Casting Ethics: A Black Joan Of Arc?

Sure, why not?

From Playbill:

Manhattan Theatre Club has announced a Broadway revival of “Saint Joan” by Nobel Prize and Oscar winner George Bernard Shaw with direction by Tony winner Daniel Sullivan. Heading the cast as the famous heroine will be Condola Rashad, fresh off her Tony-nominated performance in “A Doll’s House, Part 2.”

Superficially, at least, the casting of Rashad, an African American actress, as the famous “Maid of Orléans,” the French teenager who gained political and military power as a self-proclaimed messenger of God and who was burned at the stake, would seem like precisely the kind of stunt non-traditional casting that I have condemned by subjugating the intent and art of a playwright to affirmative action and virtue-signaling. However, this is not a legitimate objection to this casting choice, and in fact the upcoming Broadway production is as close to a perfect example of how creative casting can enliven a production and deepen its ability to make an audience think.

Joan of Arc, of course, was not black. Nor was she Swedish, though Ingrid Bergman played her memorably enough in the most famous Hollywood version of  Shaw’s play, She also didn’t speak English, and certainly not Shavian English. She spoke French. Ethnicity, race and color are not part of Shaw’s drama, however, nor are they relevant to what Joan of Arc did in life, and what she meant to her nation, its history and our shared Western culture.

How many public schools teach anything about Joan of Arc? How many U.S. students graduate completely ignorant of the historical Joan, not to mention Shaw’s version? Yet hers is one of the most remarkable stories in recorded history.

Joan of Arc was born around 1412, the daughter of a tenant farmer, Jacques d’Arc, from the village of Domrémy, in northeastern France. She was illiterate, as were most  of her class and gender, but also was indoctrinated into the teachings of the Catholic Church by her mother.  France was engaged in what we now call the Hundred Years’ War with England, and England had France by the throat.  A forced  treaty in 1420 disinherited  Charles, French crown prince, and England’s King Henry V—there’s a famous play about him, too– was made ruler of both England and France. Upon his father’s death, Henry VI succeeded him as king in 1422. At this point England occupied much of northern France, and many in Joan’s village, Domrémy, were forced to abandon their homes under threat of invasion.

Thirteen year-old  Joan began to hear voices in her head. Today we think the cause was tinnitus, but she was certain God was assigning her the mission of  saving France by defeating the English, and installing Charles as its the rightful king. Joan took a vow of chastity, as part of her bargain with God; this allowed her to reject a marriage her father arranged for her when she was 16.

Around this time, Joan traveled by herself to  Vaucouleurs, a nearby stronghold of those loyal to Charles. With her faith and her persuasive claim of being a holy messenger, she attracted a small band of followers who were convinced her sudden appearance was the the result of a popular prophecy coming true, and that she was destined to save France. Joan cut her hair short and dressed in men’s clothes to make an 11-day journey across enemy territory to Chinon, where the crown prince’s palace stood. She met with the young man, and convinced him that she was the Real McCoy (they didn’t use that phrase in France, of course)  by allegedly telling him things only God would know. She also  promised Charles that she would see him crowned king at Reims, the traditional site of French royal investiture, and asked him to give her an army to lead to Orléans, then under siege from the English.

Charles granted her request. Think about this for a bit. A strange teenage girl, dressed like a boy and claiming to hear voices, meets with the leader of a nation at war and convinces him to put her in charge of an army.

Amazing. Continue reading

“The Affair” Smears An American War Hero

The General and friend.

                             The General and friend.

“The Affair,” Showtime’s much lauded soap opera, wrapped up its season yesterday, without me. There are some things I won’t forgive, and sliming the legacy and reputation of long dead individuals of character and accomplishment is one of them.”The Affair” was guilty of that the previous week. It is dead to me.

The background: General Omar Bradley is increasingly accorded credit for planning D-Day, and thus is owed a large share of the world’s gratitude for winning World War II. He was not flamboyant like Patton or MacArthur, and had no political aspirations, so despite his remarkable life in service of the United States, Omar Bradley is an undeservedly obscure historical figure. He is, also, beyond any controversy, an American hero.

He also was an especially ethical one, as indicated by three of his better known quotes:

“It is time that we steered by the stars, not by the lights of each passing ship.”

“We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. The world has achieved brilliance without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”

“Dependability, integrity, the characteristic of never knowingly doing anything wrong, that you would never cheat anyone, that you would give everybody a fair deal. Character is a sort of an all-inclusive thing. If a man has character, everyone has confidence in him. Soldiers must have confidence in their leader.”

