Roundtable Discussion

How should we treat classic works of art that are not politically correct?

Griffin: So, obviously one of the prime reasons that we love and support the arts is the unfiltered creative freedom that allows for unique self-expression and topical social commentary. However, some of the most beloved pieces of art in our culture, having recently been put under a microscope, have been shown to be quite ‘un-PC’, and indeed many think these works should be left as relics of the past. How do you think we should handle seminal pieces of art, be it theatre, music, literature, or film, that clash with our modern idea of political correctness?


Kailee: I was just having this conversation. It's so hard to know to say because it's such an ongoing debate. I don't know if I have an answer, but the conclusion we came to in the discussion I was having was that it depends on what the context is. But we should still be able to have that art as long as we're prefacing it with ‘This was never ok, but times have changed’.


Isabelle: Yeah, I also think that it's really important that we don't write off all things that aren't necessarily in line with what we believe. Art is meant to evoke something, and if we can use it just to start a conversation as opposed to perpetuating things that are harmful and hurtful, that would be in line with the purpose of art and powerful in a way.


Catherine: Yeah, I was gonna say as well, when I was researching for my article, which is mainly on the appropriation of black culture within the music industry and how it goes not unnoticed but accepted, and then how that impacts the actual people, POC women, in our Western European society, and I came across this term of ‘restorative justice’, in which you can't cancel everything that's incorrect, and there's a lot of stuff that needs to be revised. However, if we immediately cancel it, then we can’t overcome it. So restoring that justice and taking this thing that was very awful or that was hurting, and actually making it something to celebrate for the people who were being hurt by it


K: Restoring it rather than erasing it.


G: Along with that, do you feel that it's okay to take an artist's work out of context? For example, a musical that has some racially insensitive undertones but songs that everyone loves, can you take the songs by themselves or do they need to be complete with the show itself as well?


Sarah: I would say the context is incredibly important. I think that as nice as it is to be able to appreciate things on their own, you don't always realize the connotations of what you're hearing unless you know the context of it. But then I suppose, in the opposite way, I think there are some pieces that we could take out of circulation without it massively harming the arts world because they do more harm than good. There are pieces that have better, more equal alternatives to them, and yet we still do the originals because they're ‘traditional’. And while I understand saying ‘we did this at one point’, there has to come a time, I think, that we say,’ well, we used to do this but now we have this slightly better, more politically correct version, and we should switch to this’.


G: Do you think in that way, though, it's important to know kind of where we're coming from, in the sense of if something's an alternative version, it's important to see the original as well to give context?


S: I suppose it depends on the medium. It doesn't necessarily have to be seeing the original or hearing the original or reading it, it can be just having an explanation of it. So, just because I know about musical theater, I’ll use Anything Goes as an example, which has very racial undertones and has been rewritten about 1100 times, and they've never quite managed to remove the racial insensitivity from it. However, they did a really recent version where they did manage to actually do a good job with that. In the director’s note, they said ‘in the original production, there was this racist like thing that went on. However, we feel that this is no longer necessary to society. It's not funny, it's not relevant. So we've taken out but we're letting you know they used to be there’. I think that's a happy medium because that way, people don't have to experience it, but they still know why changes have been made.


G: So for example, with the recent revival of Carousel, they took out a line from the show that essentially said, as an abused wife talks about her husband, ‘It is possible for someone to hit you and not hurt at all’. This is obviously very problematic for a number of reasons. But a lot of people felt that taking the line out fundamentally changed her feelings towards him. How do you think people should go about editing original works in that way, while still staying true to the original intent of the characters and of their relationships?


I: I think that's a really challenging question. When I think of a line like that, I think of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because there's a really long monologue, where, I think it's Helena, she goes on for 40 some-odd lines about how she wants to be a spaniel and she wants to follow this man, and whatever he does, she would accept and if he was to hurt her, it would be like love. And that's a really essential part of her character, because without it, you don't really understand just how desperate she is for love and admiration, which is problematic in and of itself, but also it comments, I think, on how far we've come in our view of women, that they don't need love and admiration to be valuable and to be worth something. And I feel like if you were to take that out, you would be losing a really major piece of her character that sets her up for the rest of the story.


K: I was going to say, it depends on the author’s intention, and also if the character changes at all. When you're saying jokes in musicals or movies or whatever that should never have been funny but were only there for the purpose of a cheap joke. That's a lot different than Helena's character being that desperate. Is it the show saying that she should be or is her character actually that desperate?


G: How do you decide then, because humor is incredibly subjective, who is allowed to draw the line of what's funny, what isn't funny, what was never funny, what's always going to be funny? How do you go about figuring out where the line is between insensitivity and comedy that's tastefully pushing the boundaries?


C: It feels like an issue of translation where it's not going culture to culture and language to language, but where you're going throughout different time periods as well. And often you'll have it where jokes will be translated, for example, there's one play read for an Italian audience and its culture that the jokes are relevant, they understand, and then it gets translated to a British audience to make it funny for them. So in that sense, I feel that it’s understandable as long as you are keeping the message of the characters. So we go back to the example where the woman says, ‘Oh, It is possible for someone to hit you and not hurt at all’. If you can demonstrate her character throughout action and motion, and as well costuming, is really important. I know often if she wears red, she's passionate. But you know, there's costuming and things that can be done to show her desperation without this line that I feel like is a little bit damaging for especially a young female audience.


K: How do we portray that character in Carousel versus how Helena is portrayed in what's essentially a comedy? She's meant to be desperate, we understand no one's really looking up to her in any kind of way. So I feel like it is a slightly different situation, whereas that line about the hitting is almost supposed to come off as romantic.


G: What do you think the limits of an author should there be, in the sense that, if an author writes a work when they're 25, and all these years later they're 80, pushing 90, obviously times have changed quite a bit and the cultural views of what's appropriate have changed quite a bit. If an author says ‘Hey, I wrote this and I want to keep it the same’, but everyone else doesn't want it to be the same because the times have changed, how do you create a middle ground?


S: I suppose that's about public ownership of art, though, isn't it? It's like when you put a piece out into society for other people to react to, to appreciate, to be part of, do you then own that work anymore, or does that become public property? I think a lot of art as a whole wouldn't work if people couldn't interpret things differently. I think especially with different directors and creatives for plays or for movies or for shows. They all bring their own artistic style. I think it's really, really difficult to be any form of author or creator and have 100% ownership over your own work. So as much as you can say, ‘I want it to stay like this’, somebody will always be there to take it and make it into something else.


I: I guess the challenge to that, and not to you Sarah, but to the idea as a whole, is that when an author writes a book, no one takes the book and makes it their own. You might interpret it differently but you're not going to take the book and rewrite it, because that would be plagiarism and very illegal. So how is a play different from a novel or different from, I don't know, an article written many years ago?


G: So an interesting point along those lines, Samuel Beckett, when he wrote Waiting for Godot, very specifically put that no females are allowed to play the roles in the show, they are all meant to be played by men and that is how they have to be done, forever. There have been cases where companies have actually sued his estate to let women play the roles, and those that have won have had to read out a statement prior to the play saying, ‘This is not how Samuel Beckett wanted it. He thinks this is a bad idea. However, because of x, y, and z, we are doing this’. Do you think more companies should be allowed to challenge an author's original intent, based on their ideas for their productions?


K: I think that's hilarious. And honestly, a kind of good middle ground, similar to what we were talking about with Anything Goes. I think it is pretty important to state, ‘This was the original intention’, because, without that statement, you don't know how much anything could have changed from the original work. But also, there's so many artists and authors whose works are now public domain, so anyone can do anything with them. However, they're famous for not wanting things interpreted a certain way. And I just think of so many people who are probably rolling in their grave having seen the adaptations and stuff going on now. But we understand as a culture that we're allowed to change things, to some extent.


