Wednesday, March 09, 2005

They Don't Believe in Dinosaurs

I teach at a small, public, liberal arts university, where a diverse student body eagerly pursues an ever-proliferating range of degrees. We have a library; we have a computer lab; we have dormitory buildings and a student activity center; we have data projectors and audiovisual carts in every classroom; the campus is fully wireless, and students can be seen writing papers, dowloading porn and bum fights as they build their minds for the 21st century. We are, in other words, fully and unapologetically modern. Here, faculty and students collaborate in the pursuit of excellence with cutting-edge technology and millions of dollars in federal aid.

At our fair university, however -- hip and solid and right on though we may be -- we aren't afraid of dropping knowledge Old Skool style either. That's why we're putting on a performance of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, the final act in a trilogy of plays about a war that drags on for twenty-one years. In Lysistrata, the women of Athens -- fed up with the killing and the burning and the father-stabbing and the mother-raping -- decide to bring the war to a swift conclusion by witholding sexual favors until the men comply. It takes little imagination to recognize the continuing relevance of all this, especially in a nation that has committed itself to an open-ended war on a noun, and which has moreover committed you and me to spending $5-6 billion a year developing new forms of weapons including "baby nukes" (1 megaton each) and "robust nuclear earth-penetrators" (fallaciously described as "bunker busters"), all of which promise to sow discord and anguish farther into the future than even the Greeks could conceive.

Plus, it's fucking Aristophanes, who's always good for a laugh, 2500 years after the fact. (Full disclosure: While I have read Lysistrata, I once wrote high school book report for the now-deceased Mr. Robert Brill about Aristophanes' Frogs, which I did not in fact read.)

One might think that the combination of (a) social relevance and (b) general awesomeness of the play would be sufficient to earn Student Government support in the form of a little extra cash to offset production and promotional costs. Not, however, when your student government imagines itself as midwife to the Holy Republic. Evidently, some of the UAS student government leaders -- those who are avowedly Christian and pro-Bush -- have determined that the anti-war and sexual themes of the play render it too controversial to merit funding; they met yesterday to decide the issue, and after much debate, sobriety held sway and the play was given $500. The wider issue, of course, has to do with the manner in which this little flap touches ground with the obnoxious "moral values" discourse -- enveloping everything from Janet Jackson's breast to John Ashcroft's blue-draping of Lady Justice's own wardrobe malfunction -- as well as the recent push by wingnuts like David Horowitz to mandate the "protection" of conservative ideas on college campuses. None of this has emerged in any full-blown, organized way, but who knows what may be wrought on our tiny little campus? An e-mail from a colleague (who spoke in favor of the play at yesterday's meeting) puts is thusly:

On a more sober note, there's been a creeping fundamentalism among the student body over the last couple years. Last fall I had a student tell me she couldn't read or watch Lysistrata for "moral" reasons. I let her read an alternate play (I was caught off guard), but decided that's not how to deal with this kind of thing. Now I put a clause in my drama syllabus advising students not to take the course if they think they'll have problems with controversial issues and pointing out that grappling with such issues through artistic media is a way of exploring and understanding them. I think the students got a lot more than they thought they were voting for with this SG: a self-appointed panel of censors. I hadn't realized it at the time, but they didn't support the Vagina Monologues performance last month for "moral" reasons. It's scary and needs to be combatted.