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Uncontroversial plays just as unorthodox

Observer Viewpoint | Monday, February 20, 2006

According to the text of University President Father John Jenkins’ faculty address on the controversy over “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival, he is concerned with possible conflicts between Notre Dame’s role as a major research institution and its “Catholic character.” In order to mediate this tension, Jenkins said, “We seek, above all, the deeper principles that take account of academic freedom and our Catholic character.” I think, then, it would be useful to probe the principles that would be suggested in the elimination of fundraising or performing “The Vagina Monologues” and amending or abolishing the Queer Film Festival. Those opposed to these events opine that they conflict with Catholic moral teaching and are thus inappropriate at a Catholic institution. Yet from Chaucer to Camus, nearly all of the major literary, philosophical and artistic works encountered at Notre Dame challenge orthodoxy without eliciting serious objection.

Drama at Notre Dame is no exception. Plays performed at University facilities and funded partially by ticket sales usually do not advocate Catholic theology. Probing Jenkins’s cliché invocation of a play attended by Hitler, the significance of a play by an unknown priest turned playwright in Bavaria is possibly questionable in its artistic merit. Yet productions that can be interpreted as anti-Semitic are routinely performed without being viewed as against Catholic “values.” Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” which will be presented at Notre Dame this month, has not been rejected because its portrayal of Shylock could be viewed as not in keeping with a Catholic ethos. Similarly, it is doubtful that Marlowe’s “Jew of Malta” would be refused, despite its anti-Semitic overtones.

Indeed, a brief review of upcoming theatrical performances on campus reveals a wide range of treatments that conflict with Catholicism. Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” suggests homosexual attraction and gender ambiguity. Oscar Wilde’s “Salomé” tells the story of the young dancer who, after being sexually rejected by John the Baptist, asks her infatuated stepfather, Herod, for his head. After he is beheaded and his head brought out on a plate, Salomé kisses his dead lips. This play, written by a homosexual, portrays themes of incest, sexual attraction to a child and sexual desire transformed into violence. Similarly, I remember another production at Washington Hall a few years ago that featured a comic plot that violates Catholic sexual morals. Machiavelli’s “The Mandrake” is the tale of an unmarried young man who desires to have sex with an unmarried virgin, although she wishes to remain a virgin until marriage. Despite her rejection, he concocts an elaborate scheme involving the drug mandrake to trick her into sleeping with him. I recall no controversy over the presentation of this work, although its sexual content, though not as overtly explicit, is far less defensible than the Monologues.

Simply arguing that these works are canonical or historically significant is not justification enough to distinguish them from Eve Ensler’s play. First, if we are indeed attempting to define “deeper principles,” then the stature of a writer like Machiavelli should not excuse a play that makes a joke out of coercing a woman into an unwanted sexual relationship. Moreover, since “The Vagina Monologues” is a contemporary work, we do not have the benefit of distance in order to assess its significance and value. Thus, we must rely on the judgment of viewers and those involved in the theatrical and academic profession to assess its possible worth. It should be noted that “The Vagina Monologues” is considered mainstream theater. It is widely known and performed internationally, and it is an influential force in current culture. Based on the play’s presence and renown, it has intrinsic significance as an element of the present artistic landscape. Similarly, the Queer Film Festival is not only an acknowledgment of a very real community in our world, but it is also an aspect of mainstream cultural research, what is known as queer theory. Beyond their indisputable cultural presence, we must rely on the judgment of those that see these events (difficult to do if they are reduced or eliminated) and those professionals who routinely study the arts. Notre Dame has outstanding literature and theater faculties, and it is their professional judgment that both events have academic and artistic merit. To substitute an inarticulate principle (one that, as I have argued, Notre Dame really does not conform to) for the assessment of trained scholars is insulting and short-sighted, particularly in light of current trends in the field of evolutionary biology.

What, then, is the real objection to “The Vagina Monologues” and the Queer Film Festival, an objection that can be reasonably implemented in the future? The distinction between censorship and sponsorship is not persuasive. Firstly, I would argue that Ensler incorporates fundraising into her artistic expression, advocating a type of socially-active theater. Thus, to eliminate that would be to censor a major aspect of the play’s message. Even barring that, there is no discernable difference between the type of sponsorship shown to the Film Festival and that of Salomé. Indeed the only noticeable difference is that both disputed presentations have provocative words in the title, something that could hardly be sustained as a guideline for the future.

Ultimately, the guiding principle of rejecting those works that are “clearly and egregiously at odds with Catholic values” is not and never has been upheld at Notre Dame – and for good reason. The role of literature and art is to challenge our value systems. It is the ability to destabilize our beliefs that distinguishes so many great cultural expressions. We are left to conclude that Jenkins is not advocating a clearly-defined and supported principle, but rather allowing a hypocritical self-righteousness to propagate based on nothing more than reactionary philistinism. And for those who are concerned with Christian morality, I would recommend looking up Jesus’s comments for the hypocritical Pharisees. Some might consider that a fairly clear principle for our future.

Erin BlondelalumnaClass of 2005