Shakespeare in Nicholas Nickleby

Macready as Shylock

We’ve spent a lot of time digging into Shakespeare in the years since we last read Nicholas Nickleby, and this time through the novel we paid a lot more attention to what Dickens said about Hamlet, Othello, and theater in general.

Dickens’s interest in Shakespeare was probably never higher than while he was writing Nickleby. Among other things, it was in 1838 that his close friend, the actor William Charles Macready, put on the first King Lear in two hundred years that actually used nothing but Shakespeare’s original text, with Lear’s fool restored to the play and without the “happy ending” that seventeenth- and eighteen-century directors had substituted for Shakespeare’s.  The novel’s episodes involving an ensemble of provincial touring players give us an idea of what was on Dickens’s mind, drama-wise, during this period of his life.

Nickleby let Dickens get in some licks about some of his pet peeves.  For instance, there was apparently a lot of nonsense passing for Shakespeare “criticism” in the 1830s, just as there is now. We meet, briefly, Mr. Curdle, who

had written a pamphlet of sixty-four pages, post octavo, on the character of the Nurse’s deceased husband in Romeo and Juliet, with an inquiry whether he really had been a ‘merry man’ in his lifetime, or whether it was merely his widow’s affectionate partiality that induced her so to report him.

One can only wonder what Dickens would have thought of some of the arcane titles of masters and doctoral theses being written today.

And there was apparently also misguided sentiment for Shakespearean actors of bygone days:

“It’s not as if the theatre was in its high and palmy days . . . the drama is gone, perfectly gone. . . . What man is there, now living, who can present before us all those changing and prismatic colours with which the character of Hamlet is invested?” exclaimed Mrs Curdle.

‘What man indeed — upon the stage,” said Mr Curdle, with a small reservation in favour of himself. “Hamlet! Pooh! ridiculous! Hamlet is gone, perfectly gone.”

William Hogarth's 1745 portrait of David Garrick as Richard III. Perhaps it was the Garrick era of Shakespearean acting that the Curdleses were nostalgic for.

Dickens and his friends at the Shakespeare Club, which was active during 1838 and 1839, must have passed at least some of their time making fun of drama purists who insisted that plays exhibit Aristotle’s “unities.” We couldn’t help thinking that Mr. Curdle’s notion of “the unities” wasn’t much different, or any more precise, from what devotees of a certain modern-day cult think and say about “diversity”:

“I hope you have preserved the unities, sir?” said Mr Curdle.

“The original piece is a French one,” said Nicholas. “There is abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, strongly-marked characters—”

“—All unavailing without a strict observance of the unities, sir,” returned Mr Curdle. “The unities of the drama, before everything.”

“Might I ask you,” said Nicholas, hesitating between the respect he ought to assume, and his love of the whimsical, “might I ask you what the unities are?”

Mr Curdle coughed and considered. “The unities, sir,” he said, “are a completeness—a kind of universal dovetailedness with regard to place and time—a sort of a general oneness, if I may be allowed to use so strong an expression. I take those to be the dramatic unities, so far as I have been enabled to bestow attention upon them, and I have read much upon the subject, and thought much. . . . — I don’t know whether I make myself understood?”

“Perfectly,” replied Nicholas.

Dickens’s point, of course, was that great plays like Hamlet and Henry V, not to mention then-new plays like Victor Hugo’s Hernani, paid no regard to the “unities” whatsoever and succeeded because of their “abundance of incident, sprightly dialogue, [and] strongly-marked characters.”

And Dickens clearly had affection for actors who went above and beyond in preparing to play their roles. As his character Vincent Crummles says,

“We had a first-tragedy man in our company once, who, when he played Othello, used to black himself all over. But that’s feeling a part and going into it as if you meant it; it isn’t usual; more’s the pity.”

Dickens presumably would have appreciated modern-day “method” actors like Robert Duvall and the late Marlon Brando who spend months immersing themselves first-hand in the culture of their characters.

We had failed to notice, until we saw it pointed out in this fine essay by Dr. Paul Schlicke, that the principal storyline in The Old Curiosity Shop resembles that of King Lear.  We can’t detect any such direct correlation between Nicholas Nickleby and a Shakespeare play.  Still, when we read the speech in chapter 61 in which Nicholas tells his sister Kate that the two of them will grow old as bachelor and old maid together (“But rich or poor, or old or young, we shall ever be the same to each other, and in that our comfort lies”), we felt certain we were hearing an echo of Lear’s wonderful speech to Cordelia: “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.”

And Dickens wrapped up this novel the same way that Shakespeare ended several of his plays: with arbitrary weddings for all the deserving characters. Dickens didn’t prepare us for the mating up of Miss La Creevy and old Tim Linkinwater any better than Shakespeare prepared us for the pairing of Paulina and old Camillo at the end of Winter’s Tale (still fresh in our mind from seeing this year’s wonderful production of that play in Stratford, Ontario; see this post).

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Not enough color at the Shaw Festival?

(October 2008) To his dismay, Emsworth has belatedly learned that the diversity police have been hectoring Jackie Maxwell, Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival, for not bringing more actors of color, more directors of color, and more plays by playwrights of color, to Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The hue and cry is being led by one Andrew Moodie, who is apparently a Canadian playwright of some distinction. (Emsworth makes no pretense of being up on contemporary theater, especially in Canada.) Moodie’s campaign, which he calls “Share the Stage,” was seconded not long ago by J. Kelly Nestruck, the redoubtable theater critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail, who claims he was “suddenly struck” earlier this year with how “white” the Shaw’s company was.

The wedge here is the Shaw Festival’s friendly competition with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, an institution which Nestruck patronizingly says is now up to snuff, diversity-wise.  Jackie Maxwell gets credit for “gender diversity” (what an dreadful phrase!) at the Shaw Festival, but they’re blaming her for not trying hard enough on race.

Well, now — how is she to do this at the Shaw Festival? It’s an institution whose every season is anchored around two plays by Bernard Shaw himself, a white guy who wrote plays about white folks. And all its plays (per the Festival’s “mandate”) are supposed to have been written, or at least set, during Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950).

We pause for historical reflection.  Here in Rochester, we’re steeped in the American suffrage movement, because Susan B. Anthony lived here and her 19th-century home, now a museum, is here.  History tells us that before the Civil War, abolitionists and suffragettes made common cause.

But Anthony’s relationship with Douglass (together again in bronze in a Rochester park) cooled when black leaders wanted to put women’s rights on hold while civil rights for black people were being consolidated. So there’s a tiny touch of irony when Jackie Maxwell is accused with putting racial diversity on the back burner now that she has gotten “gender diversity” at the Shaw.

There are plenty of new plays by and about people of color. But unless they’re set before 1950, they’re not plays that the Shaw does. So how, exactly, is the Shaw Festival supposed to diversify, color-wise?

Well, Moodie and Nestruck want the Shaw Festival to feature more actors of color in plays by Bernard Shaw, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, and Noel Coward. After all, when The Glass Menagerie is played in Bombay, doesn’t it have an Indian cast? When they do Blithe Spirit in Lagos, isn’t the cast Nigerian? There are people of all ethnic backgrounds in Ontario (as in New York State). So if Denzel Washington can play Brutus (see the picture above, with Stratford Festival veteran Colm Feore, in the foreground, as Cassius, in a Washington, D.C. production last year), why can’t there be a black Undershaft at the Shaw Festival?

If that were to be, Emsworth would nominate Derrick Lee Weeden. On the basis of his breath-taking performance as Othello at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater last winter (with Paul Niebanck as Iago), Emsworth ranks Weeden with the best actors we’ve seen in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake, not excluding Christopher Plummer or the late William Hutt. But Weeden is, regrettably, not part of the Shaw’s repertory company, and the Shaw Festival is at a disadvantage in trying to recruit an actor of his ability. (He’s acted with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for many years; see this link.) The Shaw Festival doesn’t do either Shakespeare or contemporary plays, and from 1856 to 1950, there just weren’t that many important plays written by or about people of color.

There’s no reason why actors of color can’t be cast in many Shaw plays, as indeed they sometimes are. As Mr. Nestruck points out, Nikki M. James has one of the lead roles in Caesar and Cleopatra at the Stratford Festival this season. But in many cases, color-blind casting in a Shaw play would tend to confuse audiences and to distort social relationships that are at the heart of the plays.

And many Shaw plays are largely concerned with subtle gradations of class, and with interactions between English people of different ranks of life. Pygmalion is the story of a poor flower girl who encounters a rich, upper-class intellectual. Getting Married (one of the highlights of the Shaw’s 2008 season, highly recommended by Emsworth) has a lot to do with a lower-middle-class greengrocer’s relationship with the family of an English bishop.

The precision with which Shaw sketched class relationships in his plays is at the core of his genius. So how disorienting would it be for audiences if a person of color were cast as either the greengrocer or the bishop in Getting Married? In 1902, could a black greengrocer possibly have been on such familiar terms with an upper-class white family? — we’d be asking ourselves. Or would a white greengrocer really relate in such a way to a black English bishop and his wife? The didactic Bernard Shaw fervently wanted people to think about his plays — but those are not the questions Shaw wanted his audiences to be asking. A director shouldn’t interject race where it would confuse.

Or take Mrs. Warren’s Profession, also at the Shaw Festival this year (see the Emsworth review). The most interesting relationships in the play are between Mrs. Warren, the former courtesan with lower-class origins, and her middle- and upper-class friends (and former clients) in the aristocracy, the arts, and the church. What would happen to the already challenging social dynamics of these relationships if either Mrs. Warren or the men were black actors? Indeed, since the paternity of Mrs. Warren’s daughter is in question, how would it be anything but confusing if all these actors were not of the same race?

Race is already an element in many American plays that the Shaw Festival performs, just as it is in many plays by contemporary black playwrights (like Mr. Moodie, one assumes). Where a character’s ethnicity is part of the play, an ethnically appropriate actor is needed. Would anyone cast a white actor in an August Wilson play? Of course not — black actors are needed to portray African-American culture. Mr. Moodie says one of his plays wasn’t considered by the Shaw Festival because it called for more black actors than the Shaw could muster. I’m betting that Mr. Moodie wouldn’t be happy if white actors were cast to play black characters in his plays.

In The Little Foxes, playing this year at the Shaw Festival, Lillian Hellman’s key lines about the Hubbard family’s exploitation of black people wouldn’t make much sense if the actors portraying the Hubbards were themselves black. On stage, To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t make sense unless Atticus Finch looks like a white man and Tom Robinson looks like a black man. In fact, since interracial marriage was rare in England and North America before 1950, casting a husband and wife as persons of different races in Shaw-era plays would often be jarring and incongruous.

Mr. Moodie and Mr. Nestruck might argue that audiences today simply overlook an actor’s skin color. Maybe so. After all, every theater performance requires an audience to suspend disbelief to one degree or another.

But a director needs to be careful how far she imposes on audiences. As I commented in an earlier post, one of the problems with Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival this year was the director’s decision to make both sets of parents of Romeo and Juliet mixed-race couples. It was a seriously distracting element.

Theater is visual, and appearance has always mattered in casting. We audiences strain if an actor doesn’t look the part. We wouldn’t buy the Shaw Festival’s Michael Ball as Jack Tanner, because he’s too old. We wouldn’t buy Deborah Hay as Tanner, either; she’s too female. (But at the Stratford Festival next year, we’re going to buy Brian Bedford as Lady Bracknell!) We don’t buy Eliza Doolittle unless she’s truly pretty enough to dazzle a prince at the Embassy Ball.

Ethnic appearance won’t be important for every Shaw-era play or character, but it matters often enough that a director usually has little discretion as to the racial composition of her cast. Sometimes, of course, the question of race can be neutralized by choosing all-black casts, as was done, apparently with success, for a recent Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones, among other distinguished black actors. Could the Shaw Festival mount an all-black production of Private Lives or Waiting for Godot? It could happen, one supposes — they’re plays with small casts.

But in general, the Shaw Festival’s perennial need for a relatively large company of white actors will tend to preclude all-black casts. To Emsworth’s sorrow, for the late August Wilson, a fellow native of western Pennsylvania, is one of his favorite playwrights, that probably means that Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, plays comfortably within the Shaw Festival’s mandate, aren’t likely to be presented there. But you can’t have everything everywhere.

