony winner and ran for more than 2000 performances. If adults in the administration and the faculty didn’t immediately realize what was being put on stage as soon as they heard that students were doing the musical adaptation, they are uncultured boobs and ill prepared to educate the young.

***

  • “If someone scrawled a swastika on a desk at  it would be treated as a potential hate crime. That helps explain why the stage will be devoid of swastikas when high schoolers present the Mel Brooks’ musical this weekend,” CBS notes, stupidly. No, it doesn’t. A lot of the lines in “Schindler’s List” would get a student suspended if he shouted them in class too, but context matters.

***

  • “There is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”-–really? How about a history book? How about a school project? This is the hole the United States dug itself by its Confederate flag freak-out last year, with the park service even banning depictions of the flag in Civil War battlefield gift shops. Symbols are just symbols, after all. The same symbol can be threat, art, history, or a joke. Some Americans lack the sophistication and perspective to comprehend that. Frightening.

***

  • Would this same result have occurred if the show was “Cabaret,” in which swastikas are indispensable to tell the story of the rotting moral culture that spawned the Nazis…or “The Sound of Music,” where the Nazis are the villains? Presumably so, since it is predictable that someone will make a political correctness stink just to bend everyone to their narrow, juvenile, easily offended will.

***

  • This episode is another example of how poor decisions and the inability to play ethics chess can lead to a situation in which no fully ethical course remains, and the best option is still a wrong one.

All of that said, I conclude that striking the swastikas was the best of several bad options.

Whoever the drama club’s faculty advisor is, he or she is a fool. “The Producers” is an adult comedy, and indeed too satirical for many adults. Mel Brooks, bless him, is a Jew who understands, as so many of his culture and faith have understood through many centuries of oppression and tragedy, that the best way to rob evil of its power is to laugh at it, and show no fear. His wisdom is not a universal gift, however. To many, mocking the Nazis is to make light of the Holocaust, and allowing children to engage in such edgy satire will never meet with approval in all quarters.  A musical that relies on shocking bad taste to make its point is going to create inevitable opposition at a time when 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.

“The Producers,” like all of Brooks’ work, is blithe and silly, and cannot survive before an audience that looks furtively around to see if laughter will be taken as a dire offense. Since the joke is on the Nazis, Nazi trappings are necessary to make it work. The hollowed out, slightly less tasteless “Springtime for Hitler” is unfair to Brooks and unfair to the cast, but it was also the best alternative remaining.

47 Comments

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47 responses to “Ethic Quiz: “Springtime For Hitler” Ethics

  1. Chris

    Agreed. I’m a teacher and a fan of this musical (Springtime for Hitler will be in my head all day now, thanks), and this was simply a bad choice for a high school musical. The comedy just isn’t right for that audience, which will be made up of maybe 5% kids who are sophisticated enough to “get” the jokes and what makes them funny, 15% kids who just think “haha Nazis” is funny,” 25% adults who are sophisticated enough to get the jokes and what makes them funny, 25% adults who are completely offended at seeing little Johnny play a gay Hitler, and 30% olds who can’t hear anything but are desperately confused.

    (This is a scientific estimation based on four years of musical theater experience in high school.)

    • Exactly, Chris, and very astute estimates, Chris. It was like choosing a stage version of “The Life of Brian.”

      The ha-ha Nazis are funny is a very old component–I remember kids who thought it was hilarious to draw swastikas and heil all over the place. They had no idea what it all meant—they weren’t budding anti-Semites, just kids. Maybe they saw the Three Stooges Hitler spoof.

      • THE Bill

        I disagree. I saw the movie when I was a teenager and completely understood it was satire and what it was saying. I wouldn’t underestimate high school students, and if we don’t push them beyond what we expect of them how are they to ever learn?

        Mel Brooks tells a story that during a production of the musical a audience member came storming up to him in the lobby and told him he was a veteran of WWII and thought it was completely wrong to make a musical with Hitler in it. Brooks replied ” I was in WWII , and I didn’t see you!”

  2. Wayne

    What is appropriate attire for a production of “Springtime For Hitler”? Perhaps the students should dress like Wall Street bankers. I’m sure that wouldn’t offend anybody. This moronic pc administrator ought to be costumed as Hitler himself as he is certainly acting like him.

  3. It could always be worse, they could have done “The Book of Mormon”.

  4. valkygrrl

    My elementary school did I never saw another butterfly. Now i know it was only by sheer luck and the grace of the gods that that world didn’t end when my 12 year old classmates put on their Nazi costumes for the play.

    Thank you Tappan Zee High School, thank you for saving the children… nay, the world from musical comedy.

