Our “canon” has deliberately shut out women and people of color for a great many generations. Until fairly recently in western history, it was very difficult for women and people of color to become playwrights (lack of access to education being a significant bar), and for those who were playwrights, it was very difficult to get produced outside of certain theatres. Even if produced, the work of women and people of color was rarely considered “important” or “universal” enough to be included in the kinds of awards, articles, books, and university courses that created what we consider to be the “canon.” Plays that were considered “universal” reflected specifically white and male points of view; plays that differed from that were considered specific to a cultural subgroup rather than “universal” in the vast majority of cases. Even today, most works in a traditional survey course are written by white men while “Black theatre” is its own category, often represented by a single play. In my undergrad education, that play was the short piece “Dutchman” by Amiri Baraka– we didn’t even read a full-length play. “Asian Theatre,” “Chicano Theatre,” and “Feminist Theatre” are still often brief mentions as classes move directly to more important, “mainstream” writers such as Sam Shepard and David Mamet, with Caryl Churchill the lone female voice in an otherwise very male reading list.
Scholars and theatremakers have begun the process of interrogating the formation of the canon, as well as reframing the works we consider “canonical” within their specific sociohistorical context rather than continuing to pretend these works are “universal.” This is vital work.
You only get answers to the questions you ask. Scholars and theatremakers are asking new questions about “canonical” works and the formation of the “canon.”
When we stage canonical work, we have two choices. The first is what is mistakenly referred to as the “purist” approach. This approach holds that works should be preserved untouched, performed precisely as they were first performed. There’s some educational value in performing work in historically accurate ways– at least as far as we can reconstruct that level of accuracy. Those who advocate for this approach believe they are defending the “playwright’s intent,” which means they somehow believe that their interpretation of the “playwright’s intent” is the only accurate one. These people are, in my experience, overwhelmingly white and male, and, as such, have been taught from birth that their experience of the world is universal, and their interpretation of the world and its processes and symbols is “correct,” so it’s not entirely surprising that they believe they are the only ones who understand the “playwright’s intent” and can therefore separate what is a reasonable interpretation of a work from page to stage from what is a “desecration.”
There are many problems with the purist approach. First of all, no one knows the playwright’s intent if the playwright, as is the case with most canonical plays, is dead. Even if the playwright wrote a 47-paragraph screed entitled “Here Is My Intent: Waver Not Lest Ye Be Tormented By My Restless Spirit,” no one knows what the playwright’s intent would be if he had knowledge of the cultural changes that occurred after he died. The audience for whom he wrote the play– the culture that understood the references, the jokes, the unspoken inferences; the culture that understood the underlying messages and themes; the culture to whom the playwright wished to speak– is gone, and modern audiences will interpret the play according to their own cultural context. Slang terms change meaning in months; using a 400-year old punchline that uses a slang term 90% of the audience has never heard seems closer to vandalizing the playwright’s intent than preserving it. Would Tennessee Williams or William Shakespeare, masters of dialogue, insist that a line using a racial slur now considered horrific still works the way he intended? Still builds the character the way he intended? It seems dubious at best, yet this is the purist’s logic. The playwright’s intent on the day the play was written, the logic goes, could not ever possibly change.
It’s important to continue to study these works unchanged. We must not forget or attempt to rehabilitate our past. But to claim that lines written decades or even centuries in the past can still work the way the playwright originally intended is absurd.
We have begun to understand that the “canon” and its almost exclusively white male point of view is not “universal,” but is a depiction of the cultural dominance of a certain type of person and a certain way of thought. We have begun to re-evaluate those works and the “canon” as a whole as part of a larger historical narrative. This is why it is of great artistic interest to stage “canonical” work in conversation with the current cultural context.
When staging, for example, The Glass Menagerie in 2017, one must consider the current moment, the current audience. We can choose to present the work precisely as it was presented in 1944 as a way to experience a bygone era, or we can present the work in conversation with its canonical status, in conversation with our own time, in conversation with the distance between its era and our own, in conversation with the distance between the playwright’s intent and the impossibility of achieving that intent with a modern audience, simply due to the fact that too much time has passed for the original symbols, context, and themes to work the same way they once did.
What does The Glass Menagerie— or any canonical work– mean to an audience in 2017? What can it mean? What secrets can be unlocked in the work by allowing it to be interpreted and viewed from diverse perspectives? What can we learn about the work? About the canon? About the writer? About ourselves?
The meaning of any piece of art is not static. Whether the piece of art is a sculpture created in 423 BCE or a play written yesterday, the meaning of any piece of art is created in the mind of the person beholding it in the moment of beholding. The meaning of each piece changes with each viewing, just as the meaning of what we say is created in large part by the person to whom we’re saying it, which is why we can say “Meet me by the thing where we went that time” to your best friend but need to say “Meet me at the statue across from the red building on the 800 block of Dunstan” to an acquaintance. To insist that there is one “correct” meaning– always as determined by a white male– is to deny the entire purpose and function of art. You cannot create a “purist” interpretation without the play’s original audience in attendance. The closest you can come is a historical staging a modern audience views as if through a window, wondering how historical audiences might have reacted, or marveling at the words and situations historical audiences found shocking– or did not. How many audiences in 2017 understand Taming of the Shrew as a parodic response to the popularity of shrew-taming pieces? Shakespeare’s audience is gone and the cultural moment to which he was responding is gone, so the possibility of a “purist” staging is also gone.
