Response: Women on stage vs all-male productions

It was the law-makers of Shakespeare's time, not the actors and writers, who were the real sexists.

By Jo Rush

As a woman working within the world of professional theatre I would be truly disturbed if I felt that a production at one of our best-known national theatres, and featuring a venerated performer such as Stephen Fry, was celebrating a ‘sexist practice’. There are many sexual inequalities within the theatrical profession but I do not believe that staging all-male Shakespearean productions is one of them. In fact, having seen both the original 2002 production of Twelfth Night that the upcoming production is a revival of, and an all-female staging of Much Ado About Nothing at The Globe in 2004, it was the women who appeared guilty of sexism to me, as their Much Ado was full of crude gender stereotypes that were not at all present in the sensitive and powerful all-male Twelfth Night.

Jenni Tomlin’s article makes a basic assumption that Shakespeare’s plays and the practices of performing them whilst he was alive were as much a part of the establishment then as they are now. Indeed, Shakespeare has become such a mainstay of our cultural identity here in Britain that it is easy to forget that while he lived he was working on the fringes of society. The original Globe Theatre itself was built on the south side of the River Thames, outside of the London City limits because in 1596 all theatres were banned after objections were made to the rise in crime, bawdiness, and the risk of plague around theatres. While it is true that it was considered indecent for women to act on stage, it was not considered decent for men to do so either. Actors were banned from taking Communion and refused burial on holy ground, as their profession was seen as dealing in lies. They had no place with decent society and were treated as criminals and vagabonds.

It is fair to say that Shakespeare’s plays may reflect the sexist views of the 16th century to a certain extent, because they were written for their audience, but many of Shakespeare’s female characters find a liberation that would not have been available to them in that age. Viola, of Twelfth Night (the play that caused this debate) is a brilliant example of Shakespeare using dramatic license to allow a woman the freedom she would not have had in the constraints of everyday life and to ultimately triumph over those around her. Admittedly, some feminists may question why she has to dress up as a man to achieve this, but when women wear power suits are we not still dressing like men to be taken seriously? As for the staging practice of all-male productions being inherently sexist because women were excluded from work on the stage, if it was illegal for women to perform that does not make the practice sexist, it makes the law-makers – who were deeply suspicious of the theatre – sexist.

The truly sexist practice within the theatre actually came about when women were allowed on the stage in 1660, less than 50 years after Shakespeare’s death. As a reaction against the Puritan years of the Commonwealth when all theatre had been banned entirely, the Restoration age welcomed women onto the stage and the voyeurism and exploitation of women’s bodies entered a startling new age. It became common practice to include rapes within plays, enabling the audience to see a woman in a dishevelled state and highlight her sexuality. Cross-dressing, or “breeches roles”, a common plot device since Shakespeare’s time, now took on the added purpose of showing off a woman’s legs to titillate the crowd. Actresses’ private lives were revelled in by the public, their reputations being characterised as either a virgin or a whore. And, most disturbing of all, members of the public could access the theatre’s dressing rooms (or ‘tiring houses’) to watch the actresses dress. If a theatre today were seeking to recreate these theatrical practices then there really would be cause for serious concern.

The Globe’s aim in producing all-male Shakespeare plays is clearly to recreate and help people understand an important part of our theatrical heritage, not our sexist heritage, and to display the skill required of the male actors who specialised in bringing women to life on stage. I am thankful that this production is harnessing some of our nation’s finest talents –in particular, Mark Rylance who plays Olivia with depth and grace– to sensitively and accurately bring Shakespeare’s female characters to life as they would have done in the 16th century.

I think it is a great thing for people to see an all-male production now, with the benefit of nearly 400 years since women have been legally permitted to act on the stage, because, as talented as the male actors may be, it is impossible to imagine a complete return to such theatrical practices now that women’s place on the stage and screen has been so powerfully carved out. In theatrical history, if not in the rest of our cultural history, women have made themselves irreplaceable, reducing the art of men-playing-women to comedic drag, so I would say that in terms of the ability to perform women’s roles, inequality has truly become a matter of history to be looked back on.

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1 comment
  1. SS said:

    You have to be kidding with this right? By your logic, women should have stayed off of the stage because it gave men an opportunity to lust after them??? That’s the same logic that says that groundbreaking African American actors in film, should not have played maids… The point is not that Shakespeare was sexist, but that continuing the practice of all-male Shakespearean staging in THIS day and age… is. No excuse for it. Women are 51 percent of the world’s population. We are represented on the stage, in film and television to a fractional degree!!! These companies that want to cast men in the few parts actually written for female characters just rubs salt in that wound. It may be unconscious, but it’s misogynistic. You being a woman writing this doesn’t make you free of internalized misogyny either. You should think before you write.

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