‘The Elephant Song:’ Breening a Modern Play

By Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan
Tiffany Brannan is a 21-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, interviewer, copywriter, fashion historian, travel writer, and vintage lifestyle enthusiast. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.
February 6, 2023Updated: March 14, 2023


If you’ve read my articles before, you’re probably familiar with the term “to breen.” This made-up verb, coined by “Variety” back in the 1930s, is the Old Hollywood version of bowdlerization. Named after Joseph I. Breen, it’s the process of applying the Motion Picture Production Code to film stories and scripts to render them acceptable for audiences of all ages, which was done by the Production Code Administration (PCA) starting in 1934. From the PCA’s formation in 1934 until his retirement in 1954, Joe Breen was head man at the PCA and had the last word in Code-enforcement, hence the term in his honor. To illustrate the huge influence the Code had in making classic films the masterpieces they are, I’ve analyzed how “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1951) and “Casablanca” (1942) differed from their source material because of the PCA’s influence, letting my readers choose whether “To Breen or Not To Breen.”

I recently performed in a reading of a modern play by a local community theater—not acting but singing a single opera aria, Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro” from “Gianni Schicchi.” When I was recommended by a fellow operatic soprano, I hastily agreed to do the show because it was nearby and sounded fun, not taking the time to thoroughly research the play, “The Elephant Song.” This 2002 Canadian play by Nicolas Billon has been performed worldwide and was adapted into a film in 2014.

Epoch Times Photo
Publicity still from the film “Elephant Song.” (MovieStillsDB)

It’s a one-act play, and the story takes place in a single room in one continuous scene. There are only three onstage characters, and most of the action takes place through dialogue, making this a perfect choice for a reading. In fact, it was first presented as a reading in Montreal.

Although there were three performances, the first two of which were meagerly attended, I didn’t want my parents and sister to see the show. I wanted them to hear me sing, but I knew that they would share my aversion to the play’s profanity and questionable scenarios. We agreed it was a shame, because the play has a fascinating scenario and was very well-acted by talented performers. However, the objectionable content, much of which was superfluous and totally unnecessary, made me ashamed to invite friends and family to the show. As I sat in a dark 4×4 closet for two hours, waiting for my cue to sing a two-minute aria, I contemplated how “The Elephant Song” would have been different as a Code film.

Epoch Times Photo
Opera singer Tiffany Brannan performs in the play “The Elephant Song.” (Courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

A Strange Story

The story takes place on Christmas Eve at a mental institution. Dr. Irwin Greenberg, the hospital director, is investigating the disappearance of psychiatrist James Lawrence the day before. He asks Nurse Peterson to bring a patient named Michael into Dr. Lawrence’s office for questioning, since the 23-year-old is the last person to have seen Dr. Lawrence. The nurse warns him to watch out for the clever patient’s mind games. Within the first minutes of their conversation, Michael proves three things: He is highly intelligent, he refuses to be cooperative, and he is obsessed with elephants. He tells a series of stories about what happened to Dr. Lawrence as Dr. Greenberg grows increasingly frustrated, but it becomes clear that Michael’s twisted stories aren’t lunatic ravings but a methodical plan.

First, Michael says he strangled Dr. Lawrence. Then, he declares that he and Dr. Lawrence were having a torrid sodomitic affair. After that, he shows Greenberg nude pictures of himself at age fifteen which are in one of Lawrence’s desk drawers, implying that the doctor is a pedophile. Although Greenberg insists he doesn’t believe Michael, he is pretty upset by the time the police’s arrival calls him away. Meanwhile, Michael confesses to Nurse Peterson that he has been playing games with Greenberg to teach him a lesson for being arrogant.

