Reviews | Give my scorn to the ‘trigger warnings’ of overdone Broadway theater

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Richard Zoglin is a New York-based writer and critic.

Broadway theater is finally back to something close to normal. No more pandemic-era queues outside theater to show proof of vaccination; more mask requirements (although many members of the cautious, mostly older Broadway crowd still wear them); no more last-minute cancellations as half of the show’s cast contracted covid-19.

Not content that their spaces are safer, theaters increasingly seem to want to be “safe spaces”.

Take notice of the public for the new Broadway revival of the musical “1776.” Highlighted in red on the production’s website, he warns that the show, about the political wrangling that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “contains stylized depictions of racialized violence” as well as “themes sexually suggestive, occasional foul language, haze, brief strobe effect, replica gun that does not fire, and a gunshot sound effect.

The warning struck me as a bit alarmist, especially after seeing the show. “Racialized violence” is a reference to the somewhat overheated, but historically accurate portrayal of the slavery debate. The only strong language I heard was the occasional “damn it, Franklin”; and the sexual material was so faintly suggestive that it was barely noticeable. As for the replica gun – well, the country was at war, right?

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How much pampering do theatergoers need these days? A public notice for the touring production of the recent Broadway revisionist revival of “Oklahoma!” gives a jarring literal twist to the term “trigger warning”. It alerts viewers to the exact number of guns appearing on stage (114) and details the timing and plot circumstances of each of the four gunshots heard on the show. “The third shot is about 18 minutes into the second act…with a character surreptitiously picking up the gun and then firing it in order to bring order to a chaotic scene on stage.”

Spoilers are allowed, I guess, for what is described as Broadway’s first “gun-neutral production”: For every gun prop that appears in this “Oklahoma!”, the producers have pledged to donate a minimum of $100 to nonprofits working to take down illegal firearms. out of traffic or supporting youth programs in areas with high levels of gun violence.

So-called trigger warnings gained notoriety several years ago, when some college professors began alerting students to potentially disturbing content in reading material, even classic novels such as “The Great Gatsby” ( abusive treatment of women) and “Mrs. Dalloway” (suicide talk). And audience advisories have long been common in theater posters, alerting patrons to surprise gunshots and other things that might affect sensitive viewers, like strobe effects or smoking on stage.

But the new reviews go way beyond that. They seem less to protect potentially distressed viewers than to italicize the show’s revisionist, diversity-conscious, and politically evolved messages. The most surprising thing about the new production of “1776” isn’t the sexually suggestive material, but the upside-down sexual casting: all of the founding fathers are played by female, non-binary, and transgender actors. This rather blunt gimmick is, of course, meant to underscore the complete lack of diversity among the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, the group of white men who established the freedoms upon which our nation is based.

More embarrassingly, these warnings often seem to reflect a condescending and self-centered view of the past – a need to point out how far we have come from an era whose customs, morals and political views no longer match our own.

Yes, a lot of people in the old Oklahoma Territory walked around with guns – and sometimes even fired them. And yes, the white men who signed the Declaration of Independence were largely oblivious to the rights of women and people of color. But if we can’t change the past, can we at least try to understand it on its own terms?

At least the moral smoothing isn’t universal — there aren’t such strong warnings about the anti-Semitic slurs the Nazis utter in Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust play, “Leopoldstadt,” which comes from open on Broadway, or the brutal rape scene in the Tony Award-winning musical “A Strange Loop.” Perhaps that’s because shocking the audience – provoking a reaction, forcing us to face unpleasant things – is part of the appeal, not just of these plays, but of much of Western drama dating back to Shakespeare.

Still, not even the Bard escaped the new chill. For its production of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ last year, the Globe Theater in London felt it necessary to warn audiences about the play’s ‘shattering’ content, including ‘depictions of suicide, moments of violence and references to drug use”. This was followed by a list of organizations offering “advice and support” to anyone who might be bothered by the piece.

Theater producers who are genuinely concerned about the welfare of their audience should heed the research showing that trigger warnings can in fact increase anxiety in vulnerable viewers. I jump as high as anyone at the sound of a gunshot on stage, but I’m not sure an advance warning would help much. And when it comes to Romeo’s swordplay or John Adams’ blasphemy – damn it, Franklin, I think I can handle it.

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