When it comes to colleges and universities standing up to political correctness and woke demands for intellectual non-diversity, half-heroes are still better than the norm. The norm is abject cowardice and the ethical integrity of a sea sponge.
At Western Washington University, theater students attempted to cancel the Theater Department’s fall production of “No Exit,” the 1944 existential drama by Jean-Paul Sartre. (Full disclosure: I would rather be cursed to organize a thousand sock drawers than watch or read that play again.)
A letter of protest from students echoed many of the rationalizations for censorship and political cleansing of the arts that have metastasized into serious threats to intellectual freedom and creative liberty across the nation. Not to keep you in unnecessary suspense, the school did not cave to the student demands, nor grovel an apology for daring to arouse their ire, as most colleges (and high schools) would do today. “No Exit” will still be produced in the Fall. The school still only gets a half-hero rating for its verdict of no exit from “No Exit,” however, because it has agreed to provide “trigger warnings” for audience members.
As to the latter: Yecchh. By capitulating to this degree, the school has allowed the camel’s nose of faux ideological trauma into the metaphorical tent of the arts. Art, especially performance art, is intended to provoke strong reactions by introducing new and unexpected experiences and ideas into the unique dynamic of an audience. Someone who is so emotionally (read “politically programmed to be..) fragile that they have to be warned so they can avoid uncomfortable, jarring or, more frightening yet to crypto-totalitarians, non-conforming ideas should avoid the theater, like a tone deaf man who only appreciates commercial jingles should avoid the opera. By pandering to this part of the student demands, the school has abandoned a crucial principle without which theater cannot survive.
My perspective, I should emphasize, has been greatly shaped by my 20 years as the artistic director of an Arlington Virginia theater company that plumbed the American theater repertoire of the past to present some of the most polarizing dramas and controversial ideas imaginable. The mission was to allow audiences to to contrast current trends and cultural assumptions with those that once were representative of America, or once proposed and rejected.
My belief was (and is) that intelligent audiences, and for different reasons, children, were capable of watching and listening to possibly disturbing stories, ideas and concepts and benefiting from the experience, even learning from them, even being entertained by them. I directed many of these productions, always as an advocate for the playwright, even when I personally disagreed with the author’s message.
The arguments presented in the student letter/petition condemning “No Exit” are anathema to art in general and theater specifically. For example,
- The letter begins by stating, “When choosing a play for the upcoming season, there seemed to be a blind spot: gender and sexuality were not considered. We understand that this is a piece that is meant to challenge us as a department, but this play is not challenging if it doesn’t allow us to feel safe.” First of all, “No Exit” does not ignore “gender and sexuality,” but even if it did, the requirement that any play chosen would have to include every interest group’s pet concern would guarantee a choice between bad theater and no theater. Second, a genuine assertion that a work of art makes anyone unsafe is grounds for psychiatric treatment. But the current progressive distortion of the word “safe” does not mean safe, but rather “forced to experience ideas that I have decided to banish from my reality.” An educational institution must embrace the principle that allowing developing minds to close themselves off as such a definition of “safe” demands is itself unsafe, as well as unwise.
- “This play at its surface level holds problematic themes, and as members of this department
we have the time and resources to delve into the deeper meaning of this play. Audience members in our community, however, don’t have the same time and resources that we have been gifted, so they are left to retain that surface level,” the letter babbles. Scholars have spent centuries trying to analyze all of the themes and revelations of “King Lear,” but the play was written, like all plays, to be experienced “cold” by an unprepared audience. This complaint demonstrates a shocking misconception about theater and literature itself.
- Before listing a series of specific “grievances, questions, and suggestions,” the students state, “As we move forward towards a new future of diversity, equity, and inclusion for our department, we ask that gender and sexuality diversity is also included in that future.” Ugh. “Diversity, equity and inclusion,” like “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité,” the words that led to heads rolling all over France, is not a statement of values but a political slogan, and the watermark of totalitarians is that all art must advance their political agenda. Theater is often political, but when it must conform to only one point of view, it is agitprop by edict.
Acceptance of the students’ logic would wipe out 95% (approximately) of all Western theatrical works of the past, including those of Shakespeare, O’Neill, Miller, Williams, Albee, even Gilbert and Sullivan. Personally, I wouldn’t miss Sartre, but at least I’ve given his work a chance to engage me. Capitulating to the objections included in the student protest would have been a betrayal of liberal education itself as a well as drama, so Western Washington University deserves at least the sound of one hand clapping for not doing so.
If only it could have been equally adamant in resisting the creeping prior restraint of “trigger warnings,” the university would have earned an ovation.