Adapted for the stage by a gay man who doesn’t drink.
That was my first thought when I heard about I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway, the stage adaptation of Tucker Max’s best-selling books I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell and Assholes Finish First. Directed, produced and adapted by Christopher Carter Sanderson, the production revolves around Tucker Max’s stories, most which are largely autobiographical, and has already sold out its limited Off-Broadway run, with plans to move to Broadway and a national tour.
The choice to adapt Max’s work for the stage was a surprise to many, as Max is known for his books that celebrate the frat boy, “bro culture” of heavy drinking and promiscuous sex. He introduces himself on his website by saying, “My name is Tucker Max, and I am an asshole,” and has increased his notoriety with inflammatory tweets like, “Planned Parenthood would be cooler if it was a giant flight of stairs, w/ someone pushing girls down, like a water park slide #FF @PPact” and “In South Florida. This place is awful. Shitty design, slutty whores & no culture, like a giant Planned Parenthood waiting room.” (In fact, Planned Parenthood turned down a donation of $500,000 from Max in 2012, crediting their decline to the way in which Max wrote about women.)
As a full disclosure, I have not read all of Max’s books. I have read many of his essays and interviews with him, and given the nature of his statements, and the fact that he called Sanderson “a theater fag” to his face, I wondered if his work would find an audience on in the New York theater scene, where women and homosexuals make up a great deal of the industry and audience.
But I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway is not a literal adaptation of Max’s work, according to Sanderson, who talked with me about the show and what he hopes to achieve with it. Rather, starring five men and women re-enacting the tales from the book, the play is an examination of Max’s work, which Sanderson finds to be filled with opportunities to examine present-day culture and societal norms.
Sanderson, founding artistic and producing director of the Gorilla Repertory Theater Company, has been working as a director for 26 years and has put up numerous Shakespeare productions. The idea to adapt Max’s work to the stage came when a friend gave him a copy of I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell and his first impression was that it wasn’t his sort of thing. But after a few more pages, he began laughing and didn’t stop.
“He has a funny way of turning a phrase, and he might not always be aware of it, but he’s able to write a character who’s aware,” Sanderson said of Max. “He’s often the butt of his own jokes. Of course, reading it, I was able to contextualize it in my own life. I don’t have to believe the same things the characters I read believe.”
When Sanderson thanked his friend for giving him the book, he mentioned he thought it would make a funny piece of theater, and its humor would be enhanced even more it if was performed by theater artists, gay, lesbian, Latino, black, and transgender musical theater loving “theater fags,” as Max calls them.
“We could really do something quite spectacular with this,” he said. ‘By doing so, we would perhaps make it into something artistic Tucker might not have imagined, but might be quite beautiful in accomplishing the theater’s key goal of making work that speaks to everyone.”
Sanderson’s friend told him he was “full of shit,” but Sanderson went on with the project, comparing it to a bar bet. But as Sanderson began discussing Max’s work with his friends, he found many of the conversations began with them confessing that Max was a guilty pleasure of theirs.
By bringing this guilty pleasure to the stage, Sanderson hopes to inspire a new type of of examination of Max’s work.
“I’m bringing it into a safe environment where this material can be examined for what it is, but by a group of people who are patently very different from being entitled white men,” he said. “That’s really important. The exercise of taking it and being able to examine it is an exercise in dialectic thinking that will actually benefit the entire discussion.”
One aspect of the discussion Sanderson hopes to benefit is the theme of oppression, saying, “Women are oppressed in our society. There’s no two ways about it. The statistics back it up.”
Sanderson, who described himself as a devotee of Paulo Freire, the author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, said, “One of the most basic tenets that he demonstrates in an oppressive system, the oppressor is also oppressed. If the oppressor is replaced by someone else or another class or another person, the system itself is not damaged. The oppressor is simply replaced. Nothing changes.”
But the theme of oppression is not a stagnant one, because, Sanderson said, the oppressed find ways to grow and overcome that oppression in their lives.
“They find their strength and hope and manage to move forward despite the setbacks of oppression, and that often leads to the development of an extremely excellent sense of humor, which I can say my actors are exercising brilliantly,” he said.
Sanderson identifies himself as a feminist, which, he said, “means putting into action my belief that men and women should be given equal opportunities in our society, in all ways considered equal,” he said. “Believing that is one thing, but putting it into action is what makes me a feminist.”
He takes his actions seriously, saying, “I wake up every day and look in the mirror and say, ‘How can I not be a racist today? How can I not be an oppressive, misogynist jackass today?’ I have to trust that the cumulative acts of that make me a better person.’”
Max has been called a sexist by many people, with blogs and Facebook pages as well as numerous feminist websites devoted to calling him a misogynist and accusing him with promoting rape culture. Students have protested his speaking engagements on their college campuses.
“There is no depiction of rape in any of Tucker Max’s books. Nor has Tucker Max ever been accused of rape by anyone,” Sanderson said. “And I assume I don’t have to repeat that therefor there is no depiction of any rape in my play, nor would I ever be involved in any way with a play that in any way depicted rape as positive or was associated with a rapist. I cannot imagine anything more loathsome.”
