Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Monday, January 17, 2005

The Blame

More on the important events in England regarding the play Bhezti. Those who read the previous postings on this know that "Bhezti" is the play commissioned by Birmingham Rep in England by Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, a Sikh woman playwright. The production was cancelled due to violence at the theatre from a group of Sikhs offended by the play's portrayal of a sexual act in a holy place.

I received a note and a link from a reader named Michael Ladenson. Here's the link. It takes you to an essay in "City Journal," which lays at least some of the blame for the Bhezti affair at the hands of the playwright:

"[I]t does not follow from the fact that the mob was reprehensible and the
reaction of officialdom was cowardly that the theater and the playwright were
blameless. Sikh leaders had warned both of them before the play’s opening that
trouble would result if they did not amend the play slightly. They asked that
the offending scene take place in a Sikh community center rather than in a
temple: in other words, they were not denying that Sikhs could behave in a
degrading way toward women. The scene’s essential point could be preserved
without causing unnecessary offence.

"The playwright and the theater refused to countenance the requested
change, asserting an absolute right to say anything they pleased. The idea that,
in a civilized society, one should be willing to cause offence only in
proportion to the intellectual and moral importance of the point one is
attempting to make was too subtle for them. But only egotists, with little
sympathy for the feelings of others, claim the right to cause offense

As I wrote in response to Michael's email:

"I actually take issue with the article you linked to. I don't know the play, and I'd have to read it to know, but I think the difference between sex in a mosque and sex in a community center is quite vast in terms of its potential dramatic impact. I will say that I stand by the protestors right to criticize the play. But the answer to offensive speech is not less speech but more of it. By actual and threatened violence, they have done a disservice to all. Any effort to put the "blame" on the playwright is missplaced."

Since then, I discovered this article on the matter, which clarifies the theatre's position during the discussions with Sikhs who were offended:

"The decision of one group of Sikhs to lobby for changes to a play written
and performed by members of their own community in their town is one thing.
Their refusal to rule out violence and consequently force its closure is quite
another. This censorship of Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s black comedy Behzti
should not be allowed to stand.

"The cheering thing about the debate that preceded the opening of
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s black comedy Behzti at Birmingham Rep theatre,
was that it was held at all. Both sides – theatre and Sikh community – met to
make their points before the show opened.

"Significant concessions were made by the theatre. A statement from the
local Sikh community would be distributed at the venue; peaceful public protest
would not be opposed; the programme would include positive messages about the
Sikh faith. But throughout it was understood that the play could not be
censored, let alone banned. Until the weekend’s violent events and the change to
the Sikh community's agenda that followed.

"Under pressure from their own mob, Birmingham’s Sikhs abandoned
negotiation. Refusing to guarantee that there would be no more attacks on the
theatre, they stood back and let the men of violence take over. "

As is usually true in these situations, media descriptions of the events are unreliable, and I'd certainly be interested in knowing more.

But I stand firmly by my statement: the answer to offensive speech is more speech, not less. The theatre was right to seek a way to help the protestors express their perspective peacefully, and right to shut down the production rather than compromise the play.

The Royal Court -- one of London's most respected theatrical institutions -- is considering producing the play.