F*cking Decent is a chimera of a play: The head a borderline neurotic woman talking of her long-dead mother, the body a cynical, depressed man waiting for a miracle from God. And flying them off to Land’s End are the widespread wings of a queer man arriving in San Francisco at the ripe age of nineteen. At the heart of the animal lies a deep well of morality, going by the name of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).
The story goes like this: four artists — Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller — independently put on shows centered on their raw experience of life. The general public and the leadership of the NEA took offense and felt that taxpayer money should not be used to fund such immorality. As a result, the artists’ federal funding was cut. The performance F*cking Decent is a mosaic of the plays of Fleck, Hughes, and Miller (the show’s programme ironically reads “You will not see a restaging of Karen Finley’s work. The artist will not allow us to perform it.”) interspersed with audio recordings of the NEA’s justification for the cancellation of federal funds.
The play, like the works it is based on, starts out by shocking its audience out of complacency via full-frontal nudity. The actress walks onto the stage fully naked and traverses the three different set-ups for the different plays: a big red couch, a wheelbarrow filled with dirt and a toilet seat with bottles of urine scattered around. The naked actress bites into a fully grown, red, juicy apple — an act so sultry that it almost elides the religious reference of Eve and the apple.
There is a naughty wink at religion every step of the way. The young man’s monologue starts off by analyzing how gardens have changed from the original Garden of Eden. The toilet seat of the middle-aged heretic displays a religious portrait underneath the seat cover and the miracle he asks for from God shows up in the form of a fish inside the toilet bowl.
This religious imagery pairs well with the underlying investigations of morality. The same tapes are repeated over and over again, claiming that the decision of the NEA had nothing to do with censorship but rather concerns itself with the proper use of citizens’ money. It speaks of the plays as “rotten, indecent, abhorrent.”
Perhaps there is truth in this viewpoint: after all, why should a decent citizen of the United States work day and night to fund an artist physically making love to the state of California on stage (a magnificent sequence that ends with the cringe-worthy yet endearing line “California, here I come!”)? Why should the government endorse a clearly unstable woman recounting when her mother undressed herself in front of her to teach her about the truth of life?
The most ordinary response to this argument is that if we start censoring certain things according to our sense of decency, we may fail to accommodate society’s shifting conceptions of morality. There is support for this logic in the play itself: homosexual content is described as being “against the values of our society.” From today’s perspective, this attitude is deeply problematic. As demonstrated by this shift, any kind of censorship in a certain era might come to be considered unacceptable.
Despite its bold title and graphic scenes, by the end F*cking Decent doesn’t feel like a play whose only aim is to rebel against the morality police. The nakedness and sex are not present simply to test the limits of acceptability, but because they truthfully speak to the experiences of the artists. Thus, the question of censorship becomes less intellectual and completely personal: how can the life experience of a person be viewed in terms of how moral it is, and be accepted only if it falls within societal limits?
The fear is clearly visible on the actress’s face as an ominous voice repeats again and again that a play based on the playwrights’ autobiographical experience is too indecent, too gross, “not pleasing to the eye.” This fear and this personal tragedy is the play’s response to censorship. Within this context, the debate is no longer about ideas but about people. If a government entity can decide on the appropriateness of an experience, can they do the same to people?
By the final scene, the actress is naked again and planting herself in a pile of dirt, letting her roots sink in, reminding herself that “this is home.” Despite the fact that many people refuse to watch what she has gone through, she has nonetheless arrived.