Political correctness takes a hunk out of Peter Pan at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Banished from Neverland

Just when you think that political correctness has done its worst, some fresh horror comes along. What possible excuse could the Stratford Festival have for banishing Tiger Lily and the Indians from Neverland?  

Among all the fantastic denizens of Neverland, the Indian princess is by far the worthiest. Captain Hook murders his own men when the whim strikes. Peter Pan is impossibly vain and selfish. The Lost Boys tell lies about the mothers they never knew. The crocodile is a monomaniac. Amidst these villains and rogues, Tiger Lily alone is decent and heroic.  

James M. Barrie’s Indian princess is the essence of courage under pressure. Captured by the pirates, tied to Marooner’s Rock to be drowned by the rising tides, and facing spiritual torture, Tiger Lily stands resolute, as Mr. Barrie tells us in Peter and Wendy (his novelization of his play):  

Her hands and ankles were tied, and she knew what was to be her fate. Yet her face was impassive; she was the daughter of a chief, she must die as a chief’s daughter, it is enough. She was to be left on the rock to perish, an end to one of her race more terrible than death by fire or torture, for is it not written in the book of the tribe that there is no path through water to the happy hunting-ground?  

A prototypical feminist, Tiger Lily is in control of her own sexuality. From Peter Pan, Act II:  

She is the belle of the Piccaninny tribe, whose braves would all have her to wife, but she wards them off with a hatchet.  

Accomplished in woodcraft, she is a natural leader. Again from Peter Pan, Act II:  

TIGER LILY comes first. She puts her ear to the ground and listens, then beckons, and GREAT BIG LITTLE PANTHER and the tribe are around her, carpeting the ground.  

As the Indians track noiselessly along the warpath, Barrie shows us Tiger Lily “bringing up the rear, the place of greatest danger.” She is “proudly erect, a princess in her own right.”  

From a 1907 book

And to her friends, Tiger Lily is loyal to the death. Grateful to Peter Pan for rescuing Tiger Lily from the Marooning Rock, the Indians guard the home of the Lost Boys and suffer heavy casualties when the pirates attack.  

What finer fictional role model could a girl have? What better symbol of feminist empowerment? No wonder that young women clamor to play this strong, brave, virtuous, loyal heroine.   

But there’s no Indian princess in the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2010 production of Peter Pan, which we recently saw.  Yes, there is a female character named Tiger Lily who is part of the “Marooning Rock” scene, but she’s not an Indian princess, does not lead a band of braves, and has no “Indian” characteristics.  Out of an absurdly misplaced sense that she and the other Indians are offensive to native Americans, director Tim Carroll has cut them out of the play and replaced them with preening, bare-bellied “Amazons”. 

The cover page of a 1915 book illustrates the three-way balance of power on Neverland

Consider the violence this does to the integrity of the play. First, it distorts the balance of power in Neverland. Anticipating Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four by 45 years, Barrie created a violent world with three powers in perpetual states of war and shifting alliances. But the Stratford show has only the Lost Boys against the pirates.  The nameless Amazons have no higher profile than Neverland’s mermaids, wolves, or fairies.  

Eliminating the Indian princess also destroys the parallels between the Darling household and the fantasy island. The play is so constructed that the actor who plays Mr. Darling, who pretends to be a stern master in his house, can also play Hook, who is a bona fide tyrant. (For example, Christopher Newton played both parts in the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan.) The actress who plays the patient Mrs. Darling can also play the stoical, virtuous Tiger Lily. (In the Shaw Festival’s 1987 Peter Pan, Nora McLellan played both parts.) Indeed, the playwright means us to understand that, in the children’s imaginations, their parents are Hook and Tiger Lily.

But in the Stratford show, Mrs. Darling has no counterpart in Neverland.  In fact, the faux Amazon “Tiger Lily” jumps into the play as a fantasy projection of a character invented solely by Mr. Carroll for this show: Lily, the narrator’s (Mr. Barrie’s) maid.

The base of the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Park, which we visited on our trip to London several years ago, is composed of a jumble of the magical and wonderful people of Neverland

Most important, replacing the Indians with bland “Amazons” violates the premise that Neverland and its inhabitants as the ultimate projection of the children’s fertile imaginations. Even in their Bloomsbury home, the fantasy life of Wendy, Peter, and Michael is so powerful that pretense can hardly be distinguished from reality. The children imagine the dog Nana as a nurse — and she is a nurse. They imagine their father as an overgrown child, and that is just how he behaves.  

