Can we talk about canon for a minute?

I’d like to talk honestly about the canon for a second.

There’s a tiny moment I recently saw a production of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar.

First off, for the record, I’m not writing about the particular production. I’ve seen it a bunch and it’s been in there every time. And so while the moment that struck me was indeed performed in this particular version of the play, but my guess is that the lines I’m wondering about are with all likelihood in almost every production of this play.

What struck me was this series of lines:

Brutus. You are my true and honourable wife,
As dear to me as are the ruddy drops
That visit my sad heart

Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em:
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself a voluntary wound
Here, in the thigh: can I bear that with patience.
And not my husband’s secrets?

Can you see them? Can you see the ones I want to write about?

I didn’t. Or rather, I didn’t really hear them initially, while I was watching. I just saw the scene for what it was – a woman asking her husband to unburden himself of whatever it was that was bugging him. But then, I started talking about the scene to someone and I was trying to summarize what Portia had said. It was when I did that, and had to put her words into my own, put Shakespeare’s words into modern parlance that I suddenly said, “What the hell?”

Portia. If this were true, then should I know this secret.
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife:
I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so father’d and so husbanded

Right? Now it seems really obvious.

Portia begs Brutus to tell her what’s wrong and he says he can’t and in trying to argue with him that he should she says, “Look I know I’m a girl, and by my very nature that means I’m not as good as you. But you did marry me. And my dad is pretty important. Isn’t that worth something of value?”

Can you imagine a female character saying this in a modern play? You’d better have contextualized that character out the wazoo to be able to say something like that and not have an army of actresses beating down your door. But here? Nothing. No reaction. No one thinks its weird.

Brutus responds by saying, “O ye gods, Render me worthy of this noble wife!” He clearly holds Portia in high regard. He thinks she’s the best kind of woman that a woman can be.

But the implicit assumption in this world is that the best a woman can be is never going to be as good as any kind of man.

That’s what’s super f-ed up about those lines in that scene.

So I’m asking: Are we ok with this?

Are we ok with presenting not only the antiquated language of these works but their antiquated morals?

(Sidebar: Can we all be honest too, that though there are probably a freaking ton of women who would die to get into this role, it’s a pretty weird one? Who uses the argument, “PS I also happened to have STABBED MYSELF A LITTLE IN THE LEG to show you how reasonable it is to tell me things.” WTF? Just sayin’…)

The power of the canon is one I still have trouble buying into. I don’t doubt the validity of aspects of these works. But I am not sold that these aspects justify some of the stuff that comes along with them. If we don’t remark on these things, we quietly, gently perpetuate them.

A huge part of the reason I don’t often engage with canon is that I tend not to feel like the roles and stories told about women align with my personal politics or with my sense of equity for women in the artistic workplace. Usually, rather than fighting that system I often find is set up to place women in a disadvantaged position, I prefer to spend my artistic energies on creating new works, stories that I DO believe in, that have the potential to become the canon of the future. While I can see the value of these works from the past, and understand why people pursue this study, that value ultimately doesn’t add up to enough for me to choose a classical work unless it can also be a part of my artistic code of ethics be that in terms of morality presented, absence of obvious and unquestioned sexist or racist attitudes, stories that not only offer women interiority and emotional depth but a sense of agency over their surroundings, etc.

Why are those Portia lines still in a modern interpretation of the play? Just because they might have said something like that back then, is that enough reason to keep saying it now?

For me, the answer is no. For me, a passive presentation of such language is also a tacit complicity.  For me, ALL the plays I present have to support my sense of a female character as fully formed a human and narratively important as a male character. And when I have engaged with the classics on occasion, it’s only when those works either already do that, are tailored in small or large ways so they eventually can do that, or are re-shaped to point out the lack of this quality in an actively examined way. If none of those things can happen, for me it’s just not worth doing.

In the past few years, I’ve required that women re at least 50% of the cast in a canon work. That’s true from massive Swim Pony retellings of classics like LADY M, to more traditional takes like this past summer’s The Tempest, to academic productions like my Midsummer at Arcadia this past fall. And in all of those pieces I also made a conscious effort, especially with student productions, to carefully comb the text for language that might include morals from the past that I find presently repugnant. We need to talk about why certain parts of text are (and should be) cut so that it’s clear we don’t agree as a cast, as a creative space, as a community with these statements if they are left unquestioned and unexamined.

Why this past summer did I cut massive portions of Prospero’s language about the importance of Miranda’s virginity and warnings to Ferdinand to preserve it?

Because even though I see that this is clearly written into the character, I personally find that patriarchal kind of dominance based solely on a women’s sexual purity pretty unacceptable. And I think there are plenty of ways to create a deep and complex parent/child relationship without it.

Because in the context of Prospero’s journey, neither Prospero or anyone else remarks on this as a possibly invalid way of valuing his daughter. And because I don’t value that value system, I’m not willing to support that viewpoint onstage.

If I HAD to keep it in there, because of a producer or purist’s objection, I wouldn’t do that play.

It’s the same reason I cut the classic Lysander line about Hermia being an Ethiop and Sebastien’s about Claribel being loos’d to an African. Because I would never allow those kind of casual and unremarked upon racist statements in a play I was making in the present, so I don’t include them in these plays from the past either.

And look, I understand the historical context in which they are made, but that just isn’t enough for me to justify continuing to say them. When such language is discussed or remarked upon, or featured in a new contemporary understanding, as say, many newer productions of Titus Andronicus do, or are explored or exposed in some way to unseat the assumptions they are based on (as we did often in LADY M) then I believe that the audience will see that my take on this work is different than the attitude of the character. But when such language is left in and is left un-examined or un-remarked on, I believe it creates a tacit assumption that othered identities ARE these things that the characters say they are.

So my rule is always, if I wouldn’t tolerate it from a modern playwright, I won’t tolerate it from a classical one either.

I think that there are a lot of folks who will never want these works modernized and clearly, cutting to change a character’s attitude in this regard or cross gender casting IS a modernization: A modernization to reflect the idea that women or people of color can indeed occupy the kinds of positions and embody themes that were only allotted to white men in Shakespeare’s time. And I think that those who chide cross gender casting for not being “real” or corrupting the text in some way are just refusing to see that argument from the side of the people it most affects.

So lately, I just tell myself that they’ll all die out and I will become the lord-ess of the Philadelphia art scene.

Not really.

Ok maybe a little bit.

– A

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