Life & Culture

Meet the playwright who doesn’t think free speech is sacred

This week US writer Paul Grellong’s campus drama about the bounds of freedom of expression premieres in the UK


Giles Terera (left) and Ovenden

I was specifically looking to write about a Holocaust denier being invited to speak at a university,” says playwright Paul Grellong about how in the early 2000s he began work on his campus-set drama Power of Sail. But a lot has happened since then, both to the play, which is making its UK premiere at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory this week, and to its themes.

When the work was revived in 2022 in Los Angeles it starred Bryan Cranston as Harvard history professor Charles Nichols who invites a white suprematist to speak at the university.

“I am interested in the question of platforming,” adds Grellong, sitting in his light-filled Los Angeles kitchen. “I’m trying to prompt questions about [freedom of] speech and the lines between free speech and hate speech and how those lines have blurred.”

Censorship has always been a favoured subject of political playwrights. But questions of how permissive university campuses should be and whether students have the right to cancel a speaker because they don’t like the opinion being expressed have become hot button issues over the past few years.

And now in the post-October 7 era the buttons became white hot with a congressional hearing during which the now-former Harvard president Claudine Gay was questioned by Republican representative Elise Stefanik about whether chants deemed to be antisemitic (such as “from the river to the sea”) should be allowed on campus. After Gay resigned Stefanik claimed credit for the scalp.

Even though Grellong’s play, which is described as a moral thriller, is set in Harvard, what happened in Gay’s case was not quite life imitating art. For one, the extremism in the play is invited to the campus whereas the real-life alleged antisemitism at Harvard and other universities in America and the UK is often already there, much of it driven by students. Yet for Grellong whose TV credits include the hit Amazon anti-superhero series The Boys, the greatest risk to Jews is not to be found on campuses.

“I know that some genuinely horrible things have been felt,” he says elliptically. “And I know that people are scared. But if Stefanik were at all concerned about protecting Jews she would not be aligned with Donald Trump and the rest of the Republican Party. The more significant threat comes from an increasingly fascist-friendly Republican Party in the United States.”

It was the party’s lurch to the far right that prompted Grellong to go back to his play in 2017.

“It was right after [the white supremacist march that year in] Charlottesville that I decided this thing had to be taken out of the drawer. I completely ripped it to shreds and rebuilt it from the ground up. Trump and the people around him allowed open white supremacists, racists and antisemites to assume prominence in the American political conversation and political life. That’s not to say that there haven’t always been Nazis hiding under rocks or living on a compound in Idaho. But the number of them that are now walking around Washington with American flags on their lapels, that’s what sent me back to the script.”

This new production directed by Dominic Dromgoole stars Julian Ovenden as the world-weary history professor and free speech absolutist Charles Nichols. The show is co-produced by Daryl Roth who collaborated in bringing Paula Vogel’s acclaimed play Indecent to the same venue.

Like all decent playwrights Grellong gives weight to views to which he does not necessarily subscribe.

“Anybody who spends more than three minutes with me in a bar would not confuse me for a Trump voter,” he admits, lest there should be any doubt about his personal politics. But I wonder what he makes of the reported surge in support for Trump among Jewish voters in America.

“Jews are not a monolith,” he says. “There have always been Republican Jews. I think that Trump and the Israel question present a very dangerous path for Jews in the United States who are thinking about voting for a party that so openly aligns with white nationalists. [But] if issues about Israel or where Trump wants to move the [American] embassy [in Israel] are driving Jews to align themselves with a party comprised of noxious, bad faith people who do nothing to help the Jews of Israel or the world, I can’t understand it personally. I just don’t buy that today’s Republican Party is safe.”

If it was not already clear, Grellong comes from progressive stock. Raised in New York he is the son of a social worker on his mother’s side and a child psychologist on his father’s. He is the first in his family to work in the arts, not counting a grandfather who played jazz in the Catskills after the war. “The Jews I grew up around come from the Jewish tradition of labour-organising and argument, and supporting the civil rights and social justice movements of the Fifties and Sixties. This is the left-wing political tradition I’m steeped in. I don’t come from a religious family but my Jewishness absolutely informs my writing. Frankly it is the whole reason I wanted to write Power of Sail.”

Even the structure of the play, which has a non-linear timeline is derived, says Grellong, from Jewish tradition. “The convention in Hebrew and Yiddish storytelling is not one that is about redemption and being saved at the end. Stories are more elliptical. They will often end in mid-event or circle back to the beginning. I wanted to tell this story in a Jewish way even though I don’t think Jewish people are the only ones with skin in the game of pushing back against the rise of fascism, which is unquestioningly happening now.”

Despite the despite the stated belief that the purpose of his play is to ask questions, in this case about the intersection of freedom of expression and hate speech, Grellong has his own answer about whether free speech should always be sacred. “I come down on the side that de-platforming is generally a good thing when people are proponents of hatred and violence,” he says candidly.​

Power of Sail is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 12 May.

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