Our pesky artists

Writers, playwrights, filmmakers, visual artists, and musicians keep on pressing the limits in the wording of their titles, consequently presenting a problem for media outlets that ban taboo vocabulary, especially fuck and shit. (Dozens of postings on Language Log and this blog, most recently here.)

Now comes playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis and his comedy The Motherfucker With the Hat, giving NYT theater critic Ben Brantley (who thinks very highly of the play and the actors in it) several reasons to be vexed. There’s the title and then there’s the language of the play itself

From Brantley’s review:

A Love Not at a Loss for Words
Published: April 11, 2011

The play that dare not speak its name turns out to have a lot to say. Stephen Adly Guirgis’s vibrant and surprisingly serious new comedy opened on Monday night at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater under a title that cannot be printed in most daily newspapers or mentioned on network television.

This is vexing for those of us who would like to extol the virtues of “The ___________ With the Hat,” at least in public. (The title also seems to have created problems for the people trying to publicize the play.) This is by far the most accomplished and affecting work from the gifted Mr. Guirgis, a prolific and erratic chronicler of marginal lives (“Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train,” “Our Lady of 121st Street”). But I’ll admit that upon first hearing the name of his play, I thought irritably, “How the ___ am I going to write about it?” As you see, I have already devoted much space-consuming ink to my quandary.

… And sure enough, the unmentionable noun in this play’s title carries exactly the weight of bewilderment, anger and awe with which all the characters regard one another. In “Hat” people are infuriating mysteries, even to themselves. But that doesn’t stop them from trying to come up with precise words that might define their ambivalent relationships and their own ever-elusive identities.

You could even say that “Hat,” directed with fire and tenderness by Anna D. Shapiro (“August: Osage County”), is about both the inadequacy and necessity of language, which here includes assaultive bombardments of insults, the zippy slogans of television commercials and the orotund pronouncements of self-help manuals. (The dialogue is often choice, but there are very few lines I can quote in their entirety.)

Brantley seems to intend choice ‘of very good quality’, though this wording evokes another adjective choice:

[NOAD2] (of words, phrases, or language) rude and abusive: he had a few choice words at his command.

I’m waiting to see how other publications (and radio and television) deal with the title.


3 Responses to “Our pesky artists”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    Arne Adolfsen reports that some media outlets, in particular Variety, print the title in the clear (also in the Wikipedia entry and in Time Out New York and New York Press), but that most outlets resort to asterisking (Motherf**ker especially): the Philadelphia Inquirer, Chicago Tribune, New York Post, Playbill.com, Broadway.com, and the site for the play itself. The play’s site is themfwiththehat.com, and MF (or Mf) is yet another choice, taken by the Wall Street Journal and the Broadway World and New York City Theatre sites, for example. The NYT‘s choice of ____________ seems to be idiosyncratic; presumably this is the result of the paper’s antipathy to asterisks for expletive avoidance.

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From John Lawler on Facebook, a relevant quote:

    ‎”I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” — George Carlin

  3. On the taboo avoidance patrol « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] as it appears in publicity for the play (including on the play’s own website; discussion here). After this, the New Yorker continues its plain-speaking […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: