Shakespeare occupies a unique place in educational circles. Even though he is a dead white male (406 years ago, if you’re keeping score), his plays are so embedded in western culture, it is impossible to ban him from the curriculum.
High school English students are doubtless made aware of the fact that in Shakespeare’s day, women did not appear on stage and that male actors took on the female roles. Much like the phrase “Islam is right about women,” Shakespeare is a vehicle for woke cognitive dissonance, as the Elizabethan theater was a feminist nightmare but also a trans paradise!
Mistaken identity and cross-dressing are recurring themes in comedy; it was true in Shakespeare’s day (e.g., The Twelfth Night and As You Like It), and it was true up till recent years when gender-bending transitioned from farcical to political. One wonders how many tedious term papers are written today about gender fluidity in Shakespeare’s plays.
I’m no Shakespeare scholar, but I’ve always maintained that if you want to understand his plays, it is imperative to have a grasp of the Elizabethan ethos. If the play takes place in Denmark circa 1200 A.D. (as does Hamlet), it wouldn’t hurt to have at least a cursory concept of what life was like in that time and place.
Ethnic inaccuracy (referred to as non-traditional casting) has long been evident in performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Within the past year, Macbeth and Macduff were both black (Denzel Washington and Corey Hawkins) in Joel Coen’s film adaptation last year and no one noticed, or should I say everyone pretended not to notice. Of course, if a Scotsman were cast as Othello, there would be hell to pay.
Total ethnic transformation, however, is something else altogether. Famously, Orson Welles once staged an all-black Macbeth with a Haiti-like island standing in for Scotland and voodoo subbing for witchcraft. The play was effectively usurped, and it became more about the director than the playwright. Welles did this at age 20 way back in 1936.
If Welles was looking to attract attention, it worked. He became the boy wonder of Broadway and, a few years later, of Hollywood. His efforts were subsidized by the Federal Theater Project, an offshoot of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Project Administration. Notably, when Welles filmed Macbeth in 1948, the production was in line with the original story. By then Welles was no longer a boy wonder. It was difficult enough for him to persuade B-movie studio Republic Pictures to finance a traditional Macbeth. A cinema version of his Voodoo Macbeth had no chance.
The usual excuse for tinkering with Shakespeare today is that his plays must be made relevant to contemporary audiences. In essence, they are saying that the play has value only in reference to contemporary issues. Actually, audiences will more than likely find parallels between Shakespeare’s characters and contemporary political figures. Lady Macbeth might remind you of Hillary Clinton; King Lear might evoke Joe Biden, and Donald Trump might be reminiscent of Julius Caesar (in 2017 a New York Shakespeare in the Park production took pains to cast a Trump lookalike in the title role). There’s no need for a theater director to rub your nose in it, but they can’t help themselves.
Theater is a particularly noxious medium due to the power of directors, who can take a crowbar to Shakespeare or any other playwright with impunity. Contrast this with attending an exhibition at your local museum. If you go to art exhibits, you might notice that curators sometimes insert woke themes into the placards or digital playback devices that accompany the exhibits. But they cannot alter the original paintings…not if they want to keep on being curators. Unfortunately, this is not the case with theater.
It is a rare director today who can stage a Shakespeare play with fidelity to the material. The Bard has long been victimized by corruption. In fact, the first time I ever saw a Shakespeare play (I think it was 1966), the director, for whatever reason, decided to stage Hamlet during the Regency Period (the Jane Austen era). I also remember a local Shakespeare festival when the director decided that it would be cool to transform the thanes of Macbeth to Texas cattle barons. The cinema has given us Joe MacBeth (1955), a gangster movie, and Throne of Blood (1957), in which Akira Kurosawa subs feudal Japan for 11th Century Scotland. No stigma attached to cultural appropriation in those days.
Then there are the various versions of Macbeth done in the nude. That’s right, Scotland, with damp, drafty castles, and overcast, chilly heaths at a latitude roughly equivalent to Moscow and Anchorage, Alaska. Can’t think of a better clothing optional environment. Prithee, which way to the hot tub, m’lord?
If critics take nude Macbeth seriously, what would they consider a bridge too far? Hell, I suppose you could do Shakespeare with a wheelchair-bound cast. Did wheelchairs exist in Shakespeare’s day? I don’t know, but if you ask that question, you’ll out yourself as a philistine. Don’t you know our director is a visionary? All must kneel!
On occasion there are attempts to perform Shakespeare as it was done at the Globe Theater in the Elizabethan era. Recreations of the Globe have appeared in such unlikely locales as San Diego and Odessa, Texas. Even so, one wonders if any productions at these venues have been done old school with all-male casts? If so, I suspect it would not be praised as an authentic recreation but as another example of male oppression. (There is a trend afoot to banish the word “actress” and to use “actor” to refer to all people who act; the potential for confusion is obvious.)
Casting actresses in male roles goes back at least as far as Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet in the 19th Century. But would it be possible to stage Hamlet with women exclusively? It is not only possible, it is a fact. Shakespeare Dallas has just done it! If any local actors (or should I say actors who identify as male) are displeased with this, they are savvy enough to keep their mouths shut. Raphael Parry, the Executive Director of Shakespeare Dallas, has described it as “an exciting step.” You see, it “provides much more access to the incredibly talented performers in our community, who are not traditionally offered these roles due to their gender representation.” In other words, there’s no such thing as miscasting. In truth, a little Googling will establish that all-female Shakespeare productions are nothing new. Dallasites would be loath to admit it, but they are typically trend-followers, not trend-setters.
