More Strange Tales Of The Great Stupid: Calling All Hunchbacks!

I’ve written about this nonsense before, maybe too much, but I’m a stage director, dammit, and its important to me. Not unlike other realms I travel in, theater and show business generally is polluted by a lot of terrible ideas advocated by a lot of influential people whose intellect and breadth of experience is not sufficient for the amount of credibility they carry.

These are artists whose mission is creating entertaining and compelling theater, yet their craving for acceptance in the knee-jerk wokeness-obsessed bubble in which they work causes them to undermine their art for approval from fanatics who couldn’t care less about drama.

So now The Great Stupid has produced this: Gregory Doran, the outgoing head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, has decided that only disabled actors should now be cast as Richard III. Casting able-bodied actors for the role, which was written by Shakespeare as a deformed, twisted man traditionally portrayed as a hunchback, “would probably not be acceptable.”

Oh, “not acceptable” to who, you pathetic, grovelling fool? Audiences? I doubt it. The Wicked Woke are overwhelmingly from recent generations who are as likely to go to live theater, especially Shakespeare, as they would a Gregorian Chant concert. The playwright, one of the most freakishly perceptive human beings ever birthed? No, he would recognize your silly prejudice as the anti-artistic rot it is, and mock it with eloquence I can’t possibly approach.

Now, we should have seen this leap down this slippery slope coming once it was declared politically incorrect to allow white actors to play black characters. Then the drums started beating for only Jewish actors to play Shylock, and only gay actors to play gay characters (though gay actors can still play non-gay characters—they have to, since so many actors are gay), and only deaf actors to play deaf characters. Next it will be only old actors who are allowed to play old characters, mark my words.

I directed “King Lear” with an actor playing Shakespeare’s most difficult role who was 80, the correct age for the part. He was great, too, except that he couldn’t remember his lines, and the demanding part almost killed him. Yet he was the best available actor for the part, and I would cast him again because he was a superb actor, not because he was old.

Limiting the choice of Richards in “Richard III” to disabled actors condemns the work to almost certain mediocrity, because the pool of disabled talent is relatively small and likely to remain so. Making the disability the prime qualification for the role is as ridiculous as, say, making race and gender the primary qualifications for being Vice-President or Supreme Court Justice.

And who would advocate that?

Wait— is Doran really saying that any disability is sufficient to give an actor a pass to play Richard? What sense does that make? If disability is the main criteria, shouldn’t hunchbacks or at least actors who can’t walk without a crutch have priority? Would it be “acceptable” to cast an actor who was morbidly obese as Richard III? Are speech impediments enough of a disability? Then you could cast actors who lisp, like Richard Dreyfus’s Richard III in “The Goodbye Girl.”

I’m so old fashioned and unwoke: I see the director’s duty to the play and the audience as finding the best actor to play one of Shakespeare’s most showy roles, not to make activists happy.

There is no stop on this particular slippery slope. Only actors with hideously disfigured faces will be “acceptable” to play the Phantom of the Opera, if Doran’s “logic” holds. The actor or actress playing the lead in “Whose Life Is It Anyway?” must be a quadriplegic: now there’s a limited acting pool. Remaking “Forrest Gump”? Only actors with IQs under 80 need apply. And have lots of security on the set of a movie about Ted Bundy, because only an actor with the disability of being a homicidal psychopath would be “acceptable.”

No, this is not reductio ad absurdum; those examples are exactly as absurd as having to consider only disabled actors as Richard III. They are just more blatant examples of the same central fallacy that is infecting theater as well as other sectors of society. Diversity and inclusion that undermine the legitimate goals of the activity it is applied to are irresponsible and destructive.


16 thoughts on “More Strange Tales Of The Great Stupid: Calling All Hunchbacks!

  1. Sorry if you touched on this.

    I confess; I skimmed.

    Does this requirement reinforce the stereotype the disabled people are evil and deformed? Only disabled people can capture the evil of Richard III.

    But, to your point, yes, I believe he was afflicted with scoliosis. We must cultivate some such-afflicted actors to excel at that role. Why cure that condition.

    And , shall we bring back castratti?


