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.

Left-wing playwrights at the Shaw Festival (comment on The Little Foxes)

Four plays down for Emsworth so far in the 2008 season of the Shaw Festival (Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), and each one the work of a deeply committed leftist! Consider:

J. B. PRIESTLEY, playwright for An Inspector Calls. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) One of England’s leading radical socialists from the 1930s through the 1950s, a politician as well as a writer. A founder of the socialist Common Wealth Party. Favored permanent wage controls, nationalization of industry, and public ownership of land.

LILLIAN HELLMAN, playwright for The Little Foxes. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) More than a mere “fellow traveler.” Openly admired Stalin and his methods; indifferent to the efficient brutality with which he eliminated opponents; approved the Soviet occupations of Finland and Poland. Traveled to Russia in the late 1930s while Stalin was intentionally starving millions of Ukranians; found nothing in the U.S.S.R. to criticize and much to admire.

GEORGE BERNARD SHAW, playwright for Getting Married. (See the Emsworth review in this post.) Britain’s leading socialist thinker from 1890 until his death in 1950. Admired Lenin, Stalin, and Mussolini; praised the U.S.S.R. Opposed Britain’s involvement in both world wars. Not only promoted radical socialism, but used his plays to attack the cultural and economic institutions that held England together: the Christian religion, the institution of marriage, private ownership of property, the free enterprise system.

LEONARD BERNSTEIN, composer for Wonderful Town. The epitome of ‘60s radical chic. Notorious as an uncritical supporter of left-wing causes during the 1960s; his high-society parties to raise money for the Black Panthers were lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his essay “These Radical Chic Evenings.”

Bernstein gets a pass, since the script and the lyrics to the songs in Wonderful Town were written by others, since the music is glorious, and since it’s hard to find anything ideological in this wonderful American musical (the Shaw’s production of which I enthusiastically recommend; see my review).

But the Priestley, Hellman, and Shaw plays positively burst with leftist cant. And Shaw’s anti-capitalist Mrs. Warren’s Profession is yet to come in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season!

If I took account of a playwright’s principles in deciding whether to see a play, I might have given The Little Foxes a pass. But the play had a high reputation, and we had enjoyed Hellman’s The Autumn Garden at the Shaw a couple of years ago.

But my, how that woman hated our country! The Little Foxes is disguised as a character study in greed and selfishness and a portrait of a dysfunctional family; in fact, it is a rant against American capitalism and a barely disguised call for violent revolution.

In The Little Foxes, the already wealthy Hubbard family (Southern merchants and bankers) are trying to round up capital to build a cotton mill in their town.

But the Hubbard brothers and their sister, we learn, are every bit as rapacious and corrupt as the French aristocracy before the French Revolution, or the Russian nobility before the October Revolution of 1917. Hellman wants us to feel that the Hubbards, and the world of American business and finance for which they stand in the play, deserve the same fates as those French and Russian aristocrats.

Consider all the sins and vices Hellman inflicts upon the characters in her play:

The Hubbards were the children of slave-owners, just as many of the Russian aristocracy murdered by the communists in 1917 had owned Russian serfs. Hellman has Ben Hubbard make the offensive comment that he’d put his aging cook out to pasture “if we hadn’t owned her mother.”

The Hubbard brothers got rich by cheating black people on staple goods and by charging them usurious interest. The Hubbards plan to use their political muscle, probably through bribes, to get water rights for the new mill for practically nothing.

Illustrating the Marxist propaganda point that capitalists grind the faces of the poor by turning them against each other, the Hubbard brothers brag that they’ll be able to keep wages low at a new cotton mill by playing the poor whites off against the poor blacks. They assure their new business partner from Chicago that no labor union will ever be allowed to get a foothold in a cotton mill in their town.

An exquisite touch borrowed from Les Miserables: Just as the French aristocrats famously used to put mantraps in their forests to maim peasants who hunted small game to feed their starving families, Oscar Hubbard goes out hunting every morning in his large, privately owned spread and leaves his dead game to rot, even though malnourished townspeople haven’t had meat in months. He promises to have the law against trespassers.

Reinforcing the link to the doomed French and Russian monarchy, Hellman names the sister “Regina.” Preoccupied with fashion and spending money, like Marie Antoinette, she is both the strongest-willed and the most heartless of the siblings. Regina doesn’t hesitate to blackmail her own brothers to get a larger interest in the new cotton mill.

In one of the play’s crudest scenes, Oscar Hubbard encourages his own son, Leo, to steal a packet of valuable bonds from a safe deposit box.

Reminding us again of those inbred monarchical families: the Hubbard brothers and Regina connive to marry Leo to his 17-year-old first cousin, Alexandra. Fortunately, Alexandra despises Leo because of his cruelty to animals, among other reasons.

When Oscar’s wife, Birdie, warns the girl of the matchmaking plot (“don’t you see, they’ll make you marry him, Zan”), Oscar strikes his wife – perhaps the most shocking moment in the play.

Who would defend such people? Wife-beaters, corrupters of children, animal-abusers, cheats, thieves, swindlers, and usurers, bribers, blackmailers, oppressors of the poor, enemies of the working man!

True to Marxist stereotype, Hellman takes care that the only characters in the play with any moral sense are the “oppressed” characters. Oscar’s ill-usage of his wife Birdie has beaten her down and driven her to drink, but she still has enough spirit to become indignant over the way her in-laws “made their money charging awful interest to poor ignorant n***s and cheating them on what they bought.” The Hubbards’ black servant Addie lays out the moral justification for a class-based revolution:

Well , there are people who eat the earth and eat all the people on it like in the Bible with the locusts. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it. (Softly) Sometimes I think it ain’t right to stand and watch them do it.

