Imagine, you’re sixteen years old and sitting in high school. The teacher is prattling on about a play some dead, white man wrote over a hundred years ago. Just when you feel yourself beginning to nod off, something strikes you: did the male protagonist really just treat a woman in that way? Is the teacher just going to act like this is okay? Many of the plays taught in schools, especially the “classics” have strong sexist commentaries. These messages are objectionable for many of us in a modern setting, so why are they still being taught? Why are they still being performed?
Before going any further, I want to acknowledge how damaging these messages of sexism can be. If people like Harvey Weinstein have taught us one thing, it’s that rape culture and sexism are still running rampant in society. Art (specifically theatre) can do a lot to change this. I have always felt that theatre is incredibly political by nature and can be used as more than just a form of escapism. It can be used in a very effective way to counter the sexist narratives being pressed on us by society by showing us something new.
However, my immediate reaction is that they should still be taught and performed. One reason for this is that it is important to not censor things in a way that we pretend that those views didn’t exist. Sexist views still run rampant in society, and trying to erase that part of history is not helpful in addressing it in the present. Upon closer consideration, I think the problem lies not in whether or not they are taught, but how they are taught. To state that they should not be taught implies that you think your audience is incapable of separating the historical and the moral. I like to think that a majority of audience members, whether that be a theatre audience or a classroom audience, are intelligent enough to realize that something may be being put forth as a historical artifact, and should be treated as such.
That being said, I think there is a very large issue with how theatre is approached, especially when it comes to theatre canon. There seems to be this prevailing attitude surrounding so-called “great” theatre that says that it is above questioning. This attitude tells the general population that theatrical classics should be placed on pedestals and left there to shine, not taken down and thoroughly examined. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen it insinuated that you cannot dislike a theatrical classic because it is one of the “greats.” Speaking as a young university student, I find this attitude is especially pushed onto us; just because I don’t have a doctorate in theatrical studies, I’m not supposed to criticize great playwrights. Obviously, I’m not saying that this is everyone’s attitude, but it does seem to be an underlying view. To me, it is this attitude that leads to issues in teaching and performing theatre with sexist content.
Obviously, there are issues with performing or teaching theatrical pieces with strongly sexist commentaries if there is no room to examine these messages. Critical to the study of theatre is the ability to examine for yourself if you agree with the message being put forth. If you are told, either directly or indirectly, that something is above your criticism, there is something fundamentally wrong with that. Theatre is meant to be a space of inquiry, not an elite place where if you reach a certain level of prominence your work can no longer be questioned. As an audience member, I can appreciate the production merit of a show and not agree with its moral message.
Another issue is that people tend to confuse these two things. To me a piece’s merit as a production and moral content are intertwined, but they are still separate entities. You can appreciate a play or musical for its spectacle, performances, script or music, but still dispute its moral claims. I love The Phantom of the Opera as a show, but I don’t think the Phantom’s actions are morally acceptable. As apparent as this may seem, there seems to be an underlying implication that liking a play means you agree with its message. Just as you can dislike a piece and still recognize its merit as a production, you can like a piece for its production merit and still recognize its moral failings.
Perhaps the main issue here is that often things are portrayed in a very dualistic manner, especially when it comes to theatre and other art forms. There are plays and musicals, hits and misses, morally good and morally bad shows. However, to me the beauty of theatre is what lies outside of these dualisms and in the “grey area.” As an art form, it is designed to have us challenge its content. The issue is not that we teach theatre with sexist content, but whether or not we open appropriate forums to investigate its claims.
Cheyenne Cranston is an English Drama and Theatre Major at McGill University. She spends much of her time working as a stage manager in a student theatre, and is passionate about both theatre and social justice issues.
Photo: Anne-Marie Duff Jonah Persson