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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: March ::
Re: Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0214  Thursday, 12 March 1998.

[1]     From:   Stevie Simkin <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 15:05:48 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting, Canon

[2]     From:   Laura Fargas <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 12:48:52 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting

[3]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 17:42:12 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stevie Simkin <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 15:05:48 -0000
Subject: 9.0210  Re: Casting, Canon
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting, Canon

I'm sorry Larry Weiss thinks I'm being perverse in wanting to know the
criteria on which we choose to evaluate literature.  I think we may just
have to agree to disagree here.  I suppose I don't believe there is such
a thing as "even-handed criticism" as this implies a neutrality, a tabla
rasa, that is impossible to achieve.  I think we all bring different
agendas to the evaluative process:  I suppose it's not so much wanting
"to evade having to embrace even-handed criticism" as not believing such
a thing exists. (And I'd still like to know what's wrong with the term
post-colonialism).

On casting Othello, I still remain unconvinced and undecided.  I
remember seeing a production a couple of years ago where the part was
taken by a black actor:  each time we came upon one of Othello's
passionate/jealous episodes, we heard the sound of African drums
pattering away in the background,  and the actor himself adopted this
odd patois-styled delivery, reverting to proper "Shakespearean"
intonation as the moment passed.  This smacked of the worst kind of
racial stereotyping (the idea that beneath the civilized layer lurks the
primitive African).  This struck me (and not just me) as offensive, and
I wondered what was going through the minds of director and lead actor
when they (or when the director) made this decision.  So there are more
problems involved here than simply casting choices.

There are all kinds of factors involved in decisions about casting
Othello - in the UK at least, it's hard enough for black actors to get
work.  If we repeatedly cast white actors in the role (because they're
the only actors "great" enough to play it), it's only making that
situation worse.  My other reservations include the issue which no-one
seems to have picked up yet in regard to Olivier's heavily stereotyped
version of "blackness" that he used in his performance: as revealed in
his memoirs, quoted in a previous post.

The Othello I wish I could have seen is Zadek's (described in Kennedy's
Looking at Shakespeare, CUP, 1996), where the actor Ulrich Wildgruber,
"his white face obviously blackened in Negro minstrel fashion, wearing a
parody of an Emperor Jones jacket, deliberately played Othello on the
surface, underscoring the cliche and therefore deconstructing it"
(Kennedy, p.269).  Now that sounds like an interesting version: very far
from "what Shakespeare wrote", perhaps, but radical, exciting, explosive
theatre.  >From what I have read of Janet Suzman's production and the
film of it (see Hodgson again in Shakespeare the Movie, Routledge,
1997), there were moments when she too (using a black actor though) sort
to confront and deconstruct white stereotypes and preconceptions of the
black "Other" - an irony that could be explored in the film in
particular, perhaps, but remained either absent or ineffectively
conveyed in the other stage production I mentioned two paragraphs above.

So if I like the sound of the Zadek version,  I guess I'm saying that I
think  white actors can play the role, though how they choose to play it
remains problematic. Yes, to act is to take on another identity (though
to what extent this is a modern understanding of acting is another very
large can of worms), but there are difficulties involved in
impersonating another ethnic identity, as I think Olivier's performance
shows - and it is made doubly difficult when the task in hand involves a
seventeenth-century notion of what that identity entails/-ed.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Laura Fargas <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 12:48:52 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 9.0210  Re: Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting

Steve Simkin asked for views by non-WEMs on whether Olivier could play
Othello.

As a Hispanic (Chicana) and part Native American female who majored in
classical Greek at Berkeley, and then went to an Ivy law school and the
Iowa Writer's Workshop, my answer is --- yes, please!

No matter how unappetizing the man's personal prejudices appear to have
been, he was a great actor-and I too found myself cringing at what
struck me as racist/colonialist buzzwords in his private reflections.

More largely, the assertion that anyone should be disqualified from
playing a role by accident of birth seems like galloping piffle to me.
For example, if Othello is to be played only by naturally dark skinned
men, it might be tough to mount a production in Iceland.  Not to mention
that black actors in mostly white countries might get cranky at the
limitation on their choices, since every time a production of Othello
was mounted, they would be asked to come along.  Never mind Hamlet,
eventually even Lucentio and Bassanio would look like a wonderful
stretch to these hapless chaps.

Even the bearded Juliet someone suggested might hold my interest-but
then, back in that fractious postmodernist thread, I already said I
cherish that theory's quality of interrogating all cows, sacred and
dairy alike.  I just saw "Tromeo and Juliet" for the first time, and
found things to enjoy and respect in it.

So that's one part-Apache classically educated postmodernist-leaning
poet, labor lawyer, and farmer's (soybeans this year) view... next?

Laura Fargas

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Wednesday, 11 Mar 1998 17:42:12 -0500
Subject: 9.0210  Re: Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0210  Re: Casting

Larry Weiss writes, "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."

I have my doubts about the validity of the simile, but on its own terms,
it does not work.  Builders-builders of houses, at least-may perfectly
well depart quite extensively from an architect's plan and still produce
a workable house-not the one that the designer envisaged, but strong and
livable.  Maybe more livable, like the house next door in that fine
Flanders and Swann song, or those places that people have in addition to
their Frank Lloyd Wright masterpiece.

Architecturally,
Dave Evett
 

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