Some consider the criticism of Max to be disproportionate, given the rape culture, slut shaming and misogyny that exists in numerous other aspects of culture, and many have praised Max for sharing his experiences and promoting the culture of “fratire.” I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell also features quotes from readers, one of whom wrote to Max, saying, “Thank you, thank you, thank you – for sharing with us your wonderful tales of drunken revelry, for teaching me what it means to be a man, for just existing so I know that there is another option; I too can say ‘screw the system and be myself and have fun. My life truly began when I finished reading your stories. Now, when faced with an quandry about what course of action I should take, I just ask myself, ‘What would tucker do?’ – and I do it, and I am a better man for it.”
The cover of I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell features a photo of Max with a female figure, but with the faces cut out, and a sign that says, “Your face here.” Many have interpreted this image as being sexist and implying that women are disposable to Max, but Sanderson said there are no blank faces in his cast.
“They have their own identities, and have chosen to engage in this with me. They’re not stupid, and they’re not oppressed and they’re not cattle,” he said. “They’re intelligent people, and each in their own way understand this message. More importantly, they’re doing it onstage wonderfully and making audiences laugh hard and think hard and hopefully learn.”
Inspiring discussion and education has long been a goal of Sanderson’s, who cited the audience at his Shakespeare productions, which include a homeless man and a millionaire both laughing at the same thing.
“In that laughter, they find a crucible, it becomes a moment for one,” he said. “If I can do that in some small way every night with this show, with sexuality and issues around sexuality and oppression, I will feel that I’ve been a successful artist.”
While many find laughter in Max’s stories, others find them to be glorifying immature actions taken by young men. In a letter to the website Jezebel, Sanderson wrote of the trend of “bro culture,” saying:
For whatever you think about Tucker—and much of it is true, and I agree with most of it—you must see that his books are possibly the best anthropological text we have about modern American “frat” or “bro” culture (and which perhaps passes for the dominant form of masculine culture as well, sadly). My play is an exploration of this culture that is so pervasive and dominant in America, yet so understudied and misunderstood. That exploration is not being done by members of that culture, obviously, Tucker’s book included. I believe this play can show that bro culture as it truly is—sexist, misogynist, exclusionary, but also vulnerable, sad, and ultimately doomed—and not how it is represented in beer commercials or Hollywood movies.
Sanderson, who says he is neither a scientist or a sociologist, does say he has sensed a feeling of being lost amongst young men, mentioning examples he had witnessed of young men feeling confused by social norms.
“These feelings and ideas by the media and his contemporaries who just to me seem quite bafflingly lacking in positive strong male role models,” he said.
He also said he thinks that if members of “bro culture” hope to oppress women, they are not succeeding.
“If bro culture was ever convinced that people it was oppressing just wander off and die, the answer is no. They have wonderful lives. They can entertain the hell out of you and make you laugh at your own foolishness and hopefully help you grow.”
Sanderson credits a great deal of his own growth to the time he spent serving in the Navy, saying, “I served under a lot of really great senior enlisted leaders, and the one I felt did the best job was female. We were very indoctrinated in gender equality. I was actually very encouraged to see fellow navy members change their attitudes, which I would have characterized originally as bro culture in getting through to understanding it’s about respect or equality and those things are not abstract, and they’re really important. I think what taught them the best is when these ideas were utilized consistency over time, the unit was clearly a more efficient unit…There’s no proof like proof. I’m certainly would be very happy if some people who felt somewhat directionless felt better guided toward ideas towards equality by seeing a show.”
Sanderson spoke highly of the production’s cast, saying, “The first people to discuss these issues and engage in these issues is the cast itself. And they are intelligent, educated, feminist, brilliant – every one of them are very different and come at the material from a different point of view. They are all provoked to ask questions and get into the dialogue.”
He said many of his cast’s friends are surprised by their choice to perform in the play, saying, “Their friends say, “You’re in what?” and they turn around and say, ‘I’m in this, and this is what’s going on with it.’
Sanderson also spoke highly of Max himself, saying, “I love Tucker Max. He’s not somebody who I believe should be condemned as some kind of criminal or misconstrued as some kind of Nazi. I don’t agree with all his sense of humor…in my personal interaction with Tucker, I never detected any note of malice.”
Despite the popularity and notoriety of Max’s books, Sanderson said people familiar with the work may be surprised by what they see onstage. In adapting the books for the theater, he said deciding what to spotlight recontextualizes the medium.
“I didn’t choose to give it to them as it was written,” he said. “I chose to have human beings of many different backgrounds, all of whom are artists, walk into a room and personify it in a theatrical style. We’re not condescending to the material. We’re inhabiting the material so absolutely honestly that you have to react to it right in the room. That reaction is very different than simply reading the writing.”
There was a strong response to the announcement that I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway was being performed, and Sanderson said he will welcome feedback to the show – as long as people have seen it.
“I have absolutely no time for anyone who criticizes any writing at all without having read what they have criticized. There should be room for a lot of different voices out there,” he said. “I will make space for people to protest this show – if they have seen it. If they have not seen it, then they are engaging in the exact same oppression as Puritans.
“The simple fact is, if you haven’t seen it, then the criticism is not criticism, it’s oppression. It’s an attempt at censorship. If they’ve got a ticket stub, then they’re welcome to space in the lobby. I’m here to engender discussion; I’m here to facilitate the discussion. I’m here to get everyone’s voices heard as far as they possibly can, and I will align myself with forces that do so.”
While I Hope They Serve Beer on Broadway may inspire protests, Sanderson said his ultimate goal is to inspire conversation, saying, “I really want people to laugh together at our show, and then walk away talking about issues about sexuality.”