The Title Profanity

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The title of Sylvan Oswald’s play, Profanity, is ambiguous.  Or perhaps it would be more proper to call it ambivalent.  It has a double life – at least – and may be read with regard to different lives in the play.

Profanity is the story of two brothers selling houses on unstable land.

The first reading of the title one reaches for is a curse, a word of violation, a blasphemy.  Gersh and Leo, as Schneider Brothers Realty, have committed a violation of the community that raised them, and in doing so have violated themselves.

The first of the two epigraphic quotations Oswald has added to the script comes from Ralph Blumenthal’s editorial in The New York Times, on the occasion of Bernie Madoff’s sentencing.  Blumenthal discussed Madoff’s crime in relation to Dante’s Inferno, and sought the input of former poet laureate Robert Pinsky, who had this to say:

“It’s about the mystery of how you hurt yourself. It’s like the Talmud says: the evils others do to me are as nothing compared to the evils I do to myself… Dante was interested in what a soul could do to itself…To betray everything you’re connected to is the bottom.”

New York Times, 15 March 2009

Gersh’s act of betrayal divorces him from society and from himself.  It is unspeakable in company – unspeakable to his brother, even, until far too late.  It is suggested that even in his book there is no mention of the crime.  It is unspeakable to himself.

Oswald plays on this sense of what may be spoken.  In an early scene, Vivien tells her daughter to beware the behavior of men.  “They curse,” she says.  “They talk too fast about things and make deals…”  Her daughter offers a different take: “I think…they talk about what’s forbidden. But not what we think of as forbidden…They think and do and talk about all the things men shouldn’t because they aren’t manly. Like looking at flowers. Or cleaning. Or crying.”

Whether mother or daughter proves right, both tell variations on the same tale.  In the privacy of their space, men commit acts obscene to broader society.

This notion of divided space leads to the second reading of Profanity.  The word profane derives from the Latin pro + fanum, where fanum refers to the temple, and therefore profane is that which stands before the temple.  The profane is not necessarily obscene; it is simply the opposing side of the sacred.  Sacred and profane are divided geographically: within the temple is sacred space; outside of the temple (or before it) is profane space.  They are also divided temporally.  The weekend, or Sabbath, is sacred time, whereas weekdays are profane time.

Near the beginning of Profanity, Gersh and Leo, two non-observant Jews, living outside the space of their temple, argue over the calendar and whether today is a holiday (holy day).  Oswald is interested in the question of what happens to people outside of community, tradition, and loyalty.

Though Oswald has described the subject matter of Profanity  (sinking houses, uncles with mob ties) as “like a Greek tragedy”, and though he elsewhere invokes Dante, he is determined to position his play in this profane space.

The second epigraph comes by way of Walter Benjamin, one of the play’s patron saints:

“But the true, creative overcoming of religious illumination… resides in a profane illumination…”

Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism.”

Speaking about the concept of a profane illumination, Oswald proposed that part of modernity in art, since the Renaissance, has been the quest to write about great themes, those traditionally dealt with in the sphere and symbolism of sacred art and sacred rites, using the stuff of the everyday.

Profanity asks, and has the ambition to explore, religious questions, but it does so in sweaty, close-corners comedy.  Just as the brothers reinforce the sacred from outside, by counter-example, the play takes aim at the heart of a mystery (“it’s about the mystery of how you hurt yourself”) by building a brick house right on top of it.

This essay was written for the Undermain Study Guide, available at all performances of Sylvan Oswald’s Profanity.  It has been lightly edited for reproduction here on the blog.

-Stephen Foglia, Literary Manager

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