This morning, I was both annoyed and bemused to learn that Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi, two esteemed British actors, had just been given airtime by National Public Radio, to advance the Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare’s true identity. This minority opinion about the authorship of the canon of works credited to Shakespeare holds that a commoner like Shakespeare couldn’t have possibly written the plays, and typically credits a British nobleman with having written them secretly. There’s a strong whiff of classism in the position, positing that genius can’t come from humble beginnings. But Rylance and Jacobi’s conspiracy theories on this subject are nothing new, and while I have to wonder at NPR’s decision to advance the theory without presenting any countervailing positions, at least they had the courtesy to wait until this weekend’s Shakespeare 400 anniversary and celebrations had passed.
As it turns out, this morning in England, The Telegraph gave another major British actor the opportunity to hold forth on another subject steeped in history. Simon Callow, who I have interviewed (and chatted with casually once, unexpectedly, on the tube), has announced that he doesn’t see what’s wrong with “blacking up,” an old theatre tradition. You say you don’t know the term? Well in America, it’s called blackface, and is widely held to be offensive, insensitive and wholly out of step with modern practice.
Starting with his opposition to the idea that transgender actors should have precedence in the casting of transgender roles, Callow moves on takes the standard argument against culturally specific casting, pursuing it to ridiculous ends. Quoting him, from The Telegraph:
“This is madness. The whole idea of acting has gone out of the window, if you follow the logic of that,” he says.
“To say it is offensive to transgendered people for non-trans people to play them is nonsense. Because you have to have been a murderer to play Macbeth, you have to be Jewish to play Shylock. It’s nonsense.
“The great point of acting is that it is an act of empathy about someone you don’t know or understand. I continue to defend Laurence Olivier’s performance as Othello.”
Later in the article, the following appears:
I ask if he’d ever consider playing Othello, even though blacking up is widely considered offensive. “Is it so offensive? I don’t know. People say it’s offensive because it reminds you of the Black & White Minstrel show. But, it’s a different thing altogether.”
He adds: “It would depend on the circumstances, absolutely. But, there is actually ban on it in my union. You can not do it. You can not black up,” he says this in a way that suggests he does not wholly approve.
Equity, the actors’ union, in fact has no veto. A spokesman says, “we don’t have the power to ban”, but does make clear that “we are absolutely opposed to blacking up” except in “very exceptional circumstances”.
Callow does contradict himself on the subject:
“I totally accept it was the right thing to do to put a moratorium on white actors playing Othello, to allow black actors to fill those giant boots.” However, he then adds: “I can not say that the principle is a correct one.”
It is impossible to know whether Callow’s opinion lurks in the psyches of other British actors of his generation, or whether he’s an outlier (the author of the article does conclude by slyly cautioning Callow away from playing Othello). His comparison of blackface to Robert de Niro gaining weight for Raging Bull borders on the absurd. But the fact remains that he is respected not only as an actor but as a historian (his multi-volume biography of Orson Welles, with three completed and one to go is an impressive work of scholarship).
Consequently, when Callow speaks, he generates headlines, and his position, while acknowledging the prevailing sentiment, advocates for and gives credence to sustaining a practice that is decried by artists of color and their allies, be it blacking up or being “yellowed-up,” as The Telegraph refers to Jonathan Pryce’s performance in Miss Saigon. That Callow, one of the first British actors to come out as gay, finds prioritizing transgender actors for transgender roles to be so much “nonsense” works against the efforts of the transgender creative community, though surely it offers Eddie Redmayne some comfort.
Is this “an English thing,” a difference between American and British racial, gender and cultural sensibilities? Certainly the outcry over the yellowface The Orphan of Zhao at the Royal Shakespeare Company several years ago would suggest that the two nations are fairly close on their evolution towards cultural sensitivity, with both missteps and voices ready to speak against them. I write that as someone who still sees reports of yellowface and brownface with some regularity in the U.S., as well as redface (looking at you, Wooster Group). How the performing arts welcome transgender actors in transgender roles is still evolving, but rapidly, and in the direction of authenticity in casting.
What I don’t see in the U.S. is a famous actor in a major media outlet yearning for a return to the time when Caucasians played black, Latino, Asian, Native American and other characters of color with impunity; I don’t see actors denying the legitimacy of the positions of their trans* colleagues. The voices supporting such positions in the U.S. tend to turn up in social media feeds and comments sections, often with fictitious names. I trust the UK advocacy organization Act For Change will be responding to Callow very soon.
In the meantime, Callow’s statements are a reminder that the idea and ideal of cultural diversity in the arts is still fighting an uphill battle, as evidenced by The Telegraph’s own online survey, embedded in the Callow story, which determined that 77% of their readers do not find blacking up to be offensive. Remarks like these must be challenged by diversity advocates, strongly, wherever they appear. If I happen to run into Callow again, I’ll be tempted to quote myself on this subject, though I need to expand my full statement, which spoke first and foremost to race, to embrace transgender actors as well:
The whole point of diversifying our theatre is not to give white artists yet more opportunities, but to try to address the systemic imbalance, and indeed exclusion, that artists of color, artists with disabilities and even non-male artists have experienced. Of course, when it comes to roles specifically written for POC, those roles should be played by actors of that race or ethnicity – and again, not reducing it to the level of only Italians should play Italians and only Jews should plays Jews, but that no one should be painting their faces to pretend to an ethnicity which is obviously not theirs, while denying that opportunity to people of that race.
In the meantime, perhaps Callow will get off the casting soapbox and throw in his lot with the Oxfordians, if he desires to publicly take on unpopular positions. I’m sure the late 17th Earl of Oxford will be delighted with the effort.
Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.