Stephen Adly Guirgis’s best-known play has the kind of title that sends mainstream news outlets like this one scrambling to decide how to refer to it without actually, you know, using that word. The comedy, which The Boston Globe calls “The [Expletive] With the Hat,” was a Broadway hit in 2011 and opened Sunday at SpeakEasy Stage Company, where it runs through Oct. 13. Don Aucoin’s review runs in the Globe on Tuesday.
Recently in New York, Guirgis (pronounced GEAR-gis) sat down to talk about the play, and the language in it, at an Upper West Side restaurant where a table of children was just a few feet away. While they were within earshot, the 47-year-old playwright’s speech was rated G.
Here’s a condensed and edited version of what Guirgis had to say about his play’s title.
“My titles usually come from dialogue in the play, and it just really felt like the right title to me — clearly, obviously the correct title. And when I titled it, I had no intention, no imagination, no conception that we would be doing the play anywhere else except downtown, where, downtown, it’s not an especially provocative title. You know, no one asked me to change it, so I didn’t change it. I’m not like a champion of profanity. I write what I hear, and the characters that I write, that’s how they talk. That’s how I talk a lot of the time. So I’m not trying to advance a social cause.
“I was raised a Catholic, so I can even feel a little, you know, embarrassed or guilty if I’m really offending people’s sensibilities. To a degree. My mom, she loved the theater, she loved movies, she loved TV, and I remember she used to say, when she heard a lot of profanity in something, she would say, ‘It just feels like they’re spitting all over me.’ So she had a sincere and visceral reaction to it. And with my writing, she was a really big champion and advocate, and she would say, ‘I wish you didn’t have to curse,’ but she was like, ‘I understand,’ and she was less judgmental.
“And eventually I’ll write a play where there’s no cursing. Because not everybody curses, and I myself — maybe I’m getting older, but, like, I think there’s a time and a place for every kind of language and talk, and sometimes when I’m in a setting that doesn’t seem proper for someone to be cursing and they’re just cursing, it registers with me. You know? So for a lot of people, the theater is that place, and they go because they love language, and they don’t love that language as much as I do. [Laughs.] So I think it’s understandable. Yet at the same time — do you know this actor, Stephen McKinley Henderson? We were hanging out one night. He was talking about the play. For him, the title of the play and the fact that it was on Broadway and on a marquee and all that, he’s older than me, and it was really significant to him. He was like, ‘You don’t understand. People died for that word. They buried Lenny Bruce over that word.’ It meant a lot to him.”