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Shylock: In Defense of Art?

by Ronda Arab. Written on 2017-09-28.

For the production Shylock (2017, Canada)

Shylock by Mark Leiren-Young, first performed in 1996, is a ninety-minute monologue spoken by the character Jon Davies, a disgruntled actor expressing his grievances at the "politically correct" protests that have led to the early closure of the festival theater production of Merchant of Venice, for which he was playing Shylock. His monologue is a fictional talk-back session, the final one for the ill-fated production; indeed, the talk-back was nearly canceled, as well, as neither the director nor any of the other actors desired to face further media scrutiny. Davies is not actually a fan of talk-backs: talk-backs are "just to make sure you don't go out with any . . . incorrect impressions" (6), and are premised, problematically in his view, on the idea that the creators of theater "don't trust audiences to think about things on their own" (7).[i] But Davies is eager to have his say about protests, petitions, and performing controversial drama, so despite his general misgivings about talk-backs, he's ready to use the forum to make good and sure his audience knows precisely what they should think about all this politically correct nonsense that has cut eight weeks out of Merchant's run. And he won't be taking any questions.

Presented for only seven performances in Vancouver's Bard on the Beach 2017 season, Shylock appeared in conjunction with, and on the same set as, the company's Merchant of Venice, with the production's original Shylock, Warren Kimmel, playing Jon Davies. Davies's monologue is intent on defending productions of The Merchant of Venice, and Shylock's purpose, it seems, is to raise questions about the cultural politics of staging controversial drama with racist or anti-Semitic content. Davies describes encounters with hecklers, ruminates on censorship, and disputes parallels between physically violent anti-Semitism and discursive violence, raising challenging questions that are easily as relevant today as they were in 1996. But Shylock fails to tackle these difficult issues with any degree of depth, nuance, or compassion, choosing instead specious parallels, slippery slope arguments, and glib punchlines.

Theatrically, Bard on the Beach's production of Shylock was successful. Kimmel as Jon Davies was wonderful: loose, funny, and charismatic. There was some amusing stage business between him and the stagehands, as they try to cut off his lengthy diatribe and pack up the last remnants of the festival's disastrous theatrical event, and there were good, though cheap, laughs when Jon Davies skewers the pretensions of actors and pugnaciously flogs his reductio-ad-absurdum arguments. And when festival director Tony Q. Fulford, who cancelled the show, tried to make it up to Davies by offering him any role he wanted the following season, and Davies shot back "Othello," I laughed out loud at the brilliant cornering of the obsequious director, despite my aggravation at Davies's sense of entitlement to, presumably, don blackface in the name of artistic freedom. Kimmel's comic timing and delivery were superb.

Shylock is, indeed, a funny play, but it has a tendency to use caricatures to get a laugh, not unlike Shakespeare's use of the suitors in Merchant of Venice. There is Bev Argosy who played Portia but is better known for her role in All My Children and for doing a nude scene with Johnny Depp, and there's Fulford, the festival's "wonderful director," with his "tony" English accent and overriding concern about negative media and the Board of Directors. And then, of course, there is the anti-Merchant, op-ed writing antagonist, Marcia T. Berman, a Jewish professor in her thirties who (oddly, for a professor in her thirties) can afford shoes that cost more than Jon Davies's car and is so well dressed she looks more like a member of the Board of Directors than the young humanities professor she presumably is. (Where does she get all that money?) Jon Davies, however, remains the high-minded, if slightly bumbling, actor throughout. The stereotypes seem intentional—they are too obvious for Leiren-Young not to be aware of them—but their purpose is not evident.

Performance and humor aside, the play is frustratingly problematic. Jon Davies, who might or might not be a stand-in for the author, begins his justification for staging Merchant by bemoaning Tony Q. Fulford's weak defense: "Because it's Shakespeare" (9). Davies is right: creative justifications don't get much lamer than that. The problem is, Davies and Shylock offer very little more. The play insists we should not ban or censor The Merchant of Venice, and I have no argument with that, but it never tells us why we should perform it. Davies suggests that if we decide not to produce a particular play, our next move will likely be to erase all of "drama, literature, and history" (28). Really? Decisions have been made not to perform plays, and plays have been censored. Drama, literature and history?—they still, exist. The logic of one is not the logic of the other, and Shylock is very weak on justifying the latter. Ultimately, Davies falls back on the defense of art: "I was fighting for Shakespeare. Fighting for art" (38), he proclaims. This doesn't sound a lot different from "Because it's Shakespeare." I'm not suggesting theater troops shouldn't perform Merchant, but if you are going to write a ninety-minute monologue haranguing the critics of its performance, I think you are obliged to come up with a better defense than "it's art." "I tried to say something about poetry, about humanity, about—but she wasn't listening" (39), laments Jon Davies, describing an encounter with Marcia T. Berman. Well, Jon Davies, we're listening; indeed, we have paid to listen to you. What you want to say about poetry, humanity, art, and The Merchant of Venice?  