  5. pennagain

    To many, mocking the Nazis is to make light of the Holocaust,

    All the “grands” among my relatives — I’m counting 16 — were born in the 1800s and emigrated through Ellis Island in the early part of the 20th, living to mourn the loss of all their relatives in various Nazi establishments. They brought Yiddish theater with them, saw every comedian who ever played the “Borscht Belt” in the Catskills (the proving ground for stand-up) for over three decades, and followed every move of their favorites, like Mel Brooks, in awe and applause until the day he died. They brought a raw humor with them, such as Ebert wrote, “I remember finding myself in an elevator with Brooks and his wife, actress Anne Bancroft, in New York City a few months after The Producers was released. A woman got onto the elevator, recognized him and said, ‘I have to tell you, Mr. Brooks, that your movie is vulgar.’ Brooks smiled benevolently. ‘Lady,’ he said, ‘it rose below vulgarity.’

    Mocking the Holocaust was de rigueur for Jews then and (almost up to) now. Losing a sense of satire under the most stark circumstances is to fail one of life’s greatest enjoyment. Joking is not only the ultimate pressure release, it tells the truth that no one otherwise wants to hear.

    These are a few of the collection in a new book on Nazi-Era humor, David Crossland’s “Did You Hear the One About Hitler?”

    I remember hearing versions of the the second, third and fifth from an aunt’s father, an Austrian immigrant:

    **”Göring has attached an arrow to the row of medals on his tunic. It reads ‘continued on the back.'”

    **Two Jews are about to be shot. Suddenly the order comes to hang them instead. One says to the other “You see, they’re running out of bullets.”

    **Hitler and Göring are standing on top of Berlin’s radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to cheer up the people of Berlin. “Why don’t you just jump?” suggests Göring.”

    **My father is in the SA, my oldest brother in SS, my little brother in the HJ (Hitler Youth), my mother is part of the NS women’s organisation, and I’m in the BDM (Nazi girls group).”
    “Do you ever get to see each other,” asks the girl’s friend?
    “Oh yes, we meet every year at the party rally in Nuremberg!”

    **The German army HQ receives news that Mussolini’s Italy has joined the war.
    “We’ll have to put up 10 divisions to counter him!” says one general.
    “No, he’s on our side,” says another.
    “Oh, in that case we’ll need 20 divisions.”

    **Hitler visits a lunatic asylum. The patients give the Hitler salute. As he passes down the line he comes across a man who isn’t saluting.
    “Why aren’t you saluting like the others?” Hitler barks.
    “Mein Führer, I’m the nurse,” comes the answer. “I’m not crazy!”

    I’m inclined to subsitute other names for Hitler, and the word ‘applause’ for ‘salute’ in the last one.

    • pennagain

      Correction: “…followed every move of their favorites, like Mel Brooks, in awe and applause until the day THEY died.”

    • THE Bill

      God , I haven’t heard those jokes in ages. Those are hilarious.

      When I was little we would visit my fathers family in New York and there would always be a picnic. He grew up in a predominately Jewish neighborhood , so much so that he speaks Yiddish, and I must have heard those jokes or variations on them a hundred times.

      • pennagain

        One of the points the book makes is that each of the jokes originated in Germany under Hitler. Many can be traced back to people who were prosecuted (and persecuted) for saying them out loud.

        The drier, the better, nu? I’ve been a Vermonter, Coloradoan and, finally, a Californian — in both places, a surprising number of people think Yiddish words and phrases are just New Yorkese.

        But now!!! Can’t you hear some PC-er saying “there’s nothing funny about wanting someone to jump off a building” “I don’t get the one about the bullets: they shouldn’t have guns anyway” “The people in all those organizations are working to build a better bigger government: we should have a paid holiday we can all get together too.” “Shame on the nurse for using a demeaning word for the patients. No respect, these people.”

  6. Other Bill

    The problem is high school drama directors who insist on mounting productions that are completely beyond the capacity of eighteen year-olds because they (the drama directors) think they are Broadway caliber producers. Who in the senior class is going to play the Goy, blond, brainless, jiggly bombshell whose only repeated line is “We go to motel now?” Last fall’s Homecoming Queen? The one girl who’s going to Yale?

    My piano teacher played piano in the the pro pickup orchestra that played for the “Damn Yankees” production at the local Catholic girls high school. I went to one of the rehearsals. It was horrifying. What a snarky, racy show to have young girls cavorting in. Just plain dumb.

