Should High Schoolers Perform The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?
“So long as it’s got a cunt it’s all right with you!” Stevie barks in Edward Albee’s 2002 Tony-award winning play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? while interrogating her husband about the affair he is having with the title character (a goat named Sylvia). The play’s action centers around the aftermath of bestiality and infidelity within an upper-class family. Given the nature of the text, such an aforementioned line is to be expected. Ditto all terms like “goat-fucker” etc. It is Albee after all. But now imagine those lines coming from a sixteen-year-old girl’s mouth. Cringe-worthy?
Last October Andrew Cupo, the drama teacher at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Arizona, assigned The Goat to his advanced drama class for scene study and performance. A group of parents took objection and filed a complaint to the Scottsdale police. Cupo was sent on forced leave while the school board and police investigated. In the end, charges were dropped and Cupo returned to his post and a new rule in place that all plays must be approved by the principal before they are taught. It’s a sticky situation that asks all the pertinent questions surrounding high school theater. What is “too mature” or “inappropriate” for students in the Internet age when everything risqué is a mouse click away? Do teachers have a greater right to teach curriculum they find pertinent than parents have a right to censor said curriculum? Is it ridiculous to censor a critically acclaimed work of art, or can certain theater be justifiably deemed inappropriate for high school students? In cases like Cupo’s, debating the issue remains important long after the matter has been “settled.” These questions are relevant for school theater programs everywhere. In Phoenix, the discussion happened officially as part of a monthly series of banned play readings.
What is “too mature” or “inappropriate” for students in the Internet age when everything risqué is a mouse click away?
Mary Stephens, a Ph.D. candidate at Arizona State University, noticed that the Phoenix arts scene seemed dead on Tuesdays. Play readings seemed an appropriate cultural activity to fill the space—interesting but not commitment-heavy for those putting up the piece. Stephens wanted a theme to tie the readings together, so she decided on “banned plays” to gain focus and create intrigue.
The Goat was read on a small, dimly-lit stage in the basement of the Phoenix Center for the Arts. The banned reading series started in January 2013 as a segment of Performance in the Borderlands—a community initiative meant to promote diverse cultural performances. The reading was spare and no frills. The four-person cast was a collection of ASU student and faculty volunteers. One visiting faculty member gave a brief introduction to the piece, framing what we were about to see with questions about what we think normal sexuality is and what is fit to be discussed with others (adults or teens). It’s hard to believe anyone would watch the play without feeling ill at ease at least once. If you’re not bothered by the animal/human physical relationship, perhaps the main character, Martin’s, flippant use of the word “faggot” while describing his homosexual son makes you squirm. Or maybe you find Stevie’s eventual murder of her husband’s “lover” unsettling. Each of these moments stung me during the reading because I couldn’t stop wondering which parts I would or wouldn’t share with teenagers.
Following the performance, the crowd was rather split on whether or not Albee’s play is appropriate for high schoolers. No one in the group of around forty people said the Pulitzer nominated play had no merit. I am sure some parents did not bother to read The Goat but, regardless, managed to decide it was completely pornographic. Actually, there is no sex in the play, just a discussion of it. Furthermore, the play is certainly not “intended to stimulate erotically” which is the raison d'être of pornography. The Goat ends with a broken home as a result of the sexual “deviance.” The drama could actually be considered moralistic.
Despite its lauded artistic merits, people questioned if the story was of value to teens. Why choose this “vulgar” play over many other award-winning works? One reason could be the play has its moments of connection with teenagers. Martin and Stevie’s teenage son Billy is disturbed greatly by his father’s actions and his parent’s arguments. However, he seems to get most upset by his parents’ condescension in telling him to “go outside and play.” His opinions are dismissed because of his age: a moment like this would resonate with most high school students in a way “high school appropriate” plays might not.
If you read a general summary, The Goat is about sexual perversity. If you read the play, you find a bed of commentary about the strengths and weaknesses of families. I find it interesting that the audience, so wrapped up in what kind of sex high schoolers can be exposed to, never discussed how the play is about so much more than bestiality. It could, for example, be read as an absurd play—a kind of fable about families with secrets.
The truth is that sexual fetishism is more common than we think and people are naturally curious about sex. If not most, at least some of any given class of students have been embarrassed, concerned, or confused about what sex means to them. Parents against Cupo argued such personal topics were a family conversation, but I have a hard time believing most students are willing to talk to their parents about sexual issues. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean the school should take on the teen’s needs.
Then again, it would take no longer than two minutes to find a video of cross-species breeding online, to hear a story from another student at the lunch table. Therefore, it seems pointless to shield students from a famous contemporary play on the basis of its ribald content. Some teens are begging for their artistic education to be more complex. One could argue to offer intelligent students the same sugar-coated musicals year after year is a detriment to their intellectual development.
When it comes to discomfort about sexuality, a key aspect is consent. In the case of Cupo’s assignment, he needed consent even though the class was an elective and no student was required take it. In the talkback, a former high school teacher also offered the play should have been one option of several plays students could choose from. Offer students the opportunity to explore what might disturb them, but let them approach it themselves. Cupo did send students home with a notice saying mature content was in the current assignment and an alternate activity was available. Whether children gave their parents that notice is anybody’s guess. Parents who protested the play defended their children’s initial silence about feeling uncomfortable by equating the experience with sexual abuse. As abuse victims often feel unable to discuss what happened to them, some parents believed their children were too embarrassed to complain. Perhaps offering a controversial play as a possible assignment is different than assigning the play and saying whoever is uncomfortable has to step forward and claim so in order to be pardoned. That’s an escape clause—not consent.
On the other hand, some people at the reading commented that whether or not the play was ultimately valuable to students, Cupo had to have known that his curriculum choices would be troublesome. The phrase “he was asking for it” came to the surface. Cupo couldn’t be at the reading because it was rumored he was under gag order. Technically, I don’t know what his true intentions were, but it seems unlikely he was trying to harm his students who spoke of him with love and respect in all the press coverage. I find it mildly offensive to assume this educator was intentionally trying to court controversy with his choice of text. Edward Albee himself recently said, “All art is an act of aggression against the status quo.” Albee isn’t asking for trouble—he is, rather, asking audiences to interrogate a complicated world.
Of course, the audience for the reading did not reach a consensus, but it seemed everyone at some point in the night considered a new viewpoint. The evening’s lineup allowed everyone to have concrete examples from the play to discuss the issues instead of basing opinions on vague assumptions about the play. No rights need to be obtained for a reading, there is little (if any) rehearsal, and all you need for success is an attentive audience. I recommend the concept to any community. As Jenny Strickland, the assistant producer of performance in the Borderlands told me, “It’s just really great on a Tuesday night in Phoenix to see people talk about a play.”