Sceptical libertarianism and opera

Location: France

July 09, 2004

Conservative theatre

Having railed against some of the nonsense we see on the modern stage below, I feel the need to defend contemporary productions against some 'conservative' criticism, this time on Brian's Culture Blog, which quotes from a Kenneth Minogue article on Much Ado About Nothing at London's Globe. Minogue says that:

Thespians in Britain have long since taken up a moral doctrine in which the identities of actors must be subordinated to a generic humanity. By something like a kind of brainwashing, we are to be trained barely to notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors. This may be politically admirable, but it makes for terrible Shakespeare, and often for feebly spoken verse.

The photograph below this quote shows that Minogue is rather coyly referring to the fact that some of the actors in the production were black.

There is never any excuse for feebly spoken verse, but Minogue is overstating his case when he says that 'political correctness' is training us to 'barely notice and certainly not to respond to the physical identity of the actors'.

It is not 'political correctness' that is doing this. It is theatre. It is what it has always done. In Shakespeare's time, audiences were much more relaxed about this. Beatrice and Hero, after all, would both have been played by young men. As recently as the 1960s, our most celebrated Othello was white.

In truth, modern theatre is on the whole no more or less sensitive to the physical identity of actors than in previous generations. A white Othello or male Desdemona would now be considered either grotesque or a historical curiosity, while we are indeed more open to black actors in plays where race plays no part. And why not? I do not expect Much Ado About Nothing to be populated solely with olive-skinned Italians, although the setting of the play would, in Minogue's world, demand this.

Theatre is a glorious expression of the human imagination. It requires us to separate ourselves from the real world, in order then to see it more clearly. To put it in a straitjacket of literal-mindedness is the opposite of 'conservative'. It is actually to change radically its purpose.


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