This is 2017. Our audiences live in 2017. It’s insulting to them to present a play written generations in the past as if nothing about our culture has changed since then, as if a work of genius gave up every secret it had to give with the original staging, as if art has nothing whatsoever to do with the audience viewing it.
We know better. Art lives in our hearts and minds, whether those hearts and minds are white and male or not.
I keep running across white women saying things like, “I’m never seeing any film or play that doesn’t pass the Bechdel test ever again!”
This statement epitomizes the problem with white feminism.
First, a quick definition of the Bechdel test, invented by amazing writer and comic artist Alison Bechdel, known for the long-running comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For and her memoir Fun Home, which she turned into a Tony Award-winning musical. Just in case you weren’t already convinced she’s a genius (and I have been since the old DTWOF days), she was a 2014 recipient of the MacArthur “genius” grant.
The “Bechdel test” is a metric she created in 1985 in a DTWOF strip to evaluate female representation in films. In order to pass the Bechdel test, a film must have two female characters who have at least one conversation that is not about men. It sounds surprisingly basic, yet the vast preponderance of films cannot pass the Bechdel test.
The Bechdel test becomes tricky when applied to theatre. For example, it immediately eliminates all solo performance and all male/male and male/female two-handers, regardless of content.
And this is exactly my issue with the Bechdel test being used as a basic metric of acceptability in theatre– it ignores both content and context. It ignores intersectionality.
Let’s take two examples. The first play, written by a middle-aged white man, is about four wealthy white women discussing their problems and lives while at various brunches in upscale New York eateries. The main topics of conversation are their wealth and whether the sacrifices they made to obtain that wealth were worth it. The central narrative is one character revealing she has lost most of her money and must now live outside Manhattan. This play neatly passes the Bechdel test.
The second play, written and performed by four young Black men, is about their experiences growing up in Oakland. The main topics of conversation are police violence and racism. The central narrative is the loss of their friend, murdered by police while unarmed, driving home from work at a local elementary school, the same school where all five friends met. This play does not pass the Bechdel test.
If the goal of metrics like the Bechdel test are to hold artists accountable for the work we create, insisting on work that resists cultural marginalization and works for inclusion, the Bechdel test is not enough. It is not enough to fight for the inclusion of women and ONLY the inclusion of women. Insisting that a play about privileged white women is so deeply, intrinsically superior to a play about Black men that we can issue a test to “prove” it is counterproductive to every diversity goal we have. We’re issuing a test that by design marginalizes men of color.
We need work that passes the Bechdel test, and we need it badly. But we cannot use that test as a metric for the acceptability of all work.
We live in an intersectional world, and issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion must be addressed intersectionally. Yes,we must fight for the inclusion of women in our narratives, but we must also fight for the inclusion of other marginalized groups. When we refuse to do so– when we announce that all plays must pass the Bechdel test in order to be acceptable, as I have seen so many white women do– we fail. We become “white feminists,” content with centering ourselves while ignoring other marginalized groups.
To state that you will never see a play that does not pass the Bechdel test is to state that Crimes of the Heart, In the Boom Boom Room, and Five Women Wearing the Same Dress are intrinsically important and worthwhile, while Topdog/Underdog, The Mountaintop, The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, The Year Zero, Mambo Mouth, and Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 are not worth seeing.
The Bechdel test even fails at what it was purportedly designed to do. Many films steeped in misogyny pass. “Lesbian” pornography made for male consumption passes. Most Disney princess films pass. The Bechdel test, I have to believe, was never meant to be an iron-clad metric.
I don’t know Alison Bechdel, but I consider the Bechdel test excellent social commentary, not a call to action. It’s meant as criticism, to make a point about how few films have female characters with objectives of their own. It’s meant to point out how few films present women as human beings rather than as events in the lives of men.
We cannot use the Bechdel test as the sole metric for acceptability. The examination of our work and its resistance to, and participation in, systems of oppression is a complex process, not a three-point test.
Even issuing a test is a classic white gatekeeping maneuver. White liberals are always looking for clear-cut guidelines to make us instantly “not racist” or “not sexist,” and we excel at creating oversimplified litmus tests that prove we are the Most Woke and everyone else is Doing It Wrong.
You can’t fill out a form with your credentials (“voted for Obama,” “watched Jessica Jones,” “smiled hard at Black guy on the street”), mail it in with a self-addressed stamped envelope to the Women’s Studies department at Howard and then just wait for your NOT RACIST OR SEXIST certificate to roll in. There’s no “Woke White Person” checklist.
There’s no test.
Fighting for diversity and equity in theatre is a complex, multifaceted process that involves the stories we tell and how we tell them, including who tells those stories and who’s in our audiences, who are the decision-makers and gatekeepers, where the funding comes from, and so much more. As tempting as it is to get a definitive ruling on what is “resistance theatre” and what is “collaboration theatre,” that fact remains that each piece of theatre we make will have facets of resistance and facets of collaboration, and all we can do is commit to the process of examining our decisions in both the work we make and the work we consume as thoroughly and realistically as possible. It’s never going to be as simple as only going to shows with The Gold Star of Bechdel next to their titles. Fighting systems of oppression requires more of us, much more.
