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5075 words
SHJ Issue 3
Spring 2011

Netting the Nimble Rabbit: The Banning of Steve Martin’s Play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” in Our Town

David Memmott


Controversy flared in our town of La Grande, population 12,000, nestled in the Blue Mountains of Northeastern Oregon, when a high school production of Steve Martin’s play, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” was banned.

Veteran La Grande High School English teacher, Kevin Cahill, selected Martin’s play to engage his students in the “big ideas” that shaped the intellectual climate of the 20th Century. The selection was approved by the principal and the cast began rehearsing when a substitute teacher, also the parent of a 14-year-old interested in a part, found excerpts of dialogue (not surprisingly from the character of Picasso) to be objectionable and believed production of the play would contribute to the moral decline of La Grande’s youth.

According to La Grande’s newspaper, The Observer, this parent presented a petition with 137 signatures—largely recruited from members of her church—and the superintendent of La Grande schools banned the production. His decision was appealed to the school board who voted 4–3 to uphold the superintendent’s decision, in spite of a vocal clutch of parents and student actors. Labeled as not age-appropriate for La Grande High School students, the play could be made more acceptable, those supporting the ban suggested, if it were edited to delete objectionable material. Cahill, whose experience in theatre and writing provided him with a better-than-public understanding of copyright law, declined the offer of a middle ground while assuring the moralists the play warranted no worse than a PG-13 rating and was more appropriate for high school students than most primetime television shows. He also pointed out that “laughing at sex isn’t the same as endorsing it.”1

Determined to stage the play, the high school thespians and their director turned to the local university, Eastern Oregon University, to host the play independently from the high school. Without the high school’s patronage they would raise the necessary funds and assume responsibility for production. However, the university’s interim-president and long-time La Grande resident, Dixie Lund, rejected this, not wanting to go against the school board. This potentially embarrassing stance for the university, in contradistinction to a history of universities as seats of academic freedom, was reversed when a campus student organization, EOU Democrats, reserved the theater for the production. This move forced the university to accept the production due to a state non-discrimination law preventing the university from denying a recognized campus organization access to a public facility with the caveat that they assume responsibility for all costs.2 Then in a further development, the playwright, Steve Martin, learned of the controversy over his play and the EOU Democrats’ bold intervention, so offered to cover production costs, noting the play had been produced without incident by other high schools and he wanted to defend its reputation.3

Kevin Cahill is not an ego-maniacal director or Hollywood wannabe grabbing what little limelight can be generated on a high school stage. His students come first and his education aims are impeccable. Much-respected in our community, this teacher over the years has taught a small army of grateful students, students who have benefited from his intelligence and commitment to teaching as much as from his strong background in literature and writing. Our small community has been enriched by his contributions to the local culture through his various roles on and off the stage. He has been honored on numerous occasions for his excellence in teaching, including a year in France through the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program. His rootedness in the region and his focus on putting his students first only underscore his laudable desire to find and produce a contemporary comedy with mature themes and intelligent content to gently nudge students into serious thought and discussion around significant breakthroughs in both the arts and sciences in the 20th century—subject matter well-served in Martin’s symbolic meeting between Picasso and Einstein at a tavern in France, the Lapin Agile (Nimble Rabbit).

I’m reminded by this controversy of an old joke about the psychiatrist who shows his patient a series of Rorschach inkblots and the patient describes sexually-explicit scenes. Having heard enough, the psychiatrist informs the patient he has an obsession with sex. The patient levels his gaze at the psychiatrist, trying to reason this out, “What do you mean, me? You’re the one showing all the dirty pictures.”

