Reviewing what he called Cervantes’ “unreadable masterpiece,” Don Quixote, Martin Amis declared, “While we are obliged to adapt to the great strange books of the past, they are obliged to adapt to us.” Recently, I was reminded of Amis’s theory of literary relativity when I read that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is once again in the news: a former Black Panther in St. Louis Park is trying to get Huck removed from his daughter’s advanced English Lit reading list. As somebody who not only loves the book, but finds Twain’s story about the emergence of a hick’s moral conscience in an amoral community still vital at a time when race and immigration issues are still, uh . . . unresolved, I was disgusted by this suburban parent’s shortsighted attempt to remove the book on the grounds of shifting PC rectitude. I was particularly dismayed by Gilbert’s primary objection: Twain’s repetition of the word “nigger.” It smacked of the pseudo-scientific accounting the Ratings Board uses to measure offensive content—but this was Huckleberry Finn, not Grindhouse. Was Gilbert really that tone deaf? Didn’t he realize Mark Twain is on his side? After all, Twain is a man who said, “I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't be any worse.”
Then I saw The Merchant of Venice at the Guthrie.
And it made me angry.
Possibly for the same reasons Huck offended Gilbert.
Both works have been dogged by controversy over the years—whether it’s theater patrons calling for Merchant never to be performed again because of its inherent anti-Semitism or parents seeking to remove Huck from the classroom. But while both Huck and Merchant are works by artistic geniuses, one is a nineteenth-century novel meant to be read by the individual and therefore subject to the individual’s interpretation, and the other is a seventeenth-century play written to be interpreted by a director, in this case the Guthrie’s venerable Joe Dowling. So no matter how much your English teacher natters on, or how your local columnist, or even your daddy feels about Huck Finn, your encounter with him is usually one-on-one, on the page (the Children’s Theatre’s de-niggered version notwithstanding) whereas you usually meet Shylock on the stage. Unfortunately, meeting Shylock at the Guthrie, amidst a horde of well-meaning Minnesotans who were all too willing to chortle at his miserly-Jew schtick, made me queasy. Could there be a PC cop of my own buried somewhere in my synapses? Or is nausea just what happens when you choke down a fireball of fury to avoid disrupting a play?
Merchant is traditionally placed on the comedy side of Shakespeare’s canon, and unfortunately, Dowling plays it by the book. But this isn’t a case where the audience can simply judge the material for itself; Dowling’s choices directly affect the audience’s perception of the play’s tone. And by encouraging his actors to play it broad and go for big laughs, he wastes one of the most complicated villains in literature. With such an irritatingly delightful treatment, focused on the Portia-Antonio-Bassanio triangle, he distracts the audience from Shylock’s seething desire for revenge. In the context of Dowling’s light, entertaining direction, a dark, complex Shylock would throw the play’s balance off, so we get a whiny Shylock, played by Robert Dorfman with the nasal affectation of a Borscht Belt comedian. It’s clear from Dorfman’s portrayal that Dowling doesn’t want Shylock to steal the show. Tellingly, Dowling’s Shylock delivers the famous “Do we not bleed?” speech sitting down.
Maybe this interpretation is faithful to Shakespeare’s original intent—a gay farce where the one-dimensional Jewish bad guy suffers his comeuppance, to the mob’s delight. Maybe Dowling is right not to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt—to avoid retroactively injecting subversive angst where there is none. But I believe he wasted an opportunity. Merchant demands to be transformed, to be drastically adapted to an audience for whom anti-Semitism is no longer a punchline. Or perhaps I should say for whom anti-Semitism should no longer be an effective punchline. After all, Shakespeare was never too Shakespearean to cash in on a cheap laugh. Most of his dick and fart jokes still work—even some 400 years later—but I felt strange that his pork material was getting such big belly laughs in 2007. Like Twain, Shakespeare is portraying racism and its consequences (although Twain’s minority characters demonstrate a humanity that The Bard’s tend to lack), but listening to Guthrie theatergoers cracking up at Jew jokes made me horribly uncomfortable. Angry, even. I found myself thinking the same thing my Jewish buddy was thinking when we saw Borat. At the end of the movie, he turned to me and said, “I thought it was hilarious, but I can’t help wondering what they were laughing at.”
Maybe that’s what Gilbert was thinking when he got to the part where Huck’s redneck pap is incredulous that the “gov’ment” allows a freed slave to vote: “I was just about to go and vote myself, if I warn’t too drunk to get there; but when they told me there was a State in this country where they’d let that nigger vote, I drawed out.” Twain’s nasty satire can elicit the same deep laughter Shakespeare’s pork jokes were getting at the Guthrie. And while I would argue that Twain’s satire has a more noble intent than Shakespeare’s comedy, if you filled a theater up with Huck Finn readers, would everybody be laughing for the right reasons?
Bottom line, I think my reaction to Merchant was different than Gilberts’ to Huck. I’m not asking for the play to prematurely end its run. I’m not asking for a surgeon general’s warning, or the formation of a multicultural citizen’s panel to review the appropriateness of the Guthrie’s productions. I’m just a guy on a blog picking on Joe Dowling’s choices.
And isn’t that what this country is all about?