Three disparate events spurred this essay. First, on September 11th, 2012, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked, leaving four U.S. nationals dead. Later that same week, the September 17th edition of The New Yorker arrived, featuring Salman Rushdie’s description of his life in the years since being subjected to a fatwa, a clerically decreed death sentence.
Then, two days ago, I stumbled into the pages of Granta (Issue 119), and read the memoirs of the Belarus Free Theatre (as introduced by none other than Tom Stoppard). Because of their work, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre have been outlawed by what is sometimes called “Europe’s last dictatorship.”
What do these three events have in common? In each case, people were threatened or killed because of their connection to the arts and, more specifically, the written word.
Innocence of Muslims, the anti-Muslim film that sparked (or gave an excuse for) the insurgency-led unrest in Benghazi, began with a script. Rushdie began with a novel. I do not claim to know enough about Belarus Free Theatre to know if they rely, as a rule, on scripts, but from their remembrances, it seems likely that even if they never entrust a word to paper, they memorize a great deal. And in each case, the consequences of these actions––some intentional, some not––were and are far-reaching.
I will assume that ninety percent of those reading this piece live in the United States, and that most of the rest reside in an English-speaking or English-dominant nation. You, then, are among the world’s most fortunate. You live in a society that values (most days) freedom of expression, and this is proven by the fact that I can write this essay, and that you can read it. Nobody of consequence is looking over your shoulder, and nobody (except perhaps your parents, if you are a minor), has the authority to force you to stop. By contrast, the members of the Belarus Free Theatre are not free to return to their home country. If they do, they will be incarcerated indefinitely and likely tortured. So they are free, after a fashion. They are free to wander the globe for as long as they wish, provided they make no attempt to visit family and friends in the place that matters most to them, home.
History is laden with examples of writers repressed, theaters disbanded, performers sent packing. Perhaps we theater folk should feel flattered; certainly, we need look no farther to find proof that the arts matter. To those in charge, art is, all too often, a matter of life and death. But in times of peace, it is so easy to forget!
In my own writing life, no comment was more startling than one I received from an audience member following a performance of one of my plays at the 2009 Y.E.S. Festival, curated by Northern Kentucky University. The comment came during a post-show party, where a man approached me, shook my hand, and said, with absolute sincerity, “That was very brave.”
Though I did my best not to show it, I was taken aback. I had not considered the penning of that particular play, although it dealt directly with environmental activism and en vogue interrogation techniques, to be in any way an act of bravery.
But then again, under a more repressive regime, my particular brand of nonconformity could be sufficient to remove me from the public eye. An outright accusation of sedition would likely cost me my freedom, my job, my family. In some places, my habit of loud-mouthed playwriting might cost me my hands.
Meanwhile, as of September 27th, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the maker of Innocence of Muslims, has been arrested for violating various stipulations of his probation (for an unrelated conviction of bank fraud). Nakoula likely cannot be charged with anything much regarding his distasteful film, again because of the First Amendment. Clearly, however, Nakoula has tested the limits of free expression, and demonstrated beyond doubt that actions have consequences, often unexpected. But is he guilty of more? Is Rushdie? Am I? Certain limits on “free” speech have long been recognized; with good reason, it is not permitted to stand up and yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Using the internet, is this what Nakoula did with his film? Is this what the government of Belarus feels the Free Theatre does when it performs?
My own quandary stands: am I, as a writer, brave? By way of example, is the script for Acts of God, dealing as it does with faith, death, and even immigration, an example of personal courage? The answer is, sadly, no. Not because I’m too weak to take a stand, but because I forgot––for a moment, or a decade––the rarefied conditions in which we live; I forgot how easy it is for anyone and everyone in our society to be critical, to throw stones at glass houses, to ask probing, ultimate questions. I forgot, in short, to respect our inherited, hard-won freedoms.
I will not make that error again. There is too much at stake, in even the most light-weight comedy or the smallest ten-minute diversion (and yes, I write those, too). Plays for adults, plays for youth, plays for the very young––each carries with it the essentials of privilege and responsibility, for we are blessed in that we may craft and stage what we choose, without fear of reprisal, and because of this, we owe it both to ourselves and the wider world beyond to turn our skills to better purposes than those displayed by Mr. Nakoula.
Because writing matters.