Drew Cortese (left) and Liche Ariza (right), The Motherf---er with the… (Teddy Wolff/ )
We don’t always say it when we say it.
We say “the f-word.” We say effing, freaking, flipping. We use dashes and asterisks and parades of punctuation whose length is directly proportional to our emphasis. We spell it in front of the kids. We say it in hate, in outrage, in pain, in awe, in exhaustion, in lust, in disgust.
Many of us find it disrespectful, vulgar, repulsive. We have been fined and fired for saying it on television. We won’t print it in the newspaper.
And yet the word will grace at least two marquees of Washington theaters this year. “The Motherf---er With the Hat” by Stephen Adly Guirgis is enjoying a six-week engagement at Studio Theatre. “Stupid F---ing Bird,” an adaptation of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” by D.C. playwright and director Aaron Posner, will have its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth in May. At the Public Theater in New York, frequent Woolly guest Mike Daisey finished a run of his monologue “F---ing F---ing F---ing Ayn Rand” in January.
So, why is that word in so many titles?
“I’ve now been forbidden to say the name of my own play in front of my own daughter,” said Posner, whose child is 15 months old. “Because she says the word now very clearly.”
Posner’s title started as a joke, a sly shout-out to his source material. But immediately after he said it aloud, “I thought: I should do that . . . I felt that title accurately depicted the energy of the play.”
“Bird” is “not your grandfather’s Chekhov,” said Posner. It’s a modern, irreverent take on a classic, and the title sends that message.
Deeksha Gaur, director of marketing and public relations at Woolly Mammoth, said the decision of where and how to censor Posner’s play title in promotional material is “an ongoing discussion for us.” The word appears, sans hyphens, on the posters outside the theater, which are across from the main entrance but somewhat hidden from the street.
“We just felt it didn’t really go with the Woolly brand to hide the word,” said Gaur.
“Our mission is to do work that pushes boundaries in terms of content and aesthetics.”
Despite that credo, Woolly still has to contend with aggressive e-mail blockers that see viruses in every vulgarity. “Putting the full word into the e-mail may be sending the e-mails into people’s spam filters,” said Gaur. “[And] when we get to the point where we’re putting posters out in the streets, we’re going to have to consider that because it’s reaching a far wider audience.”
One idea Woolly is exploring is to put a “parental advisory” sticker over the title “to indicate that we’re not scared of the word, but we’re doing this because other people might have a response to the word.”
“It doesn’t make sense to me, why you would put that up on a marquee,” said Cindy Senning, Emily Post’s great-granddaughter and director of the Emily Post Institute. “I think you’re likely to turn away a lot of people. You don’t need profanity to attract people.”
Both Posner and Guirgis believe their titles give audiences a clear heads-up about what to expect from the plays. The main characters in “Hat” are a drug dealer fresh out of prison and his still-using girlfriend, not exactly a “gosh darn it!”-declaring kind of crowd.
“I do think the title of the play provides an excellent opportunity for people to make a decision about going one way or the other,” said Guirgis. “It is a disclaimer. You can’t go in and see [the play] and think you’re going to see ‘Sleeping Beauty.’”
Like many of our single-syllable swearwords, the f-word is Germanic in origin. It first popped up in writing in a late 15th century poem and has, from its earliest utterance, been considered obscene. It is not an acronym.
For about 400 years, the word was exclusively a sexual term, according to Jesse Sheidlower, editor at large of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of “The F-Word.” The word as intensifying adjective slipped into the lexicon in the late 19th century, and the variation that appears in Girguis’ title came in the early 20th century.
Some obscenities have long since lost the power to shock: religious blasphemy, insults of one’s parentage. Others have gone from commonplace to all but forbidden in a matter of decades, like most racial and homophobic slurs. It seems obscenity is neither created nor destroyed; it only changes form.
“There are other words that I would be hard-pressed to ever use in a play,” said Guirgis. “One example is the n-word. I’ve written plays [with] the n-word in them, but in my mind, that’s a word where if I’m going to use it, it has to really be the only word that I can use.” For Guirgis and for his characters, “I don’t think the word [f---] is such a big deal.”