He has hit her before and he will hit her again. As tempers rise and words fly, she breaks a record over his head, and he responds with a sharp blow to her face. Those brief moments in the second act of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” change the valence of the whole show, from a manic verbal jousting match to something uglier and more threatening. A man who was a charmer is also a bully, with an appalling lack of self-control.
Watching this unfold at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in June was shocking, and today, with an NFL star in disgrace for getting caught violently abusing his fiancee on video, it seems even more surprising. As American society gropes towards a zero-tolerance policy on domestic abuse, Coward’s play feels like a carefully preserved document found in some archive, a dispassionate testament to crime, connecting us to things in our past we are reluctant to acknowledge or own.
Drew Lichtenberg, dramaturge for the company, says he discussed the scene, and its potential impact on the audience, with director Maria Aitken. But Aitken took an encompassing view of textual fidelity and felt the scene wouldn’t work, wouldn’t have the same impact, if the violence was cut.
Other organizations are not so committed to the text and the complicated historical cultural baggage that comes with many works that are part of the cultural canon. In May, the Washington National Opera presented Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” with a libretto adapted into English by Kelley Rourke. “The Magic Flute” presents a perennial problem for opera companies: In the public’s mind, it is a lighthearted adventure tale, with a good prince, a bad queen and a damsel in distress. But in reality, if one reads the original libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder closely, it is a thorough catalogue of the dark side of the Enlightenment, filled with racial hatred, misogyny and the supreme condescension of white-male power.
Rourke chose to completely recast one of the most offensive of the characters, the black-skinned lackey Monostatos, who threatens rape and violence, even as he ostensibly serves the opera’s noble master of ceremonies, the priestly Sarastro.
In the original libretto, Monostatos complains that he alone, as a black man, is forbidden the pleasures of love: “All men feel the joy of love,” he sings in his lone aria, “And I am supposed to avoid love, because a black man is ugly.” In her adaptation, Rourke eliminated the reference to skin color: “Other guys get lots of action/other guys have all the luck/When it comes to interaction/with the ladies, I get stuck.”
The race of Monostatos, she explains, isn’t essential to the larger point of the aria, which is about exclusion and the pain, anger and the moral deformation it can cause. “I don’t think they were trying to make a statement about race, but about a character who felt oppressed and turned nasty,” she says. “I think for a modern audience, it would take them out of the bigger story.”
The issues at stake, however, go far beyond a mere spectrum of artistic choices, whether to be faithful to the original work, or make it relevant or less offensive to modern audiences. What seem at first to be simply directorial or institutional preferences about how to present art are, in fact, deeply consequential decisions about history, preservation and moral life. Fueled by social media, and evolving political games and public relations strategies, American society is becoming ever more sensitive to the giving and taking of offense, ever more vigilant about codes of acceptable behavior and language. The arts, especially those that remain a repository of the past, must now decide whether they want to evolve in parallel to the culture at large or remain a place apart, whether to sanitize and correct the past, or preserve it, warts and all.
The cases of Monostatos and the violent lovers of Coward’s dark comedy are only two taken at random from myriad examples across the arts and media. The literature of 19th-century America is filled with racial slurs and ugly depictions of African Americans as uncivilized, licentious and untrustworthy. Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” may traffic in the “n-word,” but his “Puddin’ Head Wilson” is a far more deeply and trenchantly racist book. Much of 19th-century American drama, Lichtenberg points out, is “pretty much unproducible,” especially the vastly popular melodramas in which racial stereotyping is so deeply embedded in the antinomies of good and evil that there’s no way to disentangle it.
Monostatos isn’t the sole problematic character in opera, either. Salacious Turks were a staple of 18th-century opera; Wagner created characters that are only thinly disguised anti-Semitic caricatures; Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” includes a Native American whose lines are punctuated with grunts, bad grammar and nonsense syllables. In the last moments of his nearly four-hour “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which Richard Strauss tried to rekindle the spirit of Mozart in 20th-century terms, the libretto calls for a “kleine Neger,” a little black boy, to run across the stage, fetch a handkerchief for his mistress and trip off as the curtain comes down. It is a small, light, comic gesture, and it still charms most audiences, but the boy is essentially a lawn jockey, a purely ornamental figure whose sole purpose is to underscore the aristocratic elegance and privilege of the woman he serves.
Ballet, too, is a minefield. Many of the character dances that fill out the better part of 19th-century ballets were loosely and innocuously based on European folk idioms, but the farther afield choreographers strayed — to Arabian and “Oriental” dances — the more likely the results would simply be caricature. (An even earlier formal dance tradition emphasized the grotesque, sometimes with physically deformed dancers.) And perhaps no other art form more resolutely depicts women in degrading ways, submissive, weak and literally the physical playthings of their stronger male partners.
One doesn’t have to look too far in the past to find yet other examples. David Bushman, curator of television at the Paley Center for Media, points to the famous case of “Amos ’n Andy,” a popular network comedy program that featured black actors playing buffoonish roles written by a team of white comedy producers. Despite the broad racial caricature, the program featured black actors of genuine distinction, and it played an important role in the evolution of African American comedy. The title of the show, “Amos ’n Andy,” has become popular shorthand for racially insensitive depictions of African Americans even as the show itself disappeared almost entirely from the airwaves for almost a half century beginning in the 1960s.
Even relatively recent American musicals have been marooned in semantic limbo as attitudes toward homosexuality have rapidly changed. Among the songs in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical “Company,” is “You Could Drive a Person Crazy,” which includes the word “fag” in its lyrics. That is now routinely changed to “gay,” and last year came word that Sondheim was working on a new version in which the charming, handsome but inexplicably single, putatively straight male lead character is recast as gay.