Why the writers of “The Affair” decided smear Bradley, I cannot fathom. Nonetheless, any viewers of the show that watched the penultimate episode and who didn’t know who Bradley was, and many who did, left it with the belief that Bradley, a who by all accounts was faithfully and lovingly married to the his first wife throughout the war and until her death, had an affair with actress Marlene Dietrich, who traveled with the U.S. Army for nearly two years at the end of the war. “The Affair’s” self-obsessed and perpetually horny protagonist, a successful novelist, told his therapist—and boy, does he need one–that his new book would be a historical novel about Omar Bradley. Then he said that he was tempted to skip the affair with Marlene Dietrich, but then that was the most interesting thing about Bradley to him. Continue reading

Ethics Dunces: “The Walking Dead”

Fool me once, shame on you...

Fool me once, shame on you…

The producers and writers of  AMC’s “The Walking Dead” must be all puffed up with pride, squeezing three weeks of artificially-goosed ratings by faking the death of a major character and then bringing him back safe and sound tonight as blithely as they used to do with Pearl White in the old “Perils of Pauline” serials after the previous episode ended with a buzz-saw  inches from bisecting her, or with a speeding locamotive yards away with Pearl lashed to the tracks. (No, damn you, I’m not THAT old!)

Well, they can be proud without me. I don’t appreciated any show treating me like a fool, and that’s exactly what “The Walking Dead” did with this cheapest of cheap stunts. This is drama, not “Die Hard,” not “Days of Our Lives,” and not Gilbert and Sullivan. Silly resolutions of crises are expected in those and other genres, and an audience is forewarned and consents to the absurdities to come; it’s part of the fun. “The Walking Dead,” in contrast, has presented itself as an uncompromising, raw, nihilistic survivalist study of a hopeless and deadly world where death is lurking everywhere, and even heroes (who are barely heroes anyway) aren’t safe. It is the constant threat of a horrible death that give the show its legitimacy and its characters weight.

Take that away, and the the show is pointless gore, just a special effects exhibition with a repetitious plot attached. I know most people don’t demand integrity from their elected leaders or their entertainment, but I do. The producers and writers of “The Walking Dead” think lying is cute and profitable. I supposed its ovine fans will prove them right.

I say its unethical, and I say to hell with them.

Update: Actor Steven Yuen, who plays the now miraculously alive character, said after the show aired:

“I think it proves that this world still can take that story of the good guy winning sometimes. I really like the fact that it’s not this bent of always seeking out something miserable happening on television or something terrible and sulking on that and rather just really accepting the fact that sometimes good guys survive.”

Baloney. What this proves is that this world, which knows that good guys die all the time, can be gulled into caring about the demise of a fictional character as if that character is worth caring about, when it is is in fact just a tool of commerce and emotional manipulation by a creative force that has no interest in any artistic or philosphicaltruths, only a cynical commercial one.

 

The Idiot Effect

Or would you prefer, "The Old Man and the Sea"?

Or would you prefer, “The Old Man and the Sea”?

Last night, in a rash moment, my wife and I used pay-per-view last night to watch a film called “The Lazarus Effect.” The “effect” seems to be that when you use an experimental medical procedure to bring someone recently deceased back from death, what arrives is not the same person but an altered, super-powered mutation FROM HELL!!!! The movie wasn’t terrible as mad experiments gone horribly wrong films go,  but what was immediately impressive about it was its length: the thing was running credits before an hour and fifteen minutes was up.

That’s a movie? In the Sixties and Seventies there were weekly TV dramas longer than that even if you didn’t count the commercials.

Recent studies have documented the diminishing attention span of the average American, with the young leading the way. The reasons for this are a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that the news media, entertainment industry and the arts are both accommodating this disability and contributing to it. The consequences are dire. Continue reading

Unethical Quote Of The Month: William Spencer Reilly, Executive Director of the Sheen Center

This was Bishopr Sheen, after whom the Sheen Center is named. Having spent a lot of time watching and listening to Sheen, I am fairly certain that he would not concur with the Sheen Center's decision. Why? Because, among  other reasons, he was a lot smarter than that.

This was Bishop Sheen, after whom the Sheen Center is named. Having spent a lot of time watching and listening to Sheen, I am fairly certain that he would not concur with the Sheen Center’s decision. Why? Because, among other reasons, he was a lot smarter than that.