Commit to the process. Continue to love the Bechdel test for what it is– an eye-opening way to examine narrative that sometimes works and sometimes does not, but can be an effective tool when used correctly. It was one moment of genius in a long career of genius moments for Alison Bechdel, but cannot be– and was never meant to be– the sole, definitive arbiter of acceptable work.
In the mid-60s, Jan Kott wrote a truly horrible book called Shakespeare, Our Contemporary, in which he analyzes Shakespeare’s plays according to his specific point of view as a white European male who hasn’t quite grasped the humanity of the women and people of color around him, although, at the time, we just called that “Shakespeare criticism.”
When discussing the character Desdemona, a character whose complete faithfulness to her husband is the primary narrative linchpin of the play, Kott says, “Desdemona is faithful, but must have something of a slut in her.” He says that she must be a slut “in potentia” if not “in actua” because so many men desire her– because she inspired erotic imaginings in the men around her. SO SHE IS THE SLUT.
And while this kind of “my white male imagination tells me so” Shakespeare “analysis” we’re used to getting from the likes of mid-century scholars like Kott (and Harold Bloom, and so many others whose “analysis” of Shakespeare’s female characters is 100% flights of fancy) it stood out to me, even as a teenager when I first encountered this nonsensical “analysis.” It stood out to me that THIS IS AN ADMIRED BOOK OF SHAKESPEARE CRITICISM. This was the first moment I realized that the world of academia was going to be an uphill battle for me as a woman.
This moment– seeing a respected book of lit crit describe male desire for a woman who never sought nor wished for that desire as HER OWN FAULT for somehow being a “slut” “in potentia”– has come to mind again and again this election cycle.
Millions of our tax dollars have been poured out in a desperate attempt to pin something, ANYTHING, on Hillary Clinton. Nothing illegal has ever been found. Every investigation has exonerated her, and the Clinton Foundation is one of the highest-rated on every nonpartisan site that monitors charities. Obviously false scandals have been created by alt-right (and regular right) propagandists, and they’re shared around the internet as if they make sense. Scandal after scandal have been manufactured and debunked. Hillary haters are the hydra of American politics– chop off one false scandal and two grow back. There’s a never-ending supply of false scandals, and the factual evidence debunking them is dismissed as “irrelevant” or “bought and paid for.” As if the Clintons have an unlimited supply of money– oh, wait, according to the Hillary haters, THEY DO, thanks to Jewish bankers and the Evil Jewish Scrotillionaire Necromancer Lich Demon George Soros.
Hillary haters are forced, in the face of all the evidence exonerating her, to claim that the lack of evidence is the evidence. What is she hiding? It must be something! LOOK AT ALL THESE SCANDALS. Anyone who points to the facts is “bought and paid for” with all Clinton’s Jewish banker money, something I’ve been accused of myself multiple times. (I only wish someone was paying me to blog.)
And so we come back to Desdemona. SHE MUST BE SOME KIND OF SLUT. LOOK AT ALL THESE MEN LUSTING AFTER HER, reasons Jan Kott. EVEN IF SHE’S FAITHFUL TO HER HUSBAND, he continues, SHE’S STILL A SLUT, OTHERWISE WHY WOULD OTHELLO BELIEVE IAGO? Why indeed.
Kott blames Desdemona for the scandalous thoughts men have about her, and we blame Clinton for the scandalous thoughts we have about her.
“She’s too heaped in scandal,” “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” “There must be SOMETHING there,” “She’s clearly corrupt,” “One of the most corrupt politicians ever.” We dressed her in this outfit against her will, then condemned her for it.
Kott goes on:
Othello does not have to kill Desdemona. The play would be more cruel, if, in that final and decisive moment, he just left her. . . . Othello kills Desdemona in order to save the moral order, to restore love and faith. He kills Desdemona to be able to forgive her; so that the accounts be settled and the world returned to its equilibrium. Othello does not mumble any more. He desperately wants to save the meaning of life, of his life, perhaps even the meaning of the world. (123)
Kott– a respected Shakespearean critic– writes that killing a woman falsely heaped with scandal is the only way to “restore love and faith” and “the meaning of the world.” That men must use women as scapegoats for their own dark desires and imaginings and then kill them to restore order. Only dead can women be forgiven for “making” men have dark desires. This, again and again, returns to my mind as I see so many respected people– elected officials– calling for the murder of this woman who has borne the brunt of their imagined scandals, the congealed crust of hate and fear of powerful, independent, outspoken women.
And now I type the requisite sentences, the ones demanded of everyone who writes about Hillary Clinton and no other politician, ever: Do I agree with her every decision? No.
But we cannot productively discuss what kind of president she will be (and she will be president) in reality while we continue to make her the scapegoated center of 1000 false scandals. We cannot have productive discussions about foreign policy or ed policy– two areas we really need to be discussing right now– while the country is embroiled in a non-scandal about emails, or an alt-right created one about sex (take your pick).
Jan Kott is still taught. And respected newspapers are still running stories about Hillary’s emails, and the entire GOP is participating in a false story about voter fraud and a “rigged” election. The question is: Are we going to continue the Kott-like misogynistic scapegoating of this woman, or are we going to get to work on the actual issues?
