La Grande High School in eastern Oregon had intended to mount a production of Steve Martin's acclaimed 1993 play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. But one disapproving parent had other ideas. Objecting to some profanity, "adult themes," and accusing the play of being about, as Martin says, "people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects," a substitute teacher named Melissa Jackman rounded up 137 signatures on a petition to have the piece of art shut down. It worked. The school board, mortified of offending, stopped rehearsals before a single footlight had been lit.
The students, undeterred, laid plans to mount their show on the stage of nearby Eastern Oregon University, but ran well short of funds. Hearing of the censorship, Martin volunteered to pitch in so the show could go on. Leftover money will be used to fund scholarships.
In a letter to the editor of the La Grande Observer, which was published on Friday, Martin volunteered to help move the non-profit production off-campus, where parents can't touch it, to "prevent the play from acquiring a reputation it does not deserve." In response, Martin will open his checkbook.
"The play has been performed, without incident, all over the world by professional and amateur companies, including many high schools," he wrote.
The opposing parents, it seems, overplayed their hand by claiming Martin's play was all sorts of obscene. In reality, it isn't, although there are complex, grown-up thoughts that some high school parents want to keep from their kids. And in intentionally trying to give his work a bad name to build their case, they ended up attracting Martin's attention and inciting his sense of justice. Not to mention his very deep pockets.
"The question of whether students should perform the play at their high school remains something to be determined by the community," Martin acknowledged. "I suspect that the signers of the petition against the production read excerpts only, and were not shown the more delicate and inspirational parts of the script."
Indeed, other letters to the editor, though mostly in support of the play, proved widespread ignorance about it. "The title tipped me off about what to expect: lapin is French for rabbit; agile in French and English means nimble, frisky or quick," wrote one reader whom I desperately hope was joking. "What might the artist Picasso say on a visit with a frisky rabbit?"
Apparently La Grande needs a history department even more than it needs arts funding. The Lapin Agile was (and is) a cabaret in Paris' Montmartre where artists hung out. Come on, haters. Google is your friend. You have to have an education to give one.
Say what you want about some of Martin's film roles. He's the first to admit that he does low-brow stuff like The Pink Panther to fund his collection of modern art, which is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest in private hands. But if you've ever read his exquisite, philosophical theatrical writing or prose (Shopgirl comes to mind, as does Patter for the Floating Lady), you'll know that one thing he's not is a misogynist, but a critic of the gender roles we take for granted.
Picasso at the Lapin Agile is a whimsical play about a fictional meeting between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in which the two talk about the great leaps of imagination that are required for both art and science to progress.
The play is about bounding over the walls that society is always placing in front of the improvement of humanity's understanding of itself. In that, there couldn't be a more apt locale for its latest production than La Grande, Oregon.
No play is perfect. Even Oklahoma! and Carousel, those squeaky-clean high school staples, have on-stage murders in them. If parents insist on withholding the use of school funds for artworks that everyone can agree on, we'll never mount any art at all. In La Grande, Oregon, thanks to Steve Martin, that's not going to happen.
You go, Steve. You're not just an American treasure. In combating arts censorship and the dumbing down of our high school students' avenues of critical thought, you're a class act.
Well excuuuuuuse me! Steve Martin steps in when high school tries to ban his play