Wednesday, 27 October 2010

A barrage of bad language

Why is it that some modern playwrights feel obliged to pepper their work with so much bad language?

Yes, I know that many people swear.  I hear the occasional swear word in the street or some other public place and some people are particularly prone to swear. 

But I have come across a number of contemporary plays where the frequency of the bad language far exceeds anything I have ever heard from anyone in the street.  In one play that was performed recently in Belfast a few 'swear words' were used repetitively in sentence, after sentence after sentence.  The audience were battered with bad language and indeed if that language had been removed the play would have been cut in half.

Putting such a barrage of bad language into a play, or some other piece of literature, sounds artificial and detracts from the play.  It does nothing to enhance it and it can totally spoil an otherwise well-written and well-performed play.  Some folk will argue that this is realism but I would suggest that in fact it is unrealistic.

As a politican and someone who is out and about in the community day after day, in all sorts of areas and situations, I meet thousands of people and I have never encountered the intensity of profanity that appears in some of these productions.


  1. Agreed. It's gratuitous. I imagine they'd claim that they are merely reflecting society and the reality, which is utter clap-trap.

    Using such language encourages bad language in some quarters.

  2. There were a number of posts, which I deleted, from people who disagreed with my post and demonstrated their intellectual prowess by leaving short messages made up of four-letter words. Some of them couldn't manage a full sentence.

  3. It seems a fairly closeted view to suggest that a 'few' people in the street swear. Swearing is part of the vernacular of modern life, as it has been since at least the 1800s.

    The use of swearing has to be somewhat about the context though. The film 'Trainspotting' contained much swearing, but considering this is a film fundamentally about the Drug Culture, this is unsurprising. If it were a play about a Womens Institute I would expect that to raise some eyebrows.

    Unfortunately your point of view seems to be that swearing is bad and anything with swearing in it is bad. You do not even have the good grace to give an example of the overuse of swearing, happily settling with vague remark that some modern playrights are afflicted with potty mouth.

    The fact of the matter is that swearing has been a part of the arts, reflecting societal use, for hundreds of years. Even Shakespeare used profanity, whilst not recognisable today, but quite shocking then ( Shakespearean swears were "'zounds" and "'sblood." - contractions of gods wounds and gods blood)

    The problem here, though, is that you are the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. In this capacity you should be supporting the Arts not casting judgement upon something which you, in particular, do not like. You appear to have mistaken your role as minister from that of a Critic.

  4. This blog is a personal blog and I have every right to express my personal view on any matter in a personal blog. Everyone, including yourself, forms judgements every day. To suggest that I should neither form nor express judgements is simply ludicrous.

    I simply said that some playwrights use bad language, both the 'Anglo-Saxon sexual' swear words and blasphemy to a degree that is not reflective of society. Moreover I am certainly not alone in expressing that view and I am glad that I live in a society where I have the freedom to express my view, even if it is one with which you disagree.

  5. As Arts and Culture Minister it is your responsibility to stand for the arts. Particularly in a time where we that work within the industry are being affected by cuts right across the board.

    Your personal view? You're very welcome to it. But I think you have acted irresponsibly as artists need you at this time to offer unequivical support to them - not critiques of their work.

    A post like this simply demonstrates that you are possibly the wrong man for this job. Art is a liberating venture of personal exploration. At its best it reflects the society in which it is based and seeks to challange an audience.

    Your personal view point is one thing, but when you promote it on a public website like this, it sends a message that indicates you would rather see 'safe' work than challenging work.

    Mr McCausland. Do you truly value the arts and do you believe in freedom of expression within the arts?

    Can you not see how alarming it is for artists in this country to see their Arts and Culture Minister publicly condemning one of their fellow artists because of something as trivial as the use of 'bad' language?

  6. Swearing is a method of communication. As valid as any. That its appropriateness is dictated by context in an arts realm is arguable.

    Arts in general provide a petri dish plinthe for expression and challenge. It is perhaps not for the observer to affirm which aspects add or detract from the subjective vision of the artist. That it is not to your taste is, nonetheless, fair comment.

    That it is a definitively negative attribute given insidious, morphing life when availed of within the context of creative expression has a restrictive and worrying implication. This implication sits uncomfortably within an Arts Minister's blog.