And by “my book is out,” I mean Caridad Svich‘s book is out. The ever-brilliant (srsly) Svich has released a collection of essays for TCG entitled Audience (R)Evolution: Dispatches from the Field. In addition to one by yours truly called “The Lies We Tell About Audience Engagement,” it contains essays by Larissa Fasthorse, Richard Montoya, Itamar Moses, Jules Odendahl-James, Sylvan Oswald, Bill Rauch, Lisa D’Amour, Roberto G. Varea, Callie Kimball, Carlton Turner, and Svich herself, among many others.
Order your copy here!
After the release of her game-changing, brilliant video, Formation, and the stir her Superbowl halftime show caused with dancers dressed like Black Panthers, Beyoncé is blowing up everyone’s feeds everywhere. And one thing I am shocked/notshocked to see is white outrage about both.
Let me begin by saying that I’m not a Beyoncé fan. I’m not a fan of any of the pop divas. I don’t have anything against them; it’s just not music that interests me. So Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Madonna, Mariah, Adele, I apologize, but I’m sure you and your massive success could not possibly care less that I would rather be listening to punk or classical. The only reason I’m pointing this out is to make sure you know I’m not a Beyoncé fan. This is not about defending a beloved star.
Let me tell you what it IS about.
The vast majority of Black people in the US are descended from people who were dragged here against their will and forced to live in a culture that shut them out completely from mainstream artistic production for 400 years. For 400 years, Black people were living in a culture where their pain, their culture, and their art were appropriated and sanitized for white consumption, or, more often, shut out of the narrative entirely, replaced by racist caricatures or rendered invisible. For 400 years, the stories of Black people on this continent were untold, belittled, or made the tools of white narrative and white profit.
Now we’re in a cultural moment where there are powerful, mainstream Black artists telling Black stories that may or may not include white people, may tell uncomfortable truths about white people in Black lives, or may use white people as metaphors. For 400 years Black people were used as metaphors in white art, so my sympathy for “not all white people” and “that’s not fair” is somewhere at the bottom of a pile of Magical Negroes, Gone with the Wind, and token Black friends.
In this cultural moment where powerful, mainstream Black artists like Beyoncé are telling their stories on their own terms, the white people who controlled the narrative– including how and when Black stories have been told– for the past 400 years need to sit back, shut up, and listen, listen, listen. You don’t like how white people are being portrayed? Spend some time thinking about why Black artists are portraying white people that way instead of demanding they adjust their stories to conform to your self-image as “the good guy.” We are not the heroes in these stories. We are not the intended audience. We are irrelevant, and there’s nothing people in power hate more than to be made irrelevant, but the fact remains that these are Black stories, by, for, and about Black people. You don’t like it? Don’t watch. But I recommend that you do, and give it some real thought. This is their truth. You do not get to dictate how Black artists see or portray their own lives.
The line of riot police surrendering to the power of a beautiful dancing child is not “anti-white” or “anti-police.” It is pro-hope, pro-life, pro-art, and pro-Black. If you don’t like the metaphor of the line of white police officers here, I suggest you spend some time thinking about why Beyoncé chose it.
The Formation video and the Superbowl show are examples of a powerful Black woman at the top of her game brilliantly telling Black stories for Black people, brilliantly seizing the narrative and asserting the beauty, power, and truth of a people who have been stringently and deliberately silenced for centuries in this country.
The call for Black women to get in formation, get information, and celebrate their power gave me chills. You hear a lot about “Black excellence,” and Formation is a potent reminder that Black excellence isn’t something created by white people congratulating themselves for bending down to hand out opportunities. Too many of us define “white ally” as “someone who is desperately needed by Black people to help them, and therefore deserves all the cookies.” Black excellence is already there, has always been there. It doesn’t need white validation, and the lack of fucks Beyoncé has for white validation from the center of her Black power is giving some white people fits.
Beyoncé, I hope you’re bathing in a marble tub full of white tears this morning.
My fellow white people: Listen. Listen. Listen. This is a Black moment, rarer than rare in this culture. If you don’t like the way Black artists portray white people, work on changing the impact of white people in Black lives, not on telling Black people they’re wrong about their own lives.
SIGNAL BOOST: “We Slay, Part I” by New South Negress is an excellent analysis of Formation.
IN ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTIONS:
There has been some fiery controversy around Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s announcement that they’re commissioning “translations” of all 39 Shakespeare plays into “modern English.” It was the rollout that launched a thousand screams of condemnation.
People were either condemning the idea that Shakespeare needed “translating” at all, or condemning the people who were protesting the “translations.” It was either “This is the death of art” or “People against this need to stop being so damn precious,” as if there was no room for mixed feelings or thoughtful discussion. I was a little disappointed in the terms of the discussion being set up as a battleground. I was asked to comment no less than ten times before I had even read the PR myself.
