It has come to my attention some of our audience members have been unhappy about the profanity in some of the plays we've chosen this season. In truth, when we chose our plays this was not a consideration; I discerned no pattern. But now I can see some of our shows have been liberally sprinkled with, as they say, "Language!" What's more, it's about to get worse. I have counted 38 varieties of f-bombs in Detroit, which may be a record for THEATREWORKS. Many of our audiences will hardly notice, since f- bombing is such a normal part of everyday speech that it often goes unregarded. But others are likely to be bothered, and understandably so. There may be reasons for thinking prolific f-bombing reduces the respect people have for you, discloses a lack of character, sets a bad example, shows a lack of imagination, is lazy and abrasive, and reflects the dumbing down of America.
But let us pause for a moment to consider this remarkable f-word, which is so commonplace and so loaded. There's a fine and comprehensive discussion in Wikipedia which traces its history and extensive usage confirming what most of us know. On the one hand you can't spend a single day in Main Street, America, without being f-bombed. On the other in many civilized homes the word is never spoken and never heard. To my mind both extremes are problematical. Forbidding the word only makes it more potent in the same way covering piano legs in Victorian times only heightened the sexuality that was meant to be suppressed. But at a recent student show in the Osborne studio the preshow announcer fired off the f word with such insistent glee even I was annoyed, while also noting how this delighted an appreciative audience. Context is everything!
We have come along way from the f word's original meaning as a verb for sexual intercourse, though this usage once invited notoriety and civic action. D. H. Lawrence liberated the taboo in Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1928, and the book was promptly banned. JD Salinger first wrote "F** you" in The Catcher in the Rye, making his novel another celebrated outlaw. In some places these and other books are still not on library shelves, but meanwhile the word has proliferated in every direction. Untethered from its specifically sexual reference it has done heavy lifting as a verbal "intensifier." That's the way it mostly appears in Detroit* and in everyday speech. It still retains its unmatched ability to instantly add emphasis and energy. The sound itself has voltage, further charged by its still transgressive deployment.
So I think it only natural and fitting the characters in Detroit have moments of intensified f- bombing. They are two thirty-something couples living in America times of economic distress (the play was written in 2010). Detroit is not necessarily intended as the play's location. The playwright tells us we are in a "first-ring" suburb of a mid-sized American city, built in the 60s perhaps, and which might today be considered as starter houses. Think Village Seven and you are close to the right neighborhood. Mary and Ben are middle-class; she's a paralegal, and he's trying to create his own financial adviser website after being laid off from his job at the bank. Ben is having a hard time re-orienting himself to his new unemployment and Mary has a little drinking problem. Sound familiar? Yes and deliberately so.
The play begins with Mary and Ben entertaining their new neighbors, Sharon and Kenny, who have moved in next door. They too are young but belong to a lower economic and social strata. They met at a drug rehab facility. He's sort of a handyman and she clings to her job at a phone bank. Much of the comedy and tension of the play stems from the encounters of these two classes and cultures. Sharon thinks Ben talks like he's British, and she admires him for it. When Mary learns their neighbors don't have much furniture, she hands over her coffee table (she's never liked it) as a housewarming present. The two couples awkwardly grope for common ground, both remarking that in America these days neighbors hardly know each other. Sharon drops her first f-bombs quite casually and immediately apologizes for letting them slip out. But minutes later a frustrated Mary drops a bigger load of her own.
Don't be alarmed; the f-bombs come only in occasional clusters and most of the time nary is heard a discouraging word. This quartet is bonded both by good will and a real fear for their futures, and as the play progresses, switching back and forth between their backyards, they grow closer and more intimate. Sharon and Mary even set off on an all girl camping expedition. Mary has always dreamt of being in a tent in the woods with her hair smelling of smoke from yesterday's fire after she cooked her fish with little white potatoes, and felt the stream rushing around her ankles. It's hardly Wild, but Mary's dream shares some of that book's impulse for flight and purification. Meanwhile Kenny and Ben are preparing for a real boys' night out while the girls are away, a night, as Kenny says, "for two men who want to feel more connected to their bodies and the world."
Detroit moves alertly through the familiar debris and trivia of suburban existence, filled with grilled steaks, Cheetos, sliding doors and a collapsing patio umbrella. It seems as if it is almost random in its conversations and development but in fact everything is moving towards a nearly apocalyptic climax which owes as much to Euripides as it does to contemporary revels. Detroit is, as the New York Times says, "a superb play."
The occasional bursts of f-bombs are there because they too are part of the fabric of this recognizable suburban world, as ubiquitous as hamburgers, bean dip and streets named after different kinds of light: Sunshine Way, Rainbow Road and Solar Power Lane. A recent poll indicates three out four people f-bomb these days, and though they don't always feel good about it, and avoid bombing in the workplace and at dinner parties, the word isn't going away despite the promotion of more socially acceptable variants like effing, freaking, fecking which allow you to have a blander f bomb cake and eat it too. In his recent collection of fiction called Let Me Be Frank With You, the wonderful Richard Ford through his narrator Frank Bascombe, himself a economically comfortable but distressed suburban chronicler, makes a case for eliminating the new word f- bomb in favor of the undiluted original. So are you ready for this? Here it comes. Frank says, "fuck to me is still pretty serviceable as a noun or adjective with clear and distinct colorations to its already rich history. Language imitates the public riot, as the poet says. And what's today's life like, if not a riot?"
Indeed. The poet is Shakespeare's great contemporary, Ben Jonson, who wrote, "wheresoever manners and fashions are corrupted, language imitates the public riot." Detroit does not attempt to reform corrupt manners and fashions; it rather represents them, becoming a small riot of comedy, tension, fear and hope. The f-bombs are dropped as signals of contemporary distress, and serious theatre has always made stress its proper business. I suggest you all get out into America and enjoy this thrilling, explosive and finally poignant play, which is continuously and always alive.