Well, according to the late American playwright, Larry Shue, a lot. Over a quarter of a century has passed since he penned his now famous comedy about American hate, The Foreigner. Since his premature death at 39, the play has become a favorite of playhouses across this country.
Set in resort fishing lodge in rural Georgia, the premise is created when two Englishmen, Charlie and Froggy, arrive. Intensely shy, Charlie pretends not to understand a word of English to avoid interaction with the other guests. His plan backfires when he finds himself the unwitting confidant of everyone at the lodge. All of their secrets are shared with him, including a diabolical plot involving the vocal chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Charlie attempts to stop the Klan’s scheme of taking over the lodge without revealing his secret.
Not since Jack Benny and Carol Lombard outwitted the Nazis in To Be or Not to Be has foiling hate with humor been so delightful. If Hannah Arendt insists evil is banal, then what could be more of its opposite but farcical comedy? On the stage, the two have made for excellent (albeit awkward) comedic bedfellows. How about the hilarity of “Springtime for Hilter” from the musical The Producers or Shakespeare’s mockery of intolerant Puritans in Twelfth Night?
In American culture, the most famous example of poking fun at intolerance was the television situation comedy, All in the Family. Norman Lear’s groundbreaking comedy featured a crotchety bigot named Archie Bunker. Every night, almost by formula, Archie would be butt of the joke, mostly because of something he said or believed to be true of someone’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. The show ranked number-one in the yearly Nielsen ratings from 1971 to 1976 and became the first television series to reach the milestone of having topped the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive years.
One could say making fun of hate and intolerance is an American pastime. And why not? The theater is a tool where people go to see their longings, frustrations, and conflicts played out onstage. In our increasingly diverse country, our checkered past is always there to remind us of the contradictions and irony of our racial and gender conflicts in a land whose tenets are freedom, liberty, and equality for all.
So where do we start the discussion? How do we move forward? How may we get past the awkwardness of this embarrassing national contradiction?
Larry Shue believes we should start with a joke.
The Foreigner plays 8pm Thursdays through Saturdays, 2pm Sundays, August 30 to September 30, 2012 at the Columbus Civic Theater, 3837 Indianola Ave. go to www.columbuscivic.org for more info.
GCAC Presents is a bi-weekly column brought to you by the Greater Columbus Arts Council – supporting art and advancing culture in Columbus – in partnership with the Columbus Arts Marketing Association, a professional development and networking association of arts marketers. Each column will be written by a different local arts organization to give you an insiders look at the arts in Columbus.