At first, I will admit, I was shocked that OSF would sponsor something that seemed so obviously horrible. Then I read OSF’s PR and realized what the problem was. In the PR, OSF referred to the project as modern language “translations,” and then went on to describe a project that couldn’t be further from that. The PR quotes OSF director of literary development and dramaturgy Lue Morgan Douthit as stating that the texts won’t be line-for-line “translations,” but much more subtle. Douthit is quoted as saying that she used the word because she likes “the rigor that ‘translate’ implies.” I have some skepticism about that quote. Considering that the most famous “Shakespeare translation” is the appallingly bad “No Fear Shakespeare,” the word “translation” in this context implies exactly zero rigor. It was a deeply unfortunate choice.
OSF has instructed its list of playwrights and dramaturgs– all of whom are leading national voices– to first, “do no harm.” Lines that are already clear are to be left intact. But what, exactly, does “clear” mean?
Let’s start with the bad news.
The pilot for this was Kenneth Cavander’s Timon of Athens. In it, Cavander sets the clarity bar incredibly low, and the resulting updates are problematic.
TIMON: What, are my doors opposed against my passage?
Have I been ever free, and must my house
Be my retentive enemy, my jail?
The place where I have feasted, does it now,
Like all mankind, show me an iron heart? [Arden 3.4.77]
TIMON: What’s this? My doors locked—to shut me in!?
Haven’t I been always open with my friends,
And now my own house turns against me,
Becomes my jail? Does my home, where I have feasted,
Show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?
CUPID: Hail to thee, worthy Timon, and to all that of his bounties taste! The five best senses acknowledge thee their patron and come freely to gratulate thy plenteous bosom. There taste, touch, all, pleased from thy table rise, They only now come but to feast thine eyes. [Arden 1.2.121]
CUPID: Hail to you, worthy Timon, and to all who savor the feast he provides…The Five Senses salute their patron, and gratefully honor your unstinting hospitality. I will now present…Taste…Touch…and the rest of them. Please rise, everyone…You have been well fed, so now—a second feast…For your eyes only!
While some of the “translated” lines above are stilted and clunky, I’m most concerned with accuracy and clarity. Cavander’s “Does my home, where I have feasted, show me, like the rest of mankind, an iron-heart?” is actually LESS clear than the original. Moving “show me” in the sentence order makes “like the rest of mankind” modify “me.” Now the house is showing an iron heart to Timon and all mankind, rather than the house joining mankind in showing Timon an iron heart. It’s not the only inaccuracy just in these two samples. “Have I been ever free” is rendered as “Haven’t I always been open with my friends,” which is a huge change to the meaning of the line. At the end of the second quote, “They only come now but to feast thine eyes” becomes the inaccurate (and trite) “so now– a second feast. For your eyes only!”
While I’ve only seen a handful of samples, in every one, Cavander’s “translation” is much deeper than it needs to be, discarding words and phrases that are clear on their own, and inserting stilted or inaccurate substitutions. So I respect the alarm some had when they discovered that OSF was commissioning like “translations” of the rest of the works.
Those who had no experience of the Cavander were alarmed by the word “translation” because, up to this point, it primarily meant uniformly awful modern updates like No Fear Shakespeare. No Fear is not only badly written, its “translations” provide a superficial understanding of the lines, and sometimes even inaccurate ones. A few examples: “sighing like furnace” becomes “huffing and puffing like a furnace”; “Bless you, fair shrew” becomes “Hello to you, my little wench”; “Two may keep counsel, putting one away” becomes “Two can conspire to put one away.”
There are excellent reasons to have legitimate concerns about a “translation” project. It’s not about being “precious”; it’s about the deep problems evident in previous “translations.”
But let’s look at the good news.
The Cavander “translation” is troubling, yes, but for the rest of the series (apart from The Tempest, which Cavander is also writing) OSF has commissioned a phenomenal group of writers: Christopher Chen, Sean San Jose, Octavio Solis, Luis Alfaro, Lloyd Suh, Migdalia Cruz, Aditi Kapil, Marcus Gardley, Naomi Iizuka, and Taylor Mac, just to name a few, supported by dramaturgs like Joy Meads, Nakissa Etemad, Julie Felise Dubiner, and Desdemona Chiang. These people are some of the cream of the crop of modern American theatremaking.
Most importantly, they’ve been instructed to leave language that’s clear intact, and I trust them to make good choices about what “clear” means. None of these writers could ever be accused of imagining audiences can’t understand difficult language. I also trust them to know the difference between “poetic” and “stilted,” and I trust those dramaturgs to prevent misreadings of lines that would wind up “translated” incorrectly.
Given the “do no harm” instructive and the focus on clarity, what’s surely happening here is not much different than what we all already do for production. The meanings of some of the words in Shakespeare’s texts have changed so completely in the past 400 years that performing them as is becomes, essentially, vandalism of the author’s intent. If you’re producing As You Like It, you can’t perform a phrase like “the humorous duke” and expect a 2015 American audience to understand that it means “unpredictably moody” and not “funny.” There are literally hundreds of words and phrases whose meanings have changed, and there are even more that are just no longer in use. Some are clear from context, particularly when seen acted on stage (prithee, anon, varlet, belike, wherefore), others, not so much (sack, doubt, shrift, horns, jointure, French slop). There are some words whose definitions are hotly debated (pugging, wappened). When we produce Shakespeare, we all make decisions about which words we leave intact, believing the audience will get the gist in context, and which need to be changed to preserve the meaning of the line. It’s rare to see Shakespeare completely untouched because it’s a foolish way to perform it.
