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Does Freedom of Speech Include the Right to Offend?

Does freedom of speech include the right to offend? The first time I heard this question was last fall in a rehearsal room in downtown Manhattan. Now, it is a question I see plastered everywhere. I can’t change the TV channel or scroll through my news feed without seeing some iteration. Who knew this was the year that freedom of speech would become such a hot topic? While working on a classical text by Christopher Marlowe, I never imagined I would have to take an immediate stance on this issue. The artists at Sony made their decision, the cartoonists in Paris made their decision, and that fall day, as we gathered as theatre artists in a rehearsal hall, we were asked to make our decision.

The question was raised by Artistic Director of Theatre for a New Audience (TFANA), Jeffrey Horowitz, as the cast of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great gathered. We were asked this question in response to a very specific moment in the script, whether to move forward with the text as written or go in a different direction. There were many people involved in this discussion beyond the artistic director, the director, nineteen actors, one musician, one dramaturg, the producing and PR teams, and me, the SDCF observer/assistant director.

What is our responsibility as artists? Is it the preservation of the playwright’s intention? Is the primary responsibility to protect other artists, the director, and the actors? As individual artists, where do we stand on this issue on our own moral spectrum?

The moment in question is in Tamburlaine Part II, Act V, Scene I. In this production, Tamburlaine Parts I and II were combined and edited for a running time of three hours (not including the half hour intermission to clean up blood). This scene, however was unedited. After Tamburlaine is finished ransacking Babylon, he calls for the burning of the holy books, the Quran. He calls up to Mahomet (as spelled in the text) to stop him and orders the books to be flung into the fire. This moment is essential to the plot. The audience watched an entire play of Tamburlaine’s mass and unjust killings and butchering. At this moment, they are likely asking themselves, who or what will take down this tyrant, this unstoppable force. None of Tamburlaine’s opponents had been able to do so. Immediately after the book burning, we see Tamburlaine thrown off course by a greater force. Tamburlaine is struck ill suddenly.

What dares distemper Tamburlaine?

Something, Techelles, but I know now what;
But forth ye vassals! Whatsoe’er it be,
Sickness or death can never conquer me.

We are left to draw our own conclusions. Did his challenge to Mahomet take him down? Do we suddenly have sympathy for Tamburlaine, a megalomaniac who a scene earlier murdered his own son? Though the backstory gives context to this complex moment, it doesn’t lessen the extreme nature of this event.

The historical context is important. When Marlowe wrote the play, there were censorship committees in England to ensure something offensive would not be presented on stage. There is that word, offensive, and the notion that a committee is needed to judge the “profanity, heresy, and politics” of publicly presented art. Marlowe had trouble getting his plays past the censorship boards. He was believed to have been an atheist and it was suggested that the book burning on stage was symbolic of burning the Christian Bible. Instead of taking a subversive stance against the Queen’s religion, Marlowe could mask his feelings about the church, by substituting another religion. In Tamburlaine, Marlowe questions all forms of religion. In the play, one could argue that the Christians were responsible for some of the most heinous acts. After swearing to Christ and signing a treaty of peace, they double cross the Muslims and turn against them.

When the cast was asked to consider this issue in the fall, I didn’t know that the TFANA staff had been actively asking themselves the same question. Since committing to produce the play, the theatre’s Council of Scholars were eager to know how this production would treat this moment. A member of the board questioned whether extra security precautions should be taken. Once the play went into a workshop in July, Artistic Director Jeffrey Horowitz sought input from leading members of the Muslim community after an introduction from the New York chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (NYACLU). All of this happened behind closed doors. This process was carefully managed to avoid unintentionally raising red flags before finding out if the book burning was offensive.

This outreach set the stage for this moment in the rehearsal hall, weeks away from previews. It was crucial for director Michael Boyd to know that his cast and lead actor John Douglas Thompson were on board with the decision to include the book burning. Long after the director left, they would still be the ones on the front line performing in Brooklyn.

