This past Spring my son took on the role of Gavroche, the young street-wise urchin, in the musical Les Miserables. His small-town Utah high school staged the performance, and they did an absolutely terrific job. From the custom-built rotating stage to the hours and hours of rehearsal and preparation, it all paid off in a series of well-received and celebrated performances. Mostly.
There were some in the community that were offended. The musical and the book tackle mature themes. There are drunken sailors, scenes of exploitation, whores, and yes, swearing. My son approached his role with pleasure and a commitment to the integrity of the script. Perhaps too much pleasure, but I didn’t mind. It was a great performance from all involved.
There was one particularly ugly incident during an intermission when an exceedingly offended adult expressed his outrage to members of the cast in the hallway. But the students handled it well, the show must go on, and on it went. They tackled the mature themes, but they also explored the nature of law and grace, justice and mercy, love, honor, duty, sacrifice, and ultimately, redemption. It is one of the greatest novels of the 19th century, and one of the most beloved musicals of the past few decades.
I was impressed with the courage of the director and the maturity of the students. They immersed themselves in the characters and, by so doing, opened the door to deeply significant conversations between the cast, their parents, and the community. Artistic explorations have the power to touch us deeply, in ways that detached discussion about concepts cannot.
My thoughts turn back to my experiences with art, and this play in particular, with the news this week that BYU canceled a performance of The Bakkhai due to “difficult material” and an approach that “could be problematic for members of [BYU's] audience.” Part of the official statement from BYU:
“‘The Bakkhai’ itself is difficult material and the particular approach and concept for this production will be problematic for some of our audience members which we felt we would like to not have.”
That last bit saddens me. Clearly, from the late cancellation to the statements about the value of the content, both schools thought The Bakkhai a worthwhile performance. Director Larry West describes the play as “about sex, wine and losing one’s inhibition”, but “at its core [it] is about defining God.” BYU seems to be a prime location for such discussions, no?
I don’t begrudge the BYU Theatre Department for making this call, and both parties appear to be handling it well and maintaining a commitment to future productions together. In fact, it was probably a good decision – politically expedient, professionally safe.
The problem, it seems, is with our culture. A culture that prompts decisions to pull a play about topics that are relevant to students, and to us. BYU is preparing LDS students to engage the larger world, perhaps we should give it the latitude to do so?