In Neverland, where the children’s imaginations rule absolutely, the world of the nursery reappears, transformed. We need only look around Neverland to know just what toys the Darling children have in their nursery, what games they play in nearby Kensington Park, and what children’s books they burrow into on rainy days. Especially the books — luridly illustrated memoirs of bloodthirsty pirates! Picture folios of exotic, stupendous beasts (like wolves and crocodiles)! Stories of sailors, sirens, and mermaids! Grimm’s and Andersen’s fairy tales! Treasure Island and The Last of the Mohicans.  Stories of strange, un-Englishlike peoples and their strange ways in the far corners of the world! Stories of the British empire, its frontiers, and its heroes! And more than one volume in the children’s library, surely, about the diverse customs and ways of North American Indians.  

Mary Martin and Sondra Lee as Peter Pan and Tiger Lily in the 1960 musical adaptation

When children play, anything is possible, including a world co-inhabited by such unlikely real-world companions as mermaids, pirates, wolves, and Indians.  But who would really suppose that “Amazons” were part of the Darling children’s fantasy world? The toy chest and doll house in their nursery surely included wooden pirates, tin soldiers and sailors, mermaids, fairies, cowboys, and Indians — but what girl ever played with “Amazon” dolls? In 1904, middle-class English children learned Greek mythology, but one can’t imagine that these children would ever have been taught about giant female warriors who (according to legend) cut off their right breasts so as to facilitate the use of bows and spears, and who (again according to legend) kept men as slaves and mated with them once a year to propagate the race.  

And the Darling children would never have dreamed up the provocatively dressed creatures in the Stratford show. (One blogger who saw Peter Pan in Stratford thought the Amazons looked like Xena the Warrior Princess.) It may be that in today’s hypersexualized culture, prepubescent children may fantasize about dressing up like Lady Gaga. But these were Victorian children.  

(Curiously, the Amazons are played by actresses of ordinary size who hardly suggest the plus-size women warriors of legend. While Mr. Carroll’s concern for the feelings of native Americans does him credit, he was apparently unconcerned that women like our wife might think the Amazons were there only as eye candy for male patrons like us.)

And did the Stratford Festival think for a moment that today’s kids would have any idea who “Amazons” were, or know anything about their mythical matriarchal society? The kids will instantly recognize the pirates, the mermaid, and the fairy Tinkerbelle. The Amazons will only puzzle them.  

Perhaps Brit director Tim Carroll was merely casting about for a people so imaginary that no modern-day people could possibly be offended. But if putting Tiger Lily on stage might offend people, it’s time for people to adjust their sensitivity meters. 

In writing Peter Pan James M. Barrie never set out to show us anything “true” about native Americans, pirates, fairies, mermaids or anyone else.  What Mr. Barrie did set out to do was to show us how highly imaginative children think when they play. As Mr. Barrie announced at the beginning of his play, “All the characters, whether grown-ups or babes, must wear a child’s outlook on life as their only important adornment.” The Indians, like all the other characters in Peter Pan, are only playmates who behave in accordance with the arbitrary and ever-changing rules of children’s play, as illustrated in this wonderful scene from Peter and Wendy:  

Should we take the brush with the redskins at Slightly Gulch? It was a sanguinary affair, and especially interesting as showing one of Peter’s peculiarities, which was that in the middle of a fight he would suddenly change sides. At the Gulch, when victory was still in the balance, he called out, “I’m redskin to-day; what are you, Tootles?” And Tootles answered, “Redskin; what are you, Nibs?” and Nibs said, “Redskin; what are you Twin?” and so on; and they were all redskins; and of course this would have ended the fight had not the real redskins, fascinated by Peter’s methods, agreed to be lost boys for that once, and so at it they all went again, more fiercely than ever.  

Does Peter Pan — as Mr. Barrie wrote it — include caricatured elements of native Americans? Of course it does — and wildly inaccurate stereotypes of mothers, fathers, pirates, and mermaids, too. In conceiving Tiger Lily and her people, these Victorian children jumbled together all the romantic and exotic bits of information they thought they knew about North American Indian tribes. What else would children do? 

All that is true in Peter Pan is its portrait of three children’s fantasy life. That’s more than enough. 