  7. Well, the students learned many unintended lessons about adults who aren’t paying attention, censorship, and that the adults have no faith in their understanding. I especially feel for the seniors who are already 18, as these young adults should not be censored by overreaching admin. (issues liek this are why I don’t care for older seniors being restricted as if they are still a tender 12. If they’re old enough to die for their country, they’re old enough to swear and watch all the Nazi mocking plays they want.)

  8. Alex

    I would replace them with the “Visitor’s” sign from V (the eighties series, not the post-apocalyptic movie). I’m not sure ever a large part of the audience would get it, but the ones who do would appreciate it. But I guess that would be contributing to the delinquency of a minor, “Bad, bad Alex”.

  9. Paul Compton

    My wife is a Speech and Drama teacher at a Christian school. Thankfully it seems to have stopped now, but every year for years some parent would complain that she was using The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe.

    The Principal would ask if they had read it and then advise them to do so.

  10. zoebrain

    A whale-free Moby Dick.

    • THE Bill

      Jacks done that in “Orson Welles Moby Dick Rehearsed”. You never saw the whale only heard it and saw it in the reaction of the ships crew.

  11. Although I love the show “The Producers” I wouldn’t have chosen it for a High School production. There are other shows I wouldn’t choose for High School productions too, for instance Gypsy and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Content of a show makes a huge difference in a High School educational setting, this was a bad choice for the artistic director.

    In this case, the artistic director and the school administrators were clearly neglectful not to have directly addressed this very issue well prior to the point where complaints were voiced. There should have been an active effort to educate all those involved about the satirical nature of the show, including the parents, and that should have taken place at the very beginning of the production after casting and before the first read through. Was what the administrators did reasonable and ethical at this late point of the production; in my opinion there is no clear yes or no, but what they did was certainly a better option than canceling the show completely.

    What about other direct references to Hitler’s fascism in the show; is there a swastika in the dance choreography; are they going to strip out the word Hitler from the entire show; what about Hitler photos; what about the salute? Personally without the absolute direct references to Hitler’s fascism including the swastika, the show becomes nearly pointless. I’m gonna guess that the students will find a way to incorporate a swastika somewhere in the show.

    Last minute changes in a production are difficult to manage and hard for the cast and crew but it’s certainly not unheard of; this hard part of theatrical productions can also be educational.

    The show must go on.

    Break a leg.

    • valkygrrl

      There are other shows I wouldn’t choose for High School productions too, for instance Gypsy and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Content of a show makes a huge difference in a High School educational setting, this was a bad choice for the artistic director.

      Yeah, they should do Spring Awakening instead. 🙂

    • Chris

      What if they replaced all the swastika’s with signs that said #MakeGermanyGreatAgain? That would make a point.

  12. bellisaurius

    Another shame here is that if the administration was going to step in, and did so earlier, they could have adapted the musical number and character a bit. Maybe turn Franz into a grammar nazi, or make it about how good the cafeteria food is, or… make it about a fawning toadie for the school adminstration…

    It’s spring time, for PC, in Tapan Zee.

    • Other Bill

      How about “Springtime for The Donald in America?”

      Maybe that would have made a suitably surprising hit rather than the guaranteed bomb they boys were looking for with which to effortlessly fleece their investors then watch in horror as it turned into a smash hit. Ugh. Or maybe “Oy.”

    • pennagain

      Shhhhhh! They might hear you.

  13. Hitler, the Nazi Era, and the Holocaust have become a feature in American civil religiousness and an emblem of ontological malevolence. On one level, or seen from one angle, the Holocaust Museum is in a real sense, while certainly not a ‘celebration’ of that evil, yet it is a recognition of that evil, and something toward which the only appropriate reaction is awe fused with horror. To visit such places is to inoculate oneself spiritually, and that is naturally the hope for constructing such places and the intention of them. One goes to that place to experience and meditate on the ontological malevolence which is ‘out there’ circling about on the Heaths of the Universe, just waiting for its moment to rush back in.

    If that is true, there can be no doubt that it is thoroughly inappropriate for the wrong people, and people not sufficiently prepared, people not sufficiently mature, to carry out an enactment which deals with the issue through a level of humor which is not at all easy to grasp, and harder to pull off.

    However, the entire issue is, because it is so hot, is riddled with complexity and dimensionality. One element is that, in fact, opinion about the Holocaust has to be closely controlled and monitored. Two is that since it is an emblem of ‘the other’ and an ontological malevolence that is not our own, and which is condemned in a radical other, a demonic other, complicity is never part of the enactment, and thus a ‘lie’ of a specific sort is enacted. So, truth and lie function in a sort of knot, and yet it is a sacred knot within a narrative of American civil religiousness and a specific, inculcated, view of reality. Should you nudge and probe those ‘essential meanings’ and disturb them, you become an agent of a sort of chaos, and this must be dealt with and controlled. Naturally, children must necessarily be ‘subject’ to appropriate indoctrination so that they see the issue as it ‘really is’ (here views of reality are managed and channeled and this is very serious ideological business) and in no other light, and certainly no revisionist and critical light.