And don’t forget that there’s no one definitive Shakespeare text. Every published edition, and many performance texts, are the result of a series of decisions made by an editor with every past edition, folio, and quarto open on their desks. With no definitive text, absolute purism is indeed just preciousness.
But the problem wasn’t precious purism. The problem with Shakespeare “translation” is not in what these playwrights will actually do– they haven’t even done it yet– but in the word “translation” itself. It’s one hell of a trigger. If OSF had used a less unfortunate, more accurate word, there wouldn’t have been a controversy.
We’ve covered the good and the bad– now it’s time for the ugly.
What if the doomsayers are right, and every one of these plays is as bad as the worst No Fear?
Well, so what?
There are already eleventy splatillion “translations,” adaptations, deconstructions, and the like of these plays. If Macbeth can survive Throne of Blood and Scotland PA, if Romeo and Juliet can survive West Side Story and Romeo Must Die, and if Hamlet can survive Strange Brew and The Lion King, then I think the plays will survive some of the best playwrights and dramaturgs in the country having a whack at deciding what to do about “horns” and “Barbary cock-pigeon.”
And I get that it’s upsetting to a lot of people that OSF, one of the stewards of Shakespeare’s work in the US, seems to be endorsing something you’re imagining as a combination of No Fear and Forbidden Planet, but if someone handed you a gigantic check, told you that it was only for this project, but that you could hire any playwrights and dramaturgs you liked, you would JUMP at the chance. This is EXACTLY what we want one of our flagship American theatres doing– paying artists to art. This is something to be celebrated. If you don’t like the results, well, don’t stage them or go see them. OSF has no plans to stage them either, apart from the developmental readings. Just be glad that these enormously deserving artists landed this fantastic gig.
Personally, I’d be FAR more excited by full adaptations from these writers, engaging with the texts rather than “translating” them, but I wasn’t the one writing the check and telling OSF what to do with it. That honor belongs to Dave Hitz from the Hitz Foundation. Honestly, it’s wonderful that they’re supporting the work of all these artists. I think that should be the main focus here. People you admire– some of them your friends– are getting paid to do what they love. That’s a great thing, whether you love the resulting texts or not. Either way, Shakespeare will be fine.
I know, I know: I write about overused tropes often. (Who said irony is dead?) Maybe one day I’ll compile them all into a self-published e-screed entitled “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays,” but for now, the blog will have to do.
Sometimes a cliché works. You’re engaging with the trope in an interesting way, or you’re commenting on the trope’s ubiquitousness. But most of the time, it’s just lazy writing. You plonk a clichéd trope into the scene because you haven’t given the moment much thought, and a well-worn piece of cultural narrative fits neatly into the scene with little effort. Sometimes the clichéd trope is a cultural narrative about race, gender, or religion that you take as given without examining your unconscious biases. Sometimes you’re more focused on other aspects of the scene. Sometimes you’re just . . . lazy. AS ARE WE ALL.
I don’t mean you don’t care about your work. I just mean, sometimes we take the easiest way out because the issue doesn’t interest us as much as other things at that moment. Sometimes we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing.
Today’s edition of “Melissa Reads Too Many Plays” is centered around LADYPARTS. There are approximately eleventy gynillion inaccurate, irritating tropes about women and our MYSTERIOUS LADYBITS. Here are a few of the most preposterous.
Nausea and/or vomiting as the first sign a character is pregnant. I AM CALLING A MORATORIUM ON THIS. This trope is so bad it drags down the quality of the rest of the work. First of all, it’s inaccurate. While 75% of pregnant women experience nausea, only 50% will have to endure vomiting. Most importantly, it’s nowhere near the first sign of pregnancy. (For most of us, that honor belongs to sore boobs.) Vomiting is, however, the first outward sign of pregnancy that men have historically noticed because it’s the first outward sign of pregnancy that women cannot hide. In the 20th century, when this trope was popularized in TV and film written almost exclusively by men, few women paraded around the office telling male coworkers about their sore boobs. However, no one can avoid noticing the stenographer rushing out of a meeting to vomit in the trashcan in the hall. Presumably some of those male writers were fathers who knew better (depending on the level of disclosure they were willing to tolerate from their wives about their ladybusiness), but they were never going to get “Ow, my boobs” past the network censors. I’m not saying we should replace the nausea trope with a sore boob trope. I’m saying: Think about the ways you’re hinting at pregnancy. The second a female character of child-bearing age discusses nausea, your entire audience knows she’s pregnant. Is that how you wanted your reveal to go? Every other hint and lead-in after that is a boring time-waster. Your reveal happened the moment she threw up.
Random Unexpected Pregnancy. Why is your character pregnant? Is it because you have a specific reason for her to carry a child? Or is it because you’re out of ideas and you need to create some conflict for the male lead? Are you already calculating how to make this pregnancy magically disappear as soon as the male lead resolves the conflict? If you’re not writing about pregnancy– if the pregnant woman is just an event in your male lead’s life– think about what you’re trying to accomplish with this unexpected pregnancy, and see if you can accomplish it in a more interesting way. Also, once this trope gets started, it often opens up a can of worms of sexist (and boring) tropes– Women can’t tell what’s important and what isn’t (important = male lead’s central narrative, most of which he hides from her; unimportant = helping her install the carseat, a prenatal appointment); women are killjoys (pregnant girlfriend = the death of fun); women are dreamcrushers (pregnant girlfriend demands he stop being an artist and get a job even though he’s on the verge of a breakthrough because women just don’t understand).