When Greenberg returns, Michael admits that Lawrence left a note. He agrees to give Greenberg the note and the truth in exchange for chocolates in Dr. Lawrence’s drawer. Michael confesses that there never was anything serious between him and his therapist, although the younger man wanted there to be. He readily admits that Lawrence is his father figure, describes the only time he met his father, at age eight, when he killed an elephant in front of him on a safari. Back home, his mother, a famous opera singer, was too concerned with her career to care about Michael, sending him to boarding schools. When he was fifteen, he found her after she overdosed on pills, but he let her die instead of calling for help when her only words were about her singing failures. The note explains that Dr. Lawrence left because his sister had a stroke. Michael gets his chocolates, and Peterson rushes in just as he goes into anaphylactic shock because he is allergic to the nuts in them. He dies, as he planned, having heard Lawrence cry over the phone because he ate the chocolates.

Code Film Material?

If a studio sent “The Elephant Song” to the PCA as an idea for a film, the self-regulators would have cautioned them against making it—but had the filmmakers persevered, knowing all the difficulties, they would have helped them clean it up. Naturally, the foul language, profane speech, and vulgar expressions would have to be removed or changed. This would be a simple matter of scripting, since most of it is completely extraneous. Some plot points, however, are in direct violation of the Code and would have had to be changed during breening.

Epoch Times Photo
Actor Xavier Dolan, who plays the character Michael, attends the “Elephant Song” premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at Isabel Bader Theatre in Toronto, Canada, on Sept. 10, 2014. (Jonathan Leibson/Getty Images)

The biggest problem is the implication of perversion surrounding Michael’s character. Although he eventually admits that nothing actually happened between him and Dr. Lawrence, he says they were in love with each other, albeit platonically in the psychiatrist’s case, and admits that he wanted more. The potential tenderness in this situation of a young man who is desperate for love in any form is destroyed by the situation’s vulgarity. This situation could be easily remedied by changing Dr. Lawrence into a female psychiatrist, perhaps named Jane Lawrence. In the original play, he admits that he’s been looking for a father figure, but it would make more sense for him to be seeking a mother figure to replace his cold mother. Thus, it would be very effective to have the only person for whom he cares be the first woman who has shown him maternal kindness. It would then make sense that he feels hostile toward Dr. Greenberg because he represents paternal authority, which Michael associates with heartless aggression.

Although making Dr. Lawrence a woman removes the perversion, it doesn’t fix all the problems with the situation. The suggestion that Michael is having an affair with his psychiatrist would have to be handled delicately. He couldn’t declare his initial lie that they were lovers or his wish that they had been. Instead, he could refer to “what happened” between them, using that brilliant Code dialogue technique of not really saying anything but conveying clear messages between the lines with pauses and meaningful looks. He should still later admit that there never was anything between them, although he could say that they loved each other. He could say that Dr. Lawrence said she would never agree to marry him even if he were released from the mental institution, since she couldn’t cross the line of patient and physician. The nude photographs should be changed to compromising love letters, which Michael says he exchanged with Jane but which are actually diary entries he wrote himself, fantasizing about a romance, which he shared with her during his therapy.

Greatness, Choked by Weeds

Breening a movie is like weeding a garden. By getting the bad, parasitic growths out, the good things can flourish. However, if you allow the vulgar, indecent elements to remain in a film, they will take strength away from the important points of the story, just as weeds choke out the flowers.

Epoch Times Photo
The set of the modern play “The Elephant Song.” (Courtesy of Tiffany Brannan)

The plot for “The Elephant Song” certainly doesn’t sound like the basis of a Code film. A movie with even a fraction of its objections would never have been given a PCA Seal of Approval. However, many plays and novels with similar issues were made into decent, Code-compliant films. I can imagine this, hypothetically, as a late 1940s film, perhaps directed by Joseph Mankiewicz or even Alfred Hitchcock. A sensitive, troubled actor like Robert Walker would have been perfect as the tormented but clever Michael.

Being in “The Elephant Song” was a unique, interesting opportunity and a learning experience. Sitting in that dark closet for two hours gave me not only a chance to practice keeping my voice warm without making noise and the time to write a few articles with a pen and pad—it also gave me a vivid example of how the Code saved many stories. Breening could have made this a touching, poignant story which focused on the spiritual struggles of this man instead of being bogged down in the filthy mire which writers feel is necessary to include. In so doing, this play lost many viewers, who could have truly appreciated its message about the importance of loving your children, which is a real shame.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.