In Adam Rapp’s play The Metal Children, a liberal point of view doesn’t entirely dominate the outcome of the work. It’s an unexpected culmination in a downtown theatre scene which doesn’t much bother with serious conservative thought (without reversing it)—typically, we hear that such dramas can’t be found, yet I haven’t heard many people talk about the reason. That’s why this play seems of special interest to me—a work about a writer being censored in a small town, performed in a theatrical environment that does its own censoring, in its own way, all the time.
The knee-jerk reaction, when we hear about censorship, is that the deciding officials are wrong; we think of the women helping Joyce’s Ulysses to be published in the U.S. and France; or we might recall Pasternak’s refusal to accept the Nobel, forced to bow to Soviet power. Yet when a publisher or literary agent or even an off-Broadway theatre passes on a property (their word for censoring within their organizations), the traditional cover statement typically goes along the lines of “unsalable within a market”—whether that’s the real reason or not. Fortunately, though, there is the free market—a best-selling author like Brad Meltzer, for example, finally is published after being rejected twenty-four times. William Saroyan, Onlinecollege.org tells us, was dismissed 7000 times before getting his first short story published. Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance met 121 “no” letters, and Gertrude Stein waited twenty-two years for her poetry to be accepted for publication.
Whether a book should be read in a classroom shouldn’t have a lot to do with book industry appraisals, though. Jonathan Calvert and Will Iredale tell us in a January 1, 2006 article, published in the Times of London, that, when submitted under pseudonyms to literary agents and publishers, two Booker Prize-winning titles were rejected—their authors were Stanley Middleton and V. S. Naipaul (the Nobel winner said, “With all the other forms of entertainment today there are very few people around who would understand what a good paragraph is). Publishers themselves contend that they know markets—in the past, though, New York trade publishing typically shied away from conservative books—which can be enormously profitable (leaving them to an out-of-town house like Regnery). We’re also told that women are the real buyers of books, without seriously examining who makes acquisition and marketing choices in the industry. Several years ago, a young editor named Jeremy Rubie-Strauss, attentive to Web site hits, began finding projects that sold extraordinarily well to the young male market, puerile as some said the titles were. It opened up a whole new category, validating the thought that if the right book is found, the audience will come. Were such areas not there all the time (others would point to African-American-, Spirituality-, Sex-, and Gay-themed content), or did publishing biases diminish in-house support on topics, which were not considered worthy of cultivation? To add to the complexity, genres do become saturated and go in and out of fashion—booksellers themselves get into the act, too, deciding what they will allow to be displayed in their stores and what they won’t (which they deem perfectly within their rights to do).
So why can’t a school district in the heartland of America take a book out of a subject area if it doesn’t feel it serves the goals of its curriculum—nobody else seems much apposed to being an arbiter of literary taste through self-appointment. Actually, I completely agreed with the town’s response in The Metal Children—I would have voted to take the title in question off the syllabus, too—it sounds perfectly hideous, this book, no matter whether you want to compare it, because of its literary qualities, to John Irving’s The World According to Garp or William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (a different banned book written by another Nobel winner rejected twenty times before being published). Tolbin Falmouth (played in a thorough, low-key performance by Billy Crudup) is the censored novelist who has written about teenage pregnancy, abortion, suicide, and a serrated hunting knife in this searching, if unsanded, drama (it’s playing at the Vineyard theatre through June 13)–I know nothing about Rapp’s real-life experience with censorship in a Pennsylvania school system or his book that led to it; I assume the decision was shocking to him, but his new play isn’t a verbatim piece—it’s a fully imagined work in its own right. In the play, sixteen-year-old Vera (played by Phoebe Strole, giving the part the intelligence it deserves) thinks the book has literary merit; she also acts it out, using the fiction as a focus point for a radical cause. Aside from the fact that the novel clearly needed a closer examination of its appropriateness as a YA title, I just couldn’t see why it would be very germane to those trying to review college placement essays or even to those hoping to get into college—which, believe it or not, many people still believe a high school English course should enable.
