Our delicate sensibilities

In his "About New York" column in today's New York Times, Jim Dwyer reports on another campus kerfuffle related to student theater. The play isn't one of the usual suspects. Dwyer describes it as "a mildly ribald farce entitled The Well of Horniness." And the school in question, the College of Staten Island, isn't Catholic. But somehow, Catholics got involved -- at least hypothetically.

Some college officials got the idea that the word horniness in the title might offend the sensibilities of Catholics on Staten Island. It is not entirely clear why this would be so, but there is no doubt that Catholics from Staten Island are an important reservoir of potential students for the college. And students from Catholic high schools were invited to the research conference, to get a taste of possibilities at the college.So over the last few weeks, this production of The Well of Horniness has gone through a cyclone of contradictory decisions or, as the colleges official spokesman puts it, discussions.

At first, the play was supposed to be included in a showcase of student achievement. Then Robert Mahoney, the student who was staging the play, was told that it couldn't be performed during the conference, and he couldn't include the potentially offensive title in advertisements around campus. Why? Because there would be Catholic high school students on campus... or because there would be conservative attendees at the conference (or maybe just one easily offended nun)... or because the "College of Staten Island has a big Catholic constituency. Dwyer got a lot of different stories. And, for the record, the college eventually decided to reinstate the excerpt from the play.I liked Dwyer's parting shot:

And its not yet known whether the Catholics of Staten Island would be more offended by the play itself, or the notion that they could not tolerate mention of the word horniness and the condition it describes.

However, there's more to the play than just the title. And a description of the play I found online says it's "a high-camp low-brow Sapphic murder mystery with one corpse, lusty lesbians, murderous dykes and mysterious women, in the cliff-hanging style of an old-time radio show." So it's certainly possible the excerpt slated for the conference was not so appropriate for those who would be attending. But the point -- at least as Dwyer tells it -- is that no one had actually been offended yet. The administration was just trying to avoid a problem. I think it's bad for Catholics, and everyone else, if we're getting such a reputation for stodginess that campuses overreact to "Catholic" objections that haven't even been voiced.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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