How to Watch a Controversial Play Or, "Everything You Are Feeling is Appropriate."*


Most plays are not controversial even when they tackle difficult subject matter. This is because drama tends to, in some ways, apologize for itself. Theatre, after all, is dependent on and openly desirous of the approval of the audience and, for many centuries, the most easily censored and censured art form. Even Shakespeare pled for his plays, as in the epilogue to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Puck asks the audience’s indulgence and praise, “If you pardon, we will mend.” More commonly, the epilogue explained the fate of the characters in a comedy or expounded on a moral in the case of tragedy. No one ever left the theatre wondering what the play was about or where the author stood on the issues in the play. Even though Modernism consigned that tradition to the dustbin centuries ago, most plays, players, and producers still want to be liked by the audience so the impulse of the epilogue lives in the body of the play. We often look for a character we can identify with or a compelling plot or a clear moral or political point of view. Think: The Crucible or Ruined.

A controversial play, on the other hand, makes no apologies, asks no pardon, and gives no explanation. This is actually what makes Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced a controversial play, not its content. The play itself occupies seemingly familiar territory: a dinner, two couples, too much booze, and suddenly the characters reveal themselves in startling and disturbing ways. The specific controversial content is that his central character, Amir, a man who has rejected his Muslim identity, voices ideas and attitudes about Islam and the Muslim world that might easily come out of the mouths of certain US presidential candidates, or your neighbors. These are attitudes that many Americans find deplorable but that many other Americans share. You might find yourself nodding along in agreement with Amir one moment then appalled the next. This can be a challenging and unsettling experience, especially with a current topic that is of such concern to us today, namely the status of Muslims in America.

Naturally, we look to the author for clues on how to read the events of the play but Akhtar doesn’t openly condemn or praise his characters in the play. He once explained that, “One of the things that’s problematic to a lot of people is that some readings of the play seem to undermine other readings. And so the question becomes, well, what is the reading of this play? My contention is that your reading of this play tells you a lot about yourself. And I’m reminded about that wonderful thing that Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the New Wave German filmmaker, once said, about how he wished to create a revolution not on the screen but in the audience.”

In his construction of Disgraced as a taut, domestic drama with political overtones, Akhtar expertly mines the tension between an audience’s collective experience of a play and an audience’s unified response to it. In the realm of entertainment, as audience members, we are accustomed to experiencing both simultaneously; we laugh and the guy next to us usually laughs, too. When the unified response is denied us, then we are asked to do the work of answering the questions or understanding the emotions that the work of art brings up for us. When the meaning of the art lies in the audience, then meaning is highly individual and will depend on factors beyond the author’s control such as the age, ethnicity, religion, and political leanings of the audience member. And this is where the controversy and the danger of the play thrives, in this uncertain realm of individual response. Disgraced is the kind of play that you should get in a heated discussion with your friends about.

*Apologies and credit to Taylor Mac who wrote this phrase for his A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

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