This morning I was watching Morning Joe on MSNBC, one of my favorite political talk shows. And they started talking about how there's too much violence in movies and video games, and connecting that to recent mass shootings. I hear this a lot, and it always drive me nuts. First of all, these folks need to take a stroll through the very violent, very gory, original Grimm's Fairy Tales. Or the Bible, for that matter. And then they need to read the book that sort of inspired Into the Woods, Bruno Bettelheim's brilliant The Uses of Enchantment, which I'm reading right now for the second time.
Bettelheim argues that fictional violence can be healthy because it's a safe way to work through the primal, violent impulses everyone has. Fictional violence doesn't cause real violence; it replaces real violence. Humans are innately violent -- just watch kids at play -- so as we have become more civilized, we have channeled those violent impulses into our storytelling, experiencing those impulses in a safe context. There are many recent studies about this. Whatever "common sense" may appear to tell you, it's not true. Video games and movies don't cause violence, and pornography doesn't cause sexual assaults. Yes, there are crazy people, and they will do crazy, horrible things whether or not they play a video game or see The Matrix. Crazy people have been doing crazy, horrible things since humans first showed up on planet Earth.
But the Culture War (and its imaginary red-headed stepchild, the War on Christmas) isn't about ideas or rationality. It's about emotion. It's about fear. (I will once again recommend the brilliant book, The Republican Brain.) Statistics and science and reasoned arguments won't change anyone's mind about this stuff. Why shouldn't we say the word fuck? Because it's bad. Why is it bad? Because it means sexual intercourse. Actually, most of the time it doesn't mean that. Much of the time it's just an intensifier. And when it's not, fuck can mean so many different things in its various forms today, very few of those meanings related to sex. I use it constantly. Seriously. I love it.
And really, so what if it means sexual intercourse...? Why do we persist in thinking this fundamental biological function is "dirty" -- or really, that it has any moral component at all...? I think it's because it reminds us of our animal nature, and we fear our animal nature. Bukowski accepted his animal nature without judgment, and that makes people uncomfortable. Luckily, organized religion is on the decline in America, so maybe there's still hope that we'll find our way out of this forest of moral hypocrisy and the pathological need to control others.
The truth is that fuck is a bad word because it's a bad word. No other reason.
According to the wonderful documentary Fuck, the word's origins go back further than recorded history. It's literally one of humanity's oldest words. And let's get real here, it's only a word. Just a sound to which we've assigned meaning. The intent behind this word can be playful, awestruck, angry, dismissive, resigned, violent, amused, impressed... It has almost limitless uses and literally limitless meanings. Why on earth would we want to fence this word off from all the others? Is it that dangerous? That appalling? And when my mom says, "Oh fudge!", isn't that a difference without a distinction? Doesn't she mean the same thing I mean when I say, "Oh fuck!"? In other words, shouldn't we be focused more on meaning and intent?
Or as the legendary George Carlin put it:
There are some people that aren't into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them that you can't say on television. What a ratio that is. 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They'd have to be outrageous, to be separated from a group that large. All of you, over here. You seven -- bad words! That's what they told us they were, remember? "That's a bad word." There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad Intentions.
One of the things that was so subversive about Bukowski was his "obscene" language. But today, when lots of literature and other storytelling forms regularly use that kind of language -- and yes, musicals too -- it feels less subversive. How do you give an audience the same feeling encountering his work in the context of today's culture?
Put it in an old-fashioned musical comedy, that's how. I think George M. Cohan would love this show. He would love its rowdy, aggressive, smartass tone. He would love the laughs and the energy of it. Musical comedy has been satirically commenting on American culture and values as far back as No, No, Nanette in 1925 (our relationship with money), Of Thee I Sing in 1931 (political populism), Anything Goes in 1935 (our celebrity gangster culture), Finian's Rainbow in 1947 (economic justice), and lots of others.
Though we are in a new Golden Age of musical theatre, the age of the neo rock musical and the neo musical comedy, people still think of musicals as either Oklahoma! or Hello, Dolly! So by choosing what is perceived as an innocent art form as their vehicle, Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green are doing with Bukowsical what Bukowski did with his writing -- challenging ideas of "acceptable," "appropriate," "good taste." If it's truthful, if it's authentic, then how can it be inappropriate or unacceptable? Should artists and storytellers wall off parts of reality in the name of good taste?
Many scholars say that Bukowski changed American poetry, both in his rejection of strict form and also in his "adult" language and content. Though Stockdale and Green are not the first to the neo musical comedy party, it's still early and they've contributed something quite wonderful to the movement with Bukowsical. The more I read the script and the more I listen to the L.A. cast album, the more I fall in love with it.
The story of Bukowsical is about survival -- like any Hero Myth story, I guess. But it's also about ambiguity, which was the hallmark of Bukowski's own work. He knew that people are neither good or bad, wrong or right, mean or nice, happy or sad. Most of us live in the gray areas. While a lot of storytelling simplifies characters and stories down to their essence -- and for legitimate reasons -- Bukowski was a different kind of writer. He said in one interview (in the documentary Bukowski: Born Into This) that he really wanted to be a journalist, and if he could have gotten hired anywhere, he would've been one. And you can see that in his writing -- it's almost like he's a reporter covering his own life.
And that life included lots of alcohol, lots of sex, lots of violence, and lots of four-letter words.
In the song "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" in Bukowsical, four famous writers, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, William S. Burroughs, and Sylvia Plath, tell Bukowski to embrace sex and obscenity in his writing. It's a very funny song. But what they're really telling him is to be authentic. To write in his true voice. To tell the truth about his life. It's a very funny way of getting at a very important truth.
And really, "Get Down, Get Dark, Get Dirty" would be a pretty accurate label for the American musical theatre in this new century, shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Urinetown, American Idiot, Next to Normal, bare, Love Kills, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, and lots of others. Dark times call for dark art, to make sense of it all.
Though Bukowsical pretends to be a silly, shallow musical comedy, it's not. It's a smart, serious-minded approach to telling a really interesting story in a way that's relevant to our ironic, Stephen Colbert, meta culture today. Sure, Bukowski's life could have been told in a dark Sondheim musical or a dark Kander & Ebb musical. But Bukowski didn't have a dark heart -- he just led a dark life. He may have said fuck a lot, but he also fell in love and got his heart broken. We think of Bukowski as really fucked up, but he wasn't Sweeney Todd. He's more the Elephant Man, and it's that fragile, frequently broken heart at the center of his writing that draws us in. When he lets us get a glimpse inside, we see how much we are like him. We see the ordinary in the extraordinary.
Just as Company forces us to look at marriage honestly, just as Next to Normal forces us to look at mental illness honestly, just as Spelling Bee forces us to look at our culture of competition honestly, so too does Bukowsical force us to look at language honestly.
Like all good stories, Bukowsical isn't about Bukowski as much as it's about us, individually and collectively. I'd like to think of Bukowsical as a cultural bull in a china shop, shattering biases, fears, judgments, norms, preconceptions. We may get a few walkouts, but I think the most common result of our performances will be spirited conversations in the car on the way home.
My favorite thing!
Long Live the Musical!