Obscenity, as beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or quidquid recipitur ad modum recipitur recipientis(whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver). Peter Feldmeier, who teaches theology at the University of St. Thomas, says: “In the end, what we discover about ourselves informs our knowledge of God, even as the keyhole tells us about the key.”4

Supporters of the ban on Martin’s play repeatedly make the argument they are being denied access to the play by virtue of its content. After all, they’d like to take the whole family. We’ve heard this argument before. I remember when VHS was all the rage. This new technology allowed viewers to enjoy movies in their own homes. Proprietors of a local video rental took it upon themselves to edit VHS movies to make them more family-friendly. They knew this was not legal and violated copyright law but video-editing made it possible to simply cut out anything perceived as objectionable. But who decides what gets cut? Whoever owns an editing machine? This practice was condoned by many parents concerned about the moral corruption of their children and felt this allowed their children to watch the same movies as their peers without their seeing or hearing anything objectionable. Their virtue could be protected. However, this is akin to saying you’d love to visit the Sistine Chapel but you’ve been denied access because The Vatican simply refuses to cover up all those naked bodies Michelangelo loved to paint.

A friend opened a small gallery in La Grande. Originally we were going to be partners. I decided to withdraw to avoid an inevitable conflict over what should or should not be exhibited. I first became aware of this potential conflict when I recommended he check out a website for the Museum of Digital Art (MODA), (take a look for yourself) as I was very excited about the digital imagery shown there and the possibilities of this new technology. Perhaps we could be on the cutting edge, I thought, maybe doing a show of digital art. I was beginning to explore digital art myself so found myself inspired. My friend typed in the web address but the site was blocked, identified as having nudity, so he casually informed me that he couldn’t look at it. I was both confused and saddened—confused because I had looked at the site myself and didn’t find the nudity to be sexually explicit and I knew he was computer-savvy so set the blocking parameters himself; saddened because someone who professed a love of art denied himself the experience of new art because one or two pieces might have nudity, which he could have moved through with a click of the mouse. This borders on the absurd, lumping artwork exhibiting exceptional digital graphic skills into the same category as websites with women having sex with farm animals. It would almost be funny except we all know the fights that took place over the photography of Robert Mapplethorpe or Andre Serrano’s Piss Christ. [What’s incredibly ironic here is, my computer software just now alerted me to the fact Mapplethorpe has two “p’s.” My Microsoft Word even knows who he is. But it doesn’t recognize the name of Tom Morandi, a former Eastern Oregon State College sculptor/art professor whose public art sculpture for the City of Pittsburg recently had to be reclaimed after sitting neglected for years in a public works warehouse.]

If a small minority of those who object to nudity and sexual imagery or whatever offends their sensibilities can determine funding for the National Endowment of the Arts, why can’t a large segment of the population against war decide to have their tax dollars spent on something else? Many find Pentagon spending, the bombing of civilian populations and cronyism obscene.


When James Hillman presented the inaugural address for the Festival on Archetypal Psychology in 1992 at the University of Notre Dame (a good Catholic school), he chose to talk about pornography. According to Hillman, the word “obscenity” in the United States is now linked by legal definition to depictions or descriptions of objectionable sexual acts, themes or activities. So as much as toxic waste dumps, AIG bonuses and the torturing of suspected terrorists might be offensive to most of us, they cannot be legally labeled as “obscene.”5

Without expressions of Eros, Hillman reminds us, the world would become sterile and static (note that eros is the root of erotic and connotes an impulse beyond social control). Hillman’s idea of “image” is at the root of imagination and finds its wellspring in Eros. It applies equally to a poem, a play or a painting. Every attempt by the State to control the “image” historically and inevitably fails. These acts of official repression generally ruin more lives than they help with a greater cost to freedom than any threat of an overheard ribald story or catching a glimpse of a pornographic magazine or a lewd art show. Hillman warns that State and/or Church control of expressions of Eros is a thin disguise for controlling the “body” and whenever State/Church controls the body, we essentially live in a State of Slavery. He further warns that whether the repression is personal or social, it usually results in manifestations of Eros even more base, distorted and twisted than that which gave rise to the repression, as this natural energy ultimately finds its way into negative forms, possibly erupting into aggression, if not given a positive outlet. Rather than censor or repress these natural expressions, Hillman suggests we recognize and honor instances where Eros is elevated to the “sublime”—in a word, through art and science.

In her essay, “Degenerates,” Kathleen Norris (in Volume Two of The Best Writing on Writing, 1995) talks about visiting a gallery exhibit called “Degenerate Art” at the New York Public Library. The exhibit consisted of artwork produced during the Nazi regime—those officially approved and those labeled “degenerate.”

