Monday, February 22, 2010

Bowdlerizing the Mikado vs. bowdlerizing Huckleberry Finn

Jay Nordlinger:
In this Impromptus, I mentioned the wonderful Stephen Vincent Benét poem called “American Names.” A reader had cited it as one of his favorites. The poem had one flaw, I said (and the reader said) — something that marred it: the N-word. Let me quote from my column:
It’s as though an insect were embedded in a beautiful, tasty milkshake. [Our reader] said that you could replace the word with a word such as “singer.” I quite agree.

As a rule, I am firmly against air-brushing, Bowdlerizing, sweeping under the rug, etc. But I think of Show Boat: Aren’t you glad that Hammerstein’s original lyrics were touched up — de-N-worded — so that we can enjoy the musical without that particular discomfort? Even if it is an offense to “historical truth”? I am.
This item occasioned much mail, for and against my position — much thoughtful mail. One writer spoke of “good Bowdlerization” and “bad.” An example of the good was to be found in the revised Mikado — for some original lyrics are simply intolerable. Another reader said, “Your acquiescence [in revision] is a slippery slope. How would you treat Huckleberry Finn?”
The answer, of course, is that Huckleberry Finn and the Mikado are very different works, and that word plays different parts in both of them. A bowdlerized Huckleberry Finn ceases to be Huckleberry Finn, while virtually every performance of the Mikado since the first has been bowdlerized in one way or another. The patter songs that Gilbert wrote have been updated with topical references ever since he wrote them, and the presence in the original lyric of a word that offends our modern sensibilities is incidental to any of the actual value of the work. In the case of Huckleberry Finn, however, the work deals with relationships between men of different races in a particular time and place. As such, the language used is an integral part of the work. If you bowdlerize it, it ceases to be truthful. The same is true for The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass or Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man.

Nordlinger goes on to say that "it is hard to lay down a rule — a fixed law for all time and every case. Taste, judgment, and, dare I say, artistry are required." I couldn't agree more. But I think that one can lay down a couple of general principles. The burden on the bowdlerizer should be much, much higher in a printed work than in the theatre. In some works, the usage is a historical artifact, used incidentally to the point of the work, and can be bowdlerized for performance purposes without affecting the integrity of the work. At other times, it is an important cultural marker, and integral part of the history or message of the work. In any event, I would, almost all cases, strongly object to its airbrushing removal from printed material, to pretending that it was never there as opposed to printing a [n*****] or something so that the reader understands the original content.

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