  7. As an aside, to suggest that you should keep appropriate and apparently level counsel when tempted to express judgement on arts input "not to your taste" is not ludicrous, given your position. I daresay Waiting For Godot won't win many awards on "realism", but, thankfully, Beckett's piece of kit managed to slip through the net.

  8. Granted, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and then post it on the Internet.

    Imagine if a member of parliament made a post on their personal blog site lambasting a sector of society. Let us say that they started ranting about immigration in contrast to their parties' stance on it.

    Yes, it would be a 'personal' opinion but one that would reflect and colour their work in their day to day job. It would be reasonable for someone in the public eye to be a little more wary of information they put 'out there' on the internet, or in the case of footballers, just how drunk they got at the club.

    I can concur with you on the point that many people will agree with your point of view. Many, myself included, will not.

    Being a public figure comes with a certain amount of responsibility, being an elected official even more so.

    With DCAL being responsible for arts funding within NI it is easy to draw assumptions, be they valid or not, that someone with an axe to grind with regards the content of plays would favour funding more wholesome endeavours - a kind of financial censorship.

    This is why I feel that making these kind of statements, be they on a personal blog or not are inappropriate for someone with a vested interest in the funding of the Arts

  9. As a writer you need to be able to use all the language that is available to you.

    Not every part of life is good and wholesome, we need to have the tools to express the ugly and dirty parts of life.

    There are always things that we can disagree with but I think it is too narrow to criticise a piece of work simply because a swear word is used that you don't think is necessary.

  10. Pete - Of course I believe in freedom of expression but it seems that some of the critics would try to deny me freedom of expression! Moreover if there is freedom of expression I have every right to express it here on my own blog! Yes it is a public website but then that is what freedom of expression is about, expressing views in a public place. What other sort of freedom of expression is there? I am really surprised by your intolerance.

  11. Freedom of expression isn't really the core issue though is it?

    We deserve an Arts Minister who will work FOR the arts and artists living here, not one that publicly slates an aspect he personally doesn't like before justifying his view by citing his personal right to freedom of speech.

    You have a responsibility to get behind artists regardless of your own opinons on their work.

    In short, you worry me and other people who rely on the arts to sustain themselves because my (and others as well, you can be sure) fear is that being in the position you are in and holding such a strong and traditional ethical view on what is appropriate and what is not, you are not going to fully appreciate (and possible even support) much of the good and important work that is being made here in Northern Ireland.

  12. Freedom of personal expression in positions of influence must be metered by responsibility. A public damning of swearing-led art puts you in a paddock of open partiality. This is unacceptable in already struggling, badly-funded, arts cauldron Northern Ireland.

  13. Dawn (yopoposnickels) - 'Freedom of expression in positions of influence must be metered by responsibility'. What does that sentence mean? 'Metered' means 'to be measured by a meter'. As for the second sentence this is the first time I have come across the term 'swearing-led art'. Is this a new genre? As regards your use of the term 'partiality, is it now partial to rxpress a personal view on a personal blog? Finally you say 'this is unacceptable'. Unacceptable to whom? your post, like several others smacks of intolerance and prejudice.

  14. Pete - Freedom of expression IS the issue. What I have read on a number of posts is simply an outburst of intolerance. You seem determined to impose your views on me and to believe in some sort of 'infallibility' for all artists. No artist has the right to be immune from comment and as I said before, arts critics comment on artistic matters every day of the week.

  15. What play was it? I would hate to be unknowingly submitted to a barrage of swearing.

  16. Minister........have you ever heard the phrase "Swearing like a trooper"?
    The depiction of young working class soldiers facing up to the reality of war (and its aftermath) was portrayed beautifully in Black Watch (which i'm assuming is the play to which you refer) Black Watch is a superlative piece of theatre and I'm grateful for the opportunity to see this multi award winning play because of visionary programming by the Belfast Festival.
    I do think in your role as Minister for Arts that you have to get over your own personal hang ups and look to ensure that the arts here can survive and thrive. Practitioners here who saw the play will walk away with new ideas and inspiration.
    Hows your lobbying going as regards the CSR and budget cuts?
    What are you doing to ensure that the arts sector, which is already underfunded, will not be further undermined?
    Whilst personal opinions are allowed and welcomed,as minister for arts, how do you balance personal opinion with ministerial responsibility to defend, praise and support the sector for which you have overall responsibility?

