It’s A Suggestion Not A Review: “It Looks Like (Pause) A Small Controversy. Bad Luck to It!”

Dave Sikula, king of controversy.

I ended our last meeting with a question from the estimable Eric L. of Oregon:

“How do you think this incident compares to the Beckett’s objection and legal action against Akalaitis’s production of ‘Endgame?’”

I’m glad Eric asked me the question, since I’d forgotten that particular incident.

Musing it over (thinking isn’t good enough, of course), I have a few thoughts and observations.

In 1984, Ms. Akalaitis was hired to direct a production of Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” for the American Repertory Theater in Boston. In spite of Mr. Beckett’s well-known insistence on his plays being done exactly as he had written them, Ms. Akalaitis determined that the play not only needed to be moved from its creator’s stark setting (“Bare interior. Grey light. Left and right back, high up, two small windows, curtains drawn. Front left, touching each other, covered with an old sheet, two ashbins”) to what the New York Times described as “an abandoned subway station, layered with trash as well as a derelict train,” she also added an overture and underscoring by minimalist composer Philip Glass (coincidentally, her ex-husband) that was, to quote the Times again, “peripheral but supportive, a fierce scraping, like the sound – to extend the underground imagery – of a subway car careening off the track at high speed.” Hardly the post-apocalyptic wasteland Beckett describes.

 ART's "Endgame."

ART’s “Endgame.”

It’s unclear from my research whether Mr. Beckett was asked in advance if the changes were permissible or learned about them by reading ART’s publicity — the Times, in the review linked to above, summarizes the production as “Nuclear Metaphor ENDGAME,” so the cat may have been out of the garbage can well in advance – but, regardless, when he found out what Ms. Akalaitis intended to do, Mr. Beckett hit the metaphorical can lid and filed suit to stop the production. A settlement was ultimately reached, and a statement from the playwright was inserted into the program:

Any production of Endgame which ignores my stage directions is completely unacceptable to me. My play requires an empty room and two small windows. The American Repertory Theater production which dismisses my directions is a complete parody of the play as conceived by me. Anybody who cares for the work couldn’t fail to be disgusted by this:

As the author intended.

As the author intended.

Beckett also objected to black actors being cast in two of the play’s four roles, which caused Robert Brustein, the then-artistic director of ART to bemoan the playwright’s apparent racism:

I was really astonished. Beckett was a playwright who we revered. We were shocked. We had black actors in the cast playing the parts of Ham and Nagg, and we were most upset about his objection to that.

Was Beckett a racist? Who knows? Given Beckett’s boycotting of apartheid-era South Africa and his concern for human rights, the charges are doubtful. Critic Thomas Garvey of the Hub Review defends him, noting:

Beckett always disapproved of productions of his plays that “mixed” the races (or the genders in ways not specifically described), because he felt that power relations between the races and genders were not a part of the artistic material he was trying to present, and so he wanted to leave them out entirely, as he felt they would inevitably draw attention in performance from his central concerns. He was happy, however, to see all-black productions of his plays – or all-female productions of single-sex scripts like “Waiting for Godot.”

"Waiting for Godot" in New Orleans -- heaven only  knows what Beckett would have made of this one.

“Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans — heaven only
knows what Beckett would have made of this one.

(At this point, I’ll just note the cross-gender casting in Alchemist’s “Oleanna.”)

It should also be noted that Mr. Garvey didn’t have much use for Ms. Akalaitis’s production, saying that she’d “pasted her usual dim downtown appliqué onto ‘Endgame’ – she dopily literalized its sense of apocalypse by setting it in a bombed-out subway station … it proved to be bombastic and, well, stupid).”

Now, with all of this in mind, two things occur to me – but, since I’m 600+ words into this – and am beginning to enjoy my reputation for taking forever to get to the damn point – I’m going to deal with them next time.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Adapt and/or Die

Adaptable Dave Sikula lays it down in dire stakes.

“This is a revolution, dammit! We’ve got to offend somebody!” – John Adams, “1776”

Seems like I never have a topic for these little efforts until suddenly, at the last moment, Fate steps in and lends me a hand.

This time, it’s a twofer; two topics that are tangentially related, but ultimately make a similar point.

The first is the New York Times report from Manhattan (Manhattan!) that the “progressive” Dalton School had scheduled a production of “Thoroughly Modern Millie” that had to be sanitized and Bowdlerized (look it up) in order to defend against offending the delicate sensibilities of “several members of the community.”

Now, let me hasten to say that, with some exceptions, I don’t think the purpose of the theatre is to offend. That said, if I’m directing a play by Joe Orton or Thomas Bradshaw, to name but two, and I don’t offend the audience, I’ve neither fulfilled the intentions of the playwright (about which, more later) nor done my job properly.

Let me further hasten to add that, although my personal politics are decidedly liberal, this is the kind of story that makes me hate liberals. H.L. Mencken, one of my personal heroes (and whose level of invective I can only aspire to), defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Similarly, I find too many of my brothers and sisters live with the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be offended by something, somewhere.