It’s not that publishers shouldn’t push the envelope; it’s not that the status quo shouldn’t be challenged; it’s not that books of all kinds shouldn’t be available for sale and find their audiences—but, in a middle American, religious town in the heartland, if students are asked not to make it a point of reading the Bible in school, why would The Metal Children (and the quasi-religious fervor it engenders) be considered an improvement of reading material to town elders?
Rapp can seem interested in parody—he gives Biblical hyperbole to a young woman, at a school meeting, which simply isn’t necessary, for example. His left-leaning characters also seem a little disappointed that C. S. Lewis ever became Christian or that all people are not atheists—and there’s an inherent disbelief that people can be Communists at twenty and Republicans at fifty; nonbelievers in their teens and found praying on their deathbeds. But Rapp’s most powerful speech is, ultimately, given to a conservative woman sizing up the liberal newcomer and writer. Finally, the conceit that those on the right can be easy targets on off-Broadway stages, is disbanded—we’re convinced that the playwright understands what those from red states, and tea parties, and evangelical churches might be thinking and seeing when urban and rural America collide.
The central character, Tobin, actually seems to become more mature by his exposure to the alien thinking of the hinterlands—maybe by allowing such diversity of views, larger audiences might find the way to the Theatre, too. A religious conversion, a change in politics, we probably don’t get in The Metal Children—and we shouldn’t—but there is a shift in understanding, and an admission that being hip, cool, and liberal can sometimes mean being wrong.
© 2010 by Bob Shuman
May 5- June 13, 2010
Vineyard Theatre presents
THE METAL CHILDREN
Written and Directed by Adam Rapp
WITH Betsy Aidem, Connor Barrett, Susan Blommaert, Guy Boyd, Billy Crudup, David Greenspan, Halley Wegryn Gross, Jessy Hodges, Phoebe Strole.
Billy Crudup is excellent."
-John Lahr, The New Yorker
"ADAM RAPP'S MOST AMBITIOUS WORK YET!
SHARPLY FUNNY, BRAVE AND WHOLLY LIKEABLE!"
-Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post
“GRIPPING! A RIVETING PIECE OF THEATRE
that delves into our country’s passionate extremes.”
-Matt Windman, amNew York
“AN ENGROSSING NEW PLAY!
Billy Crudup delivers a wonderfully vivid, nuanced performance.”
-Dan Bacalzo, Theatermania
“‘THE METAL CHILDREN’ IS COMPELLING!
THE CAST IS SPLENDID.”
-Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg News
"THRILLING! RAPP RETURNS WITH A VENGEANCE!
Keeps audiences guessing and enthralled. Crudup’s performance is magnetic.
‘Metal Children’ is smart, literate and adult — the perfect antidote to the Broadway season.”
-Mark Peikert, New York Press
“PROVOCATIVE AND INTRIGUING!
Mr. Crudup delivers a keenly felt, dryly funny performance.”
-Charles Isherwood, The New York Times
The cast is especially impressive.”
-David Sheward, Backstage
“A RIVETING RIDE! THIS STORY KICKS ASS!
Outstanding performances from a fantastic cast.
It’s smart, witty, thought-provoking and modern — YOU’LL REALLY DIG IT!”
-Molly Marinik, Theatre Is Easy
“A FUN RIDE!
An A-plus ensemble in an elegant production.”
-Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
“RAPP’S BEST PLAY YET!
A superb cast, anchored by
a magnificent performance from Billy Crudup.”
-Edward Karam, OffOffOnline
“AN EXEMPLARY PRODUCTION!
Crudup delivers a tour-de-force performance.”
-Michael Criscuolo, NYTheatre.com
Tony Award-winner BILLY CRUDUP (THE COAST OF UTOPIA, Almost Famous, Big Fish) returns to the Vineyard Theatre stage in ADAM RAPP's powerful, drama about a gifted New York writer’s explosive encounter with a small American town hellbent on banning his young adult novel. Rapp is the acclaimed author of such works as Pulitzer Prize finalist RED LIGHT WINTER, NOCTURNE, and BLACKBIRD.
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