  17. Struggling writer - I was making a general point and have no intention of being diverted into the merits or otherwise of any speciifc play.

  18. Jay - I continue to put the case as strongly as possible for culture, arts and leisure. The creative industries, cultural industries and cultural tourism must be encouraged as part of the prcoess of reshaping our economy.

    I am glad that 'personal opinions are allowed and welcomed'. Some other folk seemed to be arguing against those principles.

    It is not my role to make individual decisions as to which particular projects are funded or not. Those decisions are taken by others. However it is interesting to look back to the judgment in the Factotum case against Belfast City Council.

  19. Jay - I continue to put the case as strongly as possible for culture, arts and leisure. However support for the arts does not require that I praise everything or abandon a particular view or opinion. Indeed to suggest that I should praise everything is patent nonsense. Some art is good, some is flawed and some is bad. Do you suggest that I praise what is flawed, what is poor and what is bad?

    I am glad that 'personal opinions are allowed and welcomed' although I am not sure who 'allows' them. I do not need anyone's permission to express my personal views on anything. However You welcome 'personal opinions'. Unfortunately some others who have contributed to this thread seemd to take a contrary view.

    I did however think it rather patronising to describe my views as 'personal hang ups'. A hang up is an emotional problem or inhibition and I am sure we all have hang ups, even you Jay, but in this case my opinion is a legitimate opinion, even if you disagree with it; it is not a hang up.

    I do not have a role in determining what particular projects should be funded. That responsibility lies with others. But I would suggest that a number of the contributors to this read read or reread the legal judgment in the case of Factotum v Belfast City Council.

  20. I live in Belfast but am from west fife, and actually have a family connection with the writer of Black Watch, the language in all of gregorys plays are reflective of modern life. Are artists and writers not supposed to reflect current times so future generations can see how we lived.

    Like it or lump it, that is the language of the army, and its right that the language is included in the black watch. Mind, these soldiers are the people who helped keep your province british, which is what you want, so perhaps they deserve a bit more respect from you, a unionist politician. Im a proud fifer, am proud of the play and the black watch itself, and of the language they use.

  21. First of all I did not mention the play Black Watch. Secondly I have a high regard for the Black Watch and other Scottish regiments in the British Army. Indeed the Black Watch have a long historical connection with Ulster and many Ulstermen have served in the regiment. The great Belfast preacher Rev Dr Hugh Hanna was the grandson of Frank Finston, an Ulsterman who served in the Black Watch and fought at Corunna during the Peninsular War. At various times in the 19th century the Black Watch were stationed in the old barracks in North Queen Street in Belfast and in 1888, when the Black Watch, Gordon Highlanders and Scots Greys were all in Belfast, Dr Hanna preached a sermon to them on The Responsibilities of the Scottish Soldier. The following year Hanna took part in the ceremony when Prince Albert Victor, a grandson of Queen Victoria, presented new colours to the 2nd battalion Black Watch in Belfast. Then in October 1890 pipers from the Black Watch played at a bazaar in Belfast to raise funds for Dr Hanna's church. When the Black Watch left Belfast in April 1891 Hanna held a 'farewell service' for them. I give these examples from the life of Dr Hanna to illustrate the long historical connection to which I refer. Finally I can assure you that you have no need to remind unionists of the bravery of this and other Scottish regiments. Sadly, the memorial to the three Scottish soldiers who were murdered by the IRA in Belfast in 1971 serves as a reminder that the same affection for the Scottish regiments was not shared by everyone.

  22. You repeatedly state that this is a personal blog, thus sidestepping a vital aspect of the debate on the use of language in Black Watch to which you have chosen to contribute, if it was not in fact you yourself who initiated it: namely, that you are currently the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure and that it is at least partly because of this position that your blog will be read and your views listened to. It is disingenuous of you to suggest that a public attack on the play based on your personal views is compatible with your role as Minister in promoting a diversity in the arts which reflects the whole of the imperfect society in which we live. No-one believes that you are not entitled to a personal opinion; what is at issue is your use of your position as Minister to attack that which you personally dislike.
    I saw the play. The language is shocking. But these young soldiers (whose background would almost certainly not have been as benign as that of the vast majority of the audience) are fighting a horrific war, in atrocious circumstances, and daily facing unimaginable challenges and death. Their response is visceral and elemental and their language crude and base. From other sources it is clear that this is a not uncommon reaction among young soldiers dealing with situations of such intense stress and fear. There is nothing gratuitous in the play's convincing depiction of the horror of war and of the bravery of very ordinary young men. To claim that it was unnecessary to have the soldiers swearing as they do, demonstrates a desire to censor what we personally dislike, which is not a tenable argument in any society which values freedom of expression, as much as a desire to promote only our own healthily sanitised representation of someone else's reality, which produces only a misrepresentation.
    I would urge you, as Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure not to use your privileged position as a platform for purely personal views. By doing so, you diminish the office you hold and undermine the arts that you are appointed to support.

