Follow by Email

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Profanity

This is a discourse on the weight of swear words and so uses a lot of swear words.
If you can't stand to see strong expletives written out in full, then please fuck off now.

***

Throwing insults about is part of the job of the playwright.  It isn't the whole job, it shouldn't be something that is done for the sake of it, but one shouldn't apologise for it.  Swearing, profanity (and word with a fascinating doubleness to it) and 'bad' language are tool to be used wisely.  Swearing, even in this day and age, can still cause offence.  But what of that?  If no one is offended by your work then you're work is probably dead and shouldn't be revived.

BABY STEPS IN SWEARING.
There's nothing like a good swear.  Working up from 'lesser' swear words, up to the big guns.  (Big 'uns!  Sorry, no, we're not going to do double entendres this week.)  For works where I know there will be a mixed audience of ages I know I can sneak in a bloody or a bugger.  I love the word bugger, it's such an affectionate word.  "He's a lovely little bugger!" you could say about someone and they wouldn't be offended.  It is perfect for situations vastly beyond it's reach.  There is no better last word for humanity in the event of the end of the world.  "Oh (deep breath, pause, sigh) bugger!"  It's understatement is it's strength.
If we were to think of swearing as companies on the stock market then most companies tend to be losing their value.  Take the stock in bleeding.  Bleeding used to be a proper swearword, debated in the corridors of power in the B.B.C. as to its broadcastability.  Now, it isn't even considered a proper swear word.  It's classed in the same league as blooming heck, or other alternative epithets.  To use bleeding is a cop out. 
The stock of swear words can go up as well as down.  Terms of racial abuse, once prevalent in stand up comedy, even before the watershed, have finally become completely persona non grata.  It is a brave playwright indeed to use the word 'nigger' even in the context of writing a racist character.  The best example of this use of the word can be found in a song in the Sondheim musical Assassins.  I was rehearsing an abortive production of this at university, singing the part of Wilkes Booth, which is structured to make you sympathise with his character until he calls Abraham Lincoln a "nigger loving" so and so, at which point all sympathy dies.  It is a very clever bit of writing.  Unfortunately for me, at the moment of reaching this line, a class of students came in to take over the rehearsal space.  It was rather like being caught in a middle of the road situation comedy.
All classes swear but not all classes swear in the same way, or at least it was so when the British class system was more clearly codified.  These days there are so many fragmentary communities within classes that they have created whole new eco-systems of swearing within them.  To generalise, anyone can litter their speech with swear words, but it is the working classes who tend to stick to one word and use it to death, whereas the upper classes will tend to create dualities.
Faced with a broken door that won't open the old school working class would say this:  "This buggering bugger just won't buggering work"; the old school upper class would say this:  "This bloody-bugger just won't work, fucking-shit!" and the old school Clanger would say this: "Oh sod it, the bloody thing's stuck again."  (Yes, I'm afraid if you view the fully scripted dialogue of the Clangers you will find that they swear like dockers.  The B.B.C. had meetings about it, despite the fact the 'dialogue' was via the intermediary of the swanee whistle!  Sorry to any children of the '70's out there who have had their dreams crushed.)

But we could play upshares, downshares with swearing all day - let's move onto the most important words.  Fuck.  There, I've written it.  It's a word that has had a declining share value of late.  I still remember the frisson of saying 'fuck' on stage for the first time.  It is, or was, a word of power and should be used carefully, dare I say with artistry?  You can't mistake the word from the first F, it just begs to be spat out with venom and relish.  It is, also, a pleasingly omni-directional word, not being trapped in issues of misogyny or sexual loathing.  It is just about fucking - which both sexes do.  Sadly the word fuck has now been badly over used.  It is a problem I call:

THE FUCK EVENT HORIZON!