Ella: Not necessarily my own views but potentially a contrasting point. I think we also have to be careful of not falling into the trap of positive discrimination in that are these theatre productions wanting women to play the role because they think it would bring something new to the production and because they think women would generally do a good job, or are they doing it for the sake of equality, almost potentially to make a point of going against the original creator's wishes. In the same way, when Doctor Who came out as having the first female doctor and people were really angry about it, I can actually see why because there are earlier episodes of Doctor Who that very clearly state that the doctor when he regenerates cannot change gender. So are the BBC bringing this in to make a point about having a female doctor and saying women could play this part just as well or are they doing this intentionally against original episodes just to make a point of being PC?


G: Yes, and that's a really great point you make. For example, the new revival of 1776 that's coming to Broadway is going to be all non-male identifying actors playing traditionally male roles. Indeed you could even make the argument with Hamilton as well with the racial aspect- these people are playing real-life characters or real-life figures, however, obviously they're not portraying them how they originally were. Where is the line with that and what arguments can you make for and against that?


E: Hamilton has come into a lot of trouble for exactly that reason. That the minority actors have been specifically put into roles that in reality were slave traders, which is kind of missed out at the musical really. But that to me says that those actors have been put in there, not necessarily because they're not good, every single person in my opinion and that original cast is fantastic. But it does make you think, have they been put in there specifically to make a point. And actually, is that offensive to them, protecting a black actor into the role of someone that historically was a slave trader.


G: And where the line between it being offensive and reclaiming is, and I think that's something that can change with every actor, with every playwright, and with every play. There's not necessarily a general rule of thumb for what the proper etiquette should be for that kind of thing. And in the same way with that, as I mentioned the 1776 revival, obviously the roles written for women in the last hundreds of years, have obviously changed quite a bit in the last 50 or so years just based on societal norms and how society views women. In terms of Shakespearean roles, for example, or anything from hundreds of years ago, even Victorian- how do you think that our current views of women should affect the portrayal of those women? I ask as the only guy in the room.


C: I think it's interesting- Oxford a few years back did a production of Frankenstein, but instead of Dr. Frankenstein as a man, he was a woman and then the monster was a woman as well I believe, which I think is quite interesting, because when you look at Mary Shelley's original thought process behind Frankenstein, I kind of think that Percy Shelley is Dr. Frankenstein and she's a monster and she feels guilty about the affair and all that so there are these intentions behind it but I think it boils down to that we hold these traditional plays and authors and musicals, but it's about actually writing female roles as well because on the one hand, yes, a woman can be Doctor Who, a woman could be George Washington, but it's making these productions a place where it's not just slapping a woman on and saying ‘we're equal now’. It's saying ‘no, write these roles for women, for non-binary people, and who aren't traditionally portrayed’. But I think with race, [...] The Great premiered on Hulu, with Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, and that was a cast where it was very diverse, and to me, it didn't matter because race didn't play a role in that. I mean obviously, it did in history, but in the actual plot, it doesn't play a role. So I think if race, or being female, doesn’t necessarily have this huge plotline to it, it shouldn't matter- I think it adds a whole new layer and idea to the play. Even playing Rocky Horror Picture Show, that's fascinating too and casting that, but again it is up for interpretation, but I think just writing roles for women, giving roles to women.


G: Of course! There's been a large argument recently because the Fleming estate has come out and said James Bond will never be played by a woman because James Bond is, in fact, a male character, and there have been two camps on that. A) It was written a long time ago, people want times to change, similar to Doctor Who, there totally could be a James Bond woman. Or the other camp, which is that James Bond shouldn't be a woman, you should just write new roles for women that are comparable in their depth and prestige. What do you think are the arguments for both sides? Which one is more legitimate? Not necessarily just in this example, but with any examples where it comes to that sort of thing.