Couldn’t the Shaw Festival hire well-known actors of color for particular productions? That’s not its policy. The Shaw Festival casts from its own repertory company. So even if Morgan Freeman were willing to commit several months to acting in Niagara-on-the-Lake (don’t we wish!), it’s not the Shaw’s practice to bring in “stars” to play lead roles. Should the Shaw Festival redefine itself or change its policies to placate the diversity establishment? This member doesn’t think so.

The thought police blink! — Mark Steyn vindicated

Mark Steyn

In an earlier post, Emsworth commented on a charge of “exposing Muslims to hatred or contempt” that had been lodged against journalist Mark Steyn by Muslim activists before the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal. It was based on an article published in MacLean’s, a popular Canadian magazine, on the demographic implications of immigration from the Arab world.

Steyn’s trial ended in early June amidst widespread outcry and outrage that a Canadian journalist was in danger of being punished merely for saying things some people didn’t like. No doubt recognizing that the case (and their tribunal) had become a national embarrassment, it took the three judges four months to figure out what to do with it. On Friday, October 10, 2008, they issued a long, heavily self-serving decision.

Bottom line: the charge has been dismissed. Steyn has been — well, not exactly vindicated, because the tribunal still thought he had behaved badly, and said so. Nevertheless, Steyn is at least out of danger of being punished for nothing more than expressing inconvenient views on an difficult public issue. The decision, which is written largely in thought-paralyzing “diversity” jargon, can been read in full at this link.

Clearly some people are hopelessly confused as to why we value free speech. A 1989 decision from the Supreme Court of Canada, quoted by the tribunal, says that the right of free speech flows from — guess what! — “diversity.” (In the peculiar theology of multiculturalism, there is no good thing on earth that does not flow from “diversity.”) According to the author of that decision, “we prize a diversity of ideas and opinions for their inherent value both to the community and to the individual.”

Of course, no one believes such rubbish. Obviously, a lot of opinions are dreck. We don’t “prize” worthless ideas or ugly opinions; we tolerate them. And the reason we tolerate them is that the alternative — censorship — is deadly to a free society. We know that giving judges or “tribunals” the right to judge the worth of a speech or a magazine article virtually guarantees that there will be abuses.

So Mark Steyn is off the hook (for now). But the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal wasn’t happy with him, and its long decision has nothing nice to say about him. “[T]he panel accepts that [sic] the Article contains numerous factual, historical, and religious inaccuracies about Islam and Muslims,” the judges said. Steyn’s article “used common stereotypes.” (I’ve read the article; it just isn’t so.) It was “clear” to the judges that the complainants “were deeply offended by the Article and its contents;” “we accept that many would share their views.” Steyn is said to have expressed “strong, polemical, and, at times, glib opinions about Muslims,” opinions that “many would, and did find objectionable and disagreeable.” (The judges were clearly among those who found Steyn’s views disagreeable.)

The three judges even faulted Steyn because his article “contains few scholarly trappings.” (What did they expect? Footnotes? MacLean’s is a popular magazine, not a scholarly journal.) The judges even criticized MacLean’s itself for publishing an editorial “critical of the complainants and the human rights process.” (We thought that, at the very least, free speech meant the freedom to comment on how government is working! In fact, we thought that was the most important aspect of free speech.)

Only reluctantly did the judges concede that Steyn’s piece was an expression of opinion on political issues that were “legitimate subjects for public discussion.” Their hearts clearly weren’t in it, but they also felt bound to quote a 1998 Supreme Court of Canada decision acknowledging that the Canadian system “is predicated on the faith that in the marketplace of ideas, the best solutions to public problems will rise to the top.”

The Tribunal complained that Steyn and Maclean’s failed to call any evidence at the hearing and thus failed to discuss the “truth” of the assertions in Steyn’s article or “his reasons for writing it, or the basis for the opinions he expressed in it.” What did the judges think? That they, the judges, had time to hear and weigh all the possible evidence bearing on the enormously complex issue of immigration from the Islamic world? That the three of them were wise enough to settle the issue once and for all? What arrogance!

For refusing to rise to the bait, of course, Steyn and Maclean’s are to be commended. The battle for free speech is lost before it is begun if a man is obliged to “explain” or defend his opinions to the government.