There’s a bit of a shit storm happening about playwright George F. Walker’s response to Erika Thorkelson’s review of his play, Dead Metaphor in the Vancouver Sun. That shit storm is about rape jokes, use of the word “cunt”, comedy, and artistic context. It’s kind of a doozy.
In the dark comedy, Dead Metaphor, which the Firehall Arts Centre is producing, a demented 70-year-old lefty named Hank gets hopping mad with a vicious, self-serving, right-wing politician named Helen. Helen wants to send Hank’s son Dean, who is a vet, back to active service in Afghanistan. Helen wants Dean out of the country because Dean has started to blow the whistle about the illegal campaign funding she’s receiving from churches. At the height of his rage, Hank yells, “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore!”
In her review, Thorkelson accuses Walker of “playing threats about having sex with her corpse and multiple uses of the C-word for comedic effect without ever acknowledging that they are problematic.”
Taking umbrage with Thorkelson’s review, Walker emailed her: “A guy with frontal lobe dementia calls someone a cunt and you call it ‘gender based profanity’? I guess you know nothing about my work. How women are treated in my work. How they are usually at the centre of my work. The only other critics to bring it up was an on line woman writer roughly your age I think. So what’s going on. There are many deserving targets for that kind of response. I’m not one of them. My three daughters (one of whom has a degree in Sexual Diversity) and all of whom are feminists are truly saddened and a bit disgusted by your review. Put some of that presumption out of your head before you come anywhere near my work in the future. It’s just idiotic.”
Before we go any further, I want to pause for a little public service announcement: I want to make it clear that I like Thorkelson a great deal—which is why I’m going to refer to her by her first name from here on—and I have enormous respect for her work as a critic. Erika is smart and she’s knowledgeable. It’s great that she’s writing in the Sun. For the record, I ran this piece by her before posting it—and altered it somewhat as a result of that discussion (which is not to imply Erika’s endorsement of anything I’m writing here). I disagree with some aspects of her review, but I am addressing that disagreement in a spirit of collegial respect—because the issues are really fucking interesting.
Okay, let’s return to regular programming.
Clearly, Walker’s you-disgust-my-feminist-daughters argument is ridiculous. It’s the equivalent of “Some of my best friends are black” or “Some of my best friends are gay.” And what does Erika’s age have to do with it? (Perhaps more pressingly, where can one get a degree in Sexual Diversity, and can you get credit for life experience?)
This absurd part of Walker’s self-defence aside, my take is that not all of the analysis that Erika applies in her review stands up to scrutiny, although some of it does.
For starters, believe it or not, there’s a context to “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore.”
After he delivers this line, Hank exits, and Helen explodes, “Fuck my corpse?! No one’s gonna fuck my corpse, pal!!” On opening night, this was one of the funniest lines in the play—for me, anyway—because Helen is so intoxicatingly furious and powerful when she says it. Comedy thrives on unleashed energy and Hank has unleashed the furies of Hell. Helen, who is willing to have people murdered, as we will soon discover, is anything but a victim.
Speaking to her husband Oliver in the next scene, Helen relates the exchange and allows that “it was a little scary”, but Oliver points out that Hank has dementia: “Sometimes his wife drags him to church and he yells out stuff during the service. Last Sunday he called the minister a freeloading cocksucker.”
Besides, Helen isn’t focused on fear; she’s focused on shutting down the scandal at all costs: “Well, even if he is out of his mind, that old man cannot be allowed to tell people about our…arrangement with the churches. I need him silenced.”
I acknowledge that Hank can be offensive. As a gay man, I go into high alert when I hear cocksucker getting tossed around. (Don’t try to tell me that cocksucker isn’t almost always a homophobic slur.) But, obviously, it would be a mistake to conflate the character’s position with that of the playwright. For all of his left-wing heroics, Hank is also a reactionary old fart on some levels. And I’m okay with that. He’s a character. He gets to be flawed.
Erika argues that the script is more sympathetic to its male characters that its female characters and, to a significant extent, this is true: an Afghan vet, Dean struggles with both PTSD and limited job prospects, and the dying Hank is facing a potentially torturous decline. Helen, the villain of the piece, is a woman. But Dean’s wife, Jenny, is arguably the smartest character in the script—and, in Walker’s work, the women are almost always smarter than the men.
In everything from Tough! to The Crowd, which Studio 58 recently premiered, to Dead Metaphor, the running gag is that men are a bit like dogs—earnest and a bit simple—and women are far more savvy. In Dead Metaphor, Jenny makes this clear: she tells Dean that her parents think he’s a little slow and, when he says that he didn’t really understand that she divorced him once just to make a point, she adds, “Then you actually are fucking slow.”
I’m talking about this to add a little more nuance to the discussion—but, not, on this point, to defend Walker. On the simplest and most apparent level, Walker consistently celebrates the intelligence of his female characters. But putting women on a pedestal is a kind of sexism, a kind of obliviousness, and, as Erika argued in our phone conversation, a deferral of male responsibility. I would further argue that presenting implicitly archetypal visions of maleness and femaleness, as Walker does, is reactionary. So, especially after our chat, Erika and I see this point similarly.
Now, about cunt. The language in this play is generally salty. Motherfucker gets tossed around. Both men and women use profanity. It’s the lingua franca. But some language causes damage. When Dean tells Oliver that he and Jen refer to Helen as being “cunt smart”, it’s vicious, and, especially after talking with Erika, I’ve come to see Walker’s use of the phrase to get a laugh as lazy—which is not to say that all sorts of ways to use that word, as an artist, with integrity.
We’ve got to be careful with one another. Analyzing the underlying values of a work is part of that care. For me, Dead Metaphor provides adequate context for the line, “I’d like to fuck your corpse, you sinister whore!” It doesn’t provide adequate context for all of its uses of cunt.
We’ve also got to make sure that we don’t overapply our caution. Characters have to be able to say offensive things. If they can’t, they just become voices of orthodoxy and that’s boring.
Besides, one of the fundamental purposes of art is to challenge the status quo—no matter who is articulating it.