At the end of Hellman’s play, the spunky Alexandra remembers Addie’s remark, flexes her youthful muscles, and sets off to mount the barricades:

Addie said there were people who ate the earth and other people who stood around and watched them do it. And Uncle Ben said the same thing. (Tensely) Well, tell him for me, Mama, I’m not going to stand around and watch you do it. Tell him I’ll fighting as hard as he’ll be fighting some place where people don’t just stand around and watch.

Hellman wants us to understand that the Hubbards are not just small-town characters, but are cut out of the same cloth as the wealthy, despised industrialist tycoons of the day. Driving home the connection, she has Ben Hubbard invoke Henry Frick, the steel magnate (also a noted art collector), in a toast to the success of the cotton mill venture:

It was Henry Frick who said, “Railroads are the Rembrandts of investments.” Well, I say, “Southern cotton mills will be the Rembrandts of investment.”

The Little Foxes lacks integrity. There has always been sharp practice in business, but merchants succeed in the main by being honest, by living up to their contracts, and by giving customers what they promise. The industries founded by Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, and Henry Ford dramatically improved the lives of all Americans, and as philanthropists they gave much of their fortunes back to the public – which can still view Henry Frick’s Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Van Dycks at the art museum (The Frick Collection) he built on Fifth Avenue.

Hellman could have given us an fair picture of a representative slice of the business world, even a sour slice (we think of Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance, produced at the Shaw a few years ago, among many examples). But that never would have served her purpose. She knew that revolution would never come in America unless Americans came to view all capitalists, from Andrew Mellon down to the local cotton merchant, as useless leeches, irredeemably corrupt. She wanted us as fellow revolutionaries.

In The Little Foxes, the Hubbards never get their just deserts; in Hellman’s worldview, justice is not possible in a capitalist society. Her play ends, instead, with the little foxes still on the loose. She leaves the task of bringing them to bay, and setting on the dogs to tear them to pieces, to us.

Getting Married at the Shaw Festival (a review)

Getting Married(June 6, 2008) Performances of George Bernard Shaw don’t get much sharper than the Shaw Festival‘s 2008 production of the comedy Getting Married. This show kept an embarrassing grin on my face for more than two solid hours, the first time something like that has happened since last year’s The Philanderer. Only a repertory ensemble whose members have spent as much time with each other and with Shaw as these have, could do a show like this so well.

These actors understand Shaw’s wit and the rhythm of his cadences, and they deliver his lines so easily and with such timing that we hardly notice that Shaw’s comedy is a vehicle for radical ideas about marriage with which we most certainly do not agree (for instance, the idea that polyandry or marriage for an agreed term of years should be allowed). This production goes down so pleasantly that we hardly notice that, in this hundred-year-old play, Shaw was attacking laws concerning marriage (restrictions on divorce, financial responsibility of husbands for their wives’ torts, and so on) that are now mere historical curiosities. These laws were changed long before most of us were born.

Getting Married is the story of a wedding day that doesn’t come off as planned. Instead of putting on their wedding finery and appearing at the church, the young bride and groom are having second thoughts — not about each other, but about whether marriage carries too many risks, legal and social. Meanwhile, their friends and relatives, some single, some married, some trying to become unmarried, are experiencing their own hilarious crises.

Those who might tend to avoid a Bernard Shaw play because of the long, preachy speeches that slow down many of his plays should know that Getting Married has much less of this than usual. Getting Married was written only a year or two before his best-known play, Pygmalion, and has much the same lively spirit as that comedy.

Getting Married doesn’t really have a lead role. But the Shaw’s cast includes so many practiced scene-stealers that a lead is not missed. Chief among the culprits here are Michael Ball as the philosophical greengrocer Collins, on whom all the characters rely for everything (Alfred Doolittle, in Pygmalion, is undoubtedly a relative of Collins’s), Laurie Paton as the masterful, impossible Mrs. George, and the wonderful Norman Browning, who plays the same harrumphing lovable grouch that he always plays, and to the usual crowd-pleasing effect. Sharry Flett, as the gracious Bishop’s wife, is pitch-perfect. It has seemed to me that there have been fewer meaty roles lately for Michael Ball, my favorite actor at the Shaw, so it was good to see him in top form in Getting Married.

All in all, this show succeeds because of exceptional ensemble work. The real star of Getting Married is the director, Joseph Ziegler, who set the actors on a fine brisk pace.  Seated toward the front of the Royal George Theater, I enjoyed the “stereo” effect Ziegler achieved several times by positioning the actors so that rapid-fire lines from a half-dozen actors flew counter-clockwise around the stage.

I hope the problems that the inimitable David Schurmann was having with his voice the day we saw the show have been resolved. Fortunately, they didn’t detract from his performance.

The only jarring notes came during the bows, when a version of the sixties girl-group hit “Chapel of Love” came blaring out through the p.a. system and knocked the grin off my face.

The first time I experienced this sort of outrage was at the end of the Stratford Festival’s Troilus and Cressida about five years ago. As darkness fell at the end of that earthy and revelatory production, we were assaulted with the Nine Inch Nails tune “Closer,” with its immortal lyric, “I want to f*** you like an animal.” I understand that the Stratford’s new artistic director Des McAnuff has done the same thing at the end of this year’s Romeo and Juliet using the Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

Enough already, I say. A great play transports us to other times and places. After the curtain falls, I’m in no hurry to be yanked back to 2008. Even less do I want to be dropped off rudely in the sixties. Directors should let us depart in peace.

See Emsworth’s reviews of other shows in the Shaw Festival’s 2008 season, including An Inspector Calls, Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, and the classic American musical, with music by Leonard Bernstein, Wonderful Town. Terence Rattigan’s After the Dance is reviewed in this post.

Emsworth reviews the Stratford Festival’s 2008 production of Hamlet in this post.