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'Huck' and 'Rent' done wrong

Sanitizing Twain's classic and canceling a Monrovia high school production of 'Rent' add up to a bad week for the arts.

January 08, 2011|Tim Rutten

It's been a tough week for the arts in academia.

Nationally, more than a few jaws dropped over Auburn University professor Alan Gribben's plans to publish new editions of Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" with the words "nigger" and "Injun" excised from the texts so as not to offend readers.

The offensive idiocy of vandalism masquerading as sensitivity need not be belabored here. Suffice to say that this is one of those ideas so utterly and breathtakingly off the mark that it isn't even wrong. What's extraordinary — and extraordinarily dispiriting — is that Gribben's destructive presumption is supported by more than a few of his academic colleagues. Twain scholar Judith Lee, for example, said this week that she found nothing objectionable about Gribben's redactions. She argued that Twain's use of racial epithets was meant to be read ironically but that an appreciation of irony was an "advanced interpretive skill." For a "general audience," Lee said, a bowdlerized version will do.

In other words, reserve the classics for sophisticated readers and give the masses Twain-lite. If you can't imagine what Mark Twain would have made of that dichotomy, you've never read him.

Closer to home, a situation every bit as disturbing has arisen in the foothill community of Monrovia, according to Nathan McIntire of the local AOL Patch news site, which broke the story. Monrovia is a small town of about 38,000 with a quaintly restored downtown and a reputation for appreciating historic preservation. The great muckraker and activist Upton Sinclair wrote his Pulitzer Prize-winning anti-Nazi novel, "Dragon's Teeth," while living there and used to lecture on politics and diet at the local public library. Author Raymond Chandler briefly called Monrovia home, lured by the quiet and the proximity to Santa Anita.

The local high school has a highly regarded drama program that, for the past 22 years, has been directed by a professional actor and teacher, Marc Segal. He and his students had planned to put on a sanitized-for-high-schools version of Jonathan Larson's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rent" as their spring musical. The original is a fairly standard Broadway gloss on Puccini's "La Boheme," set among Manhattan's struggling artists during the early AIDS epidemic.

Last month, Monrovia High's principal, Darvin Jackson, abruptly asked for a copy of the play's script and, after consultation with the new district superintendent, Linda Wagner, told Segal that "Rent" would have to be canceled, McIntire reported. Wagner initially refused to give a reason for the dictat, then said, "We need to consider all our constituents" and from now on, the school only will be allowed to put on plays that "every child and every parent find to be acceptable." She told another reporter this week that this play "is not family friendly" because it depicts "characters who have some dark issues they're dealing with."

Segal told me that he'll spend this weekend deciding whether to continue as the school's drama teacher, though he can't afford to resign his teaching position because he has two children of his own in school. "I don't know what the standard is now," he said, "but I do know that for 22 years, they trusted me to select our plays, and now they don't." Segal pointed out that he's previously staged productions of Eudora Welty's "The Robber Bridegroom"; "The Laramie Project," about the murder of a gay young man; and last year, Lillian Hellman's "The Children's Hour."

Where Monrovia's new standards leave its drama program is anybody's guess. You could, one supposes, go back to the classics, say, Sophocles' "Oedipus the King," which Aristotle singled out for praise in his "Poetics." No, that won't do — there's incest. Shakespeare's a problem — witchcraft in "Macbeth," teenage sexuality in "Romeo and Juliet" and ageism in "King Lear." Let's not even talk about "Othello" or "The Merchant of Venice." No Ibsen — syphilis in "Ghosts" and disrespect for authorities in "An Enemy of the People." Maybe something American: "Long Day's Journey Into Night" is out — drug and alcohol addiction there; "Death of a Salesman" undermines capitalism, and "Inherit the Wind" denigrates biblical inerrancy.

An old Tuscan adage holds that art has an enemy called ignorance but fear is perhaps its greater foe. It's tragic to see our schools acting out of both.

timothy.rutten@latimes.com

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