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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: July ::
Re: Colour-Blind Casting
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1475  Monday, 21 July 2003

[1]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 18 Jul 2003 15:55:41 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

[2]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Saturday, 19 Jul 2003 00:50:57 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 18 Jul 2003 15:55:41 -0400
Subject: 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

It is disingenuous to defend idiosyncratic casting by citing the
tradition of boy actors playing female roles in Elizabethan and Jacobean
theater, just as it would be to point out that Barry Humphries is a
credible panto dame or that Olivier portrayed Othello believably.  In
each of these instances the actors were made up and costumed so as to
appear realistically to be the characters they portrayed.

The issue is in-your-face casting against type.  No one could
legitimately complain if, for example, RuPaul played Iris or Charmian in
his trademark drag.  Nor does an issue arise if a black actor plays a
white character in makeup which makes him look white or (as with Olivier
in Othello) vice versa.  Since modern techniques presumably allow this,
one wonders why directors and actors insist on forcing audiences to
suspend their disbelief more than is usual by idiosyncratic casting
choices.

As for Gabriel Egan's intemperate comment

>I've followed
>Ubermensch Sam's logic to its absurd conclusion that disabled people
>have no business acting. I don't agree.

Right on.  Christopher Reeve as a quadriplegic, no problem.  Christopher
Reeve as Jesse Owens, no way.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Saturday, 19 Jul 2003 00:50:57 +0100
Subject: 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1459 Re: Colour-Blind Casting

>>This has been aired before on this list but not quite in this slant.
>>The politically correct lefties will come tramping out declaring that
>>skin colour matters not - in anything - in any way - in any play.  It's
>>nonsense, of course.  Skin colour is a physical attribute - like age,
>>gender, height, and weight.  A director casts his play or film and
>>selects the attributes that best suit the script.  There is nothing more
>>complicated than that.  This whole question is one of credibility and
>>must be judged for that alone.  Do we tolerate a hugely fat Romeo?  A
>>desperately ugly Juliet?  A 20 yearr old Polonius?  A male Ophelia?
>>Well, no.  The audience would find the casting incredible.

Despite my previous comments, I might note that the politically correct
lefties of Sam's denunciation (although in real life, of course, a lot
of them are not lefties, nor necessarily politically correct - although
Sam's assumption that they are is presumably evidence that he is an
embittered old righty, who can't cope with the recent changes in the
world) are not entirely free from a touch of hypocrisy on this matter
themselves.

Colour blind casting is now commonly perfectly acceptable in stage (and
even some film) Shakespeare, it seems, with one fairly obvious
exception.  I doubt very much whether, in the near future, any major
mainstream non-radical theatre company will perform Othello with a white
actor in the lead role.  Blacking-up is now considered excessively
offensive by most, but equally there would be huge criticism from many
sides if a director used the same colour-blind casting logic that allows
the RSC to cast black actors without facepaint as Renaissance English
kings (often with white actors as their children) to cast a white actor
without facepaint as Othello, with perhaps a black Cassio.  The only
example of this that I'm aware of in recent times was John Luc Piccard's
(sorry, Patrick Stewart's) Othello in which the colour-blind casting was
justified by making every single other character black, so that the
production could be justified as a radical experiment and deliberate
role-reversal, and a way of giving employment to a large number of black
actors (by opening traditionally white roles to them en masse).

It seems that even the colour-blind casting system is not entirely
colour-blind, but this seems to be mainly a backlash against previous
centuries of prejudice in the other direction.  I would guess (perhaps
wrongly) that in the future, once recollections of such things as the
"black and white minstrels" and apartheid in South Africa and the United
States within living memory die down, then colour-blind casting might
become truly colour-blind in both directions.

Of course one of the major motivations for colour-blind casting in only
one direction, which is less likely to go away, is that otherwise black
actors are deprived of most roles in the classical repertoire (which is
mainly made up of plays about white English people or other white
Europeans), whereas a white actor who isn't considered for Othello, can
go and audition for Hamlet, Romeo, Caesar and the rest.  The same
explanation can be given for the disabled lobby pressing for disabled
characters to always be played by genuinely disabled people, but also
asking that non-disabled roles be given to disabled actors (or setting
up companies like Graeae - which did a brilliant production of
"Changeling", which I reviewed for "Shakespeare Bulletin" - to allow
themselves these roles).

I also feel that I should take this opportunity of adding an apology to
Graeae, although they are not likely to see it here, for a change that
was made to my review by the "Shakespeare Bulletin" editorial team,
which altered my description of one of the actors, without my knowledge,
from the (admittedly rather bland and wordy) "clearly physically
disabled" to the awful word "crippled".  I'm sure that Sam Small would
consider my horror at this alteration to be evidence that I am nothing
more than a politically correct lefty, but I see no purpose in
describing people in ways that will offend them, and as I am myself
disabled and was educated in schools for people with disabilities, I am
well aware that the word "crippled" is generally not used by disabled
people to describe themselves, and is usually considered extremely
offensive (rather close to "nigger" in its effect, except that "nigger"
is sometimes used as a proud self-description by black people, whereas
"crippled" has not, and probably cannot, be reclaimed even in that
partial way).  I don't really blame the "Shakespeare Bulletin" for the
change, since they presumably did not share my background of close
contact with disabled people (and membership of the disabled community)
and came from an earlier generation where the use of such words was more
acceptable, and indeed expected.  If there was anything else wrong with
the review as published, however, then I accept responsibility, and this
was the only editorial change to my reviews for "Shakespeare Bulletin"
that I wouldn't have accepted if given the chance to comment.  I was
upset, however, to know that the actor would probably read that
description of himself and think that I had written it.

Thomas Larque.

"Shakespeare and His Critics"
http://shakespearean.org.uk

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