Childbirth Starts with Water Breaking and Ends Within Five Minutes. Honestly, just have her give birth off stage. When your water breaks, it generally trickles out, and it NEVER STOPS. Your body keeps replenishing it. Trust the woman who sat on a towel for hours. Only 10% of women start labor with their water breaking, and for those who do, it can be as much as 24-48 hours before labor begins in earnest. If your character’s water breaks, and all hell breaks loose because THE BABY IS COMING!!11!, you’re manufacturing conflict. Average length of labor for a first-rime mother is 6 – 18 hours, not one scene. Why do you want to show the actual childbirth? What narrative motion are you hoping to achieve? Is there a way to accomplish that without using an unrealistic, clichéd trope?
Menstruation Turns Women Into Insane Blood Monsters. “I can’t talk to you when you’re like this.” Just . . . no. Extreme mood swings occur in 3-8% of menstruating women. Chocolate cravings are not universal. I’m just going to set your play aside if your male lead comes home with chocolate for his bleeding wife who then screams at him for no discernible reason other than that you wanted to motivate his affair later in the play. This trope is both boring and misogynistic.
Fish Jokes. This is exactly the way to get me to delete your play, take a shower, and try to pretend it never happened. I’m honestly astonished that men are still making these jokes in 2015, but evidently, they are. If you’re seeking a way to make a male character seem like an obnoxious idiot trying to hide the fact that he’s a virgin, I can see using this trope, but I still hate it, and I am not alone. Begone, trope.
Women’s Sexuality is Mysterious and Confusing. WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?!? I know this sounds crazy, but hear me out: ASK HER. When a male character is flopping around haphazardly trying to please a woman who has almost no lines but who, presumably, just sits there with a vaguely disapproving look on her face, most of the people in your audience are going to get very frustrated very fast. She can communicate, can’t she? Using her as a prop to establish your male character’s adorable awkwardness, sincere cluelessness, or comic lack of skillz is a trope I never want to see again. Women’s sexuality is not a puzzle for men to solve. Women’s sexuality is not a comment on male sexuality. Women are, believe it or not, people.
The advice is the same for all of these: Think about what, specifically, you’re trying to achieve with these tropes and then work to achieve them in a more interesting way.
I was asked by the wonderful Jacqueline E. Lawton to participate in the latest TCG blog salon, “Artistic Leadership: How Do We Change the Game?” She sent me a series of questions wickedly difficult to answer:
What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?
Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
My answers reference the late Edgardo de la Cruz, African American Shakespeare Company, Lauren Gunderson, Howard Sherman, Annoyance Theatre, and Lawton herself, along with issues of representation, money, and empathy.
Please check it out! You can find it here.
America has been exploding with issues surrounding the concept of “freedom of expression.” Like many freedoms, “freedom of expression” sounds great in the abstract. In the abstract, pretty much everyone outside of political and religious extremists are for “freedom of expression,” and the very fact that political and religious extremists are most decidedly not in favor of freedom of expression makes a certain kind of person even MORE in favor of it.
In the concrete, the issue of “freedom of expression,” like everything else in the world, is much more complex and nuanced, and if there’s one thing political and religious extremists– and the people who love to piss off political and religious extremists– hate, it’s complexity and nuance.
When Native American actors walked off the set in protest over the racism in Adam Sandler’s latest film, the ensuing controversy was unsurprising. The internet exploded with the coverage, and the backlash was instantaneous and fierce. Those who supported the actors were accused of suppressing freedom of expression, and misunderstanding the boundary-crossing nature of comedy. When PEN announced that Charlie Hebdo would be receiving its Toni and James C Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, the ensuing controversy was also unsurprising. When 145 PEN members formally protested (that number has now grown to over 200), they were met with another predictable backlash that included a wealth of BUT FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION scolding. A lesser-known, but equally important, controversy happened earlier this year when stand-up comic Ari Shaffir viciously attacked fellow, lesser-known stand-up Damienne Merlina both for her disability (Merlina lost an arm in a car accident) and her weight, in his Comedy Central special. When Merlina posted a YouTube video calling Shaffir out for the attack, she was met with a barrage of criticism– and even mockery– for daring to speak out against her own attacker. A major part of the backlash Merlina received was centered around the fact that comedy was meant to cross boundaries, and that those attacked should understand that, shut up, and take it.
“Freedom of expression” is an emotional issue. It’s difficult to have productive conversations about its complexities. People have knee-jerk emotional reactions around protecting it in the abstract that prevent them from considering its complexities in the concrete. But it’s well worth the effort to at least try.
You may have heard the expression “punching up” and/or “punching down.” It’s fairly easy to understand. “Punching up” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups in power. This is the kind of humor most often used throughout history by progressive political and social movements. Imagine a cartoon making fun of a political figure, or Christianity’s active oppression of LGBT rights. “Punching down” means comedy that makes fun of people or groups who are marginalized, oppressed, and targeted by bigotry. Imagine a film mocking Native Americans. Imagine a cartoon mocking the girls kidnapped by Boko Haram just to make an unrelated political point. Imagine a comedian with a national spotlight attacking a young woman by name– a woman who wasn’t even there and had nothing to do with the event– for her disability and weight.