    There are many levels of additional consideration that derive from some of these issues, problems and questions.

    • Other Bill

      Alizia. Watch the movie. Mel Brooks is entitled to treat Hitler any way he sees fit. He never misses the mark.

    • I think you are on to something. There is something “off” about kids joking about the Holocaust, especially when many of them probably couldn’t fix the dates of WWII or name the members of the Axis. Mel Brooks’ Hitler riffs work because he’s Jewish, of “TYhe Greatest Generation,” and savvy—he’s earned the right to be irreverent. It’s like Eddie Murphy, Pryor or the Wayans brothers making jokes about slavery and Jim Crow. The performers too—The whole cast of the original film was Jewish.

      • But someone has to be able to do it – otherwise, the show is doomed to be lost to history, and soon.

        I see stories like this, and part of me wonders -perhaps unfairly- how much of this is borne out of a love of censorship, and how much comes from a desire to erase the Holocaust. In a high school, I imagine it’s mostly ‘won’t someone think of the children!?’ If it were a college, I’d be more inclined to think the latter.

        • Again, this is why ethics chess is so crucial You have to think several moves ahead, or these fiascos will keep happening. I’d coordinate some history and culture classes around that show, as well as the history of using satire to mock the Nazis–The Three Stooges, Spike Jones, Chaplin.

          I think community theater and college will keep the musical alive.

      • 1) “… and how much comes from a desire to erase the Holocaust.”

        2) “… Mel Brooks is entitled to treat Hitler any way he sees fit.”
        _________________

        To Number 1: Actually, it is not erasure that is the issue and the question, but rather revision, or reassessment and re-description. In fact, it goes to the heart of the question of how we view ourselves and how we conduct ourselves.

        As to Number 2: A few questions. Let us suppose that you have done me a harm. That harm is real for me. Does this enable me to use any and all tactics to discredit you? What if the harm is so large, for me, and so real, that I brand you as (excuse me for repeating this but the term has a certain interesting descriptive power) ‘ontological malevolence’ incarnate?

        A Consideration: To what degree would a N. Vietnamese have a right to define us to us (ourselves to ourselves)? Who gets to handle and organize the narrative that defines ‘the enemy’?

        Another question: Very recently, so I have been told, our own country launched an attack on Iraq which – directly or indirectly – is said to have killed 300,000 – 500,000 people. I have used this example before, and it is because it sort of haunts me. Are we nationally complicit? Are we complicit as a people? And if we were, let us say, depicted as an ontological evil by ‘the other’ to whom we did such harm, would they be right or wrong to do so?

        (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/iraq-death-toll_n_4102855.html)

        In my view, if one understands Jewish reaction to the real horror and damage of the German radical separation project (a social divorce), one discovers a deep psychological pool in which ontological malevolence is defined and located. I’d suggest that this perception has been channeled into Sixties narratives in such a way that they have become operational definitions. They have become elements in a metaphysical viewstructure.

        When one examines the impetus, say, that informed Adorno’s treatise on “The Authoritarian Personality’, one discovers an impetus and a treatise, as it were, whose purpose is to treat human evil. It is sort of like a psychological project to subject Satan to psychotherapy, but the subject of that psychotherapy is the European subject, the European project, and thus the American and the Western self generally. Satan has to be controlled, subject to restraint, held down. And yet it is also the sense that he can and he will emerge again.

        This is a very very tricky, difficult, and complex arena.

        To ‘erase the Holocaust’, though I understand this means the specific memory of this specific aspect of the event, really means more to sever or alter or redefine a relationship to the possibilities of carrying out evil in our world. And it also means engaging in certain actions and activities to thwart the Fascist personality. The Sixties and the post-Sixties define much of that.

        And yet to examine these issues – and I mean from an Adorno perspective (and a general view that is part-and-parcel of how we, now, view reality) – is to come into historical analysis from a Progressive angle. Or, how could this be carried out by the Conservative pole? (That I do not understand).

        Progressivism is thus tied to a specific relationship to enormous questions, to the most pressing and fundamental questions, and as well to definitions which, as far as raw expression of power goes, have *us* hobbled.

        I submit for consideration and analysis a selection from a talk by an English new-right theorist named Jonathan Bowden. Jonathan Bowden is known pretty strictly on the AltRight camp so I warn you that this is, in a real sense, an example of neo-fascistic revisionism.

