- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 26, 2005

From Thanksgiving through Christmas, Americans shop and shop — and take their children and grandchildren to shows, movies and concerts. Of these holiday recreations, only the movies come with warning signs to let grownups know what to expect. For the rest, what were once joyous and benign events have been turned into minefields strewn with gratuitous politics and profanity.

Examples abound. During a recent Broadway performance I attended, singer Mandy Patimkin launched into a seemingly impromptu speech about his child’s involvement with the George Soros-sponsored Move On.org. Regardless whether I and other theatergoers wanted a politically inspired comment for our not inconsiderable outlay, we got one.

In the much-acclaimed musical, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a snide comment about Karl Rove defaces an otherwise apolitical plot. To what purpose? In order, one presumes, for the playwright to signal his politically correct attitude, since there is surely no connection between this throwaway sentiment and the story line.

Of course, you expect politics from some performers, and you may go to hear them for that very reason. What would Jackie Mason be without his hilarious free-floating nastiness toward anyone and everyone in public office? But when you go to such performances you go forearmed, having been informed what to expect by critics, by audience “buzz,” and by the entertainer’s previous track record. That is emphatically not so with, for example, the obscenity-laden attack on President Bush dropped by Bette Midler into a recent hurricane-relief fund-raiser.

Speaking of obscenity, a dear friend recently took her grandchildren to the “Spelling Bee,” only to be confronted, in this allegedly “family-friendly” production, by a song about erections and other matters inappropriate for young children. She was offended, not because she is a prude but because she was made uncomfortable in front of her grandchildren.

As a staunch advocate of First Amendment freedoms, I certainly don’t favor stifling debate, let alone the expression of amateur political commentary, however ill-informed. What I find objectionable is paying good money for entertainment that advertises one thing and gives me something else, especially when that something is distasteful or worse.

There is an alternative. Hollywood movies are notorious for their often left-wing politics, their violence, and their “sexual content,” as it is euphemistically called. To the first of these, audiences are usually (although not always) clued in by studio advertising and early reviews. As for the second and third, a rating system was introduced some time ago as a more or less reliable field guide for parents and grandparents. Why not encourage theaters and concert halls to expand these ratings and adapt them for live performance?

A play or concert, for example, might carry an “R” to warn adults what to expect when they bring the kids to a winter performance of the “Nutcracker” in which the Mouse King has been transmogrified into a foul-mouthed heroin addict. Or a “C,” for controversial, could accompany a comedy containing, say, a tirade for or against abortion, intelligent design or illegal immigration. A “GPO” for gratuitous political observations could attach to a musical performance in which the vocalist is liable to pop off at any moment with uninvited political opinions.

The Wall Street Journal’s theater critic, Terry Teachout, thoughtfully provides a service of this kind on his arts blog, “About Last Night.” His act of audience-friendly charity should be institutionalized. We no longer live in a “let the buyer beware” world; our society demands truth in advertising.

If a performer insists on cursing, or propagandizing, I want to know about it in advance. Give me his “propriety rating” and let me make an informed decision before I cough up $100 per ticket. Why shouldn’t arts consumers, before taking their seats in a darkened auditorium, enjoy the same rights as shoppers inspecting the ingredients in a supermarket aisle?

Herbert London is president of the Hudson Institute. He is also author of “Decade of Denial” (Lexington Books).

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