Although by the very end of the play Jon Davies manages to offer: “And maybe you don’t just do the play because it’s art. Maybe you do it because it makes you talk about issues like this” (46), overall, he seems more invested in mocking the overly sensitive who never want to feel offended, than he is in explaining what makes Merchant of Venice art and why art should be protected.  He is dismissive of writers who, recognizing the power of art, have had second thoughts about their own, such as Anthony Burgess, who, it is said, decided on his deathbed that "words are dangerous" (41). To the story of two small boys in Britain who beat another boy to death inspired by Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Davies responds: "to the best of my knowledge Shakespeare has never written an episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers" (41). It's a good line, especially when he adds that "apparently Francis Bacon wrote a few," but the flippancy is infuriating.

The defense of art in Shylock involves what appears to be an incoherent relationship to history. The play seems to deny any significant relationship between art, literature, and history, as though each existed in its own purified realm uninfluenced by the other: "[S]he tells me the history of Merchant is the history of anti-Semitism. But it's not a history, I say, it's a play" (39). And when Marcia T. Berman (the "she" of the previous quotation) asks, "Where would war, any war, have been without the cartoon enemy? Where would the Holocaust have been without the cartoon Jew? If the Germans had seen Jews as human beings instead of . . . Shylocks?" Jon Davies responds, again flippantly, "So Shylock was responsible for the Holocaust?" (40). Well, no, not all by himself. Obviously. But might it not be useful to think about the role art plays in the construction of history? Isn't art's influence on history precisely why art is important?

Jon Davies acknowledges that The Merchant of Venice is racist and thinks that Shakespeare was undoubtedly anti-Semitic, and he smartly insists we shouldn't downplay that. He wants to "play Shylock as Shakespeare wrote him." But while the historical context within which Shylock was written is important, it no longer exists. We can't "play Shylock as Shakespeare wrote him" because it isn't 1598; it's 1996 or 2017.

Marcia T. Berman's questions about cartoon Jews are especially apropos for Jon Davies's vision and performance of Shylock, which she describes, apparently accurately, as a "Sturmer cartoon" (14). Davies's view of how Shylock "was written" (26) is as a "Jewish villain" (27), and Leiren-Young's stage directions instruct the actor to first enter onstage in "full character" (1), "made up to the hilt, complete with ugly nose, etc" (xxii), accoutrements that the actor gradually discards over the course of the play. Shylock begins with Davies performing Shylock's "I wilt take his flesh to bait fish withal" revenge speech, which is to be played, according to the stage directions, "for maximum villainous value" (1); when Shylock calls for "his pound of flesh" the "desire should be electric," "almost sexual" (1).

We now see the early modern stage Jew through twenty-first-century eyes, and Shakespeare is now a global superstar whose plays are held up as the pinnacle of cultural genius. This is the inescapable context within which Shakespeare plays are performed in 2017. As with the unfortunate performance of Merchant referenced in Shylock, The Merchant of Venice is now played at theater festivals whose very existence is premised on the venerable importance of Shakespeare's words, words that are celebrated as offering deep insight into our so-called "universal human condition." Many members of many audiences have been educated to believe that Shakespeare speaks the truth. Should we put on an anti-Semitic play—and a "comedy" at that—under those bright festival lights without considering the immense cultural authority such a performance inevitably carries with it?

Why shouldn't we consider how to frame the ideas and sentiments the play will present? All creators of theater consider the effect they will have, and no performance is dictated entirely by the words of the playwright. William Shakespeare didn't get to control every aspect of the 1598 performances of Merchant of Venice, and he doesn't know either.

When Leiren-Young—or perhaps it’s just Jon Davies?—paints “politically correct” protestors with such a broad brush and so smugly trivializes their objections, he seems not to take any concerns about the representation of hatred or bigotry with the seriousness appropriate for those invested in both art and history.  Marcia T. Berman’s questions are not absurd, and they deserve to be taken seriously. 

I'd like to say that Shylock offers purely a fantasy of grievance, but Leiren-Young is not wrong that offensive content in canonical works is increasingly being questioned. And we should talk about that, at the theater, in the classroom, in the coffee shop. We should, as Jon Davies suggests, “talk about issues like this,”—ideally without trivializing the concerns of other speakers.

The Merchant of Venice is not, Davies insists, correctly I think, "a plea for tolerance." But neither is Shylock the cartoon villain offered here, and it's here that the Davies's alleged appreciation of art seems flawed. Shakespeare's villains simply aren't two-dimensional, with the possible exception of Iago (and, indeed, Iago is more opaque than simply flat). What makes The Merchant of Venice art is that despite its blatant anti-Semitism, it manages to offer its Jewish villain a significant degree of humanity. Davies objects to portrayals of Shylock as "a tragic and sympathetic old man…worn down by the wrongs of society" (26); Shylock is only, and entirely, "A Jewish fiend. A Jewish devil." While he points out that the other characters can be "heroes" without being "world-class role models," he never notes that Shylock can be a villain and also be wronged by society. But that's what makes it art, Jon Davies; that's how Shakespeare does it.


[i] All quotations are taken from Shylock, by Mark Leiren-Young, Anvil Press, 1996.