Broadway’s ‘Trigger Warnings’: How Safe Is Too Safe?

This piece of mine is in today’s Washington Post, and judging by the many comments, it’s an issue that provokes strong reactions. Read it on the Post’s website, or I’ve reprinted it here:

Broadway theatergoing is finally back to something close to normal. No more pandemic-era lines outside the theater to show proof of vaccination; no more mask requirements (though many in the cautious, mostly older Broadway crowd are still wearing them); no more last-minute cancellations because half the show’s cast has come down with covid-19.

Not content with their spaces being safer, theaters increasingly seem to want to be “safe spaces.”

Take the audience advisory for the new Broadway revival of the musical “1776.” Highlighted in red on the production’s website, it warns that the show, about the political wrangling that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “contains stylized representations of racialized violence” as well as “sexually suggestive themes, occasional strong language, haze, a brief strobe effect, a non-firing replica firearm, and a gunshot sound effect.”

The warning struck me as a little alarmist, especially after seeing the show. The “racialized violence” is a reference to the show’s somewhat overheated, but historically accurate, depiction of the debate over slavery. The only strong language I heard was an occasional “damn it, Franklin”; and the sexual material was so mildly suggestive as to be barely noticeable. As for the replica firearm — well, the country was at war, wasn’t it?

Just how much coddling do theatergoers need these days? An audience advisory for the touring production of the recent revisionist Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!” gives a jarringly literal spin to the term “trigger warning.” It alerts viewers to the exact number of guns that appear onstage (114) and details the timing and plot circumstances of each of the four gunshots heard in the show. “The third shot is around 18 minutes into the second act … with a character surreptitiously picking up the gun, then firing it off in order to bring order to a chaotic scene on stage.”

Spoilers are allowed, I guess, for what is described as Broadway’s first “gun-neutral production”: For every gun prop that appears in this “Oklahoma!,” the producers promised to make a minimum $100 donation toward nonprofits working to take illegal firearms out of circulation or supporting youth programs in areas with high levels of gun violence.

So-called trigger warnings first gained notoriety several years ago, when some college instructors began alerting students to potentially disturbing content in reading material, even classic novels such as “The Great Gatsby” (abusive treatment of women) and “Mrs Dalloway” (discussion of suicide). And audience advisories have long been common in theater playbills, alerting patrons to surprise gunshots and other things that might affect sensitive viewers, such as strobe effects or smoking onstage.

But the new advisories go well beyond that. They seem less about protecting potentially distressed theatergoers than italicizing the show’s revisionist, diversity-minded, politically evolved messages. The most startling thing about the new production of “1776” is not any sexually suggestive material but the topsy-turvy sexual casting: All of the Founding Fathers are played by female, nonbinary and transgender actors. This rather blunt-force gimmick is meant, of course, to highlight the utter lack of diversity among the delegates to the Second Continental Congress, the band of White men who established the freedoms on which our nation is based.

More bothersome, these warnings often seem to reflect a patronizing, self-centered view of the past — a need to signal how far we’ve advanced from an era whose customs, morals and political views no longer mesh with our own.

Yes, a lot of people in the old Oklahoma Territory walked around toting guns — and sometimes even fired them. And yes, the White men who signed the Declaration of Independence were largely oblivious to the rights of women and people of color. But if we can’t change the past, can we at least try to understand it on its own terms?

At least the moral preening isn’t universal — there are no similarly prominent warnings about the Nazi spouting antisemitic slurs in Tom Stoppard’s Holocaust play, “Leopoldstadt,” which just opened on Broadway, or about the brutal rape scene in the Tony-winning musical “A Strange Loop.” Perhaps that’s because shocking the audience — provoking a reaction, forcing us to confront unpleasant things — is part of the point, not just of these plays but of much of Western drama going back to Shakespeare.

Yet not even the Bard has escaped the new skittishness. For its production of “Romeo and Juliet” last year, London’s Globe Theater felt it necessary to warn audiences about the play’s “upsetting” content, including “depictions of suicide, moments of violence and references to drug use.” That was followed by a list of organizations offering “advice and support” for anyone who might be disturbed by the play.

Theater producers genuinely concerned about the well-being of their audiences should consider the research showing that trigger warnings might actually increase anxiety among vulnerable theatergoers. I jump as high as anyone at the sound of a gunshot onstage, but I’m not sure an advance warning would help much. And when it comes to Romeo’s swordplay, or John Adams’s profanity — damn it, Franklin, I think I can handle it.

4 thoughts on “Broadway’s ‘Trigger Warnings’: How Safe Is Too Safe?

  1. So well-done

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  2. This is one of your funniest and best blogs, so well observed. Now all of us will be aware of the warnings on the program and have a chuckle when we see them. Thanks for this piece, it made my day, sharing with all my theater friends.


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