Accepting the PEN American Center’s version of a Lifetime Achievement Award, writer Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare In Love, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead) voiced support on Tuesday night for another of the $1,250-a-plate gala’s honorees, the surviving staff of the Paris-based satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. The six-time Tony Award winner (including three for the separate parts of The Coast Of Utopia) did it sotto voce, in some contrast to the heated debate generated over the last few weeks since the award’s announcement.
“PEN exists to protect writers and writing from persecution,” Stoppard said after a tribute by Glenn Close, who starred in the original Broadway production of The Real Thing. “It doesn’t exist to protect some persecuted writers and not other persecuted writers,” he continued, to vigorous applause from the glittering literati gathered under the giant blue whale at the American Museum of Natural History. Although he never mentioned Charlie Hebdo by name — which was odd, since he began his speech by saying that the importance of PEN lies in giving all writers their names — he went on to say that the watchdog group “draws attention to persecution — that is the purpose.”
‘It’s the function of satire — being provocative and offensive — is it not?’ Charlie Hebdo Editor-in-Chief Gérard Biard
Noting the surroundings, Stoppard, whose citation is officially called the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award, concluded that “if we can’t live up to what is expected of us, we’ll be gone — we just won’t be there anymore, and if you want to find us, you’ll have to come here to the Museum of Natural History.”
The gala had been shaken up when six prominent members of the human rights group, including Francine Prose, a recent former PEN president, withdrew from the event to protest the award to a publication they view as racist. An equally impressive group, led by novelist and fatwa target Salman Rushdie, sprang to PEN’s defense, writing that “If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name.”
At the ceremony, staff and supporters spoke out strongly in support of both Charlie Hebdo and the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, noting that “in paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
Addressing the group with unveiled emotion, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard, took on the publication’s critics. “It’s the function of satire, being provocative and offensive, is it not? We even were portrayed as racists, although Charlie Hebdo has always fought all forms of racism since the very beginning.” To more applause, he called on “each city of the world” to take a stand “against political and religious obscurantism.”