Christie Vela, the director of the Hamlet clambake, once pondered an all-female version of 12 Angry Men, a classic teleplay/screenplay by Reginald Rose. Given her enthusiasm for flipping genders, I guess she would also deem it acceptable – nay, laudable! – to stage The Women, Clare Booth Luce’s classic 1936 comedy of manners, with an all-male cast. The cast of characters includes 33 roles, and not one of them is earmarked for an actor who identifies as male.
Well, it would be a courageous director indeed who tried to gender-bend that play. The protests outside the theater would likely exhibit more emoting than anything that took place on stage. One could justify the all-male cast as an attempt to stage The Women as it might have been done in Shakespeare’s day. Hell, you could even put them in Elizabethan costumes. Talk about drama queens!
Today they call this sort of thing re-imagining. In fact, it’s all the rage! But some re-imaginings are more equal than others. Replacing 33 actors who identify as women with 33 actors who identify as men is absolutely anathema. Why? Well, for starters, it exacerbates the wage gap! Remember the old Chinese maxim that a journey of 1,000 miles begins by following the money.
Finances aside, it is politically acceptable to displace men at every opportunity but never women. In truth, there’s very little chance that women will be replaced in the art world. That’s because the art establishment is an old girls network. It doesn’t take too much research to verify that assertion.
ACTX (Arts and Culture Texas) is a regional publication that keeps me informed of all the lively arts functions in the State of Texas. While I appreciate the information on museum exhibits involving old masters, I can’t help but note that all the articles on contemporary arts involve feminism or some other form of wokeness in one medium or another. The current issue, for example, includes “New and Rediscovered Voices: Dallas Symphony Orchestra Celebrates Women in Fall Concerts,” and “Loud and Clear: Vignette Art Fair Amplifies Women’s Voices.” Not surprisingly, closer scrutiny of these and other articles reveals a predominance of female directors, editors, supervisors, and curators.
If you are a heterosexual male with artistic ambitions, seldom is heard an encouraging word. Of course, the young artist can always meekly submit to the establishment, yet it is undeniable that the highest levels of artistic achievement are almost exclusively male, and they didn’t get there by going along to get along. Swimming upstream is almost always part and parcel of greatness.
I’m guessing that the overwhelming majority of readers of this web site do not attend plays or go to art galleries. When theaters and galleries shut down for the Covid pandemic, it probably affected you not a whit. To wit: The aforementioned ACTX publication contained an article entitled “The Difficult Past and Hopeful Future of Latinx Theater in Dallas.”
Of the 1,325,691 people in Dallas, 36.8% are Hispanic. That works out to 487,854 people – certainly enough to support a Spanish-language theater if they were interested in doing so. Yet I have no doubt that my Mexican-American neighbors would be surprised to learn that Latinx Theater is a thing. I would be even more surprised if they cared. In fact, Latinx Theater is about as irrelevant to local Latinos as contemporary English-language theater is to the local Anglos.
As the article makes clear, it is difficult it is to secure funding for Spanish language theater productions. As with the Anglo theater groups, they must be subsidized. When arts groups need to be subsidized, the elites step up to the plate. Thus the elites dictate what the people can see. This system empowers not the Latinos, very few of whom will ever show up for live theaters, but the elites and the artists they elect to support. Playwrights whose works would never find an audience go to the head of the line, as do directors mining classic plays for woke nuggets.
In truth, the lively arts are on life support; without grants from local arts groups, subsidies from corporations, and donations from NGO’s, they would disappear. Good riddance, one might say. But it doesn’t have to boil down to woke arts or no arts all.
In mainstream commerce, where corporations are bowing down to the DEI manifesto, an alternative economy is stirring. It takes a little research, but one can indeed find wireless carriers, banks, and assorted businesses that don’t care about being on the right side of history.
In the arts world, the solution is for men to turn away from the arts establishment and run their own arts groups. Of course, they will never get any grants, but they can operate in total freedom. If they can generate enough revenue through sales, then the establishment’s disapproval is irrelevant…unless the FBI declares them domestic terrorists. A few years ago that would have sounded far-fetched. Not anymore.
The get woke/go broke maxim is most evident in the cinema. Even though movie studio accounting is often described as more “creative” than the films they track, producers can’t help but notice all the red ink. Movies are not subsidized; they have to pay their own way. Above and beyond production costs, there are post-production costs of duplication and distribution. With some movies, marketing costs more than the production budget.
In August, Batgirl, a $90 million production, was deemed a turkey and shelved. To release and promote it would have been throwing good money after bad. It made more sense for Warner Brothers to write it off and get a tax break than to release it.
In a movie theater if nobody shows up for a scheduled showing, the film is not shown (those projector lamps are expensive). In live theater, the show must go on even if no one shows up. Under the laws of economics, that should mean the show would close quickly. If the show is subsidized, however, it can playout its scheduled run.
Of course, this was not the case in Shakespeare’s day. If the public paid to see your plays, all well and good; you lived to write another play; if not, Queen Elizabeth would not open the royal coffers to underwrite your deathless dialogue.
Totally ignoring art is a bit like going MGTOW. Given the contemporary situation, it makes perfect sense in the short run, but in the long run, it is self-destructive. Has there ever been a culture in world history without arts? Art is fundamental to culture, right up there with language, religion, folkways, and cuisine. Men should not just be involved in culture, they should be running the show.
Well, enough blue-sky thinking. What will the woke aesthetes despoil next? How about The Taming of the Shrew? Like The Merchant of Venice, this play has always been problematical for progressives. Trigger warnings and contextual prefaces are a must. How about re-imaging Kate the shrew as male and her suitor Petruchio as female?
Oh, wait…this just in. the Royal Shakespeare Company has already done this. They’re way ahead of me.
Guess that’s why they’re called progressives.