By Jenni Tomlin
Upon reading today that our glorious national treasure, Stephen Fry, is playing Malvolio in an all-male production of Twelfth Night at the Globe this summer, I faced an internal struggle.
I love Shakespeare, not only for his masterful work, but also for the rich heritage that it provides for me as a native speaker of the English language. I am aware that the purpose of staging an all-male production of Twelfth night is to underline not only the heritage of Shakespeare and the Globe theatre, but also draw out some of the original Shakespearian comedy in the play. Shakespeare’s plays would originally have been performed in an all-male cast. In a performance of men playing women playing men- you are certain to lose some of the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) comedy intended in the original script when you introduce female actors. The all-male resurgence is in celebration of both the factual history and the literary comedy.
There is a problem however. There were no women in Shakespeare’s original plays because it was illegal for women to perform on the stage in his time. It was believed that women were too weak to take on such a task, that if they acted a part they would be more susceptible to becoming the part, that it was indecent. It was not believed that men were susceptible to the same problems or indecencies. In short, our heritage of all-male theatre serves to highlight our deep history of sexism and inequality. An inequality that raged through the centuries denying women the right to vote, own property, be educated, inherit from their parents, work, defend themselves from domestic violence and hold the same stature as men in society.
I am not advocating that we should forget this history- it is part of our past and this cannot be denied. But should we be celebrating its existence by re-enacting such a sexist culture to this day? Of course, I am not suggesting that the directors, producers and actors in this performance are promoting the idea that women shouldn’t perform on the stage, but by re-enacting such sexist practices are they not celebrating them to some degree?
Sometimes when struggling with the boundaries of where feminism ends and craziness sets in I like to compare it with other centuries old struggles for equality- in this instance I couldn’t help but think about the Black and White Minstrel Show. The Black and White Minstrel Show was an extremely popular light entertainment show that ran from 1958-1978 where white people would black up their faces and essentially act the part of black people. Towards the end of its run, it came under serious criticism for racism and despite its popularity at the time (by 1964 they had viewing figures of 18 million) it is now viewed as something of a national embarrassment- the fact that this is part of our heritage is generally ignored, much less celebrated. If someone decided to put on a repeat performance of the Black and White Minstrel Show simply to celebrate its British cultural heritage there would be bitter outrage- many people both black and white would be deeply hurt by such a suggestion.
If this is the case, why can we all sit and laugh whilst watching an all-male performance of Shakespeare? Are we less embarrassed about the sexist heritage of our culture than our racist heritage?
Perhaps it is because some believe that female inequality truly is history, so we can look back and laugh at such a state of affairs.