  23. if you are referring to the performance of black watch i found the use of language perfectly realistic. to have the same play without the swearing (i agree it would have been half as long!) would not have been real at all. this is the way squadies (or many of them) talk. looking around the audience i did notice a lot of older folk looked uneasy if not disgusted. yes the language and subject matter at times could have had a warning, and perhaps it did, i'm not aware of this.
    the show itself was superb. please dont let this be another area that our country full of backward views isn't quite ready for...

  24. Michael - I did not use my position as minister to comment on anything - I used my own personal blog. As regards diversity in the arts, that is something I do encourage. Indeed I would suggest that we do not have enough diversity.

  25. Why is it that some politicians feel it necessary to pepper their public pronouncements with broad-stroke, populist 'down with the masses' soundbites?

    You know the kind of thing: 'I don't like swearing', 'I respect fighting men and regiments linked to my electoral patch.' I respect the fact that you hold these views but you're clearly deploying them here for their electoral appeal too. (The distinction between personal and public is always compromised on the internet and there's no use in pretending otherwise).

    I could blog about this dislike if I wanted. It would go down really well in a left-wing, elitist, 'up with creatives' kind of way with the people whose opinions I value.

    Luckily for you, any such blog post wouldn't have any impact on you. I don't, at this moment in time, hold a public office which would give me direct influence over your job prospects. Your own bloggage carries with it that kind of responsibility and you need to appreciate that.

    As to the swearing issue: I'd suggest that maybe you don't hear a lot of it because most people don't swear at strangers and most people too would respect the office you hold.

    If you really are interested in why people here are questioning your devotion to realism - a noble form but only one among many - I'd urge you to Google the Whistler trial and find out why the deification of realism (especially of the sanitised kind you'd favour) is problematic.

    One last thing. People would find it easier to believe this was a personal blog if it wasn't called 'The Minister's Pen.' With power comes responsibility.

  26. Siobhan - You are very presumptuous is your assessment of my posts. You say, 'You're clearly deploying [your views]here for their electoral appeal'. How can you possibly know that. It is simply a presumption on your part and a baseless presumption that shows how very little you know about me.

  27. Ok, you have demonstrated you know some history of the black watch and its connection with ulster from a time before Northern Ireland existed, you even got your compulsory dig in at the "other side", (no wonder I keep my postal vote for back home) well done.

    You kind of ignored my other questions though, mainly is the swearing used in the black watch simply a reflection of the social realism of the army, and therefore should be respected and celebrated in the artform of a play? Criticising it is to ignore reality, unless we want a world where art is controlled by external forces. This play is for fee payers only, its not broadcast to people for free via TV or radio, the people who attend are there because they want to be, if they are offended then they can leave. No-one is doing any harm here.

    You claim that it detracts from the play, how is this, its the way people from my country speak, I am not embarresed by it, I am proud of it.

    You say you would not hear this language in the street, possibly not in Belfast, but I can assure you you will on the streets of Cowdenbeath and Ballingary, and most certainly in the actual setting of the play, the Scottish regiments of the army.

  28. nnbaldrick - The connection between Ulster and the Black Watch continued through to the 1st World War, when many Ulstermen fought in Scottish regiments. It continued after the formation of Northern Ireland in 1921 and many Ulstermen served in Scottish regiments in the 2nd World Ar and beyond.

    I believe that the excessive use of such language can detract because the language itself dominates and distracts. That is a perfectly reasonable stance to take.

    Of course you can hear people swearing in almost every town or city, including Belfast but I do not think that a barrage of bad language is something to be 'celebrated' as you suggest. You may be 'proud' of it but many others are not.