We don’t always say it when we say it.
We say “the f-word.” We say effing, freaking, flipping. We use dashes and asterisks and parades of punctuation whose length is directly proportional to our emphasis. We spell it in front of the kids. We say it in hate, in outrage, in pain, in awe, in exhaustion, in lust, in disgust.
Many of us find it disrespectful, vulgar, repulsive. We have been fined and fired for saying it on television. We won’t print it in the newspaper.
And yet the word will grace at least two marquees of Washington theaters this year. “The Motherf---er With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis is enjoying a six-week engagement at Studio Theatre. “Stupid F---ing Bird,” an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” by D.C. playwright and director Aaron Posner, will have its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth in May. At the Public Theater in New York, frequent Woolly guest Mike Daisey finished a run of his monologue “F---ing F---ing F---ing Ayn Rand” in January.
So, why is that word in so many titles?
“I’ve now been forbidden to say the name of my own play in front of my own daughter,” said Posner, whose child is 15 months old. “Because she says the word now very clearly.”
Posner’s title started as a joke, a sly shout-out to his source material. But immediately after he said it aloud, “I thought: I should do that . . . I felt that title accurately depicted the energy of the play.”
“Bird” is “not your grandfather’s Chekhov,” said Posner. It’s a modern, irreverent take on a classic, and the title sends that message.
Deeksha Gaur, director of marketing and public relations at Woolly Mammoth, said the decision of where and how to censor Posner’s play title in promotional material is “an ongoing discussion for us.” The word appears, sans hyphens, on the posters outside the theater, which are across from the main entrance but somewhat hidden from the street.
“We just felt it didn’t really go with the Woolly brand to hide the word,” said Gaur.
“Our mission is to do work that pushes boundaries in terms of content and aesthetics.”
Despite that credo, Woolly still has to contend with aggressive e-mail blockers that see viruses in every vulgarity. “Putting the full word into the e-mail may be sending the e-mails into people’s spam filters,” said Gaur. “[And] when we get to the point where we’re putting posters out in the streets, we’re going to have to consider that because it’s reaching a far wider audience.”
One idea Woolly is exploring is to put a “parental advisory” sticker over the title “to indicate that we’re not scared of the word, but we’re doing this because other people might have a response to the word.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me, why you would put that up on a marquee,” said Cindy Senning, Emily Post’s great-granddaughter and director of the Emily Post Institute. “I think you’re likely to turn away a lot of people. You don’t need profanity to attract people.”
Both Posner and Guirgis believe their titles give audiences a clear heads-up about what to expect from the plays. The main characters in “Hat” are a drug dealer fresh out of prison and his still-using girlfriend, not exactly a “gosh darn it!”-declaring kind of crowd.
“I do think the title of the play provides an excellent opportunity for people to make a decision about going one way or the other,” said Guirgis. “It is a disclaimer. You can’t go in and see [the play] and think you’re going to see ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”
Like many of our single-syllable swearwords, the f-word is Germanic in origin. It first popped up in writing in a late 15th century poem and has, from its earliest utterance, been considered obscene. It is not an acronym.
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.”