Curses! And Why They Work So Well Onstage (Sometimes)

Curses! And Why They Work So Well Onstage (Sometimes)

But in theater, it is not enough to just include dirty words to get a response from the audience. Obscenities must serve a purpose.

Mr. Guirgis said he uses curse words to depict reality. he said.


Sean Carvajal, left, and Ricardo Chavira in “Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Mr. Guirgis works hard, he said, to make sure his characters’ cursing doesn’t overshadow the rest of the play. “I pare it down so that the meat doesn’t get obscured by the gravy. The meat and veg and gravy have to fit together. Often expletives or cursing is a part of that. It’s a seasoning. I just try to get it so it’s right.”

There are places, however, that playwrights feel they can’t go. Mr. Guirgis said the profanity in the title of “The ___________ With the Hat,” which ran on Broadway in 2011, was actually a substitute for a racial epithet that is sometimes used interchangeably with the word he settled on. The epithet, he said, was not his word to use, even though it might be the sort of things his characters would say.

Though profanity does sometimes help create a sense of verisimilitude, it can also be employed to punch up everyday speech. A sentence or phrase that might otherwise be flat can become, as if by magic, hilarious, heartbreaking or even beautiful when a curse word is inserted into it.


Chris Rock in the Broadway show “The ____________ With the Hat.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

“You get to a place where what things mean literally doesn’t serve your expressive purpose,” said Michael Adams, the author of “In Praise of Profanity” and a professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington. “Metaphors aren’t even helping you anymore. You just have to reach beyond that to something that is ultimately expressive non-literally, and for us that is often profanity.”

In Mr. Presson’s “____ Marry Kill,” expletives serve to both capture the way real teenagers speak and also to turn a story of adolescent depravity into a “Jacobean Revenge Comedy” (the play’s subtitle).

Mr. Presson’s characters may use the same swear words that many American teenagers do, but the way they use them is entirely different.


Robbie Collier Sublett in “____ Marry Kill,” a play by James Presson.

Russ Rowland

“We’re always really trying to get to the musicality of the language and the rhythms — to in some ways invoke the verse of Elizabethan and post-Elizabethan texts,” he said. “We’re referencing the way speech is used in that era, where you have puns and double meaning and repeated things.”

The musicality of bad language is taken to another level in “Jerry Springer — The Opera” at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The profanities may be familiar, but they’re rarely sung by trained opera singers.

“You’ve got two languages happening at the same time — the language of words and the language of music — and it’s the contrast that really makes it work,” said Richard Thomas, the main creator of the show’s music and lyrics. “For a thing that puerile to be afforded such grandiosity makes it land, makes it delicious.”

While he delights in the disjunction between the beauty of his show’s music and the often obscene content of its lyrics, Mr. Thomas encourages performers to ignore it. “I tell the actors to forget the profanity,’’ he said. “I tell them to focus on the transcendent nature of what you’re singing. That’s more important than the scatological or profane text you’re articulating.”

Kevin McCollum, the producer who controls the transfer rights to “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” said he does not think the show’s profanity negatively affects its commercial viability.

“What gets a show to Broadway is that people are talking about it,” he said. “All good theater and all popular theater must reflect the time in which it is not only created, but also performed.”

Strong language can backfire, however, with critics and audiences sometimes reacting differently than the playwright intended.

David Bar Katz said he felt that some audience members weren’t able to recover from the obscenities used in the opening scene of his 2011 Labyrinth Theater Company production, “The Atmosphere of Memory.”

“A lot of the audience never came back from that scene,” he said. “It was supposed to be comedic but it’s incredibly profane. They don’t know what to do with it.” Mr. Katz said he learned something from the experience: “If you’re trying to elicit a certain reaction and if profanity is not serving you, then you, as a disciplined artist, have to find another way.”

Some playwrights contend that they’re particularly vulnerable to criticism for their use of profanity. Ms. Feiffer, who has had several prominent Off Broadway productions, said that she thinks female playwrights are more likely to be taken to task for the practice than their male counterparts are.


In “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” the beauty of the music contrasts with the profanity of the lyrics.

Caitlin Ochs for The New York Times

“I feel pretty strongly that female playwrights are basically lauded when we write plays that fall into the category of ‘feminine’: plays that are more flowery in their language or use pretty metaphors or kooky imagery,” she said. “When we write more in the muscular, high-octane and, yes, profane vein of playwrights who are considered ‘masculine’ — Mamet, McDonagh, Stephen Adly Guirgis — we’re sort of slapped on the wrist.” (Both Mr. Mamet and Mr. McDonagh declined to be interviewed for this article.)

Dialogue is one thing, but as Mr. Guirgis’s Broadway show demonstrated, unprintable titles bring their own extra challenge, as publications (like this one) have standards that don’t allow for their use.

With a curse word in the title, getting the word out about the play itself can be difficult. That may be the situation for Tori Sampson, who is getting a prime Off Broadway slot in the Playwrights Horizons season in 2019.

Ms. Sampson said she had been warned by her mentor, the playwright Sarah Ruhl, that the title could cause problems, but she was still somewhat taken aback when several publications omitted all or some of it. She experienced the omission, she said, as a form of censorship, which she felt especially strongly as a female playwright and a person of color.

“The theater is a place where people can fully express themselves,” she said. “There’s really no limit to what you can do, so it shocked me that there are gatekeepers to language in theater.”

Her new play — “If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a _______” — opens in February 2019.

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