By Patrick F. Cannon
As you fellow Shakespearean scholars know, most female parts in his and other plays of the period (and later) were played by men or young boys in drag. Women and girls, it was then supposed, were not fit to mingle with the disreputable denizens of the theatre.
It was only in 1660 that women began to play female parts on the English-speaking stage (it varied in other countries). Since then, some have even played male parts. Legendary French actor Sarah Bernhardt famously played Hamlet in 1899; and more recently, in 2016 at age 80, Glenda Jackson played the title role in King Lear at the Old Vic in London, a role she repeated in New York in 2019. There are, of course, many other examples of actors playing the opposite sex. Actors are, by definition, impersonators, aren’t they? Why shouldn’t they play these roles?
It has also become common for black actors to play across racial lines. Denzel Washington, perhaps America’s finest actor, played the title role in last year’s film of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, along with three other black actors in supporting roles. Macbeth was, of course, a Scot; it’s likely he was fair of skin and red of hair. But a great actor makes us believe what’s most important about the character.
And many of our greatest actors have been gay. John Gielgud suffered humiliation when he was arrested for homosexual activities, but his fellow actors and most of his public rallied to his defense. Over a career of some 80 years, Gielgud played many heterosexual men, as have more recently Derek Jacobi and Ian McClellan, who were able to come “out” in a more enlightened age. As in any art, talent is the most important trait we look for in an actor.
So, if Denzell Washington can play Macbeth; Sarah Bernhardt Hamlet; and Ian McClellan Lear; why couldn’t Meryl Streep play Rose in August Wilson’s Fences? Yikes! I can hear the cries of “cultural appropriation” crashing down on my head!
And I understand it. Black artists have been discriminated against in this country (and in others too) for hundreds of years. But if the idea of Ms. Streep playing a black woman seems absurd, it does raise a larger issue. Do black artists – and other minorities – deserve extra credit in their marks because of past discrimination? In the arts, I don’t believe they do, just so long as they have been given access to the same education and training as everyone else.
Nor do I believe that only a certain kind of actor can play a certain kind of role. I recently saw an old favorite movie, Bad Day at Black Rock, in which the great Spencer Tracy plays a one-armed World War II veteran. As it happens, Tracy had both of his arms, but he was also supremely talented. Daniel Day-Lewis didn’t have cerebral palsy, but who can deny that his portrayal of Christy Brown in My Left Foot was anything but brilliant? Day-Lewis wasn’t Lincoln either; or a fashion designer; or the last of the Mohican’s best friend. But he convinced us he was all of these.
Nothing good can come of establishing quotas, especially in the arts. What we can do is provide equal education and access. After that, it comes down to talent. This may sometimes seem unfair. I wish I could paint like Velasquez; or compose like Ellington; or act like Scofield. But I just can’t. So I found something else to do.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon