Last night, we went to see Studio Theatre’s production of The Mother with the Hat. Except that’s not really the play’s title. I try to keep this a family blog, though, so we’ll leave it at that.
I’d seen the play before — in New York, with Chris Rock playing one of the leads. I came away from that production feeling distinctly conflicted — Rock did a fine job moving about the stage, interpreting his character, but his familiarity as a comic performer kept making me view his character as a comic character. Which he was. But only partially so. Also, the New York production did some very clever things with its set — one transition included a couch rotating into place from beneath the stage, forming the anchor for an entirely different apartment.
Last night’s production was completely different. The actor playing the Chris Rock role was a deeply charismatic white guy who seemed so utterly comfortable with himself and his spiritual past that he carried along the characters and the audience — even those of us who knew the ins and outs of the plot. (Last night’s Ralph played one serious scene in the nude that was totally, completely in character, but would have come off as a comic scrambling if Rock had done it.) The different casting made various plot points resonate in a new (and, in my mind, better way.)
This time, I wasn’t as bothered by the language in the play. The title is there for a reason — yes, to shock the shockable. And to let everyone know that we’re in for a night of adult entertainment (not quite like that, but you know what I mean.) And to clear the slate for a lot worse language to come.
Yeah, there’s worse to be said. Almost every line in the play contains the F word; I stopped hearing it after a while. But an early line about a nun’s private parts may be the single most shocking line I’ve heart on a stage — and it’s glossed over, without hesitation, with no reaction by the actor who delivers the line or the one who receives it.
Language becomes a tool of aggression. Not really among the characters — they are inured to the words they use because they know (or at least use) no others.
But the playwright (and the actors, as the playwright’s voice) is/are leveling an attack against the audience. “See?” they say. “There are lots of people in the world out there, and they are angrier than you. A lot angrier. And in many ways, a lot more impotent. But they have a number of tools to express their anger, including language. And if that bothers you, well then, [screw] you, mother.”
It’s an extraordinarily aggressive maneuver. And an extraordinarily aggressive play. (Even though I’ve seen more violence on stage — more people die in the average Shakespeare history or tragedy, for example.)
Ultimately, the play was successful — I’m still talking about it hours later. I’m still questioning the motivation of characters, the way they do and do not solve the problems presented to them.
I’ve been thinking about language a lot lately. I’m writing a contemporary YA novel, and I *know* how high school students talk. I also know that a lot of libraries won’t buy books with certain words in them. Therefore, my challenge as an author is to create dialog that sounds real, but that doesn’t violate the Magic Word Taboo.
That’s more of a challenge than you might think.
So? What about it? What books have you read that effectively use aggressive language? Any notable failures?Read More