        Some might think that I am partisan to his specific analysis, but this is not quite the case. Jonathan Bowden, in my view, takes a cap off of a real issue, a real question, which has to do with OUR relationship to our own power. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aR4MvD9IEAE)

        If for any reason the sorts of analyses that interest me, or taking the conversations toward these zones of consideration, is unwelcome, I am prepared to desist. I know this is very touchy material.

        But interesting conversation, and really getting to the cores of ethics, is the desired object. I don’t think I am ‘off-topic’.

      • THE Bill

        Not the whole cast. There is one who isn’t , can you name the cast member? And no goggling to see who it is.

  14. Peter Novick’s ‘The Holocaust in American Life’ (https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2000/06/nov-j29.html) has some bearing on the evolution of these emblems to ontological malevolence as part of social consciousness in the Sixties. Obviously, once one has penetrated under the superficial exterior, the complex interior reveals itself.

    I have been looking for a year now for a supposed direct quote of Ahab where he says “Stay home, do not venture out onto the High Seas, it will destroy your soul as it destroyed mine’. (A paraphrase).

    Remain safe within established narratives, do NOT question them, do not probe, meddle or mess with the reining metaphysics! Nothing less than your soul is on the line. (Right Otto?)

    • Ahab never says anything that self-reflective.

    • valkygrrl

      You appear to be dancing around something. Tell me plain, is there something about the standard Holocaust narrative that you take issue with?

      • If I answered your question I’d be dishonest, yet if I don’t answer I am also dishonest. I have come to this position: I have no idea which narrative to ally myself with since, I discover, that these Reining Narratives are blends of truth and lie.

        I suppose I’d say that I fear the seductive power of narratives generally.

        I am becoming less and less certain – and it is a bit distressing I will admit – that we can in fact and in truth know much about ‘our reality’. I am not even sure if our histories can be confided in and what I have noticed, and many have noticed, is that history is revised in order to conform to changes of perspective in the present.

        If you desire a ‘conclusive statement’ from me I will be unable to give it. I live in a polarized mental space. I am torn by conflicts.

        There was certainly a time when I accepted reining narratives without question because I wished to ally myself with ‘what is right’ and also ‘what is true’. For reasons that I cannot fully fathom I have been drawn to explore radically opposing poles (of interpretation). In fact it all hinges on epistemological questions. One book that had a strong influence on me was “The Genesis of Secrecy: One the Interpretation of Narrative” by Frank Kermode.

        But I have no doubt, at least based on the historical evidence that I’ve access to (Raul Hilberg for example, in ‘The Destruction of the European Jews’ spells it out step by step) that Germany carried out a radical civic separation from its long-standing Jewish population which, in combination with the war, led to a giant destruction on European Jewry.

        There are elements within that narrative structure that I question though. And it has to be seen that American and Soviet propaganda-machines took up the materials and used them (as is the natural function of PR and propaganda).

        To question the structure of narrative is essentially to organize it or to re-organize it, and the one who does this constructs or reconstructs a vision and an understanding of The Present which regards both poles, and perhaps all poles, as colluding in distortions of truth. (I also recognize that I go a bit overboard in my descriptions and I do recognize this might be tiresome. It is certainly pretentious).

        Which Side Are You On? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1gX0SxtidI)

        Is ‘metaphysical neutrality’ an option, do you think?

  15. (I meant reigning not reining.)

  16. Oh, Jack… You couldn’t just let me have a spring break without feeling compelled to reply to one of your posts, could you?

    And… as I suspect you may have been expecting if not hoping, I agree with your arguments but disagree with your conclusion.

    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.

    • pennagain

      Damn, Rick, this is one of those rare (for me) “I wish I’d said that”s. Thanks. I wish it were picked up for a COTW or something so everyone could take a look at (what I think are) both convincing arguments and argument-challenging ethical perspectives. School administrators, symbols, censorship, preserving “innocence” (vs educating); student rights (high-school student power of choice); artistic rights (including your aesthetic vs anaesthetic); and humor: an arugument for the ages. …

      Did anyone ask the students what they thought about the play they were rehearsing, I wonder.

  17. Beth

    What, were the rights to Avenue Q too expensive this year?

  18. I’d raise another point. Why was a high school drama class allowed to conduct a somewhat risqué production like this in the first place? Interfering with it at the last moment over a matter of political correctness only elevates the idiocy factor from there. These moronic educators- who seem to be the rule these days – seem to be in competition with each other as to who can make the most lunatic foul ups in the shortest amount of time. But when they do it on the heels of and in response to another poor and somewhat depraved previous decision… I guess that’s now the mark of a master in their circles.

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