If I may take a step back here (and who’s going to stop me?), here are the facts of the case as I understand them. The school scheduled the show, which will be performed by sixth, seventh, and eighth graders, and those “members of the community” (I love the euphemism, by the way) “had concerns about ‘the play’s use of racial stereotypes and references to human trafficking,’ and efforts to change the script proved ‘insufficient,’ leading administrators to make plans for the song revue as well as ‘a forum featuring leading academics and practitioners’ to discuss race and theater.”

While I applaud the administrators’ intentions to contextualize the issues in the show, which librettist Dick Scanlan defended as “a deliberate political choice that (director) Michael Mayer, (composer) Jeanine (Tesori), and I made years ago to portray Asian stereotypes and then challenge them in order to bust them,” I deplore the rest of their tactics. According to Scanlon, he and the other creators were deliberately playing off and embracing stereotypes prevalent in the media of the 1920s in order to force their audiences to confront them. As I wrote in my last column, I’m a believer in challenging audiences’ assumptions and preconceptions and making them defend their beliefs, rather than comforting them.

In the Times article, Ellen Stein, one of the school’s administrators, is quoted as saying “that the school would perform a new version ‘recrafted by some members of the cast, with the playwright’s permission and generous cooperation.’” Scanlan responded “that he and the show’s composer, Jeanine Tesori, had approved the school’s sanitized version of ‘Millie’ and suggested some new lyrics and other ideas.”

My takeaway from that is that the “members of the community” decided that the show they’d applied for and been licensed to perform didn’t meet their personal standards for (dare I say it?) political correctness, and rewrote the “offensive” material, and then – and only then – went to the creators (and for that, they deserve credit) to ask approval, an approval that was granted to prevent the kids from being disappointed.

Now, I don’t doubt that there are plot points raised in the show that some of the kids might not appreciate, either historically or as satire. But does that mean that they have to be protected from them rather than having them explained and contextualized? I’ve mentioned one of my favorite quotes before; that “euphemizing the past excuses it.” Some might even see the logical end of this mindset is censoring any book, movie, television show, or music that has politics or characters that don’t meet with current standards. Most movies of the 20s through the 80s probably portray women in a sexist manner – and don’t even get me started on the way minority groups are represented. There are any number of songs of the 1910s and ‘20s that modern ears would find incredibly racist. Books like “Huckleberry Finn” have already been sanitized into nonsense. All of this was done in order to prevent delicate sensibilities from having to confront the sins of the past. Please note: I’m not saying none of these works can be considered unoffensive. A lot of them are, but to discard them without trying to understand the cultural mindset that created and supported them is something that I find personally offensive.

All of this goes along (as I said, tangentially) with Melissa Hillman’s blog post of earlier this week that elegantly takes to task directors and producers who take it upon themselves to rewrite the works of playwrights whose work they’ve licensed to produce, without obtaining the prior approval of those creators. I consider the case Ms. Hillman cites (Frank Galati – who is usually a very good director – taking it upon himself to rewrite Brian Friel’s “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about which, more here…) to be different from the “Millie” case in that, with the Friel, the director chose to rewrite the play for artistic reasons (i.e., he knows better than the playwright how it should be presented) and the Dalton School changed the show to avoid giving offense.

My ultimate points are these: Firstly, if you can’t do a show without making wholesale changes, don’t produce it. If you think a show is so flawed that only your genius can rescue it, you’re probably doing the wrong show in the first place, and should write your own play that will showcase your brilliance. Or, if those ideas are burning a hole in your figurative artistic pocket, approach the writers or licensors in advance. If the alterations are as good as you think, they might go along with them. I know that when I’ve approached writers about changes or alternate versions of scripts, they’ve been very approachable and (mostly) amenable to small changes (lines, business, music cues, etc.). They haven’t always approved them, but they’ve been open to being approached. (I had a wonderful hour-long conversation with Jules Feiffer when I directed his “The White House Murder Case.” It was a political satire that didn’t need changing, but I wondered if he’d had any thoughts on it in the 35 years since he’d written it).

Secondly – and, to me, more importantly – give your audiences some credit. Don’t think they need to be protected. Challenge them. If you’re producing a show with members of minority groups who are portrayed unfortunately, help your audience understand why those portrayals exist and why you think that, in spite of the unfortunate elements, the work is still worthy of production. The only way to defeat the stereotypes is to confront and defeat them, not hide them away in fear.

Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Macbeth is a Middle-Aged White Guy

Marissa Skudlarek is not afraid to say “Macbeth” as many times as she’s worried she might have to see it.

“Do we really need another Macbeth right now?” Jason Zinoman wrote in last Sunday’s New York Times. “A new revival, this one starring Ethan Hawke, opened on Nov. 21, four months after the previous Broadway production, starring Alan Cumming, closed. If you fail to see Mr. Hawke reveal what life, which as we know is full of sound and fury, signifies, not to worry: Kenneth Branagh will fill you in next spring, when he brings his production of Macbeth to New York.”

