“The only thing new in the world is the history you don't know.” -- Harry Truman

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Waving the Flag in a Culture War

Forty-nine years ago this week a Vermont high school play 
sparked censorship, backlash and misunderstanding,
a harbinger of deep polarization during the Nixon era.

Being a reporter in a small New England community at the end of the sixties reminded me at times of playing a witness in Inherit the Wind, the classic dramatic reworking of the Scopes Monkey Trial. But Bennington seemed to have no Clarence Darrow (or Spencer Tracy) to defend it against an assault on reason.

The first public flashpoint I saw there surrounded a musical production at the high school, an experimental adaptation of Brecht on Brecht, George Tabori’s innovative sampler of the German artist’s plays, essays, poems, aphorisms and struggles. Students and teachers were attempting to challenge the limits of what high school drama could be, just as Brecht had once challenged Broadway’s theatrical conventions. They were on the defensive before the curtain went up.

The spark was a clever poster idea — a swastika over sections of a US flag against a plain black background. At a school board meeting, the art department coordinator explained innocently that the intention was to represent “America’s victory over Nazism, with the American flag shining through the swastika.” Not everybody saw it that way, however, and the design was certainly open to interpretation. To some it suggested police state tactics disguised as patriotism at home. To others it felt insulting and un-American.  

As the posters went up around town over the weekend before the first performance, complaints came in to the Vermont State Police barracks in Shaftsbury. Mt. Anthony Union High School Principal Charles Keir soon got a call. The cops “were invoking the Uniform Flag Code, which says its illegal to use the flag or any part of it for advertising,” Keir told me. “We didn’t want to make an issue about it, so on that basis we removed them.”

In fact, he had already sent students around town to retrieve posters from dozens of walls and store windows, then locked them all up at the high school. The new superintendent agreed with his decision. “It didn’t strike me as offensive at all,” Catherine Corcoran acknowledged. But the graphic image could be misinterpreted, “and for that reason we felt we should take them down.”

Using the so-called “Uniform Flag Code” as a pretext was somewhere between a wild overreach and a red herring. Prior to the original Flag Day back in 1923 there were no federal or state regulations governing the display of the US Flag. After that the Army and Navy developed their own procedures, and in 1941, Congress stepped in with a law on use and display of the US flag for official purposes. Taken together, this collection of laws and procedures was called a code. But there were no penalties for misuse, no federal agency had the power to issue “official” rules on private use, and each state was free to pass (or not) its own flag law — within constitutional limits.  

In 1941, Vermont passed such a law banning - among other actions - publicly mutilating, defacing or defiling any flag, ensign or shield. But the US Supreme Court later ruled that even burning a flag is protected free speech, and the state’s existing law was basically unenforceable.

Uncertain whether to endorse the administration’s move, the School Board told Keir to confer with their attorney. But before he could do that the next morning, an officer at the Shaftsbury barracks was on the phone, asking him to turn over the posters. “I told them I wouldn’t do that,” Keir said, “and when I talked with Clark (the lawyer) he told me not to let the posters go until he could investigate whether there was actually a violation of the law.”

James Rigg, the art department coordinator who had defended the poster, insisted that this wasn’t about the law. “The state police received complaints and then looked for a statute that would cover the situation,” he charged. 

Corcoran and Keir tried to downplay suggestions of censorship and look at the bright side. If the school’s attorney established that the posters did not violate any law, Keir promised, “we’ll put them back up again.” Corcoran was less definitive. “It will probably take quite a while to prove whether it was legal or not,” she hedged, quickly following up with consolation. No more publicity was really needed, you see, since “we should do quite well after all that talk.” 

My Feb. 1, 1969 story on the dispute ran under the upbeat headline, “Uproar Over School Poster Also Publicizes ‘Brecht’.” But it led with the point that the image of a swastika superimposed over Old Glory had almost overnight “become the center of a controversy involving the US flag, Nazism, advertising and censorship.”  

No surprise, the posters never went back up, and not all of those that went out were ever recovered. Word of mouth had made them instant local collector’s items. But the publicity did not translate into ticket sales. On opening night the house was only half-filled. It almost felt like a boycott. 

As the drama unfolded on stage, a nervousness born out of misunderstanding spread through the auditorium. The director had constructed a polished example of what he described as “non-involvement” theater. Although employing multi-media effects and dramatic blackouts, the main objective was to “make the audience listen to Brecht.”
The production may have been “doomed before the house lights went down,” I wrote in a review. After covered the controversy I was still hoping for the best a week later. But many people in the audience seemed confused, unaware that this would be no conventional drama or popular entertainment, the type of “escapism” that Brecht found disgusting.

Production notes might have helped. The narrator, called “the Playwright” in the cast list, might also have asked everyone to read them before the performance began. But to be honest, there was probably no real fix.

Brecht didn’t want his audiences to feel obvious emotions and leave the theater refreshed. He wanted them to think. To that end, his approach was to destroy the illusion of reality and instead produce alienation, separation, even estrangement from the action. He described the theater of illusion as a “branch of the bourgeois drug traffic.” He wanted to create “epic” historical theater that reminded the audience they were not witnessing life itself.  

That said, attending such theater can be an uncomfortable experience. The form is almost an indictment of its audience. During Brecht on Brecht at Mt. Anthony High School, when actors decried a society that resembled modern America, nervous laughter spread through the room. At other times the silence, when applause might well have been expected, was cold and deadly.

Although comparisons between Hitler’s Germany and Nixon’s America were never intended by the playwright nor underlined by the production, they were implicit. And at one point, during a sequence involving soldiers who were too smart to fight because they think for themselves, a suitcase was marked “To Canada.” 

Not only the audience had trouble adjusting to the demands of Brecht’s approach. Much of the production consisted of short scenes, stiff monologues and political songs, and the actors often spoke as if they were disembodied, constantly telegraphing “I am not real.” Right, we get it, I thought.

At its best Brechtian theater isn’t an exercise in detachment, but instead promotes epiphanies by luring the audience in, then suddenly, at a crucial moment, destroying that reality. The playwright understood he couldn’t just preach. But this production emphasized Brecht’s more didactic tendencies, radical politics, horror of war, and disgust with bureaucracy.

And the sparse design didn’t always help; three levels on a bare stage, a large screen that flashed projections, frequent blackouts that became monotonous, and actors dressed so similarly it was hard to tell them apart. It was a lot to ask of high school performers, no matter how talented. Every flaw in pacing, emphasis and delivery was placed on full display. On the other hand, the screen projections — scenes of destruction, rebellion and Hitler’s rise — were excellent and effective.  

It was encouraging to see such a courageous production and students responding to changes in art, society and culture. Brecht on Brecht was a difficult play, but both the performers and the faculty had taken a giant step. Considering the time and place, they were heroes and pioneers. In the review, I noted that “Students are concerned about the state of the world. They make it an integral part of their daily conversations.” Suggesting that their theater should also be a forum for such discussions, I finished with some encouragement — “no matter what protest is lodged against the students or the school, it was an experience worth watching.” 
Nonetheless, it was also all too clear; the opening shots of a “moral majority” culture war had been fired. Not long after Brecht, two English teachers made the mistake of teaching a lesson about language with examples that included some sexual phrases. The outcry was immediate, irate and overwhelming, further deepening the community’s emerging cultural divide. 

This time “concerned citizens” packed the high school cafeteria, heckled the school board and demanded action, namely removal of the offending teachers. At one point, a parent sincerely argued that “Broadway plays” just shouldn’t be performed in small towns. 

Ironically enough, Brecht would agree. 

Concerned citizens fill the cafeteria for a showdown at MAUHS (1969)