“When an artistic project maligns any faith group, that project clearly falls outside of our mission to highlight the good, the true, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages.”

William Spencer Reilly, the executive director of Manhattan’s Sheen Center,  in an email announcing that it was cancelling an anti-censorship benefit event at its theater because the organizers refused to allow the Center to change a play’s title and redact the content of some speakers’ remarks.

Yes, a theater found an anti-censorship event unacceptable because it refused to submit to censorship.

Ethics Dunce is too kind for Mr. Reilly, though I suspect he is more likely a traitor to his art and profession because he wants to keep his job. He is, however, a strong candidate for Hypocrite of the Decade. He rents out the Center for a theatrical project to condemn censorship, and then attempts to censor the event.

Cowabunga.

There were two ethical courses open to him: either refuse to rent the space to the event, or rent the space, knowing its purpose, and leave the event alone. What he did instead was ludicrous, and indefensible.”The management of The Sheen Center actually suggested that we alter the title of Neil LaBute’s play, and alter the content of some of our panelist’s speeches,” said the artistic curator of “Playwrights for a Cause.” “Which we find completely out of line with the anti-censorship mission of the benefit.”

Ya think? Yes, I’d say that is res ipsa loquitur. Also indefensible was Reilly’s tortured interpretation of the Sheen Center Mission Statement, which is, admittedly, a pompous mess:

“The Sheen Center for Thought & Culture is a forum to highlight the true, the good, and the beautiful as they have been expressed throughout the ages. Cognizant of our creation in the image and likeness of God, the Sheen Center aspires to present the heights and depths of human expression in thought and culture, featuring humankind as fully alive. At the Sheen Center, we proclaim that life is worth living, especially when we seek to deepen, explore, challenge, and stimulate ourselves, Catholic* and non-Catholic alike, intellectually, artistically, and spiritually.”

Continue reading

Comment of the Day: “Now THAT Was A Rape Culture…”

Blogger and esteemed commenter here Rick Jones shares my passion for theater and is also, like me, a stage director, but seldom has a chance to weigh in on that topic. My post about the troubling lyrics in “Standing on the Corner,” the best known song in Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella” gave Rick a chance to swing at a pitch in his wheelhouse, as the baseball broadcasters like to say, and he didn’t disappoint.

I want to clarify something from the original post. Having noted the lyrics, I was no way  criticizing them or the song, or the musical itself. Older shows are valuable and fascinating in part because they serve as windows on past cultural values and attitudes—that was one of the reasons for the ambitious, important and doomed mission of the theater I have been artistic director of for the last two decades. Such politically incorrect references should never be excised in performance.

“The Most Happy Fella” is a slog, however. Ambitious, sure, but too long, too sentimental, and with too many unavoidable “wince points,” as I call them, to make the show worth the huge investment in talent, money and time that it takes to produce competently. Any time the best songs in a musical are the ones that have nothing to do with the plot (“Standing on the Corner,” “Big D,” and “Abondanza!”, which in in the clip above) it’s ominous. The 1925 Pulitzer Prize-winning hit play this pseudo-opera was based on, “They Knew What They Wanted” by Sydney Howard, is much better.

Here is Rick’s Comment of the Day on the post, “Now That Was A Rape Culture…”: Continue reading

The Destructive, Useful, Unethical Presumption of Bigotry, Part 2: The Oscar “Snub”

selma-4

For the second time in nearly two decades, and for the first time since 1998, the Oscars will be awarded to only white acting nominees. This, then, if you listen to the caterwauling race-baiters, is because Hollywood is racist. The Academy’s voters just hid it well since 1998, that’s all. Does that make any sense to you?

There are few more infuriating and transparently illogical examples of an unfair slapping down of the race card than looking for bigotry in the notoriously arbitrary, bias-soaked, essentially meaningless choices for “best” in the various Academy Award movie-making categories. Yet the race card sharks were up to the task.  Naturally, the authority on the subject was Al Sharpton, he whose own performance quality on his MSNBC TV show is so amateurish that it would be shut out in any community theater awards.

“In the time of Staten Island and Ferguson, to have one of the most shutout Oscar nights in recent memory is something that is incongruous,” Sharpton told The Daily News. Wait, what??? Incongruous is the assertion that the nominations for film-making excellence should be influenced in any way by how many blacks are killed resisting arrest. Anyone who finds that to be a logical argument for why more black actors should have been nominated for Oscars is useless to any rational discussion of the issue. I want a show of hands. Continue reading