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]

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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:

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Ethics Half-Hero: Western Washington University

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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.

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