Play “After Juliet” Raises Issues of Censorship

By Susannah Howe

This year’s Winsor-Belmont Hill Upper School play, After Juliet, by Sharman McDonald, sounds fanciful, even fluffy: a sequel to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, with Rosaline, Romeo’s old flame, as the main character. In fact, it’s a dark exploration of gender, violence, and other complex themes and, as such, contains explicit language and other unsettling material that director Beth Peters has had to carefully consider how to address.

After discussing these potentially uncomfortable elements of the play with the cast, Ms. Peters decided to remove profanity from comedic scenes while leaving other elements as is.

Explaining her reasoning, Ms. Peters explained that making the play accessible to the audience was her first priority. “You pick the play first, and then you… figure out, how do you fit the play with your audience? …We know that we want to have the play meet [the audience’s] expectations and yet tell the story.” She continued, “The more comedic scenes, if it were a professionally done play with a regular audience of people choosing to come to the play, they might laugh when the f-word is onstage, but it’s kind of questionable, will your grandparents or your parents or your English teacher laugh when they see a student say the f-word? They might not. And so for us to really serve those scenes, we need to take it out.”

Most After Juliet cast members are ambivalent about the changes to the play. Said one, “There’s no censorship in this play, it’s just that you don’t want to sound like an [expletive] by saying [expletive] every other word.” It’s true that, in the grand scheme of things, a few swear words in one play don’t matter very much, and I understand much of the director’s reasoning. Scripts are often somewhat fluid, for a variety of reasons. And, of course, some explicit language remains in places where the director feels it is “really true to the story,” as do the play’s complex, mature themes.

But I don’t agree that school plays should be modified to be more palatable to an unsophisticated audience. I’ve heard the modified scenes in rehearsal, and, for one scene in particular, the substitutions seem obvious, the scene as a whole stilted and unnatural. More importantly, the lack of explicit language changes the characters’ development and falls short of giving the honest representation of life that theater is meant to give. “It sounds forced,” said one actor. Profanity is actually used fairly sparingly in the original script of After Juliet – there is only one scene with a high density of swear words, besides a few scattered expletives here and there – and the contrast between moments that do contain profanity and moments that don’t is significant and thought-provoking, whether the scenes in question are comedy or drama. Compromising a play’s artistry by removing such layers of complexity would be frowned upon in a professional production; why shouldn’t high school plays have similarly high-minded aspirations? Although it may be reasonable to think that changing the script gets the play’s message across more effectively – as another cast member said, “If we kept the swearing… that’s kind of all [the parents] are going to take away from the play” – this viewpoint underestimates both audiences and actors.

In my most dramatic, adolescent moments, I am tempted to portray this case as an adult conspiracy or brutal censorship on the part of a Big Brother school administration. (It’s not; Ms. Peters was quite transparent with me about how she made her decision, and it came from her, not from Belmont Hill or Winsor administrators.) Actually, as I’ve considered the situation more, I’ve come to believe that the real problem is something else entirely, in which students participate just as much as adults: not censorship, but underestimation of audiences and, more importantly, high school students’ ability to create art. Yes, most of the actors in After Juliet are inexperienced; yes, the production values are relatively simple; yes, most of the audience members will be there because their friend or their sibling or their child is in the play, not because they are especially discerning theatergoers. But that doesn’t mean that the cast and crew can’t produce something extraordinary. I know I’m an idealist; this production, like every other, faces many challenges in addition to the changes to the script. However, regardless, the peculiar concerns of high school theater – like appeasing Grandma’s sensitive ear – should not trump the essential goal of any good theater production: art.

It’s too early to tell how the cast and director will address the other challenges that this production, like every other, faces or how the changes to the script will ultimately affect the play.