  2. Sigh.
    When I was an undergrad, I directed a production of one of Eugene O’Neill’s “sea plays,” Where the Cross Is Made. Curiously enough, there weren’t a lot of one-armed men available to play one of the leading roles, Captain Bartlett, who has “lost his arm to the sea.”
    I had the audacity to cast an actor with two working arms, simply strapping one arm behind his back under a peacoat that concealed our subterfuge. Neither I nor the actor in question contemplated the surgical removal of the offending appendage.
    I see now how horrible we both were. I do hope my post-adolescent folly can be forgiven if I sacrifice a couple of cis white males to the gods of diversity and inclusion.
    Roles like Richard III and Captain Bartlett might, hypothetically, open up opportunities for disabled actors. And it’s worth contemplating whether some character that has always been played by a vigorous young man or woman might just as easily be played by someone in a wheelchair or sporting an eye-patch or whatever. One of my favorite former students worked for several years at a company dedicated to providing opportunities for theatre artists with some kind of physical disability. That’s admirable.
    I also remember shuddering at a production of Hair in which two of the three “black boys” in the number “White Boys/Black Boys” were in fact white guys in wigs and makeup.
    But there’s a line. Casting a right-handed actor to play Winston Churchill is not a violation of ethical casting. Neither is a completely able-bodied Richard III. (By the way… does the actor also have to be English? or dead for over 500 years?)
    Bloody freaking hell.

    • “And it’s worth contemplating whether some character that has always been played by a vigorous young man or woman might just as easily be played by someone in a wheelchair or sporting an eye-patch or whatever.”

      Thanks for bringing that up; that’s my main question about this situation. If the concern is making more opportunities for actors whose bodies are less than whole and fully able, wouldn’t it make more sense to focus on more frequently casting them as ordinary characters who aren’t specifically written as disabled? There’s a lot more of those than there are specifically disabled characters. Wouldn’t that approach have the added benefit of representing and normalizing characters of varying abilities whose narrative and thematic roles have nothing to do with their disability?

      That seems like it’d be far more effective at both of those purposes than focusing on characters who are defined, in part, by a disability. (And yes, the increased opportunities through roles in general would hopefully allow some of those actors to develop the skill to land leading roles as specifically disabled characters, but either way that should become less of a desperate priority.)

      If it’s the last thing I do, humans as a civilization will learn to have intelligent discussions about things they care about.

  3. I stopped a backstage chatter dead in it’s tracks by asking once if I’d be able to play George Washington in Hamilton, once it becomes available. The immediate response was “of course not! You’re… hmmm.” Of course, I had opened the can of worms by volunteering to play Gary Coleman in Avenue Q. When they objected to the blackface, I responded that we were already switching the gender, per the author’s instructions. What was wrong with race bending, at that point?

  4. Speaking tangentially: Having re-red “Lear” recently, in my dotage, after having seen my 90-year-old father into the grave, is there any way to understand the play as anything more than a clinical study in dementia? Lear, the character and his behavior, are absolutely spot on for dementia. Shakespeare could have written the medical/psychiatric textbook description of the disease. It’s such a brilliant depiction, it almost ruins the play for me. Of course, it’s also a clinical description of greedy heirs. Jack? Curmie? Anyone? Beuhler?

    • It’s really the many, many brilliant observations on life, morality and ethics that are spoken by various characters that make the play the greatest ever written (in my list). The plot is really just a scaffold. As nuts as Lear is, he’s also someone who realizes that he’s done something unforgivably stupid, and it breaks him. I find it the most Greek of the Bard’s plays; it’s hubris squared. When I re-read it after many years, I became convinced that Bill was from outer space. Nobody is that smart.

      • Yes, Lear goes in and out of lucidity. Another symptom of the disease at that point in its journey through Lear’s brain. Again, a case study.

        The same day my dad told me we needed to get ready for the impending visit of relatives from West Virginia (we hadn’t received visitors from his hometown for over thirty years), he correctly informed me it was the day on which his quarterly anticipatory IRS installment was due.

    • Similarly, Hotspur in Henry IV, Part 1 is increasingly being regarded among scholars as a sort of definition by example of someone suffering from what is now called PTSD.
      That Shakespeare fella knew what he was doing.

  5. “one of the most freakishly perceptive human beings ever birthed”

    I’ve come to think of artistic genius as the ability to figure things out at a very young age. Under this definition, Shakespeare would be the picture next to the dictionary entry. I’d also include Herman Melville (as someone who figured out American capitalism and its effects on its participants) in this category. Anyway, if you can figure things out early on, and while you’re still in the game and able to make something of your insightfulness, you’re a genius.

  6. Quasi-related:

    I work with a couple of local theaters and recently received an email regarding an audition. It read: “Male identifying actor needed to play a male age 20-30….”

    Can you imagine how many muscles they sprained signaling that hard? Seriously, what’s wrong with simply saying “Actor needed to play a male age 20-30….” and whoever shows up, shows up?

    Why is that so hard?

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