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Shylock: In Defence of Art?

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

For the production Shylock (2017, Canada)

Shylock: In Defence of Art?

by Mark Leiren-Young, directed by Sherry J. Yoon

Shylock, first performed in 1996, is a ninety minute monologue spoken by the character Jon Davies, an actor expressing his grievances at the “politically correct” protests that have led to the early closure of the season’s production of Merchant of Venice, for which he was playing Shylock. Davies comes on stage for the final talk back, during which he will take no more questions and will have his say about protests, petitions, and performing controversial drama. He’s not actually a fan of talk backs; the way he sees it “if you have something to say, do your own play and say it” (6)[i]. Talk backs are “just to make sure you don’t go out with any . . . incorrect impressions” (6) and are premised, problematically, on the idea that the creators of theatre “don’t trust audiences to think about things on their own” (7). But despite his general misgivings about talk backs, Jon Davies is now ready to use that 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.

Shylock, at Bard on the Beach through September 15, is performed on the same set used by this season’s production of Merchant of Venice, and Jon Davies is played by Warren Kimmel, who played Shylock in that production. First the good about this performance: Warren Kimmel is wonderful, better even than in his performance as Shylock, loose, funny, and charismatic. There is some amusing stage business between him and the stage hands, as they try to cut off his lengthy diatribe and pack up the last remnants of their disastrous theatrical event, and there are good, though cheap, laughs when Jon Davies skewers the pretensions of actors and pugnaciously flogs his reductio-ad-absurdum, slippery slope arguments. And when Tony Q. Fulford, who cancelled the show,  tries to make it up to Davies by offering him any role he wants the following season, and Davies shoots back “Othello,” I laughed out loud at his brilliant cornering of the obsequious festival director, despite my aggravation at Davie’s sense of entitlement to, presumably, don blackface in the name of artistic freedom. Kimmel’s comic timing and delivery are superb.

Now the bad, which has nothing to do with the performance and everything to do with the play itself. Jon Davies, who might or might not be a stand-in for the author, gets the debate about Merchant rolling when he bemoans Tony Q. Fulford’s weak defence for staging Merchant: “Because it’s Shakespeare” (9). Davies is right: it doesn’t get much lamer than that. The problem is, Davies and Shylock offer little more. The play insists we should not censor Merchant, and I have no argument with that, but it never tells us why we should perform it. Davies slides down the slippery slope into its horrific nether regions by speculating 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? Certainly, we should refrain from the action of censoring The Merchant of Venice, but does that mean we must take the action of staging it? The logic of one is not the logic of the other. Ultimately, Davies falls back on the defense of art:  “I was fighting for Shakespeare. Fighting for art” (38), he proclaims, which doesn’t sound a lot different from “Because it’s Shakespeare.”  I’m not suggesting theatre 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 the play’s antagonist, the anti-Merchant,  op-ed writing Marcia T. Berman. Well, Jon Davies, we’re listening; indeed, we have paid to listen to you. Why don’t you tell us what you want to say about poetry, humanity, art, and The Merchant of Venice

 Unfortunately, Jon Davies is more invested in mocking the overly sensitive who never want to feel offended, than he is in explaining what makes something art and why art should be protected, although by the very end of the play he does manage “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). Now we are getting somewhere.  But while Jon Davies takes the issue of anti-Semitism seriously, he refuses to take seriously concerns about public representations of anti-Semitism.  He is dismissive of writers who, recognizing the power of art, have had second thoughts about their own, such as Anthony Burgess, who apparently 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, given that Shylock, Jon Davies, and Mark Leiren-Young aren’t simply trying to get a few laughs; they are positioning themselves on the high ground in the defence of art, but then refusing to offer anything substantial in the defence.

 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 Tony Q. 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 Marcia T. Berman, the Jewish professor in her 30s who (oddly, for a professor in her 30s) can afford shoes that cost more than Jon Davies’ 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, of course, remains the high-minded, if slightly bumbling, actor throughout, the one with a sense of humour (unlike Marcia T. Berman, who, naturally, lacks one) and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humility. The stereotypes seem intentional—they are too obvious for Leiren-Young not to be aware of them—but their purpose, other than laughs, is not evident.

 The defence 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. 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?  

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 theatre, in the classroom, in the coffee shop. But Leiren-Young—or perhaps it’s just Jon Davies—paints “politically correct” protestors with such a broad brush and so smugly trivializes their objections that 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.  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 it. 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, 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. The Merchant of Venice is now played at festivals whose very existence is premised on the venerable importance of the words of the Bard, 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 authority the performance necessarily carries with it? Why shouldn’t we consider how to frame the ideas and sentiments the play will present? All creators of theatre 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 shouldn’t now either.

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