For some of our intelligentsia, there could be no more reassuring proof of theater’s continuing importance in our society than a riot occasioned by a play. Recently in Birmingham, a mob attacked the local Repertory Theatre, forcing the closure of a play and the evacuation of the audience.
The play in question was by a Sikh woman playwright, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. She tells the story a Sikh woman, raped in a Sikh temple by a man who had also had a homosexual relationship with her father. Several hundred Sikhs objected strongly to this representation of desecration in one of their temples, and smashed the glass front of the theater. The riot police intervened, and several people wound up hurt in the ensuing melee.
The theater, deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, cancelled future performances. The playwright received death threats and has gone into hiding. The mob triumphed.
The reaction of the official class as was pusillanimous and cowardly as one would now expect. The police refused to offer the playwright protection. The junior government minister with special responsibility for “race equality and community cohesion,” Fiona McTaggart, refused to condemn the mob, possibly because her parliamentary constituency contains many Sikhs and she might lose her seat in the next election if she proved too condemnatory. In modern Britain, career comes before all. McTaggart applauded the theater’s decision to cancel future performances, as did a Sikh member of the Birmingham City Council, who called the decision “a triumph for democracy.” On this reading of democracy, the disturbances during the Partition of India were also one if its triumphs.
The liberal newspaper, the Guardian, commented with a headline that it was the function of the theater to challenge religion: apparently, it could think of no other function of the theater. But at least it firmly stood by the principle of freedom of artistic expression, though whether it would have done so if a play had challenged liberal pieties so crudely is open to doubt.
In any case, it does not follow from the fact that the mob was reprehensible and the reaction of officialdom was cowardly that the theater and the playwright were blameless. Sikh leaders had warned both of them before the play’s opening that trouble would result if they did not amend the play slightly. They asked that the offending scene take place in a Sikh community center rather than in a temple: in other words, they were not denying that Sikhs could behave in a degrading way toward women. The scene’s essential point could be preserved without causing unnecessary offence.
The playwright and the theater refused to countenance the requested change, asserting an absolute right to say anything they pleased. The idea that, in a civilized society, one should be willing to cause offence only in proportion to the intellectual and moral importance of the point one is attempting to make was too subtle for them. But only egotists, with little sympathy for the feelings of others, claim the right to cause offense gratuitously.
The British government, which believes that a legislative answer exists for all human problems and that it thus has a responsibility to control everything in our lives, is trying to legislate the way out of such conflicts by outlawing “incitement to religious hatred.” There could be no better way of pouring oil on the fires of intolerance.