A Deeper Dive Into The Western Washington University “No Exit” Protest

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Guest Post by Rick Jones

[Before I turn the floor over to Rick, also known here as “Curmie,” a couple of comments are in order. I had hoped that the post yesterday about the Western Washington University student protest over the decision to produce “No Exit,” the 1944 existential drama by Jean-Paul Sartre, would generate commentary from Rick, for several reasons. First, he is one of my favorite bloggers on his own, the proprietor of Curmudgeon Central, which has a new post up right now regarding the George Floyd incident one year mark. More relevant to our topic right here and now, Rick is a distinguished college professor, drama teacher and stage director, who has special insight into university students and live theater. As he reveals in the article to come, he also is better qualified to discuss “No Exit” than I; indeed, he has now convinced me to give the work another chance, since it has been decades since I read or saw it.

I also was thrilled to receive this submission from Rick because I feel very strongly that live theater is imperiled in the U.S. I know most readers here do not share my dedication to theater; few Americans do, and fewer all the time. But I have lived a double life (as a character in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Inspector Hound” adds “At least!”), spending  as much of my passions and energies on theater as any other pursuit from high school until to five years ago, when I ended the 20-year run of my small, maverick, professional theater company. My timing was excellent, because the panic-driven lockdown has killed many of The American Century Theater’s competitors here in the D.C. area, maybe most of them, and a year of using Zoom and streaming services has undoubtedly convinced many one time audience members that live theater isn’t worth the time, inconvenience or expense. In the same period, toxic political correctness, political obsession and woke fanaticism has grown exponentially, and these were existential threats to theater already.

The “No Exit” controversy is a symptom of a very serious threat to live performance art, which has been a force for uniting societies and enlightening the public for centuries. We need it more than ever now. A lot is at stake. JM]

***

My department has produced “No Exit”(which, by the way, I like a lot more than you do, Jack) twice in the last decade.  The first of these was directed by a talented and intelligent female student (an ardent feminist, by the way) who went on to earn a Master’s from a prestigious university overseas.  And we also did an online-only production last fall, directed by a colleague who’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, with a PhD in Theatre from arguably the best doctoral program in the country.  Oh, did I mention that she’s a lesbian? 

And, of course, the sense of isolation in the play was a major reason the play was chosen: because we all have a greater understanding of that phenomenon now than even the most creative thinkers could have managed a year earlier.  Moreover, please forgive me if I think that perhaps my colleague, who has published and taught courses on Queer Theatre, might have a more sophisticated understanding of the concepts at play in that particular theoretical framework than would a gaggle of pretentiously woke undergrads.

I am apparently lucky not to be at WWU.  When I announced my show for this spring as Jean Genet’s “The Maids”and described the two central characters as “would-be murderers who engage in sado-masochistic lesbian incest,” it generated interest on the part of most of our best actresses; if there was any dissent—from either very liberal students or a very conservative larger community—I never heard about it.  (Side note: although it wasn’t produced until later, “The Maids” was chosen and announced prior to”No Exit” which was a late substitution for a play we were unable to do.  I wouldn’t have chosen to do two existential French dramas from the 1940s in the same season, but that’s what we ended up with.)

But revenons à nos moutons.  When I started this response, I intended to go point by point through the students’ commentary, but that got really long, as virtually everything they say is nonsense.  So: a few general points:

It is ridiculous to claim that “gender and sexuality were not considered.”  Any reasonable reading of the play takes gender and sexuality very much into account.  That’s why so many feminists and queer theorists are drawn to it.  Might I point out, also, that all the characters in the play are literally in <i>hell</i>?  That might be a pointer that determining whether they deserve that fate might be at the center of the audience’s experience, yes?

If this, or indeed any other play “doesn’t allow you to feel safe,” you probably need psychiatric counseling more than a theatre degree.  Please note: I’m suggesting that there’s a difference between having to re-experience actual trauma (see below) and simply seeing a character with whom one shares certain demographic characteristics portrayed in a negative or stereotypical light.  I do not by any means wish to perpetrate the former if it can be avoided.

The critique of audience members is remarkably smug.  Many of those people are probably more sophisticated theatre-goers than the students, if for no other reason than that they’re there completely by choice; they’ve decided to see this play based on their research and/or previous knowledge.  If I’m in that audience, and someone tells me that I’m required to attend a “female and LGBTQ+ panel,” my response, as I elbow my way out the door, will be to suggest an activity most easily performed by particularly limber hermaphrodites.

What “puts WWU in a bad light” is not the production of a canonical play; rather, it is (or would have been) even considering capitulating to ignorant grandstanding by what we can only hope is a small cadre of undergraduates. 

“This play blames people for being a result of the society that they are in” has got to be one of the most inane remarks I’ve seen in a while.  Let me guess: these are the same students who condemn all white people, because whereas they may not be per se racist, they have benefited from the effects of racism.  And plays from the 1940s, regardless of their dramatic merit or historical significance, cannot be produced because they sometimes express values that are not regarded as acceptable by some people three generations later.

Moreover, there will always be characters whose identity are different from the playwright’s.  Are we to condemn the brilliant anti-apartheid plays of Athol Fugard because he’s white?  More importantly, most scholars agree that Sartre’s intent was to critique the rigidity of gender roles and representation in contemporary (to him) society and indeed in the drama.  I’d suggest that he succeeded.  Finally, would this play, as is, be rendered acceptable had Sartre turned certain sections over to his lover, Simone de Beauvoir?  (Or said he did?)

And on and on.  I’m particularly intrigued by the list of alternatives.  To be fair, there are a couple of those plays I don’t know.  But I’d certainly consider Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” to be at least as problematic as < “No Exit” in terms of the performing gender.  And Brian Friel’s “Translations” not only requires at least three different dialects, it also requires two characters who can converse freely in both Latin and Ancient Greek, and several others who have studied both languages for some time.  You’d better have some buy-in from someone in the Classics Department, or this play is a non-starter.

Where I would quibble slightly with you, Jack, is in the area of trigger warnings.  Telling all prospective spectators what will happen defeats the nature of theatrical representation, but having a content warning that is readily available but must be sought out can be a good idea.  For example, I don’t want to tell everyone that there’s a rape scene in a play we did here a few years ago, but neither do I want victims of sexual assault to be re-traumatized.  So tell people there are (undesignated) content advisories on the box office website (and they have to click on a link on that site to see the warning).  Such warnings range from choreographed enacted violence to saying “damn” or drinking (fake) beer.  Thus, someone who knows s/he isn’t ready to deal with plot twist X needn’t attend.  The only downside is that someone worried about X (say, sexual assault) might learn about Y (say, suicide).

To me, what is presented in “No Exit” doesn’t rise to the level of requiring such a warning, but it’s probably close enough to be in the “better safe than sorry” range.  So, assuming they adopt a similar strategy, I’m thinking the department played it about right.

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