Fuck is an old word, used more frequently throughout history than books would ever suggest.  However, it was not used anything like as widely as it is now.  The reason is simple.  It's our fault - and by our I mean the professional playwrighting classes.
There was a time when no playwright would use such foul language (just getting a bleeding past the censors required skill and sophistry), but as plays became enthralled to naturalism the need to include actual swear words emerged.  You can't naturalistically depict life if you sensor words people actually use.  So, by slow increments naughty words were introduced, one at a time, from damn upwards and onwards.  The people doing this were serious people wanted to show, usually, working class life in all it's glory (though it has been proven scientifically that the rich can and do swear as well).  Then came television.  The same process of incremental swearing began, with the 'worst' words kept to the later slots.  And through television came acceptance.  The more it was shown, the more acceptable for it to be done.  Swearing drifted earlier and earlier into schedules, because if everyone does it anyway, why sensor it?  Soon children, who know a good thing when they see it, were openly swearing like dockers and dramatists were caught in a double bind.
People, especially young people, now swear constantly.  It is less prevalent in the country, where I live, but is still pretty strong.  When I bring actors up to Suffolk to rehearse I have to remind them how much more townies swear - the extra expletives emitted can be quite embarrassing, even for me.  So, when writing any play about today, how can we not include wall to wall swearing.  It is unrealistic.  And, of course, the more swearing you include the more it will be acceptable and the more happens.
This is the Fuck Event Horizon, a black hole of fucking that eats every fuck and makes it harder to not say fuck until all language fucking falls a-fucking-part and every other fucking word fucking is fuck, FUCK!
Another element in the downgrading of the stock of fuck is the sister word feck, which is almost acceptable as a daily turn of phrase.  It is the fuck for those who don't want to say fuck, because at no times does it sound like anyone will have a fuck.  You don't feck someone.  That sounds perverse.
My latest play, Complicated Pleasures, which I completed just a few days ago, does feature the word fuck.  It's set in the near future and it's difficult to justify not having the word in it.  Another recent play, Amleth, being set in the past, does not at all.  Oaths of any kind didn't fit the play well, so the only swear word used is an old word for shit/shite, skyt, which I rather liked the sound of and also is rather good for referencing the televisual output of the empire of Rupert Murdoch.
The other piece I'm working on at the moment, The Shakespeare Delusion, contains little to no swearing at all.  It is a case that the character who tells the story just doesn't swear.  He may swear once - but it will be the kind of through gritted teeth, 'I've-been-forced-by-the-situation-to-say-a-rude-word-but-I'm-better-than-this-really,' kind of expletive.  It will probably be a shit, but I can't be sure at this time.

But does swearing have any real power?  Well, in the case of one word, yes.  It is a word that has incredible kudos as a word that is still fairly taboo.  I have used it three times in the course of my playwrighting career, twice without incident, once - I believe - at a cost of a production (though this maybe an exaggeration).
The word is, of course:

CUNT

Whereas fuck is to many just another background sound, cunt is still a powerful word and not one that a playwright should use casually.  The word is a real slap in the face.  It is almost always derogatory.  However, there are slightly different reactions to the word, dependant on context.  Whilst it is considered completely unacceptable to use the word as an insult against a woman, it is oddly less unacceptable when applied to a man.  I have used this in the ruder version of Teaching Gods, where (at almost the final line of the play, so that it's a bit late for anyone to walk out) a character wishes that he wasn't such a cunt.  It's particularly effective, primarily because it is so unexpected (not because it's shocking, it just comes out of the (appropriately termed) blue) but also because it is exactly the kind of thought the character would have.  The character is an arsehole and he knows it.  But his self realisation is greater than that.  He would consider it worse to be called a cunt than an arsehole, because people oddly can respect an arsehole, so cunt he is.  The implications of this point are, of course, really very horrible, because even though this thought comes from an arsehole, it is a grading of obscenity that has common ground, I've heard it many a time.  There is a great deal of hatred thrown about the genitalia of women and our society still hasn't moved past this.
This fact is raised furthermore in performance when sometimes, if the audience is very middle aged and middle class, I chicken out of saying cunt and say the word twat instead.  Twat is, strangely, considered a more reasonable word, you can get away with calling most people a twat, even in fairly formal occasions.  Twat can be tossed casually over your shoulder in a way that cunt never can - and yet it is a HORRIBLE word.  A cunt has power, it is striking - a twat suggests something a bit sweaty, a bit (and here's another word that upsets a lot of women in ways that fascinate) moist.  There is something unhealthy about a twat, as opposed to the sprightly vigour of a good cunt.
(There is a similar duality to the words fart and guff.  Fart is merely a descriptive word, it's F a pretender to the throne of Fuck and the lesser for it.  But guff is a truly revolting word, it suggests the true horror of arse gas lurking in the atmosphere around you.  It is therefore a truly brilliant word as it fits the crime perfectly.  The skin crawling effect of the word strikes one physically in a way that fart fails completely to do.)
The first appearance of the word cunt in dramatic literature was not in some Twentieth Century taboo breaking shock fest.  It appears in a medieval play The Castle of Perseverance in a speech by a character called Luxuria.  Castle is a morality play and Luxuria is an allegorical figure who represents the temptations of lust on mankind (note the emphasis on man, woman as tempter and corrupter) and she reels man in with this exortation:

"Therefore, Mankind, my leue lemman, / I my cunte thou shalt creep."

