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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0194  Friday, 6 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Tonya Beckman <
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        Date:   Thursday, 5 Mar 1998 10:53:46 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0189  Re: Casting

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 06 Mar 1998 01:29:27 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Casting

[3]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
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        Date:   Friday, 6 Mar 1998 08:57:27 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tonya Beckman <
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Date:           Thursday, 5 Mar 1998 10:53:46 EST
Subject: 9.0189  Re: Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0189  Re: Casting

"Papp's successors have treated us to a spate of African kings of
England, all perfectly good actors (and probably quite pricey), but none
particularly adept at classical acting, or even legitimate theatre."

It seems to me that the majority of the actors at Shakespeare in the
Park aren't particularly adept at theatre, white or black.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 06 Mar 1998 01:29:27 -0500
Subject:        Re: Casting

I hoped and expected that my inquiry about atypical casting would
generate some heat.  I also suspected that the debate would resolve
itself into the question, familiar to subscribers on this list, of
whether the plays have any intrinsic meanings apart from whatever the
director and actors choose to make of them on any particular day.

Matthew Gretzinger makes that point as baldly as I have seen it put; he
says: "No dramatic text is complete until it is interpreted and
performed, there is no such thing as a dimension that the author 'did
not put there.'"  The second part of that sentence does not follow from
the first, which is, of course, unobjectionable, even tautological.  But
I submit that that plays do have plots, characters, themes and, in
short, "dimensions," prior to the intervention of the cast.  And, more
to the point, there are things that are just not in a play.
Coincidentally, the review of a recent Twelfth Night which Harry Hill
was good enough to pass along in another thread makes this point
brilliantly.  There is no way that Twelfth Night is about the treatment
of slaves in the ante-bellum South, and no amount of sophistry can
convince a fair minded person that Shakespeare "put it there."

But I can see Mr. Gretzinger's point, albeit by employing a thought
process similar to that used by psychiatrists who try to enter their
patients' delusions.  To someone who sees no inherent meaning in the
plays, for whom the characters are shapeless and infinitely malleable,
casting is indeed a matter of indifference.  A fat bearded bald man with
a limp can play Juliet, and isn't it a pity that we never saw Shirley
Temple's interpretation of Lear.  I wonder if Mr. Gretzinger finds the
Richard III scenes in "The Goodbye Girl" the least bit funny.  If he
does, what is he laughing about if not the absurdity of grossly revising
a character?

For most of us, the characters in the plays are old or young, male or
female, black or white, etc.  And, since the actor's job is to persuade
us that he is the thing he portrays, isn't it part of his function to
seem to be old, female or white, if that is what his character is?   I
do not argue that a young actor cannot play an old part (the history of
the theatre is full of examples of this), but to do so he needs to act
old, otherwise he is reciting, not acting.  As I said in my last post,
men can play women (and vice versa), but by pretending to be women.  If
Olivier could play Othello in black makeup, can't Laurence Fishburne
play Iago in white makeup?  Is one more demeaning than the other; and
isn't it racist to suggest that it?   The heart of my thesis is that no
actor is disqualified from playing any role he or she can mimic
convincingly, but that every actor is foreclosed from playing a part he
is unable to carry persuasively, regardless of the nature of the
inability.  None of the replies to my post addresses that essential
point.

Karen Elizabeth Berrigan says that she was not "confused" by Denzel
Washington's portrayal of Don Pedro in Branagh's Much Ado, even though
his brother was played by a white man.  While I do not agree with Ms.
Berrigan's high marks for his performance (although I do agree with her
about Keanu Reeves and Michael Keaton), and while Washington would not
have been my first choice, I shall not quibble.  I do not believe that
Arragon was ever part of Moorish Spain, but it is not too much of a
stretch to make the Prince swarthy.  As for his brother being white,
permit me to remind Ms. Berrigan that Don John is a bastard, only a half
brother.  In other words, it requires only a little mental effort to
reconcile what at first appears to be a contradiction.

Contrast this with my hypothetical idiosyncratic casting of "Death of a
Salesman":  Mr. Gretzinger says that "for [him]" casting a black Biff
against a white Willie and wife "wouldn't detract."  For him it might
not; but the play was not written for him alone.  The play contains a
rather clear cut conflict between Willie and his son, having a definite
cause.  To add another possible cause of conflict-feelings by Biff that
he might be unloved because he was adopted, anger by Willie at having
been cuckolded, etc.-changes what Miller wrote.  It is a different play.

Similarly, I persist in saying that a white Othello is not the play
Shakespeare wrote.  Mr. Gretzinger says that I argue that such such a
production is "irrelevant."  I did not say that.  I hope never to say
anything so silly.  "Irrelevant" is a word I use professionally, and (I
hope) precisely.  As used by Mr. Gretzinger it is meaningless-it has no
referent.  Irrelevant to what?  All I said is that Shakespeare told us a
certain story, and the Patrick Stewart version is a different story.  It
might be a story worth telling, but it is inaccurate to call it
"Shakespeare's Othello."

Thanks for listening.  Larry

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 6 Mar 1998 08:57:27 -0000
Subject: 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0187  Re: Racism, Sexism, etc. (Was a Lot of Other
Things)

On the matter of the canon, Larry Weiss complained that I had
misinterpreted his argument and wrote

>An  author's culture and sex do, of course, influence his or
> her products, but it is the results we evaluate.  My thesis is only that
> we should not give extra credit for race, ethnicity, sex or ability to
> breathe.  Does Simkin think we should?

This is not what I was arguing either.  We seem to have been arguing at
cross-purposes (the wonder of list.serv's eh?)

My point was not that we should give "extra credit" for race/sex/etc.,
but that we should recognise that the canon has been constructed
historically and historically there have been disincentives of varying
degrees for women and members of  ethnic minorities (for example) to
create poems, plays, whatever.  Those that did were often neglected and
it is only recent efforts by feminist and post-colonial critics and
literary historians that have begun to bring their work to light.  The
thing about the canon is that, like in the Catholic church, you need to
hang around (dead) quite a while to get canonized.  The uproar that
greeted Harold Bloom's sometimes bizarre choices and omissions in his
list of great books makes the point.

On the issue of casting, and on Othello in particular, Larry Weiss wrote

> Olivier played Othello in black makeup which was very convincing, down
> to the palms of his hands.

There is an interesting discussion of Olivier's performance in Barbara
Hodgson's "Race-ing Othello" which appears in the Routledge title
*Shakespeare the Movie* (ed Boose/Burt, 1997).  She quotes Olivier from
his autobiography as he describes "blacking up" for the role...

"Black all over my body, Max Factor 2880, then a lighter brown ...
[etc.] .... Then the great trick: that glorious half-yard of chiffon
with which I polished myself all over until I shone ... The lips
blueberry, the tight curled wig, the white of the eyes,, whiter than
ever and the black, black sheen that covered my flesh and bones,
glistening in the dressing room lights...I am, I ... I am Othello ...
but Olivier is in charge.  the actor is in control.  The actor breathes
into the nostrils of the character and the character comes to life.  For
this moment in my time, Othello is my character - he's mine.  He belongs
to no-one else; he belongs to me."

Hodgson goes on to analyse this passage for the way in which it claims
the character as if it is colonial property.  She also points out how
"Olivier's Othello comfirms an absolute fidelity to white stereotypes of
blackness and to the fantasies, cultural as well as theatrical, that
such stereotypes engender" (p.26).

Both this essay and Dympna Callaghan's "Othello was a white man" in
Alternative Shakespeares 2 (ed Drakakis, 1996) have interesting things
to say about "blacking up" in relation to this play.

Stevie Simkin

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