Monday, August 02, 2004

Artistic discrimination

Will Baude over at Crescat Sententia had an interesting question about whether or not Gershwin's stipulation in his will that English-language productions of Porgy and Bess should be performed with an all-black cast is either discriminatory or enforceable.

This raises, for me, a more interesting question: can a playwright, composer, filmmaker, etc., be discriminatory in specifying that a particular role should be given to a particular type of individual--in terms of either gender, race, or other characteristics.

Personally, I think that part of the difficulty in answering that question is that the circumstances have changed so much over time. In Elizabethan England, Shakespeare's plays would have been presented with an all-male cast; today, though, nobody bats an eye at women playing the role of women in Shakespeare. In a similar vein, back in the Classical and early Romantic eras, songs were freely transposed between different voice parts--and between different genders, so that it was just as likely that a woman might sing "Erlkönig" as a man might sing "Gretchen am Spinnerade."

However, sometime around the late Romantic era--more or less contemporaneously with coincidental with the rise of copyright and performing rights--it stopped being acceptable to make such changes. In Händel's day, no one thought twice about transposing an aria to a different key--including Händel himself. On the other hand, almost no one would dream of transposing the big solo in Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, or cross-casting Blanche DuBois as a man. It's too much of a change in the structure of the piece, and in the composer's (or equivalently playwright's) intentions.

In the world of film, this would be akin to casting Ruby Dee and James Cromwell in Jessica Tandy's and Morgan Freeman's roles in Driving Miss Daisy. The intent is to create a very specific world with a very specific feel. Altering that by changing the races of the cast members would destroy that balance. It's also why Shakespeare can sustain those changes--the goal isn't to recreate a world, it's simply to create a drama. That independence is critical; where it's there, the rules are much different from where it's not.


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