Now, beyond the facts that the play is steeped in deeply sexist Christian bigotry, this line is actually very powerful and, out of the context of sex outside marriage as mortal sin, is really very pleasing.  I'd quite like a lady to invite me into her cunt like that.  Creep, though a little sinister, does at least suggest Luxuria is going to take her time over sex and knows (and gets) what she wants.  If it wasn't that this play is supposed to be against this sort of thing this would be a fantastic achievement and victory for the word cunt.
But it wasn't.  That's just wishful thinking.  The medieval playwright was obsessed with sex and with the detriment of women because it was based on misogynistic Christianity values.  If you picked up the Penguin collection of 'morality' plays and look in the glossary for clarification of medieval words and odd spellings you will find an enormous percentage of these words are alternatives for whore, bitch, slut, harlot etc.  These plays demonstrate the clear obsession of men, many of the writers celibate priests, with sex and their hatred of women.  In these modern, hopefully increasingly secular, ages great inroads have been made in demonstrating the inherent sexism of language, even if we haven't found decent ways of dealing with the problem.
The second time I used the word cunt was in a monologue play Cuckold's Fair, which dealt with affairs and in one specific scene an incidence of cuckold fetishism.  This is where, do look away now if you're eating, a couple get another man in to have sex with the woman (often with the other watching) and then inviting the cuckolded man to, literally, clean up the mess left behind.  In the context of the play this was the "EWWWW!" moment.  The narration goes thus: 

"And she parts her legs and exposes
The slick white dribble pouring out her cunt."

The fact is that here the word is almost incidental.  The ewwwness of the scene is about the act, the brazen sexuality of this character, the slick white dribble, so that the fact that I've used cunt at all might not even be noticed at all.  Which is one of the primary reasons that it's there - simply to describe, not to insult.
Of course cunt shouldn't be as negative a word as it is.  I won't repeat position demonstrated in dramatic literature most clearly in The Vagina Monologues in detail, only that it should be taken back by society, by women and by men, as a word of power and not just in a negative sense.  It is an important part of the body, it should not be denigrated as it is by men and by women themselves, deep ingrained are the tropes of Christian self loathing.  That does, however, set problems for me as wordsmith.  I have to deal with the weight and the power of words as they are as well as what I might want them to be.  I refuse to self sensor myself in the tools of expression of character.  There is a difference between the characters and their words and the messages they make and the message of a play overall.  I mustn't allow a political motivation make me use words incorrectly in the context I write in.  Some people use the word cunt in horrible ways and also very odd ways and this can be dramatically very interesting.