“As I walked the galleries it struck me that the real issue was one of control. The meaning of the approved art was superficial, in that its images (usually rigidly representational) served a clear commercial and/or political purpose. The ‘degenerate’ artworks, many crucifixes among them, were more often abstract, with multiple meanings, or even no meaning at all, in the conventional sense. This art—like the best poetry, and also good liturgy—allowed for a wide freedom of experience and interpretation on the part of the viewer.”6

Ergo, I have control over my choices, not over other people’s choices.

At the very heart of any discussion of the paradigm shift from Newtonian physics with its clockwork model of determinism to quantum indeterminism with its implied role of the observer as co-creator is the idea of free will. It is something of a tribute that the man whose Special and General Theories of Relativity laid the necessary groundwork for a theory he found inelegant at best. Einstein questioned the conclusions of the Copenhagen School of Quantum Physics which had become the model on the forefront of modern physics. With an open mind and in a friendly manner, Einstein directed a serious challenge to his friend and colleague, Niels Bohr, commonly recognized as the father of the Copenhagen School. Bohr heroically rose to the task and answered each challenge by applying some new interpretation or proof using the very model Einstein called into question. Their exchange popularly came to be known as the Einstein-Bohr debates, but they weren’t so much debates as dialogues. It is from these dialogues that the term “thought experiment” came into our language—an experiment conducted in the mind because necessary conditions could not be duplicated in a lab. I mention this because Einstein was most distressed by indeterminism. It threatened the more classical model of time and space, cause/effect that had been his solid ground. But Einstein did not lack the imaginative power to consider the many implications of Heisenberg and Quantum theory. Bohr was of a different mind. The new science for him fostered a re-enchantment with the universe, affirming the idea of free will. But without Einstein’s challenges Bohr would not have been pushed to strengthen the model, to perfect the “image.” So what may be most instructive here, in light of the issue of censorship, is that Einstein and Bohr both had their own perception of what model/image was “beautiful,” yet neither attempted to censor the other or limit the other’s range of imagination and thought. Rather, they engaged each other in a dialogue that elevated the “image” to a higher level—to the sublime.

In “Picasso at the Lapin Agile,” Steve Martin uses to good effect the device of a drawing contest between Einstein and Picasso. Einstein finishes with a flare because he only needs to slash out a few letters. This is a brilliant treatment of the complementary nature of art and science, which I will come back to later.

In her book, Women Who Run With The Wolves7, and again in her audio lecture, The Creative Fire8, Clarissa Pinkola Estes makes reference to the “goddess of obscenity,” Baubo. Estes draws upon Greek myth: the abduction of Demeter’s daughter, Persephone. Hades dragging Persephone into the underworld is for Estes an allegory for the creative cycle; what happens when creativity is “abducted” by any of the negative complexes that prevent us from playing creatively and joyfully on the fertile plain of Eleusis. I find her re-interpretation of this ancient myth most insightful, but her understanding of the important role played by Baubo cannot be overstated in this context. After searching and searching for her daughter who sits sorrowfully beside Hades on his dark throne in the underworld, Demeter is broken, all the joy gone from her life. She withdraws her fertility from the world. The once bountiful earth dries up. All life shrivels and dies. Demeter is sterile and stiff with grief. Then Baubo, a headless goddess with nipples for eyes, comes dancing seductively towards her, singing through her vulva, and Demeter finally cracks a smile. Baubo tells Demeter ribald jokes until she first chuckles, then laughs a belly laugh. As a result of Baubo’s irreverent antics and uncensored expressions of Eros, Demeter loosens up enough to receive the information she needs from Hekate and Helios to solve the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance and to finally recover her—even if lovely Persephone must be shared in the end with Hades.

