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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0210  Wednesday, 11 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Mark Perew <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 12:19:41 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0207  Re: Casting

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:    Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 17:52:20 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Casting; DWEMs

[3]     From:   Charles Weinstein <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 21:28:46 -0500
        Subj:   Thoughts on Interracial Casting With Particular Regard to
"Othello"



[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mark Perew <
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Date:           Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 12:19:41 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 9.0207  Re: Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0207  Re: Casting

On Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998, Matthew Gretzinger wrote:

>The pink-clad Richard III of "The Goodbye Girl" is amusing, but not
>because of "the absurdity of grossly revising [the] character."  The
>character there is not revised-it is interpreted, and, to my thinking,
>poorly interpreted.  That I think it is mis-interpreted makes me laugh,
>but does not lead me to think that excesses of interpretation should be
>discouraged.

How much interpretation creates an excess?  Currently Santa Ana College
is doing Two Gentlemen of Verona.  The director has chosen to set it in
1962.  Verona is a cold wintery place and Milan is southern California
(a device lifted straight from "Where The Boys Are").  Proteus and
Valentine are college fresmen.  Antonio and Panthino are jazz
musicians.  Speed is a Miss Hathaway ("Beverly Hillbillies") type
woman.  The Outlaws are surfers.  The Duke is now the Dean of Milan
University.  Eglamour (the part I play) is now the Registrar of the
University.

The play is heavily underscored with music from the early 60's.  Julia's
entrance as Sebastian is emphasized by the opening lines of "Walk Like A
Man", for example.  Valentine's speech to the Duke in III.i on how to
win a woman is done as a recitative to the music of Floyd Cramer's
slip-key "Last Date".  The Host (a janitor) and Eglamour make unscripted
entrances and provide vocal do-wah backup to Valentine.  (So far the
audiences have loved this little addition, but the purist in me
cringes.)  Launce's dialogue on the woman he loves is underscored with
"Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" and his first entrance with Crab is to the
tune of "Puppy Love" (although I tried to get the sound designer to
change it to "Tears of a Clown".)

The text is not heavily altered.  The director has added only a few
words here or there for clarity.  However, politically correct deletions
of references to Speed being "swinged" have been excised along with all
references to either Jews or Christians.

Does this constitute excessive interpretation?  I think it does.  The
story does work, in the end, but I agree with Kurt Schlueter's comments
that placing the tale in a contemporary setting loses more than it
gains.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 17:52:20 -0500
Subject:        Re: Casting; DWEMs

Matthew Gretzinger and Stevie Simkin have, each in his own way, joined
issue in a fashion which admits of no further meaningful disputation.
Thus, Mr. Gretzinger say:

> I believe that the "dimensions" of a text are limited only by the
> interpreters involved, whether the interpreters be readers, actors, or
> audience members.  I don't believe that authors are capable of crafting
> texts that exclude the new "dimensions" that future interpreters will
> bring to them  ... Certainly, there are things that are "not in a
> play."  However, those
> things will be different from interpreter to interpreter, won't they?

No they won't.  But there is no way I can reply to this, as it proceeds
from a belief system so profoundly different from my own that points I
find unanswerable are meaningless to Mr. Gretzinger.  There is no
arguing with someone who believes (or purports to believe) that James
Earl Jones may validly be cast as Juliet by a producer whose imagination
has a wider scope than mine (or Mr. Gretzinger's).  To him the
characters are, indeed, "shapeless and infinitely malleable."  But I
believe that when Shakespeare wrote "black" he meant "black," or perhaps
"grey" or "brown"; and he clearly excluded "white."  To argue otherwise
is to deny the meaning of English and to deprive the texts of their
function as even "blueprints."  A blueprint must be followed as the
draftsman intended; if it isn't, the house falls down.

Stevie Simkin, on the other hand, invites a discussion far broader than
the limited issue I raised of not evaluating literature with reference
to the racial or sexual attributes of the authors.  I argued only that
an author's race, sex, etc., should neither detract from nor enhance our
evaluation of his or her work.  That point should not be subject to
dispute, and Simkin does not contradict it directly.  Instead, in a
clever twist to evade having to embrace even-handed criticism, Simkin
says that he would "continue to play the devil's advocate here and ask
what is the basis" of proper analysis.  I shall not take that bait,
which I suspect was on purpose laid to make me mad.  I know the twisted
paths into which fruitless and ultimately unresolvable discussions of
the criteria of literary worth can lead, and I shall not go there.  That
way lies madness.  I deliberately sought to avoid such a diversion by
arguing only that, whatever the criteria by which we evaluate literary
works, they must be applied without regard to the personal attributes of
the authors.  Again, does Simkin disagree?

Simkin very candidly makes my point for me when he admits that he is
considering the possibility that Olivier might have been disqualified by
virtue of his race from playing Othello.  Does this mean that he will
also consider that maybe Laurence Fishburne is disqualified by his race
from playing Iago?  Perhaps Matt and Stevie ought to argue with each
other instead of me.  After all, I'm just the troublemaker who offered
to hold everyone's coat.

Larry Weiss

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Tuesday, 10 Mar 1998 21:28:46 -0500
Subject:        Thoughts on Interracial Casting With Particular Regard to
"Othello"

1. Othello is a fiercely difficult role.  The number of actors in a
given era who can do the part justice is always minuscule.  By barring
White actors from the role we sharply reduce or even destroy our chances
of seeing a great Othello in our lifetimes.  That's not a sacrifice I'm
willing to make.
2. The color bar has certainly reduced the number of "Othello"
productions.  The RSC hasn't mounted one in 10 years.  The National
Theatre is currently mounting one for the first time in 18 years.
3. For some reason these constraints don't seem to apply in opera, where
White tenors blacken up to play Verdi's Otello all the time. Why is this
practice tolerated?  Why hasn't there been a public outcry against it?
If we can stomach it at the Met, why not on the legitimate stage?
4. If called upon to justify their use of White tenors in blackface,
opera impresarios would probably claim that great tenors are extremely
rare, and that to require only Black tenors would virtually eliminate
"Otello" from the repertoire.  I submit that the same considerations
should apply to the theatre.  Acting is not something "anyone can do";
great acting even less so; great Shakespearean acting still less.  When
a distinguished tragedian appears on the scene-an event surely as rare
as the appearance of a great tenor-we do ourselves a cruel disservice by
denying him access to a great role.  Why should we be deprived of Derek
Jacobi's Othello, or Ian McKellen's?  Yet under present circumstances we
are.  I call that a shame.
5. There has been discussion of Black actors donning whiteface to play
White roles.  The idea is not outlandish:  I once saw Shirley Verrett
play Verdi's Desdemona that way.  I have no objections to the practice,
provided that White actors are afforded an analogous privilege.  Those
who find blackface or whiteface to be offensive or demeaning should
remind themselves that acting is supposed to be an art of
self-transformation, including physical self-transformation.  The
aesthetic pleasure derives from how well the actor impersonates or
embodies a human being entirely different from himself.  I refuse to
believe that this pleasure is illegitimate when racial impersonation is
involved, or that a great actor cannot give a great performance of a
character from another race.
6. For the record, I think that Olivier's Othello was a courageous and
magnificent performance, and not at all racist or condescending.
7. When Seiji Ozawa was asked which of two candidates, one White and one
Black, he would hire for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he replied "The
better one."  Precisely.
 

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