Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
I’m going to be completely honest with the smokers in the audience for a moment. (For the sake of consistency, I will also be completely honest with the non-smokers, but the next few paragraphs aren’t directed at them.)
I hate your cigarettes. I hate everything about them. I hate the smell of your burning tobacco hanging in the air, I hate the infiltration of your smoke into my lungs, I hate the way my skin feels after having spent too much time in your environment, I hate the way that your stench follows me home, settled in my clothing like unwashed railcar hobos.
I hate the way it destroys your voices, taking mellifluous tenors and sopranos and dragging them from the bumper of a 1987 Chevrolet over six miles of unpaved gravel. I hate the way it turns your incandescent teeth into the flickering fluorescents of condemned building boiler rooms. I hate the time it takes you away from our conversation because you need to go outside for “a minute.” I hate the time it takes you away from sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters because finally your body decides that the only way it can convince you to stop poisoning yourself is to grow a rapidly metastasizing cluster of malignant cells in your vital organs, until you’re forced to choose between the cigarette and the oxygen. I hate knowing which of you I’m more likely to lose earlier.
I hate the way your cigarettes manifest in my own sensibility, I hate the way I feel instantly cooler having one in my hand, hate the way my lips feel lightly holding one, hate that the Zippo lighter is one of the most elegant and beautiful small machines ever devised by man or woman, I hate the way your physical and psychological addictions blend into a single mosaic until you can no longer tell if each craving is the body chemistry demanding equilibrium or the mind’s impression of self panicking because the cigarette has become a vital accessory of your identity.
I hate the way you will lower your eyes when confronted about your habit and mumble half-hearted acknowledgments for the one hundredth time that you should quit. I hate the way your eyes will flash defiantly and I hate the way I become your tyrannical oppressor, the way I tax you to pieces and deny you your bars and your airplanes and the way I force you to chew strange-tasting gum instead of enjoying your cigarette. I hate your insistence that I tolerate your habit, I hate your assumption that my feelings are less valid than the demands of your nicotine.
I hate the way every pack of cigarettes you buy contribute funds to the monstrous political lobby of Big Tobacco, one of the many Big Entities that buy and sell the intent of the American Experiment at whim, one of the many forces that pull our country apart at the seams year after year. I hate your rationalized support of men and women growing fat off the misery of others, men and women who turn their filthy lucre into war machinery, into theocratic politicos, into legal defense teams with sharpened teeth and claws, into escape hatches for insurance providers.
I hate your cigarettes and wish that the concept had died out with the Aztecs and Maya who first produced them.
But I hate this–that Denver’s smoking ban extends even to stage performances–even more than that.
There is what I wish and there is reality, and the reality is that cigarettes happened, they became immensely popular, they weaved their way into the culture, and they will likely be here for awhile. The reality is that people have smoked and will continue to smoke cigarettes. We can debate for years as to what causes somebody to start smoking and what role the marketeers play, and whether or not the arts own some of the responsibility for the proliferation of the product, but the end fact is still there: people smoke cigarettes.
What Denver and other cities propose is to forcibly create a theatre wherein that truism cannot be reflected, to in fact scrub the theatre clean of this naughty little peccadillo in a way that has not and possibly cannot be accomplished in the world outside. It proposes that henceforth our theatre inhabit a universe in which no smokers now nor ever have existed, as if perhaps to offer a sort of apology for having allowed the habit to occur.
I’m sorry. I understand that the judges in Denver deemed that the choice of an actor to smoke cannot, in and of itself, be considered protected under the First Amendment, and the argument that no real murders or drug usage happen onstage is a strong one.
But speaking as a playwright, I would argue that this ruling does in fact infringe on my First Amendment rights to write a character who smokes, knowing full well that if this decision is taken to its most extreme dissemination that my play as imagined may never be allowed an audience.
Permit me a moment of personal example.
The second act of Vox Pandora originally began with the characters of Hope and Eleanor sitting in an outdoor cafe in Washington, D.C., while Hope smoked a cigarette. (Hope, it should be noted, is in fact the embodiment of that emotion; the last denizen of Pandora’s Box, released by a wily politician intent on collaborating with her for both global improvement and personal gain.) To my mind, Hope’s cigarette was there for a number of different reasons:
(1) It gave Hope a newfound “earthly” quality that differed greatly from her more divine leanings in the first act.
(2) It illustrated Hope’s attempts to blend in with the greater swath of humanity around her, most of whom had no idea that she was a mythical concept made flesh. Indeed, Hope takes up smoking largely because it convinces others around her that she is breathing, something she otherwise has no reason to do.
(3) It offered subtle foreshadowing to events later in the play, when Hope’s most ambitious representation of herself was set on fire.
The venue in which the show was produced could not allow cigarette smoking to occur, so I ultimately had to add an exchange in place of the stage direction HOPE is smoking a cigarette:
HOPE pulls a cigarette from a pack and starts to light it.
ELEANOR: You can’t in here.
HOPE puts the cigarette away.
I will hastily add that I ultimately prefer this rewrite, and that I’m not complaining about “the butchery!” I had to commit on my play in order to follow the “oppressive dictates!” of an “authoritarian pig-council!” My revision process and my openness to such exploration is my own, however, and if some other playwright believes that their protagonist is by nature a chain-smoker, perhaps because that protagonist’s mother was also a chain-smoker, why must they be forced to excise that detail from the character?
I find the whole thing offensive because I imagine a theatre a hundred years from now in which no play set in our current time period may offer an honest depiction of life as each playwright saw it. I imagine plays written about 1950s newsrooms and underground poker games in which every party involved dealt with the stress of the environment by munching on potato chips at every minute but steadfastly and virtuously eschewed cigarettes, even though it was well on record that men and women in these environments would often smoke.
My revision of The Accident God begins with the character of Andy Bauer on a smoke break. Unless, that is, I no longer can. I suppose I can put him on a lunch break, instead, but anybody who has ever worked a nine-to-five will tell you that there is a significant difference between a smoke break and lunch break in both duration of break and degree of relaxation. But if I want this play to happen in Denver, then a lunch break it will simply have to be. And at no other point may Andy be seen smoking. And sure, the character will probably work just fine if he has no smoking habit at all.
But in my head, when he speaks, he holds a lit cigarette. He punctuates his points by jabbing a little period in the air, about eye’s-height, and he holds the cigarette the way he watched Clint Eastwood hold it in one of Sergio Leone’s films. When he plays poker, his tell is subtle but unmistakable; when his hand is weak, he glances at the end of his cigarette after a drag, watching the trails slowly snake their way to the ceiling.
This is Andy, as I’m writing him. The Colorado appeals court is informing me that I cannot write this character if I ever wish to see the play produced (the only environment in which a play really lives).
Tell me how that doesn’t infringe on my First Amendment rights?
So, to recap:
Smokers: I hate your cigarettes.
But: I acknowledge that you smoke them.
And: If the theatre is to be a relevant reflection of our society, then it must be allowed acknowledge this as well.
I’m sure there are holes in my case here.
I’m very tired.
Please, tell me where I’m ignorant or just completely wrong. I’m willing to listen.