Aside from missing Tiger Lily in the show — no small point — Emsworth thought that the Stratford Festival’s Peter Pan was pretty good entertainment. See this post

The politically incorrect Shakespeare

Statue of Hamlet in Stratford-on-Avon, England

(August 2008) Emsworth finds that he enjoys Shakespeare plays best when he has brushed up on the written text ahead of time. Reading Romeo and Juliet this last week in anticipation of an imminent trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), he was struck once again with the extent to which Shakespeare can offend contemporary sensibilities — sometimes even Emsworth’s.

Take the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet. Samson and Gregory, who apparently work for the Capulets, are trash-talking about what they’ll do to the Montagues if they get the chance. Samson brags,

I will show myself a tyrant: when I have fought with the men I will be civil with the maids — I will cut off their heads.

What Samson means by “heads” is “maidenheads,” and the rest of the dialogue makes it clear that what he intends is forcible rape.

This may have passed for “comic” dialogue in Shakespeare’s day, but it doesn’t seem funny today. Especially after all we’ve read lately about the deliberate use of rape as a tool of genocide in Africa, it’s a bit raw. Samson’s braggadocio may seem mild compared to the viciousness of some of the characters in contemporary plays by David Mamet, Edward Albee, and Harold Pinter, but those characters aren’t comic, and their lines are intended to shock.

katherine-the-shrew1

Katherine learns submission in the Stratford Festival's 2008 show

In fact, one doesn’t have to look very hard for politically incorrect material in Shakespeare:

In Othello, all the characters take it for granted that Desdemona is debasing herself by making the beast with two backs with the dark-skinned Moor, “a Barbary horse.”

In The Taming of the Shrew (also at the Stratford Festival this season), Petruchio teaches “submission” to Katherina.

And in The Merchant of Venice, the avaricious Shylock embodies many anti-Semitic prejudices — and is forced at the end of the play to “convert” to Christianity.

As I recall, last year the Stratford Festival included a warning on its website that The Merchant of Venice was a “controversial” play (much as they might have warned that there would be strobe lights or smoking on stage!). And the program for last year’s Merchant actually seemed to be apologizing for the Bard:

The anti-Semitic nature of the play has caused controversy, particularly in the 20th century. The anti-Semitism is not confined to evil characters in the play, which makes scholars conclude that Shakespeare himself must have accepted at least some of the bias of his age.

Well, how astonishing would it be if Shakespeare hadn’t harbored some of the prejudices of his contemporaries? Whoever thought that literary genius was necessarily accompanied by enlightened social views? It’s a sorry commentary on our politically correct times that a theater company should feel that it needs to apologize in advance for material in a Shakespeare play, worrying that audiences might impute the prejudices of the playwright to the management!

No one needs to make excuses for Shakespeare. We ought to be tolerant enough, and humble enough, to recognize that in every culture, and at every point in history, cultured people of good will have had moral blind spots.  That includes, of course, twenty-first century Americans and Canadians as well as the man who wrote Romeo and Juliet.

Update. As it turned out, the Stratford Festival’s 2008 Romeo and Juliet just wasn’t very good — it seemed a bit of a muddle. See Emsworth’s review at this post. And for Emsworth’s comments on the “color-blind casting” for Romeo and Juliet (which wasn’t really color-blind at all; they bungled it), see this post.

But the Stratford Festival did put on a highly entertaining The Taming of the Shrew in its 2008 season. For Emsworth’s enthusiastic review of this show, see this post. For his comments on certain kinky aspects of how Katherine the shrew was “tamed” in the Stratford show, see this post.

Hardly the most famous men or women in American history

Last month’s Smithsonian magazine included a startling article on a recent survey by Sam Wineburg to determine the most “famous” Americans since the time of Columbus, other than presidents and first ladies. According to a survey of school-age children, six of the most famous Americans are women, and four are African-Americans.

In order, these were the top ten:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr.
  2. Rosa Parks
  3. Harriet Tubman
  4. Susan B. Anthony
  5. Benjamin Franklin
  6. Amelia Earhart
  7. Oprah Winfrey
  8. Marilyn Monroe
  9. Thomas Edison
  10. Albert Einstein

On its face, this is not a list of either the ten most famous Americans or the ten most important Americans. (Mr. Wineburg felt he would have gotten the same results if he had asked participants to name “important” Americans.)

Emsworth offers his own list of the most famous men and women in American history, other than Presidents and their wives, at this post. At any rate, from Mr. Wineburg’s survey we learn (or are reminded of) three things.

