Friday, 29 April 2011

Vice is nice ...

... used to be the first line of a ‘joke’ saying around in the ‘60s, which finished “but ’cest (as in incest) is best”. It wasn’t very funny then, but it may well have been prescient.
In this week’s edition of the Church of England Newspaper, there is an article about an ‘offending poster’ displayed outside the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds advertising the opening of John Ford’s 17th century play ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore next month.

The poster (shown above courtesy of Cranmer’s blog where he has already posted on this subject) shows, oddly enough, not an incestuous brother and sister as in the play, but a ‘pieta’ of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.
The link may seem obscure, but according to Ian Brown, the artistic director of the Playhouse, “The religious faith of the characters is integral and we felt it was important this was reflected in the image to promote the production.”
‘Tis pity, some might be thinking at this point, the main characters were not Muslims. What fun might have been had devising a suitable poster along the same lines. Since no offence was intended (according to the Playhouse) no offence presumably should have been taken.
Rather smartly, however, the image has now been replaced by a banner stating, “Judge the Play, Not the poster,” thereby managing a declaration of innocence and a reverse accusation of guilt in one fell swoop. Nevertheless, little flyers and smaller ‘inoffensive’ posters are still available around the city, where doubtless they will raise nothing more than a wry smile on the faces of the public.
All this is, of course, just the usual ‘flim flammery’ from an art world which constantly uses shock to attract an audience, whilst simultaneously huffing and puffing when people finally act offended. (The contradiction, of course, being that if it did not offend it would not shock and the whole edifice would crumble.)
Indeed, one could argue that the poster has achieved its purpose — the shock has registered, the objections have been raised and so has the profile of the play. Job done!
Nevertheless, it is in the final paragraph of the CEN article that the real problem lies:
The 1633 play by John Ford is seen as being many years ahead of its time, featuring at its heart an incestuous relationship between a brother and sister.
In what sense, might we ask, was the play ‘ahead of its time’?
Clearly Ford felt he could write it when he did, and others felt they could perform it.
So what is the ‘time’ of which it was ‘ahead’?
My worry is that the ‘time’ in question is actually one where the whole notion of incest is becoming at least discussable, if not yet acceptable.
But once a secular society has accepted the notion that there is neither one ‘definitive’ sexuality, nor one definitive form of relationship within which it should be expressed, the brakes must truly be off.
“Not so long ago,” writes one of the world’s leading ethicists, “any form of sexuality not leading to the conception of children was seen as, at best, wanton lust, or worse, a perversion.”
But as the writer goes on to argue, once our taboos begin to be revealed for nothing more than that — the hangover of religious superstition and an inflated view of our own biological significance — the queue of relationships looking for social legitimacy begins to wind around the block.
John Richardson
29 April 2011
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