COLUMN: Profound or profane?

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David Vale of the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Books have been written on the art of profanity.

Books have been written making artful use of profanity.

As a writer, I occasionally have need for profanity but I recognize profanity as an art form, one crafted in a medium that must be applied using a choice stroke, a precise color and a deft touch.

I’m not particularly skilled in the use of profanity. I would characterize my proficiency at the enthusiastic-amateur level. It’s not that I don’t place a proper value on profanity, I just got a late start on it and, as a result, my development has been stunted.

Raised in a strict Christian family, it was made clear to me that all use of profanity was a sin and using it could result in my going to hell. “Hell” was okay to use that way, as a place for the damned. And “damned” was okay in that descriptive context as well. But I was darned careful not to use either word recreationally because I could get in a heck of a lot of trouble.

Since coming to Montana, I’ve taken a more professional interest in profanity. I occasionally act in and direct local community theater and often the scripts contain words that, in my youth, would have consigned me down below. But refusing to use them now could keep me off the stage and in the tech booth, and I’m currently writing a screenplay with the intention of making a short movie. Striking a balance between the dramatic requirements of the story and the sensibilities of my audiences now falls directly in my lap. Leaving the bad words out will open my audience to the Sunday school crowd, but often a colloquial expression of frustration that does not include these words rings hollow.

So what are these bad words? Well, I can’t say them here, so I’m going to have to improvise. Let’s start with the mother of all bad words, the fearsome f-word we’ll code as “flip.” I first encountered this word when I directed Neil Simon’s play, “Rumors.” The word (in its classic form) appeared nine times. I learned, somewhat to my surprise, that the use of the word was not optional. Taking it out of the play or changing it could result in our production being shut down and my being sued — I had to admit “That gosh darn flipping Harold Green” lost some of its punch, so I decided to risk eternal damnation.

Somewhat surprising to me, “flip” is not the worst thing you can say in Montana. The big damnation fear in this part of the country appears to come from taking the lord’s name in vain. And I’m not quite sure what that entails. Vain means futile, useless or pointless. The phrase “God bless America” is generally offered and received with a charitable intent, the apparent assumption being that the request is honest rather than vain.

Irving Berlin’s use of the phrase in the song by that name, at least in his 1918 lyrics, had the patriotic intent of making America “victorious,” presumably over her enemies. The song has become quite popular. But a more direct phrasing of the honest intent (with obvious euphemistic substitutions here), “Gosh Darn Our Enemies,” would probably have met with considerably less success.

I recently directed a play portrayed by its author as clean and family friendly. I generally agreed with that assessment but, for Montana, it did have the harshest language imaginable, the dreaded “gosh darn.” And I had an actor, for reasons of reputation rather than religion, refuse to utter it. The social effects of profanity obviously extend far beyond the literal meanings.

But back to that search for balance in the screenplay I’m writing. It’s got a dog; a big, lovable dog with a barking problem. John is the character that the dog’s barking most offends and he wakes to the frightful woof of the dog at 5 a.m. After smashing his thumb in the window while trying to close it, a second sharply timed bark results in a painful shaving accident. And finally the recurrent barking disrupts an important phone call, costing John a big business deal. Normally a dignified pillar of the community, John is at his wit’s end when he finally expresses his sentiments to the dog: “Gosh darn it Rufus, you worthless son of a billy goat, get the heck out of my yard.”

Has that hollow ring to it, doesn’t it? Needs more authentic language, right?

Yeah, I know. I’m going to hell.

David Vale retired from the world of psychology and statistics and now owns the Pocketstone Cafe in Bigfork. He had a great uncle who was a longshoreman, but they rarely spoke.

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