And that’s not counting Patrick Stewart’s Broadway Macbeth from 2008, or Kelsey Grammer’s from 2000, or the Macbeth film that’s currently in production starring Michael Fassbender. Or the ultra-hip, Macbeth-riffing theater piece Sleep No More. Closer to home, there were two Macbeth productions in the Presidio in September of this year (SF Shakespeare Festival and We Players). While actual statistics are hard to come by, it wouldn’t surprise me if Macbeth were Shakespeare’s most frequently-produced tragedy in the 21st century. And I’m pretty sure that it’s the Shakespeare play I’ve seen most frequently (even though it’s not actually one of my favorites).

So what accounts for the play’s massive popularity? Some people will point out that it’s Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy, and therefore suited to a short-attention-span modern audience. Others will argue that any play that features witches, apparitions, madness, and a big swordfight in the last scene is bound to be popular. (But Hamlet has all of those things except witches, and it isn’t produced nearly so often.) Others will propose that Macbeth’s “timeless themes” – ambition, corruption, guilt – explain its continued renown. But are its themes really more timeless, more worth hearing, than those of Shakespeare’s other great plays?

Instead, I want to propose a clean, practical explanation. Zinoman writes that “simple old-fashioned star power” lies behind many recent Shakespeare revivals: “The great Shakespeare roles still have the most cultural cachet for actors, who get taken more seriously and, in many cases, are energized by performing the parts they read or tackled in school.”

And what are the “great Shakespeare roles”? Conventional wisdom has it that Shakespeare’s tragedies are “greater” than his comedies and that, of his dozen or so tragedies, four stand out above the rest: Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, and Macbeth. So let’s examine the heroes of those four tragedies, and what characteristics an actor must have to portray them.

Hamlet’s age is a matter of some debate, but he’s clearly a young man, a student at the University of Wittenberg. He must appear young enough, untried enough, for it not to seem weird that the Danes have allowed Claudius to take the throne, rather than crowning Hamlet. People often talk about the difficulty of finding the right actor for the role: by the time you have the technique to tackle such a massive part, you look too old to do it. While it is rare for a man who’s literally college-aged to play Hamlet these days, it’s still a young man’s game. My sense is that once you get to be about 35, you’re too old to play Hamlet.

Meanwhile, King Lear is an old man: a white-haired king, giving up his throne and going senile. The text specifies that Lear is over eighty (“four score and upward”) but again, it can be difficult to imagine a real eighty-year-old with the stamina to tackle this massive role, not to mention the strength to carry Cordelia’s corpse onstage in the last scene. A too-youthful Lear, though, is equally ridiculous. Let’s say that, generally speaking, the role should be played by a man who’s at least 65.

Then we come to Othello. He’s middle-aged: a powerful general who has seen much adventure and is considerably older than his young bride Desdemona, but is still in the vigorous prime of life. And – oh, yeah – he’s black. Thankfully, our theater no longer finds it acceptable for actors of other races to put on blackface to play Othello; but what this means is that only a subset of actors can put this role on their wish list.

So what do you do if you want to play a great Shakespearean tragic hero, but you’re not old, not young, and not black? You play Macbeth. And who has the most power in the Anglo-American theater? What stars tend to be the biggest box-office draws? Middle-aged white men.

Michael Fassbender is 36; Ethan Hawke is 43; Alan Cumming is 48; Kenneth Branagh is 53. Of the four “great” Shakespearean heroes, Macbeth is the only one they can play, the only one that’s open to them at this stage in their lives. The window for playing Hamlet or Lear is narrow; Macbeth could be any age from 35 to 65. Certainly, there are other excellent Shakespearean roles for men in this age range – Richard III, say, or Brutus – but those plays don’t quite have the cultural cachet, or box-office appeal, of the Hamlet-Lear-Othello-Macbeth quartet.

And why are those considered Shakespeare’s four greatest plays, anyway? Why do we privilege tragedy over comedy? Could it be (at least in part) because tragedy is a more “masculine” genre, but Shakespeare’s greatest comedies tend to be female-dominated? Rosalind and Beatrice and Viola are amazing roles – yet we somehow consider it a far more daunting, courageous task for a young actor to play Hamlet than for a young actress to play Rosalind. People ooh and aah over Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Olivia in the all-male Twelfth Night that’s currently on Broadway; people never gush about female Olivias in the same way.

Our theater continues to privilege middle-aged white men over women and minorities; tragedy over comedy; Shakespeare over all other dramatists; familiarity over risk. That is the reason that Macbeth continues to haunt our stages. That is the play’s real curse.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. She’s still a little irritated that she didn’t get cast as Witch #2 in her high-school production of Macbeth. For more about Marissa, check out or @MarissaSkud on Twitter.