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Civil liberties debated in revival of popular play

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Dave Carley

When Dave Carley first wrote Taking Liberties, the liberal consensus on censorship was simple: it was bad. Civil liberties, he believed, were timeless. Everyone had a right to express their opinions. Radical hate speech was confined to fringe mailing lists and veiled newspaper ads. Broadly speaking, freedom of speech applied to everyone.

That was 1990.

“The last two or three years have kind of discombobulated me completely,” the playwright tells The CJN over the phone from his home in Toronto.

For that reason, he wanted to revisit his play, which premiered at the 1992 Vancouver Fringe Festival after a staged reading co-produced by CBC Radio Drama. The one-act spotlights five characters in 1955, all loosely linked and struggling with perceived ethics around personal freedoms: a professor speaks out against gendered affirmative action; a Jewish lawyer prepares to defend a Holocaust denier in court, despite blowback from his friends and family; a young woman argues against literary censorship; a newspaper editor debates whether or not to print the names of criminals; and a young father is arrested for having sex in a public washroom.

This month, local theatre director Cecily Smith is helming a remount of Taking Liberties, which will be staged at the historic Campbell House Museum in downtown Toronto. A Q&A series will accompany select performances; on Feb. 15, the production will be followed by a conversation with author Bernice Eisenstein and Daniel Panneton of the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre.

The revival was Carley’s idea, inspired by the cultural shift in attitudes toward censorship and the ways in which the Internet has changed the debate. In the ’90s, he says, because hate speech was far easier to control and monitor and free-speech activists didn’t worry too much about arguments from the radical right. Today, an un-muzzled rise in extremism has given him second thoughts.

“Does the Internet change the underlying values of being opposed to censorship?” he asks. He’s genuinely curious if this work, which was deliberately written to be timeless, is now out-dated. “I’m wondering if people will, at the end of the play, say, ‘That’s wrong now. Things have changed.’”

However, not all aspects of the script have changed. Specifically, he points to Hayden Finkelshtain, the actor playing the Jewish attorney tasked with defending a Holocaust denier, despite the character’s own parents being survivors. Carley wrote the role based on Alan Borovoy, the Canadian lawyer and human rights attorney who helmed the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for years.

“It’s tough for Hayden,” Carley says. “It’s not a popular view. Thirty years ago, when Alan Borovoy did it, without the Internet, Holocaust denial wasn’t such a threat, in a way. I do think it’s a much bigger threat now.”

Finkelshtain himself admits that “taking a nuanced perspective feels scary” in 2020, when an intensely polarized political landscape forces people to take sides. But that is also, he says, a testament to the value of the play and the power of the writing, which discomfited him with its strong arguments in favour of absolute free speech.

“It was tricky for me, because as an actor you have to have an intricate understanding of everything you’re saying,” he says. “In sitting with this stuff, I agree with all of it – but it’s not so much that I would agree or disagree. I think now, politically, things are so polarized that to take everything from a nuanced, detailed perspective – it feels scary.”

Carley isn’t deeply involved with this new production, but from what he’s seen, he’s fascinated by how committed the younger cast members are toward social justice – even if it means justifying censorship, which is the central philosophical struggle of the play.

“There is definitely a generational difference,” he says. “They seem a lot more certain than I am.”

 

Taking Liberties runs from Feb. 5–23 at the Campbell House Museum. For tickets, visit takingliberties.ca.

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