K: The first thing that comes to mind for me is that both are somewhat legitimate. I know that's not an easy answer to give, but I feel like the reason why it might be legitimate to change those characters is that you have these franchises that have been running for decades, if not hundreds of years, in the case of more classic literature. Most of the characters are men, most iconic characters like James Bond are men, because they were written so long ago. And so to have that kind of icon as a female or just somehow different than intended is kind of the subversion, but at the same time, obviously, it will be way more legitimate to just create them more diverse in the first place. But that's only going to start changing now. We can't go back and change that from 50 years ago.


S: I was going to say, I think it really depends on the character, especially in this situation, just because (keeping James Bond as an example), James Bond was created to be the ultimate dream man for men to look up to. And if you flip to the role and made it a woman and had a woman do the degrading, horrible things that James Bond does to women to men, men would lose their shit- it wouldn't go well. So I think it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis of swapping some innate qualities about this character and adding something to it, does it add something to the message we are trying to get across about them, or is it just like a whimsy thing. There are some characters who it doesn't matter their gender, it doesn't matter their sexuality, it doesn't matter their race, but there are some where it's a sort of key, innate quality of that character, that one of those features is very important to how that character is and who they are as a person.


K: That's that whole debate about Ghostbusters. That remake, when it came out, they very much purposed to have only the male characters be objectified, and that caused such a storm on the internet. I wouldn't have wanted to be involved with it, but from an outside perspective, it was fascinating seeing people's responses because some people were so on board, some people were so against it.


G: Yes, for sure. And just to start to wrap things up, what is the difference between amateur, collegiate, whether it be theater, writing filmmaking, versus professional where you're making a profit on it? Do you think that should come into play in terms of how much you're able to experiment, if you're trying to sell things to a wide audience or if you're just making something for yourself?


I: I think it's an interesting argument that there's a difference between the two because when I think of a collegiate production of a musical, let's say, you affect a smaller number than a Broadway production, but at the same time, on a proportional scale, you might be affecting the same number. If it's 10 people out of 100 at a university or 100 people out of 100,000 people, out of 100 million- the proportions don't necessarily mean that it's less impactful so I don't actually know if that makes a difference, even though it might just be in your community. For example, we did Spring Awakening and there are a lot of things in that show that are problematic. A lot of things, and you have to look at them and address them and use them to talk about it, and we chose to do that show and not write off the things that are problematic but rather choose to face them. We didn't remove anything. I would assume the same policy applies for Broadway shows, you don't remove something but you use it as a foundation.


G: Does anyone have any final thoughts about anything we've discussed.


Vanessa: I’ll have to agree with Isabelle’s point. I think it's definitely on a case-by-case basis, but also bearing in mind sort of the context in which the production was written and made. I think this is kind of a gray area because the second that you know you start monitoring or ‘oh, this is problematic. This is problematic.’ Where do you draw the line? You definitely risk falling into some sort of censorship. Of course, I believe people should exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. Unless it's hate speech, but I think that some of the greatest artworks or productions that were ever made were subversive in their time, but maybe now they're considered legendary. Or a lot of works that were considered iconic back then are super problematic now. So I think that it's all about understanding the context.


G: Definitely. Anyone else have any wrap-up thoughts? I know I've thrown a lot at you guys, and they've been really awesome answers. I'm actually really happy with this, but does anyone have any last bits?


E: I just want to say really quickly, I think the general thought for me on this whole topic, is that if people are changing things to make them more PC, we should be doing it because that's what's right, not to please a certain audience or to make someone happy or just not get in trouble for doing something offensive. I think that means you shouldn't be changing things depending on the audience, you should be changing it if you think that that's what's right to do. And if you're choosing to not change it for a particular reason, it should also be because that's what's right to do, whether that's because you think it's right to educate people, whether you think it's right to gesture toward the past versions, or whatever the reason may be. You should never be making something PC just to please people but rather than what’s morally right.