When the artistic director asked the question there was a rumble in the room. There was a growing concern amongst the cast, concerned about inflaming relations with the active Muslim community in Brooklyn. No one was denying there was a politically tumultuous climate outside, and at that exact time ISIS was front-page news. Cast members were encouraged to speak up and share their views. I had my own opinions, which I shared privately with the director, however, that day I stayed silent and just listened. The youngest member of the cast spoke up, a very smart and articulate ten-year old boy. (The same boy I would see in the green room watching CNN between scenes.) He asked what the reaction would be from outside of the theatre community, those that heard about it secondhand. In this digital age, where information can spread virally, what would be the reaction if someone were to tweet or share it on social media? The young boy was brave to ask what many of us were thinking. He vocalized his fear. We were all aware what happened recently with vocal protests against the opera, Death of Klinghoffer, at The Met. We weren’t worried about vocal protests. We were worried about violent ones. We were worried for our safety.

Everybody in the room was in agreement that the play was not only about the burning of the Quran. It is about abuse of power and the brutal and cyclical nature of war. It is a rags to riches story about a shepherd who rises to become the most powerful man in Asia with an unstoppable mission to conquer the rest of the world. Though we couldn’t control audience reaction, we didn’t want the press to only highlight this one controversial moment.

But the heart of the matter was another question entirely. What is our responsibility as artists? Is it the preservation of the playwright’s intention even though Marlowe’s play is in the public domain? Is the primary responsibility to protect other living artists, the director, and the actors? Is the theatre beholden to its board members or to the NEA who granted money to produce the show? And for us, as individual artists, where do we stand on this issue on our own moral spectrum? What is our responsibility in sharing this story?

In response to the ten-year-old cast members’ question, another question developed: were we being prejudiced by assuming that a violent response to the burning would happen? Were we unintentionally offending those we didn’t want to offend? That question hit home for all of us. Still, we did not have enough information to make an informed decision.

Jeffrey invited leaders from the Muslim community into our rehearsal to watch the play and share their thoughts. One representative didn’t have a problem with the book burning but she did take issue with the text. She was bothered by how the prophet was referred to along with the pronunciation, which was broken down into three-syllables (Mo-ha-met) to go with the scansion of the line. She felt the play wasn’t historically accurate. She was right. Though Marlowe’s Tamburlaine is loosely based on the conqueror, Timur the Lame or Tamurlaine, whose military campaigns were responsible for the deaths of 17 million; it is not a biographical story. Marlowe did not represent Islam in a true historical light as he probably only had a vague knowledge of the Islamic religion.

It was suggested that a program note was not enough but that we give this explanation in a curtain speech before the show. This struck a nerve with all of us. You could feel the speaker’s words hanging in the air. Begin the production with an apology? Alert the audience to what they may or may not perceive? Do we give a curtain speech before every Shakespeare play? When would this stop? Do we apologize that The Merchant of Venice may be offensive because Jews are not accurately represented on stage?

In performance, the audience would squirm but they listened. They tried to understand. They saw a man at his highest point in his assent to power, impulsively burn books and then take his great fall. This moment was carefully crafted, exquisitely executed, and moving.

Something changed in the rehearsal hall that day. We knew where we stood as artists. Alter the text and scansion would mean going down a slippery slope none of us wanted to descend. So, if we weren’t willing to alter the text, why were we so eager to change the action? The decision was becoming less foggy but we still needed more opinions.

Another representative of the Muslim community was against any edits or changes in staging. She thought taking this moment out would cause more harm than good. Members of the Muslim community were invited to see the show through previews.

Ultimately, after months of preparation and outreach, the decision came down to keeping the text as written. We had the support of the NYACLU who stood by the decision. When Jeffrey spoke to the cast that fall day we learned a key fact: burning the Quran is not an offense. It is the way you return the text back to the prophet. We were dumbfounded. The only question that remained: were we censoring the production because of our own fears?

What would have happened if the cast had not gotten on board with the decision? In retrospect, while I now know that Jeffrey was ready to move forward with the uncensored text, I am glad that director Michael Boyd wanted each of us to make that decision for ourselves. It led to an open dialogue with the ensemble and a huge breakthrough moment. We collectively came to the conclusion.

In performance, I loved watching the audience during this moment. They would squirm but they listened. They tried to understand. They saw a man at his highest point in his assent to power, impulsively burn books and then take his great fall. This moment was carefully crafted, exquisitely executed, and moving. The action was blocked abstractly. Nothing was actually burned on stage as the books were flung into the open trap. When Tamburlaine challenged Mahomet, charcoal-colored paper floated down from the sky. It was beautiful.