First, children usually tell grown-ups what they think they’re supposed to. That’s why no rappers or studio wrestlers made the list. Any kid who’s heard of “diversity” knows he won’t go wrong by identifying Martin Luther King or Susan B. Anthony as a person of fame.

Second, political correctness has triumphed in our history classes. This survey makes clear that history teachers (now, regrettably, “social studies” teachers) are now giving as much time to the better-known women in American history as they are to men, and as much time to African-Americans as to Caucasians. What else can explain the name of Harriet Tubman on this list? Hers is a great story that schoolchildren ought to know. But who would seriously argue that she had more than a very modest impact on American history – even on the history of abolition? And what else can explain the name of a woman aviator best known for failing to fly around the world?

At any rate, my concern is with the third lesson that I draw from this list: History teachers are giving pre-eminence to those strands of American history that deal with the struggle for equal rights, at the expense of all the rest.

Where are the pioneers and explorers on this list? Don’t schoolchildren learn about Lewis and Clark anymore? Or even about Sacagawea? Fifty years ago there were television shows about Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and the boys all wanted coonskin hats. I wonder if boys today even know who they were. Not the Wright brothers? Or Charles Lindbergh? What about John Glenn and Neil Armstrong? Are teachers today embarrassed that Americans conquered the wilderness, learned to fly, orbited the Earth, and walked on the moon?

Where are the generals and admirals? General Washington and General Grant were ineligible for the list because they became presidents, but what about Commodore Perry? General Robert E. Lee? General Douglas MacArthur? Surely we’re not ashamed of the military accomplishments that have kept us free and democratic for 200 years! Rosa Parks was a bona fide hero and a catalyst for the civil rights movement, but what about Revolutionary War catalysts Paul Revere (the midnight rider) or Nathan Hale (“I only regret that I have but one life to give my country”). Do we think that the Revolutionary War didn’t count for much because the Founding Fathers left slavery in place?

What of giants of industry and finance like Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, George Eastman, and John Paul Getty? If political correctness is de-emphasizing military figures in our history curricula, I suppose it should be no surprise if kids aren’t being taught about the men who built modern America, either. When I was a boy, we all knew about the only two billionaires in the world (Getty and Howard Hughes). In 2008, shouldn’t Bill Gates be on a list of famous Americans?

Where are the giants of American philanthropy (essentially the same names as the giants of industry and finance)?

Where are the religious leaders? For 50 years, Billy Graham’s name sat at the very top of surveys of most-admired Americans while other names came and went. One can only conclude that decades of muddled ideas about “separation of church and state” in the schools are making people shy away from mentioning this man of God in the same breath with such secular saints as Dr. King and Susan B. Anthony.

Where on this list are any of America’s novelists, poets, musicians, artists? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, or Ernest Hemingway? Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington, or Leonard Bernstein? Surely Mark Twain, America’s greatest writer and a celebrity of the first order in his day, or Louis Armstrong, the world’s greatest jazz musician, achieved enough fame for such a list.

The survey does show, at least, that the kids are learning something about American’s technological and scientific accomplishments, with Franklin, Edison, and Einstein each making the cut.

The real proof that the kids told the survey-takers what they thought they were supposed to say is that there are only two entertainers on the list (Marilyn Monroe and Oprah). No Babe Ruth? Or Madonna? Sinatra? Elvis?

Millions flock to Graceland, Elvis records are still sold by the millions, and Elvis impersonators still proliferate. Here in Rochester, though, a tiny nonprofit organization struggles to keep Susan B. Anthony’s modest inner-city home open to the public as a museum. My recent visit was well worth the time, but I wonder if even five thousand souls visit the Susan B. Anthony House in a year. Are we really to believe that this remarkable American woman is more famous than Elvis?

We can be sure of one thing: our children are being taught that our nation’s greatest heroes are not pioneers, soldiers, writers, or preachers, but instead those who crusaded for civil rights. Four of the names on the list represent the struggle for racial equality (King, Parks, Tubman, and Winfrey); two of the names are identified with the struggle for women’s rights (Anthony, Earhart). Civil rights are all well and good, but they are not America’s only story.

Update: Emsworth humbly suggests two lists of the most famous American men and the most famous American women at this post. (Presidents and their wives are excluded.) Not everyone who’s famous deserves to be, and some men and women who richly deserve fame don’t have it, so don’t shoot the messenger!