Why a Play? Are Some Topics Too Hot for Stage?

An invitation arrives in my email to consider writing a new play about  a topic so current that taking it on at all seems  to be almost irreverent, given the anguish that many of the players still feel.  But I am not about to pass up an opportunity to work with the theatre in question, so I sit down to think about the challenge.


How do you write about recent tragedies that have shaken a community to its core? The pain is too new for black comedy and seems almost too raw for drama.


Dottie Sandusky Couldn't Go There
Dottie just couldn’t go there.

Consider the events that unfolded in State College, Pa., over   the last year. The trial and subsequent conviction of former Penn State Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky on child sex abuse charges–and the vindication of his victims in a scathing report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh–are the stuff of TV police procedurals and movie melodramas.


What can theatre bring to the cultural conversation about this almost Olympian tragedy that a TV show or a film could not?


Why a play at all?



A torn-from-the headlines treatment might reduce the story to a straight-line mystery in which the open question is not whether the coach  will be caught and convicted, but exactly how he gets his comeuppance. It would wrap up in 90 minutes, and we could be satisfied that the wheels of justice turn quickly and neatly—with conveniently timed commercial breaks so we can tear away from the drama for another trip to the fridge.

A film might explore the contradictions within the community itself, where the core of the story could be an examination of the  culture of denial that fed the abuse. Here was a university campus so besotted with its football team and coach that when the story broke, many of the students rallied—wrongly—around the lionized  Joe Paterno, while denouncing the victims as liars out to undo a great man. But the denial, one can argue, was even more entrenched within the Sandusky household itself, where a stream of young boys were regular guests and unwitting victims. According to testimony, more than one boy cried out in anguish from the basement rec room while Sandusky’s stunningly oblivious wife went about her business upstairs.


Dottie Sandusky was presumably out of earshot when her husband was raping boys  in her basement, but I doubt she was as clueless as she claimed. Though her psychology has been widely dissected in newspaper and magazine articles, there is not much explaining required, really. The issue is cowardice. She would rather have pretended that nothing was going on than confront the certain ugliness at the foot of the basement stairs. For if she opened the basement door, life as she knew it would be over. Better to keep the door closed, tell yourself the strange sounds from the basement are just the television, and go on with your comfortable suburban lie.  Surely that is much better than facing the world alone.


Well, Dottie is alone now, living with the same denial.


What manner of woman is this who needs that lie so much that she cannot see, will not see, what was obvious to many of her own neighbors?   And what can a play tell us about this woman’s complicity  that a television show or a film could not? Where could a stage play take us that is peculiar to the stage itself?

 Arthur Miller’s Allegory


One place, possibly, is deep into the world of metaphor.


Arthur Miller’s allegorical use of the Salem Witch trials comes to mind. As a stand-in for the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the travesty of Salem 1692 provided a useful and conveniently distant reflection of a community drunk on paranoia. Between 1947 and 1960, HUAC condemned hundreds of Americans artists to economic ruin on the basis that they were, or once had been, members of the Communist Party. Miller was a personal friend to many writers and actors who lost their livelihoods in just that way and he was himself convicted of contempt of Congress for refusing to name names.


Miller’s depiction of a literal witch hunt is a clever metaphor at several levels, unparalleled in the way it explores how panic seizes a community and occludes reason, and devastating in the way it portrays the terrible human price that is paid before reason is restored. Even more, the play is enduring. Though its initial Broadway run was short, it is a classic of contemporary theatre. And one reason is that Miller offered a thoroughly palatable treatment of the subject for an audience that at the time, was not entirely out of sympathy with HUAC or the activities of one Senator Joe McCarthy (R.-Wis.).  Like Shakespeare, Miller looked back in order to look at his own time with greater clarity. For McCarthy’s maniacal pursuit of commies  dominated headlines for several years not because there were that many Reds to run down in the State Department or the U.S. Army, but because the paranoid electorate largely supported his effort–though ultimately his popularity collapsed as McCarthy revealed himself to be both bully and demagogue. Miller’s 1952 play thus proved prescient in showing how a zealot goes too far, undercutting the very public support that allows him his forum for abuse.


But back to Dottie and that closed basement door.


What , then, might be the appropriate working metaphor for a play that aimed to tackle the significance of the events in Penn State?  What becomes a palatable, watchable story for those students who still shake with anger at a sense of injustice done to the late “Joe Pa.” a man whose culpability in a horrific crime against children is now certain. One need only read the Freeh report to understand that Paterno, despite his claims to the contrary, was well aware of Sandusky’s tendencies and chose the coward’s path. Rather than step in to protect Sandusky’s victims when he had the chance, Paterno turned a blind eye. His concern was for  his team, his school, and his legacy. If he ever gave a thought to those poor boys, he did not show it in his actions.


To this day Joe Pa has no end of defenders in State College.  What play can reach that audience? What play can touch those hearts?