Responses to these moments have ranged from well-meaning self-censorship (the disappearance of “Amos ’n Andy” and much of 19th-century American drama) to often willful distortions of the original (a staple of translation in opera houses) and — rarely — clever interventions that re-contextualize the problematic material without eliding its importance or meaning. A recent production of “Der Rosenkavalier” in England made the small black boy a six-foot-tall black man, changing the chemistry of his presence, making the toss-off scene more threatening. With the implied suggestion of sexual possibility, it remains inherently racist, but now that racism must be confronted more directly. The Wooster Group, an experimental theater group based in New York, used blackface and cross-dressing to explore the racial dynamics of “The Emperor Jones,” one of Eugene O’Neill’s most problematic plays, and in the process created a breathtaking X-ray of its lurid depths without bowdlerizing its uglier sentiments.
But often the responses have been leaden and patronizing. Monostatos is routinely recast as a merely grotesque figure rather than an explicitly black one — one critic, in the Financial Times, even praised a 2006 Kenneth Branagh film of “The Magic Flute” for playing “the race card” in its casting of a dark-skinned actor in the role, as if the director had made a bold, unconventional choice. Shylock, from Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice,” often pleads far more eloquently for the audience’s sympathy than the text will allow, warping the deep ambivalence of Shakespeare’s original. In the 1960s and ’70s, Hollywood films were routinely vandalized to make them acceptable for network television, with cuts that made their narrative logic indecipherable.
The traditional arts have been put in a strange position not just by the evolution of attitudes to once marginalized groups but also by fundamental changes in how we experience culture. Social media has greatly expanded the realm of things that are open to public scrutiny and criticism, eroding the boundaries between a polite public discourse and the private realm in which people do and say things that are routinely and greatly offensive to others. The Georgian soprano Tamar Iveri was released from performances in Australia last summer after opera fans discovered that her Facebook page contained virulently homophobic writing openly advocating violence against gay people. She later apologized and asserted that her husband had written the screed. The episode was a curious double allegory of the loss of privacy: exposing not just someone’s private thoughts, but a married couple’s internal negotiation of their public responsibility.
The problem for the arts, especially the narrative arts, is how to maintain their traditional “window on the soul” — the unfiltered, unflinching exposure of our inner ugliness — in a world where everyone is rapidly policing everyone else’s increasingly public persona. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” recast on Facebook, would expose every one of its characters to furious censure; even Levin, its most appealing, who would inevitably be seen in light of his failures rather than his heroic struggle to be good.
The same dynamic can be seen in operation more broadly, in historic terms within the arts. Censoring art to make it more palatable to contemporary audiences warps our sense of goodness, making our tolerance seem magically delivered rather than hard-won through centuries of struggle. It erases the complex, chaotic history of tolerance, especially problematic at a moment in history when the West is given to lecturing the “rest” on new and culturally alien extensions of compassion and decency across gender, sexual and sectarian lines.
Monostatos, for example, is clearly not just an outsider, feeling a little other, alien and put upon. He is black man in a deeply racist world, in which blackness was a fundamental part of a set of basic polarities that divided good and bad, civilization and barbarism, sanity and madness, order and chaos. It is intellectually illiterate and broadly dishonest to claim that his race didn’t matter to Mozart and Schikaneder (especially the latter, who wrote a sequel to “The Magic Flute” called “Das Labyrinth” that only further sensationalizes racial stereotyping).
The tendency to patronizing self-censorship in the arts may also be based on little or no actual negative audience reaction. Are the Washington National Opera, or the Shakespeare Theatre Company, regularly assaulted with audience complaints when they deliver the repertoire unvarnished and uncensored? Apparently not. Lichtenberg says there were no complaints about the recent production of “Private Lives,” though audiences will occasionally send e-mails about smoking onstage, or the temperature of the theater.
This suggests something well known to the authors of children’s books but apparently little understood by stewards of serious culture: that audiences are rather sophisticated about making distinctions. It isn’t, in fact, that hard to tell the difference between an offensive depiction that is a historical artifact, and one that is genuinely felt and newly delivered with malign intent. The rehashed homophobia, gender stereotypes and contempt for effeminacy offered up by contemporary choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (in “Don Quixote” and “The Limpid Stream”) feel genuinely different than the ludicrous and dated Orientalism and misogyny in a ballet such as “Scheherazade”; one invites a living disgust, the other an intellectual dissection.
But it isn’t simply a matter of having faith in audiences, it’s about having faith in art, and the experience of art. Cultural leaders who fret about art causing discomfort to supposedly hypersensitive audiences generally view art as a species of entertainment, rather than an independent and volatile space governed by its own rules (or no rules at all). As a commercial product, intended for a wide audience, governed by generally financial considerations (popularity, advertising), producers of entertainment worry about anything — from intellectual complexity to offensive humor — that will distract audiences from the pleasure of a work. No one expects a genuine theatrical, literary, poetic or artistic experience to be simply pleasurable, and the audience isn’t assumed to be incompetent or ignorant.
To preserve their independence, the arts need to stand resolutely aside from the increasingly complex rituals of giving and taking offense in American society. The demanding and delivering of apologies, the strange habit of being offended on behalf of other people even when you’re not personally offended, the futile but aggressive attempt to quantify offensiveness and demand parity in mudslinging — this is the stuff of degraded political discourse, fit only for politicians, partisans and people who enjoy this kind of sport.
Art has more important things to do: preserving its autonomy, preserving the danger of the experience, preserving the history embodied in the canon, and helping us understand our own ugliness, weakness and cruelty. W. H. Auden worried about what would become of Monostatos in a more democratic age:
“And how is — what was easy in the past —
A democratic villain to be cast?
Monostatos must make his bad impression
Without a race, religion or profession?”
But if Monostatos makes no impression at all, why even go to the opera?