Censored & Proud

The Russians understand the power of art. And, as we all know, power corrupts. The corruption of art is what led to the state-sanctioned control of all forms of art during the Soviet era. It led to the development of the underground art community, exemplified by the likes of Solzhenitsyn and Platonov. It is what raises recent concern about Putin’s decree that all youth should read 100 books that he has personally selected. It is what gives rise to censorship.

In Canada, we have a much less well developed sense of censorship and it’s implications. Which is what has made the furor surrounding Michael Healey’s play, ”Proud,” so interesting. The history is discussed better elsewhere, but a short summary is that Tarragon Theatre, after libel concerns were raised by a board member, announced the play would not be included in their upcoming season. The concern of libel stemmed from a character, named ’Prime Minister’, that was viewed as a thinly disguised Stephen Harper. In the aftermath, we have seen both indignation and thoughtful commentary. We have seencondemnations of censorship as well asconsidered reflections on the value and purpose of art. In some instances by the same person.

One theory about the rejection of the play, emerging from the silence of Tarragon’s artistic director about the matter, was it simply wasn’t that strong a script. Until the weekend, however, few were in a position to judge. The Globe & Mail published a humorous excerpt on Saturday, but the full work was not seen by many until a reading at Theatre Passe Muraille last night.

Having been a member of the audience, I can say that it is an engaging, humorous and thought-provoking play. To the question of whether it is performable, or will attract audiences, the answer is an unequivocal, ”Yes.” The laughter was frequent, and the applause sustained. Last night’s reading sold out several days go, and the lingering controversy over the play’s development will ensure many more sold-out houses in the future.

As to whether it is libelous, that is an entirely different question.  There is no question that the character of ’Prime Minister’ is Stephen Harper. The events that are referenced, the other politicians mentioned by name, make the character unquestionably him. Awkwardly, for those attempting to claim plausible deniability, he is also referred to by name in the final monologue that serves as epilogue.

That is not to say, however, that the portrayal of the Prime Minister isn’t sensitive, considered or reflective. For a one-act play that is still in first-draft form, the play provides a phenomenally nuanced look at the motives and machinations behind the development of the Conservative majority. Michael Healey has, in his portrayal, developed an entirely convincing psychology of Stephen Harper. He has, in fact, made him a sympathetic and, if not likable, at least comprehensible human being. And, as all great art does, it has made him believable, understandable, recognizable… and flawed.

In actual fact, however, the play isn’t really about him. It is about what happens when someone who is indoctrinated by him in the ways of moral relativism and political pragmatism that define modern-day politics takes those lessons to heart, as it were. It is about the consequences of disconnecting policy from the political process. It is about the consequences of populist policy being implemented without considering the implications in any way. Think ”Educating Rita” meets Sarah Palin.

Michael Healey’s portrayal of Stephen Harper is that he considers these implications deeply, and with care and consideration. His characterization is of a masterful, insightful policy wonk, who is highly attuned to both the philosophical implications and the practical ramifications of a position. The problem is when no one around him does the same.

”Proud” is a satire. As satire, it is not just art, but art worthy of being performed. This is particularly true if the purpose of art is to hold up a mirror and reflect back to us our image. To make us consider the current state of our society and the influences that are shaping it. To be exposed to perspectives, and to consider positions and beliefs, that few other vehicles have the power or capacity to provide.

Michael Healey will be bringing a fully developed versions of the play to the Toronto stage in the fall of 2012. To find out more information, you can visit his Facebook page. To support the production, visit his fundraising site. And to be clear, it is worthy of our support.

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