Why race matters

A female reader writes:

I saw Hamlet on Broadway yesterday. Ophelia was black. So was Rosencrantz.

It’d be better to dispense with realism altogether and make it an all-black cast. But, a black Ophelia with a white Hamlet? In Denmark? And, who was her mother? We’re supposed to possess the imaginative faculties to transcend all that, but I can’t.

It’s only a matter of time before we have a white Othello and a black Desdemona. No, this is what’s next: a female Hamlet and a male Ophelia, with daisies in his hair.

LA replies:

Sounds like the libertarian ideal of humanity.

- end of initial entry -

Female reader K. writes:

Casting has been raceblind for decades. I worked on a production of the Merchant of Venice with a black actor playing Shylock in 1991 and it wasn’t a big deal then. =

LA replies:

Agreed. This is a subject I’ve written about before. At the moment I’m not finding the entry. So here’s my take on the subject:

A single nonwhite actor in a white part, if done in a classic play, can work, because if it’s just one nonwhite it can be seen as single exception and doesn’t change the totality, and if it’s a classic play the characters can be seen as more abstract, less particular. I saw an off-off Broadway production of The Importance of Being Earnest long ago in which Gwendolyn was played by a black actress, and it was fine. (It was more than fine, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences in the theater I’ve ever had.) I saw a production of Macbeth when I was a kid in which Macduff was played by a black actor, and it was fine. But when there’s more than one nonwhite actor in a white part, or when it’s in a modern play which is closer to current reality and less abstract, then the nonwhite casting doesn’t work, and it becomes an intrusive PC message getting in the way of the play.

A movie of Hamlet in the late ’90s had the court of Denmark filled with a mix of various ethnic and nonwhite courtiers and noblemen. It was PC and bizarre.

Jack S. writes:

I saw Jude Law’s Hamlet about a month ago. There were a thousand people who had paid about $100 each to see a 400 year old play about “big” ideas with no explosions or chase scenes. People sat listening intently and applauded at appropriate points. Most women were dressed to the nines and many men wore suits. It was like a scene from the early 20th century, before America was overrun and handed over to a son of Africa. My own evening was momentarily spoiled by a rude man next to me who shushed me for fidgeting during a quiet moment. The black Ophelia, Gugulethu Mbatha Raw, was not as distracting as I had feared. If you had not known that Ms Mbatha Raw was the daughter of a black South African and a white woman you might not have noticed her mixed race. I didn’t even realize that Rosencrantz was of color. This inappropriate casting is a sign of the fact that the entire production is a modern dress minimally staged affair that was trying very hard to be contemporary. The production was conceived from the outset as a vanity effort for Law with limited runs in London and New York. Most if not all the theater-goers were attracted by Law’s Hollywood star power rather than any love for high art. Despite this it was a decent interpretation of Shakespeare’s and the Western world’s literary masterpiece.

LA replies:

The John Guilgud production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton in the 1960s (it’s available on film) was also in contemporary dress with a minimal set. Burton was natty in slacks and cardigan sweater, like an actor doing the last rehearsal before dress rehearsal. It worked beautifully. The contemporary dress was not a distraction; it focused the audience’s attention more on the pure drama. You didn’t feel that Claudius was any less a king of Denmark, and that Hamlet was any less a prince of Denmark, because of the contemporary dress. That’s the magical power of theater.

December 5

The original female reader writes:

I disagree that casting has been race-blind. Are whites cast in roles written for blacks without then being made-up to appear as black? Ophelia could have been made to appear white, with her hair pinned up and some white make-up. She was a mulatto actress and this could have been done quite effectively if she was the best actress for the job, but instead she was left to appear distinctly black. I do not believe this was unintentional, but quite conscious. And, even though this Hamlet took place in a quasi-contemporary setting (it was not fully contemporary), the characters were part of a royal Denmark court. I think Shakespeare would have thought it absurd to have a black woman as a black woman play the Ophelia part unless the entire court was black.

Generally this sort of unrealistic casting works in opera, where roles are often given to singers who look nothing like the characters, but not theater. Would Mr. Auster have felt it was fine to cast a 65-year-old man as Hamlet, as long as most of the other young characters were played by young actors? [LA replies: I would not. In each case we need to look at the particulars.]

The other problem with this casting was that she was not a good Ophelia. She did not convey the self-negating delicacy of the role. I’m not suggesting this was because she was black, but because she was chosen for the role for reasons other than that she was the best person for the part.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 04, 2009 11:08 AM | Send

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