Estes says “obscenity as an aspect of sacred sexuality is vital to the wildish nature.” This is what Kevin Cahill is defending in his selection of Steve Martin’s play, when he assures us “laughing at sex isn’t the same as endorsing it.” Indeed, humor has been a common device in storytelling to educate youth about the consequences of socially unacceptable behavior since the advent of trickster cycles. We laugh at the Nez Perce Coyote tales in Jerome Rothenberg’s anthology, Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas, “Coon cons Coyote, Coyote eats Coon, Coyote fights Shit-men, gets immured in a rock-house, eats his eyes, eats his balls, gets out, cons Bird-Boy for eyes, loses them to the birds & gets them back” and “Coyote borrows Farting Boy’s asshole, tosses up his eyes, retrieves them, rapes old women, & tricks a young girl seeking power.”9 Coyote is not an evolved figure and, though he often cons other Animal People and tricks Indian maidens into having sex with him, he really has little control over his body and virtually no control over his appetites. He finds himself in one fix after another as his tricks backfire or someone smarter turns the tables. The beauty of the Coyote cycle is that the silly trickster gradually matures, growing up along with the children. The children are taught not to behave like Coyote, but to respect his powers of creation. I doubt the storytellers in native cultures could be coerced into editing their Trickster Cycles so they might fall into a more acceptable PG rating.

As far as I can see, Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile fails to deliver on the true comedic potential of Picasso as Baudo. Perhaps this is because Martin just didn’t see it, or maybe because of a sincere desire to avoid greater controversy, or to gain more commercial acceptance. When Martin’s character, Germaine, points out Picasso’s limitations in any relationship, intimating his inability to love or commit:

“Your whole act is a camouflage. But you are lucky because you have a true talent that you are too wise to abuse. And because of that, you will always be desirable. So when you wear out one woman, there will be another who wants to taste it, who wants to be next to someone like you. So you’ll never have to earn a woman, and you’ll never appreciate one.”10

I am reminded of the same male complex discussed in The Cry for Myth, where Rollo May uses the character of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, but Martin has not provided us with enough evidence of the artist’s obsession with sex or habitual infidelity to get to his Coyote core.

May says:

“...the Peer Gynts in life never solve the paradox of freedom by giving oneself. Their freedom is not even a freedom from something: it is a simulated freedom, with mother always in the wings. Hence their compulsive activity: they must always be trying to prove something to the woman, whether she is present or fantasied [sic], and at the same time they are always running away from her.”11

Martin uses what we know of Albert Einstein and his Special Theory of Relativity for laughs and to inspire the witty use of language, and through him grounds the dialogue in relativistic situations, leading to a mutual regard for the complementary nature of art and science. But the exaggeration of Picasso’s personality for comic effect, making it even more ribald, would have had me rolling in the aisle by releasing Eros with the profoundly profane wit of a Lenny Bruce or a Red Foxx.


Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipitur recipientis (whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver) is essentially restated by the character of Einstein in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” as “Here’s the way I look at it,” or “depending on where you’re standing” or one might say “from where I stand.” Feldmeier says the Latin dictum quoted above has a twofold meaning:

“First, it means that God moves and transforms us according to our own capacity and our own way of being. Second, it implies what we know of God has to correspond to who we are...”12

In short, the reflection of God in a cracked mirror might well be a cracked reflection. The mirror we hold up to society might be the imperfect mirror of one’s own humanity and the process of making a more perfect mirror is akin to the alchemical process of transmuting a base metal into gold. The process cannot be completed without beginning with a base metal. This is somewhat parallel to the idea in many mystical traditions of the spirit descending into flesh. Once in the flesh, the God-in-man, the potential of gold in the base metal, tends to be forgotten. It is the crucible of life that makes the transmutation possible as the idea of becoming gold enters our consciousness. In Mayan terms, one might say this is the promise of the Fifth World in which the perfect juncture of spirit and flesh, mind and matter, sits at the center of the equilateral (Quetzalcoatl) cross, where base nature can be elevated to the sublime through a union of opposites. It is with the Christian cross that the union of opposites is unbalanced by shifting the emphasis to the spiritual, moving the juncture upward and causing us to look up instead of to the center, then ultimately substituting the Church for Christ.

From where I stand, the subtext of Steve Martin’s contemporary absurdist comedy is much more subversive than superficial references to Picasso’s being a shameless libertine. The characters of Einstein and Picasso represent a momentous bridge into a modern sensibility from which we cannot go back. The bridge has burned behind us.

The path human knowledge has chosen as the result of breakthroughs represented by these two central figures has forever changed our role from that of disconnected objective observers to that of active participants entangled in the very fabric of the universe. Perceptual relativism and abstraction, whether in the form of the deconstruction of an image as in cubism or a differential equation as in quantum physics, requires active awareness rather than programmed response. By extension, moralistic reactions are replaced by a kind of situational ethics from which one makes constant choices, or as Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan says, requires us to become impeccable warriors. If you have chosen the right path, then all your choices must be impeccable. If your path is wrong, then regret will pull you into living either in the past or future, making you unable to respond to Now.

It follows then that the next question we must ask is: when do we become responsible for our choices? And here lies the rub. One of the guardians of the threshold we confront in any journey is what Trebbe Johnson calls “the monster of grim prospects.” Trebbe Johnson is a poet, essayist and director of Vision Arrow, a guide service that leads spiritual trips into the wilderness. Johnson refers to our two sides—one ready to leap into destiny and the other holding us back. In folktales, this internal conflict is often depicted by parent and child. She talks about the stories of Rose Briar, Balder and Percival where loving parents attempt to shelter their children from all that is potentially dangerous. This is also the story of Buddha. The fear many parents have of their children’s “moral decline” falls into this age-old conflict between the parent wanting to keep their child safe within the walls of the city and the child’s desire to strike out into the great unknown. If carried to an extreme, this desire to protect can result in the parent becoming the “monster” that must symbolically be defeated so the child can answer the call and begin their journey.13

Every journey begins once we are facing the right direction and we might seek guidance in this, but once we take the first step, we go alone—though ultimately we learn we’re not the first to venture forth and were never alone.

In a relativistic world of situational ethics we are confronted with such questions as “When is it the right time? What is age-appropriate?” Traditionally, in mythopoetic journeys, the hero is often quite young—only a teenager. We understand when teenagers answer the call and decide to enlist in the Marines to serve their King, yet we deny them, right up to the engagement in battle, any opportunity to become responsible for their own choices, controlling what movies they watch, what music they listen to, what galleries they visit or plays they attend.

A paradigm that opens the possibility of observers/participants determining for themselves where they stand in relation to their own inward experience undermines not only classical physics and traditional forms of art, but any number of models of materialistic reality that emphasize form over essence, or mandate a black and white response to a more complex and multi-dimensional world. As Norris has noted above, rather than viewers in the gallery being able to fall back on a programmed response, abstract art or any new form of experience might require that we “find the meaning”—which is an act of participation or co-creation.

A consequence of a transformational process leading us to a worldview in which we are the co-creators of our own lives (and possibly even the universe-at-large) is that we must then assume responsibility for our creation. This can be painful and time-consuming, as such a process requires constant self-assessment and an on-going effort to remain awake—in the sense intended, I think, by G. I. Gurdjieff when he says “Man lives his life in sleep and in sleep he dies”—that is, our great journey is always towards self-knowledge, toward removing the barriers so the light of consciousness can illuminate and ultimately elevate us to the sublime. But when there are so many forces all around us day after day promising to relieve us of all our pain and all our burdens if only we will accept their control, and we let ourselves be pulled by their gravity into a dark habitual life of unconscious conformity, we will never gain the soul strength to face the consequences of our actions or test the flexibility of our “psychic grid” through extension, expansion and the experience of Other—all necessary functions if conscious intention is ever to intervene in the easy predisposition of “following the path of least resistance.” If we do not conquer the fear at the threshold, we will never attain the character to bring back the boon of human compassion—which cannot be attained without flexibility, tolerance and the power of imagination.

Einstein brought our attention to the dual properties of light—wave and particle—in that our perception of light as a wave disallows our perception of light as a particle. We might intellectually understand that light has both properties but we can never experience them both at the same time. This has often been illustrated by optic illusions such as the silhouette of the faces and the vase. Remember this? You can see the silhouette of two faces facing each other or the silhouette of a vase, but not both simultaneously. Your perception can jump back and forth from one to the other, but the image cannot be both face and vase at the same time. This mechanics of human perception as we understand it and the question of “reality” behind the perception is a basis for the artwork of many modern artists such as M.C. Escher and Salvador Dali.

