This post contains scenes of language, sex and other such corrupters that might cause offence.
Similar warnings are repeated seemingly endlessly these days on tv, while distributors of movies, in their wisdom, dish out ratings. But where are we with novels? And what on earth is going on when, it might be argued, we are far less subjected to anything truly challenging or offensive compared to those presented to the many generations that went before us.
My Pintle only shall my scepter be;
My laws shall act more pleasure than command
And with my Prick, I’ll govern all the land.
That infamous misogynist John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, an English poet and courtier of Charlie the second’s court, loved using ripe fruity stuff and with much humour thrown in too. Just consider the list of characters in his restoration play ‘Sodom; or, The Quintessence of Debauchery’, written in 1684, amply illustrating both the beauty and humour of his literary decadence: there’s the King of Sodom, Bolloxinion; Queen Cuntigratia; Prince Pricket and Princess Swivia; The General of the Army Buggeranthos; another prince Pockenello; and four maids of honour – Fuckadilla, Officina, Cunticula and Clytoris. Oh, there’s also a Dildo-Maker, Pimps and various other attendants, many appearing naked on stage.
The curtain rises on Act I where
‘we behold an antechamber hung with tapestries depicting all the possible positions for copulation’,
Act II opens
‘upon a pleasant pastoral garden with naked men and women posing as classical statues. In the middle of the group is a woman representing a fountain, standing upon her head and pissing upright.’
So, what then would the woman who, having just witnessed the obsessed doctor Rank grab the married Nora, pull her to him and kiss her aggressively in my production of Ibsen’s A Dolls House in Cheltenham and admonish me sternly at the end of the play with ‘no-one did such things like that in those days’, make of Wilmot’s shenanigans? What?, I asked the woman in response. You mean… there was no kissing in those golden oldie days, no affairs, no sex, and no ill treatment of women? Goodness! All this then, along with certain ‘modern’ colourful language, would appear to some to be only recent coinages (of the devil no doubt!) A walk out certainly would have been on the cards, I reckon, if she had witnessed some of Wilmot’s language:
Since I have bugger’d human arse, I find
Pintle to Cunt is not so much inclin’d.
What tho the letchery be dry, ’tis smart;
A Turkish arse I love with all my heart.
. . . the brawny muscles of its side
Tickling the nerve, their rowling Eyes do glance,
And all mankind with vast delight intrance.
May as the Gods his name immortal be
That first receiv’d the gift of Buggery!
Over the years, audiences of a few of my shows have walked. Usually because of sex. Or violence. Or language. Or a cauldron of all three. ‘The man’s a pervert’ screamed one as she stormed out of a rather steamy scene in my production of Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors in Cardiff. It was presented in traverse, so she had to walk through the action too because the exit was the opposite side to where she was seated. It took some guts to walk through that den of iniquity. She later complained to the authorities.
With a novel of course you can simply stop reading it. Put it down, label it trash, even. Depravity. There are never adequate ways of preparing the reader though, as I have experienced recently. Each will respond quite differently. That is part of the joy of the process. The method in which a scene is prepared for the stage is no different really in essence to creating a scene in a work of fiction. It is all about characters and those characters in situation; all individually from a particular world and class; all with a back story, a voice, an objective; enveloped in relationships that ultimately dictate their own through line whilst they move inevitably towards the climax – the happy or unhappy ending. However, if during this process the director, the actor or the writer allow, or even have any fear of any potential critic or censor creeping into their mentality, whether real or imagined, the process of creativity is immediately jeopardised. Compromises loom portentously. The danger of inducing both sentimentality and superficiality is real. Above all, language and the reality of it, related to the individual character particularly, can be watered down to sometimes present a romanticised or pardoned world – something Wilmot clearly rejected!
So choices are made, and they can be as brave or brutal as is deemed necessary to create the overall world of the piece. Many, of course, who read fiction, attend the theatre or watch a movie need to escape to an alternative reality; it rejuvenates, turns them away from their own, putting it all aside for a few hours.
There are those who, I am certain, believe we are victims of a modern curse conjuring up decadent imagery and language that would be better eradicated altogether. Like that woman who expressed to me, emphatically, her opinion of my portrayal of 19th Century morality. Except it wasn’t 19th Century. It wasn’t any Century because our language, sex and violence is all so deeply rooted in history. We cannot escape the Wilmots, the Jacobeans, Shakespeare and the rest – they are all the source of our contemporary soap operas, for example. The list of sources is endless and runs to infinity. But the outcomes are universal for there is nothing new under the sun, and there will always be resulting and endless furors.
So, is there such thing as ‘bad’ or ‘mild’ language? It is all simply language. Yes, we add the odd word to the dictionary every year, but most of it has been well bedded there for eons. Some of it you like, some of it you don’t but, like sex, the wealth of the word is something surely to be enjoyed, celebrated. Violence, the regrettable focus of much governance, will forever be linked to both sex and language because our paths are often inexorably forged by it all. Of course, if you don’t want or like any of it you can switch off, put it down, or walk out. But none of it will ever disappear, and should never be censored by the writer, reader or observer. Personally, I hope our language in all its splendour and tones will continue to provoke, disturb, educate, humour and arrest us forever.
‘when the curtain rises on Act V, revealing a grove of cypress trees cut like topiary in the shape of penises’
‘demons rise from the front of the stage, singing their song of doom:
Bugger, bugger, bugger
All in hugger-mugger,
Fire doth descend;
‘Tis too late to amend.
(John Wilmot and his gang feature in Stephen Jeffreys’ sublime play ‘The Libertine’, which I had the pleasure of directing on two occasions. Johnny Depp played the man himself in a subsequent movie.)
DukkeHus, with scenes of a sexual and violent nature and lots of language too, is available in paperback and e-book by clicking here.