On Playwriting and Penis Transplants

The other day, while reading a newspaper article, I was reminded of one of those well-travelled clichés that offer conventional, slice-of-life wisdom, such as, "What goes around comes around," or "There's nothing new under the sun." Or, in my case, "You're all dead to me now."

In 1996, I wrote a play called Leukemia in Chickens, which appeared, in 1998, at a tiny theater in Hollywood. While it was a union play, featuring an accomplished director and a very talented cast of card-carrying SAG and AFTRA actors, it didn't attract a large audience. Indeed, a total of perhaps 250 people saw it during its entire run (of eight performances).

The play was set 100 years in the future, where a cryogenically frozen man (suffering from a serious disease) wakes up in Southern California to find a vastly changed world. The great thing about setting a story in the future is that you can play around with all sorts of ideas and concepts.

For example, in this play the protagonist is told that there are now two U.S. presidents -- one for domestic issues, one for foreign policy -- that Disney bought the island of Cuba and turned it into a theme park, that the world's entire chicken population had died from a rare strain of leukemia, and that the newest craze was penis transplants.

In the year 2072, elderly Scandinavian (think Max Von Sydow) lumberjacks began donating their penises to wealthy Japanese businessmen. It was more of a "swap" than a donation. Asian businessmen would trade their modestly-sized penises to these elderly Scandinavians in return for their oversized organs, which were "no longer of any libidinous use to them."

A wealthy Japanese businessman walked away knowing he was now hung like a horse, and an elderly, large-framed Norwegian gentleman, living on a modest pension in the outskirts of Oslo, walked away with a smaller but fully functional penis, plus a cool $500,000.

Oddly, this gag was roundly criticized. People either found it "stereotypically racist" or too farfetched and ridiculous. As for the believability, a recent newspaper article mentioned that "penis transplants" were now being performed in Africa. No, not for the reason I suggested in the play, but for other, medically sound reasons. Still, I viewed this as vindication.

As for the racial stereotypes, even though I could sort of see where these critics were coming from, I resented it. For one thing, there's no truth to the supposition that, as an ethnic class, Asian men possess smaller than "average" penises. There's simply no evidence. That was purely a convenient conceit (a "cheap shot") used for the play.

Also, nutty as this sounds, some people actually challenged my assumption that former Scandinavian lumberjacks would naturally be well-endowed down South. So, basically, I was hit with both barrels -- vilified for slurring Northern Europeans as well as the Asians.

My first impulse was to grab these critics by their chinchilla-like heads and scream, "It's a comedy, you infant!" It's a harmless stage play, an absurdist stage play, not an anatomical monograph submitted to The Lancet.

On a positive note, those were the only criticisms. I heard nothing negative from Cubans objecting to my ridicule of their island, and no protests from the poultry industry objecting to my thoughtless suggestion that all the chickens had died.

David Macaray is a playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition).