Of arts and sciences

By Steve Martin March 13, 2009 04:07 pm

To the citizens of La Grande:

It has come to my attention that there is a controversy regarding my play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” which was to be produced at your local high school.

First let me compliment Mr. Kevin Cahill, the teacher who selected the play, on his excellent taste! The play has been performed, without incident, all over the world by professional and amateur companies, including many high schools.

Because I don’t know the standards of your community or the life experience of your students, it is impossible for me to address whether my play is appropriate to be performed on campus, although in the limited web exchanges I have read, the students, and the eloquent Mr. Cahill, seem to understand the play and can discern that the questionable behavior sometimes evident in the play is not endorsed.

I have heard that some in your community have characterized the play as “people drinking in bars, and treating women as sex objects.” With apologies to William Shakespeare, this is like calling Hamlet a play about a castle. This play is set in an actual bar in Paris that was frequented by Picasso, a historical site that still exists today.

Focusing on Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity and Picasso’s master painting, “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” the play attempts to explain, in a light-hearted way, the similarity of the creative process involved in great leaps of imagination in art and science. Pablo Picasso, as a historical figure, does not come gift-wrapped for the sensitive. He lived as he painted, fully sexual and fully daring, and in the play he is chastised by a sage bartendress for his cavalier behavior toward women.

Because of the controversy, I recently reread the play, and, frankly, I could understand how some parents might object to certain lines if they were to be delivered by a 16- or 17-year-old. Yet I do believe that the spirit of the play and its endorsement of the arts and sciences are appropriate for young eyes and minds.

So while the question of whether students should perform the play at their high school remains something to be determined by the community, I firmly believe that seeing the play will bring no harm to them and might well uplift them —  and acting in the play, if they are permitted by their parents, would also bring them no harm, and may help them to understand the potency, power and beauty of the arts and sciences.

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.

To prevent the play from acquiring a reputation it does not deserve, I would like to offer this proposal: I will finance a non-profit, off-high school campus production (low-budget, I hope!), supervised and/or directed by Mr. Cahill and cast at his discretion, so that individuals, outside the jurisdiction of the school board but within the guarantees of freedom of expression provided by the Constitution of the United States, can determine whether they will or will not see the play, even if they are under 18.

I predict that the experience will not be damaging, but meaningful.


Steve Martin wrote the play “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.’’ He is an actor and comedian.