In addressing the trend toward fundamentalism in our time, Patrick Laude says this:

“Religion could be defined as a sacred form that frees us from all the outward forms that imprison our soul.... Today, ...the role of traditional spirituality is to remind people of the true sources of religion. Fundamentalism is a caricature of this search for sources, as is often manifested by its ambitions to ‘purify’ or ‘restore’ an original state of affairs.”14

The “world of forms” of any sacred tradition serves the purpose of a finger pointing to the moon, taking us beyond the world of forms, to the unseen reality behind the forms, to what David Bohm calls the “implicate order,” a hidden order in which our notion of space and time is enfolded. Thus to worship the forms would be to worship the finger that points to the moon instead of the moon itself—or, would be, in a word, idolatry. In the words of a Sufi teacher, The only way to become detached from form is to become attached to essence.

Clarissa Pinkola Estes says “obscenity as an aspect of sacred sexuality, is vital to the wildish nature.” And a wildish nature is needed for the journey. One of the ways we gain the confidence to face the monster is to remember who we are, remember the gold inside of us, remember the stories of those who went before and the challenges they faced and the monsters they had to conquer. Even though every journey is new and our experience is unique, we are never alone.

Trusting enough in your guide—the artist, the author, the scientist, the teacher, the director, or a spiritual guide—enough to let go of a need to control the outcome of every experience is the door that opens long enough for us to be taken somewhere new, into some alien or profane space that may well be the first step toward finding the sacred.

As Trebbe Johnson says:

“The monster makes us forget that we are anything but ordinary, and convinces us that an insulated fortress of our own making is safer than the mystery that beckons beyond the gate.”15

We match this monster not with weapons, but with self-knowledge.


POSTSCRIPT: In May 2009, “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” played to sold-out crowds in three performances in McKenzie Theater at Eastern Oregon University, thanks to the EOU Democrats, Kevin Cahill and his students who would not be denied their promise of taking Martin’s words on paper and elevating them to an experience of the “sublime.”



1.  Mason, Dick. “Board Denies Appeal to Bring Back LHS Play.” The Observer 26 February, 2009.

2.  Mason, Dick. “Play Banned at LHS Will Run at EOU.” The Observer 3 March 2009.

3.  Mason, Dick. “Play Fray.” The Observer 13 March 2009.

4.  Feldmeier, Peter. “Sex and Spiritual Transformation.” Parabola Vol 32.2 (Summer 2007): 68–73

5.  Hillman, James. “Prolegomena.” Audiotape. A Festival of Archetypal Psychology. Sounds True Audio: Boulder, CO (1992)

6.  Norris, Kathleen. “Degenerates.” Ploughshares 1994. Rpt. in The Best Writing on Writing Volume 2: Ed. Jack Heffron. Cincinnati, OH: Story Press, 1995. 36–41.

7.  Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. Women Who Run With Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. New York: Ballentine, September 1995. 336–340.

8.  Estes, Clarissa Pinkola. The Creative Fire: Myths and Stories about the Cycles of Creativity. Audiotape, Sounds True Audio: Boulder, CO (1991)

9.  Rothenberg, Jerome, ed. Shaking the Pumpkin: Traditional Poetry of the Indian North Americas. New York: Doubleday/Anchor (1972). 102–117

10. Martin, Steve. Picasso at the Lapin Agile and Other Plays. New York: Grove Press, 1996.

11. May, Rollo. The Cry for Myth. New York: W.W. Norton (1991). 168–193.

12. Feldmeier, Peter. Ibid.

13. Johnson, Trebbe. “The Monster of Grim Prospects.” Parabola Vol. 23.3 (Fall 1998): 6–13.

14. Laude, Patrick. “An Eternal Perfume.” Parabola Vol. 30.4 (Winter 2005): 6–9.

15. Johnson, Trebbe. Ibid.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury