Theaters, critics, and free speech

The nagging price of freedom

A few years ago, meetings of the Center City Residents' Association were enlivened by a neighbor I will call Screaming Mimi, who routinely exercised her constitutional right to free speech by hooting at speakers with whom she disagreed. But on one occasion, when Screaming Mimi herself took the floor, she prefaced her remarks with this request: “I’m going to make a statement, and I don’t want anyone to respond to it.”  

Voltaire had the right idea. (Photo via Creative Commons/Wikipedia.)

I thought of Screaming Mimi this month upon learning that the playwright MJ Kaufman had asked critics not to review their world premiere of Destiny Estimate because, as the play’s publicist explained, “the play is of a personal nature and is going to be a limited run and not being produced elsewhere.” That request rightly provoked an objection from BSR editor Wendy Rosenfield, which in turn generated a heated debate among critics, playwrights, producers, and directors.

But this issue transcends the occupational prerogatives of critics and theater people. It concerns the essential right of citizens in a free society to communicate with each other — rightly or wrongly, wisely or foolishly, publicly or privately — about whatever they damn well please.

We often forget that freedom of speech really concerns the rights of listeners as much as speakers. If I want to know what Wendy Rosenfield or Cameron Kelsall or anyone else in the audience thought of Destiny Estimate, Kaufman has no right to interrupt that conversation — whether it takes place in person, by phone, in print, on the internet, or via snail mail.  

Jailing Pussy Riot

Granted, theaters enjoy the right to withhold comp tickets from critics they perceive as hostile or uninformed. In theory, they even enjoy the right to swear their audiences to secrecy. It’s an effective strategy in some venues, especially if the theater operates in North Korea. But in a free society, I wish them good luck with that.

The irony here is that free speech is the creative person's best friend. It’s no accident that the Fringe Festival, for example, takes place in Philadelphia and not in Moscow, where rock musicians like Pussy Riot have been jailed for disrespecting President Putin. Free speech is such a consistently reliable friend to theater people that many of them take it for granted. Kaufman is hardly the first playwright to create a highly personal work and then try to control public reaction to it. It never ceases to amaze me when theatrical creators assert freedom of expression for themselves but deny it to others.

Believe me, I know where Kaufman is coming from, because I’ve been there myself. My published books have repeatedly been reviewed by critics who, in their ignorance, failed to recognize me as the second coming of Mark Twain. But so what? As Lady Bird Johnson replied when informed of her husband’s multiple mistresses, maybe I could have learned something from them.

Jury duty

So, what’s the appropriate response when a theater — or anyone — asks you to keep quiet about something you've witnessed?

A few years ago I served on a jury panel. The prosecutor, learning that I was a journalist, asked if I intended to write about my jury experience. I replied that I had no idea, “but that’s my prerogative as a citizen.” (I was rejected for that jury but accepted for another.)

I once asked Philadelphia Magazine’s restaurant critic, Jim Quinn, for his rule of thumb about reviewing new restaurants. “How long do you give them to iron out the kinks before you review them?” I inquired. Jim replied: “Are they charging customers for the meals they serve?” It’s a useful guideline.

The price you pay to live in a free society is your inability to control what people say about you. But, in any case, criticism is a compliment. If people — even ignorant or malicious people — choose to spend their limited time attending your play (or reading your book) and discussing it, you should be flattered, not traumatized.

Destiny Estimate was indeed reviewed in BSR (by Cameron Kelsall) last week. That simple gesture strikes me as the most eloquent response to Kaufman’s request. To Kaufman, not to mention Screaming Mimi, I would paraphrase Voltaire: I will defend to the death your right to express yourself.  Will you defend mine?

Our readers respond

Joseph Glantz

of Levittown, PA on November 01, 2017

Beautiful article. it reminds of this Ben Franklin story about an old man, his son, and a horse. At the start, the man is riding the horse and the son is walking beside him. A stranger says, "That’s not right, you should both be on the horse." So the son gets on until they meet another passerby, who says, "That’s not right, that horse isn’t that big, only one person should ride the horse." So the man gets down and the son stays on. A third stranger says, "That’s not right. The old man shouldn’t be walking." So the son gets off, and they all walk down the path alone until a fourth stranger says, "That’s not right. Why have a horse if you don’t use the horse?" So they dump the horse in the river.

The point being: Whatever you’re going to do, someone will be critical. So if you’re in the arts, politics, science, any endeavor — do what you think it’s right, and take the criticism in stride.

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