For about 400 years, the word was exclusively a sexual term, according to Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of “The F-Word.” The word as intensifying adjective slipped into the lexicon in the late 19th century, and the variation that appears in Girguis’ title came in the early 20th century.
Some obscenities have long since lost the power to shock: religious blasphemy, insults of one’s parentage. Others have gone from commonplace to all but forbidden in a matter of decades, like most racial and homophobic slurs. It seems obscenity is neither created nor destroyed; it only changes form.
“There are other words that I would be hard-pressed to ever use in a play,” said Guirgis. “One example is the n-word. I’ve written plays [with] the n-word in them, but in my mind, that’s a word where if I’m going to use it, it has to really be the only word that I can use.” For Guirgis and for his characters, “I don’t think the word [f---] is such a big deal.”
Neither, apparently, do many Americans. What got comedian Lenny Bruce arrested in the early 1960s barely got Vice President Joe Biden tsk-tsked in 2010, even though the latter was speaking to President Obama when he called the passage of health-care reform “a big f---ing deal” and the former was just performing a stand-up act.
That evolution is likely due to how popular the word has become. Its use has grown so widespread, Sheidlower suggested, because “you can use it for anything.”
“I think that word is a lot more common than people want to admit,” said Guirgis. “And the great thing about the word is, you can use it as an adjective, a noun, a verb and an adverb.”
Daisey, who believes the most incendiary words in the title of his monologue are “Ayn Rand,” doesn’t think any language should be considered off-limits. “If [people] have a problem with profanity and they are doing anything about it, I assume they’re fascist,” he said, “anything” being defined as using euphemistic phrases or dashes as a substitute for the word itself.
“The thing I do for a living is look at where there are intense hypocrisies in our life,” said Daisey. “We endlessly harp about our endless freedom, and yet there are words we can’t say.”
Daisey’s stance could be called “profanity denial.” His insistence that language ought not to offend doesn’t and won’t make it so. There are plenty of people who like to say we live in “post-racial America,” too, but it’s not like that oft-repeated catchphrase made racism disappear.
Senning’s counter: “Certainly the artist has a right to engage, and we see that a lot: there’s a lot of profanity in literature, theater and art. But the marquee puts it in front of me whether I choose to see it or not. . . . I don’t see that as essential to the expression of his art. It just shows, maybe, a lack of consideration for the people out there.”
That being said, plays “have the full protection of the First Amendment. There is no law [for theater] analogous to the law prohibiting indecency on broadcast television,” said Lee Levine, a D.C. lawyer who specializes in the first amendment. This same protection extends to the press as well. Legally speaking, there’s no rule against this newspaper printing profanity in full.
Maybe the question isn’t should obscenities be censored? Maybe it’s how obscene is the word? It’s on the Senate floor and in the White House, it’s in our movies and our music, our TV and our not-TV-it’s-HBO, in Pulitzer-winning works of fiction and drama. Can something so ubiquitous still qualify as scandalous?
For some, absolutely. Posner cites the times he has seen patrons walk out of plays at the first sound of profanity.
The flip side of that is the argument that more distracting than cursing would be its absence. A squeaky-clean phrase coming out of a certain character’s mouth could easily pull an audience out of the story, the sonic equivalent of a sex scene on TV in which the woman keeps her bra on.
The use of profanity announces that “I’m going to be in the real world, or my real world... as opposed to a polite and careful world,” said Posner.
But for Guirgis, “The use of the word didn’t come with any kind of an agenda.”
“If you get a chance,” he said, go see the show. “And then tell me if you think the title is not the perfect title for the play.”