Comedy that “punches up” has long been a tool for political and social change. Punching holes in the cultural and political power of dominant groups is what people do when they want to call that power and dominance into question, when they want the culture to begin considering how that power and dominance is wielded, and whether such consolidation of power and dominance is, actually, a good idea. “Punching up” requires extreme bravery. “Punching up” is more than speaking truth to power– it’s speaking truth to power while telling power its fly is open. Punching up is dangerous because it challenges power, and power retaliates brutally. Thousands of people have been jailed and executed for punching up. There are people sitting in jail right this moment in many areas of the world for punching up, and they will not be the last.
Comedy that “punches down” has long been a tool for political and social oppression. Mocking groups that suffer bigotry and oppression is what people do when they want to solidify that bigotry and oppression, when they want to solidify their own cultural and political power and dominance over that marginalized group. Punching down requires no bravery whatsoever, because it’s done from a place of cultural primacy. Occasionally extremist members of a marginalized group will retaliate in reprehensible ways. Murder is never an acceptable response to comedy, period. But that kind of retaliation is rare. No one in their right mind believes that murdering people who work at Charlie Hebdo is an acceptable response to the content they publish, no matter what it may be. But no one in their right mind believes– or should believe– that Charlie Hebdo’s mockery of Islam in a nation where Muslims are common targets of bigotry puts it in the same position as a North Korean drawing cartoons mocking Kim Jung Un.
Many people are quick to point out that Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir punch both up and down. Charlie Hebdo, apologists are quick to point out, mocks Christianity as often as it mocks Judaism or Islam, and mocks right-wing politics even more. But that argument is the height of intellectual laziness. Punching up does not inoculate you from the effects of punching down. Mocking the powerful is one thing; mocking people who are daily victims of bigotry is entirely another. Despite France’s humanist bent, Christianity still holds enormous cultural power there, while Jews and Muslims suffer routine bigotry and discrimination. (Attacks against Muslims since the Charlie Hebdo attacks have focused primarily on women.) Despite Adam Sandler’s willingness to mock himself and other people in power, Native Americans suffer routine, institutionalized, daily bigotry in America. Despite Comedy Central’s willingness to air comedy that mocks people in power, the disabled suffer enormous daily bigotry in our culture. Punching up is a completely different activity– culturally, politically, and morally– than punching down.
And yet, because power rewards power, PEN granted an award for courage to Charlie Hebdo. Because power rewards power, Netflix continues to give Adam Sandler millions of dollars to make his crappy movie. Because power rewards power, entertainment corporations continue to shower Ari Shaffir with money. And so it goes.
I believe in freedom of expression, both in the abstract and in the concrete. I don’t think we should be censoring bigotry. I am adamantly opposed to censorship. But I also think– because this issue is complex– that we need to be thinking hard about the difference between tolerating the expression of bigotry and rewarding it.
We need to stop pretending that speaking out against the expression of bigotry is “anti-freedom of expression,” when in fact it is the exact opposite– it’s exercising one’s own freedom of expression. Being told your opinion is nonsense is not the same as being denied the right to express your opinion. Being told that your employer is not interested in paying you for expressions of bigotry is not the same as being denied the right to express bigotry at all. And speaking out against giving an award for courage to a magazine that routinely mocks marginalized groups is not equivalent to speaking out against that magazine’s right to print whatever the hell it wants. Supporting your right to freedom of expression need not include rewarding you for that expression, nor need it include freedom from criticism.
I think Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, Ari Shaffir, and anyone else should be allowed to punch down as often and as viciously as they like. And I think those with the power to dole out awards– whether literal awards or financial awards– should stop and think for a moment about whether they actually wish to reward punching down.
We spend millions of dollars on anti-bullying campaigns, initiatives, and education in schools. We’re fooling ourselves that kids can’t see through the hypocrisy of adults telling them bullying is always wrong and then turning right around and rewarding bullying done by adults. What’s the difference between a playground bully mocking a Muslim kid, a disabled kid, an overweight kid, or a Native American kid, and what Adam Sandler, Charlie Hebdo, and Ari Shaffir have done? If the bully says, “But I make fun of everyone,” does that excuse the rest of his bullying? Of course not. So why is that used to excuse adult behavior?
And before you even bother posting comments defending any or all of the three I’ve discussed, the principle remains whether I’m right in my analysis of those particular three or not. We punch down in this culture all the time. We reward that kind of bullying with accolades, money, and power. We defend it with “it’s just a joke,” “you’re too sensitive,” and a barrage of like nonsense from privilege stomping its feet and throwing tantrums because their bigoted fun is being spoiled with our dissent. “It’s just a joke” is perhaps the most intellectually lazy argument of them all, as if the presence of humor evacuates its long history of keeping marginalized people “in their place.”
And while I will be the first one to defend your right to punch down– your right to freedom of expression– I’m appalled at the fact that we reward that behavior. It’s long past the time we stopped confusing tolerance with appreciation and reward.