The theatre continued their outreach into the Muslim community with panel discussions on freedom of speech. I was surprised that talking about the burning of the Quran on stage was not a more hot button issue. Instead, more concerns came up about trigger warnings on books, alerting students to controversial material in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for instance, because of the use of the n-word. Panelists and the audience felt there is too much censorship in our schools and that it does not belong in our art. We were so worried about the reviews focusing on this moment and yet only one out of ten reviews even acknowledged it.

This observership allowed me to be part of an important conversation. To me, good theatre creates a lasting dialogue, long after a production closes. Marlowe was a brilliant playwright who was only twenty-three-years old when he wrote Part 1 of Tamburlaine. How could he know that four hundred years later we would still be asking ourselves a question that centers around censorship?

That is the power of classics. To say classics are universal is cliché but it is true. I am proud to have been part of such a dynamic and courageous production, which reached an audience of 12,500 people. Most importantly, it dared to ask some very provocative questions. I know it paid off. I heard the chitchat during intermission and after the show. “Was there a God in this play? I’m so glad somebody was able to take Tamburlaine down.” I don’t think this moment would have had the same impact if we cut or reshaped it.

As artists, we have control over the message we want to share. I pitched this article to HowlRound just after Sony’s incident with The Interview and am now writing this article post Je suis Charlie. I can’t help but wonder had the production happened post Charlie Hebdo, would the TFANA conversation have changed? Are we now even more steadfast in our beliefs? I guess we won’t know until the next time as artists we are tested and held accountable. The idea of censorship is personal and emotional, and yet I can’t imagine living in a country where we risk loosing freedom of speech. In a microcosm of what is happening across the world, this year in Brooklyn we faced a test and reached a decision that was right for the production, the artists, and engaged our community. If we are going to take on the question of freedom of speech and the right to offend, our answer must be an informed one. It is our job as artists to open the door to start that conversation, which begins with a willingness to reach out.


Photos by Gerry Goodstein.


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Thank you for writing about this.

I saw the production, but had forgotten about this moment. I'm remembering now that out of all the injustices Tamburlaine committed in the play, his destruction of the written word felt the most heinous.

The real Tamerlane was a devout Muslim (except when he wanted to destroy a Muslim city, when he would forget all about it), but that clearly has no relevance. Marlowe, having shown Tamerlane crushing every human adversary, wanted to have him defy God. But he couldn't defy the Christian God in Tudor England. The Koran stands in for the Bible they dared not mention. Marlowe, almost certainly an atheist, wanted a likely symbol, and the Koran is a sublime choice.

Thanks for the article. What I think is interesting about this issue is that, while TFANA went to considerable lengths to engage the Muslim community and be intentional about the decision to include the moment of burning the Quran, all that time/energy/discussion ultimately has no impact on whether someone is offended, or if a terrorist takes it into his or her mind to target the production. And what if the play were put on by the likes of Pamela Geller with the specific intent to provoke? In that scenario the production (I would say) becomes agitprop and not art. A third scenario is that a theater group is completely tone deaf to the issue of whether the play was offensive... In all scenarios the right to offend is the same, but it seems to me the cultural value of the work is very different. Kudos to TFANA and the cast for going bravely forward with the play, for not apologizing for it, and for stepping toward the potential conflict with openness.

Wonderful article. Very challenging decisions. For me, It begs some additional questions: if a work is truly and unequivocally offensive what then? How does an artistic director and/or a theater make its decisions about what plays to present? Out of the entire universe of plays that can be presented, should we always choose the ones that are not offensive? Are all plays that deal with "issues" and controversial subjects, by their very nature, going to offend someone? Thankfully, we live in a country where it is not illegal to offend someone -- but we run that risk of self-censorship. Does the process of play selection always include some form of censorship? Is a work of art only offensive when it is intended to offend? Many times, it seems that the artist or the arts presenter is telling the audience that "you aren't understanding this work, if you are finding it offensive." I think about "Piss Christ," the controversial photograph by Andres Serrano, which was one of the works at the heart of the NEA funding controversies of the 1990s It was not intended to be anti-Christ, but those who were offended by it, construed its intent that way. Does it make a difference, when there is no intent to offend?