The third and, at time of writing, final use of the word cunt in my writing was in a play called Shoes That Angels Fear To Wear which was a magic realist comedy, if you want to be pretentious.  The word was used by a character that I had built around a few odd scraps, as part of my general working method of throwing my characters up in the air a lot - changing their personalities at a whim, changing genders and classes at a stroke of a pen (see last weeks blog - 'Sex').  The, ultimately, female character was a bit like Antonin Artaud (male French theatrical practitioner of the early 20th Century) in that she was mad, obsessed with bodily fluids, believed in a magic stick and was quite mad.  Those were my first thoughts on character when writing.  Also, that she was a congenital liar and would spend most of the play drunk.  I then added all sorts of bits of dialogue and thoughts and phrases designed to be a. disgusting and b. funny.  (It was, as I said, a comedy.) 
The production was not going well, I had basically run out of money and the show was running on the theatrical equivalent of fumes.  It was then I made my first terrible mistake - explained to everyone how I created the character.  As I glibly told these random assortments of character, which were not the totality, just the start of the creation, a black cloud descended on the room.  From that point onwards I had ruined the character for the actress playing the part, as well as raising issues with the nature of the play and we were going to be in for a bumpy ride.  (I should note there were a lot of other things going wrong with this production at the time, but this I think was a major contributor to the argument that came next.)
Rehearsals became increasingly tense.  We were not agreeing about the tone of the play - it was, I say again, a comedy.  Everyone was treating it very seriously, as if it was actually about something - as if the characters actually meant what they said, which most of them didn't.  If the play was about anything it was about not being a victim, about brazenly going about your life in your own way no matter how damaged you were or how crappy the world treated you.
And then the rehearsal came where 'the discussion' happened.  There's a scene where the two leads, very drunk, discuss sex and talk total bollocks.  Before we got halfway through the scene I was told that it was "unnecessary".  Well, the whole play was a souffle, none of it was strictly necessary.  If you started picking and chosing bits then very soon there would be no play left at all.  This I said.  We continued with the scene.  Until we reached the line that juxtaposed the word cunt with kebab.
Then, the immortal words came from a member of the cast: "I'm sorry, but I don't think a woman would say this."
This was the moment I'd been dreading.  I knew there was discontent over the line - which was "My cunt is a kebab."  This line was, in context (hell, out of context), very silly.  It was not a serious statement of fact, it was part of a lengthy discussion of genitalia, not least on the subject of saveloy sausages.  The image is pleasingly messy, silly and - in front of an audience - very funny.  But, in rehearsal, I was told that a woman would not say this.  That out of the billions of women on the planet now and the countless billions who have ever lived, that none of them would ever say this.
Beyond the fact that this was basically an assertion that the work was sexist and that I was, by implication, sexist, this was the worst thing anyone can say about a character, male or female.  A woman might not say this, but the play makes it quite clear, from first principles, from set up and situation, that THIS woman would.  Attempting to save the play from immediate collapse I said that the whole scene was basically a verbatim transcript of what a group of women on a drunk night out said when I was behind the bar, sober and with access to a pen.  A woman did say this.  I wrote it down.  Actually, this is a deeply flawed argument - it is one thing to discover dialogue, it is another to choose to use it in a work of art and accept there are implications to this choice - but it did demonstrate that A woman might say this because A woman did.  Many don't.  Many would not in most circumstances, but this character, in this situation, most resolutely WOULD and DOES.
As I have said before, if there was a point to the play (and it was a very silly thing, so point would be putting myself out on a bit of a limb) was that none of the characters were victims.  They were all living very different lives, most of them on the edges of society and were destined, by their own inability to function in society, to stay there.  There are people who will never fit the, frankly, insane ways we exist in civilised society.  Their insanity, their unwillingness to conform, their defiance to the norm was the one point of the play.  And people who live outside the rules don't self censor their words.  They use the word cunt to it's full glory.  Their cunt was a lovely kebab, which one can persuade others to have a lick and a nibble on and cover in sauce. 
I didn't say this.  I just said that the line was a real thing.  A found thing.  In my despair at ever surviving this production, to keep the play on it's feet, to save myself from, if not financial ruin, deep debt, I said the first thing I could think of to stop the play being mutilated by a cast uncomfortable with saying a rude word.  This wasn't about my failing to convince as a playwright, this was a failure as a director.  I hadn't communicated clearly enough the joy of the word cunt in this context.  All I did was present a fait accompli and an intellectually unsatisfactory one at that.  So the rehearsals limped on and, though that disaster was averted and the actress performed her role brilliantly (a really astoundingly good brilliant performance) she almost never spoke directly to me again.
The only concilation left was that I can safely say the scene this line featured in was the most successful of the play, a play that left the audience grinning from ear to ear as they filed out, a play whose point was grasped clearly by those in the audience in ways that I had failed to communicate to the cast.  This memory of success is tempered by the fact that audience for the show for the week could also be counted on two hands, something that happens when a cast, or just a part of it, loses faith in a play and when a director fails to connect with his cast.  I failed to appreciate how people can be funny about words, sex and about character.
Cunt is a powerful word.  I know.  It cost me thousands of pounds.

I have always tried to use cunt and other swear words strategically, and would advise others to do the same.  Cunt can be used as an insult, but it automatically signifies that the speaker is a complete arsehole.  Otherwise, it is best to use it with humour and not as something to be ashamed of.

I conclude this little monograph with an example of an absolutely brilliant piece of obscenity driven writing.  I'd never heard of Chris Kluwe before, but if this letter is representative of the man then he is a natural poet of the rude.  There are two versions, both hilarious, if you like that sort of thing.
Here is the rude version.  And here is the delightfully weird clean version - best read after the rude version.

No comments:

Post a Comment