It is wrong for a high school to censor its version of ‘The Producers.’
How do you treat to a tyrant? It’s a question mankind from beginning of time, long before Jefferson penned those immortal words, “When in the course of human events … “ Sometimes, as in the case of the rebellion against George III, it’s a matter of taking up arms to secure liberty and equality. Usually, they can be dispatched easily at least at the early stages through humor and ridicule.Satire is an important part of the Western political tradition. Humor is potential and effective weapon against blustery, self-aggrandizing bigots and bullies who have it in their heads they know the correct way for everyone else to conduct their lives. Laughter is a powerful tool in our defense.
Mel Brooks, legendary comedian, producer, writer and performer, understood this intuitively when he penned “The Producers,” a 1968 film farce about a couple of Broadway who attempt to make a fortune by bringing something to the stage that is so horrible, so awful, and in such bad taste it will close at intermission on opening night.
And “Springtime for Hitler,” became the most famous play within a play since Hamlet and anchors the film, a 2001 multiple Tony-award winning Broadway musical staring Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick overseen by Brooks and, finally, a film version of the stage musical. Brooks said in a 2006 interview with Der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine that the reason for its enduring popularity, besides the fact each version is funnier than the last, may be that it allows people to laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size.
He told the interviewer that it is impossible to take revenge for 6 million murdered Jews. But by using the medium of comedy, we can try to rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths. In doing so, we should remember that Hitler did have some talents. He was able to fool an entire population into letting him be their leader. However, this role was basically a few numbers too great for him – but he simply covered over this deficiency.
Unfortunately, that lesson has been lost on far too many who, concerned with the ever expanding boundaries that define the politically incorrect, have become so afraid of giving offense they’ve removed satire from the quiver of arrows we all have at our disposal to protect ourselves from the pompous, the pig-headed and the potentially lethal. And in one New York high school this has led to the butchering of what some might call Brooks’ masterpiece.
At Tappen Zee High School, in response to complaints of some parents, the swastikas that adorned the costumes and stage decor for the student production of “The Producers” were eliminated on the grounds they were offensive.
South Orangetown Superintendent, Bob Pritchard told a reporter for the local CBS affiliate that there is no context in a public high school where a swastika is appropriate”. This is a detail that must increase the difficulties involved with teaching juniors and seniors about Nazism, Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust. After all, the symbol and the reality are inexorably linked. “The optic, the visual, to me was very disturbing. I considered it to be an obscenity like any obscenity,” Pritchard said.
We must be careful as we move through history not to destroy its power to teach us the lessons we must learn. The man who said that those who fail to learn its lessons are doomed to repeat it forgot the point made clear in a long ago New Yorker cartoon that those who do learn must resign themselves to standing around watching others make the same mistakes all over again.
Which is the most painful option? It’s probably to be unable to do anything about it. However, the best option is to take the lessons to heart and to avoid the repetition of evil at every turn. This includes not just letting the bad be made out to be harmless but the corruption of the essentially good into something unspeakably unredeemable. Those who would remake history are more concerned with the present than they are with the past because they seek to use it for their own ends.
It is painfully sad how Pritchard and the other censors missed the point. The power of the symbol gives way to the power of the ridicule directed at it. We hate it. It is crime. To pretend otherwise is to be like an ostrich with its head in the ground, secure in the knowledge that what it cannot see it or, more to the point, brings to mind Pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous aphorism that includes the line, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.” We all know how that ends”.
Removing the swastikas from the set dressing turns the Nazis from something crime to something vanilla and therefore unthreatening. “Springtime for Hitler” is funny precisely because of whom it pokes at, something it apparently takes a certified genius like Mel Brooks to understand and interpret for the rest of us.