Apparently It Isn’t Woolf They’re Actually Afraid Of

I’m still reeling a bit about a recent decision by the estate of Edward Albee re: a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

According to sources, the estate of the late playwright, Edward Albee, demanded that a theatre company in Oregon, The Complete Works Project, who was producing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, fire the black actor playing the role of “Nick” and be replaced by a white actor or they would rescind the rights to the show.

I don’t know which wrongheaded defense to tackle first, not least of all because of the conflation of multiple arguments. So how about I break the arguments apart first, since my answers to some of them are different than my answers to others:

1) The Rights of the Albee Estate

I’m seeing defenses of this which cast this argument as one about the legal rights of the Albee estate. They assert the rights attached to production of the work, assert the law, and so completely miss the point that it’s no longer a point, but rather a round blunt object.

No one, including the theatre which complained about the decision, claims the Albee estate isn’t invested with the legal power to exert its rights.

Rather, people are following the standard trajectory of free speech: the Albee estate is fully entitled to make fucked up, racist decisions. And everyone else, likewise, is fully entitled to call out just how fucked up and racist those decisions are. You would think that anyone running the estate of a man whose work is rife with people calling each other to the mat might be able to recognize that pattern outside of a three act structure.

2) The Importance of Authorial Intent

As a writer, obviously I have a soft spot for authorial intent. When I write something, I’m attempting to evoke some range of emotions and thoughts in my audience.

However, I’m also well aware that what I want as a writer and what the audience of my work will take away from it aren’t the same thing. If it’s co-opted by a group whose ideology I find abhorrent, and if that co-opting happens in clear breach of my copyright, I have legal recourse to remove it from their use. I can’t, however, control what they think about my work, what they take away from it. The only art which isn’t a conversation is art which has no audience in the first place.

This is especially true in collaborative arts. Yes, the playwright is important. I’d go so far as to say they’re essential. They are not, however, the only aspect of their art. Again, unless a playwright is writing work which they never want to see performed, the nature of their work is to be adapted and interpreted through the lens of those other artists (actors, directors, designers) who attach themselves to it.

And unlike, say, film or television, live theatre is in constant intepretive flux. Hell, something as small as an actor’s mood on a given night can drastically shift a performance. Live theatre is at its core alive. That means it changes, it grows. If it doesn’t, it no longer serves a purpose.

Shakespeare wrote all of his work to be performed by exclusively male casts. He wouldn’t, at the time he wrote his plays, have even conceived of a performance where his female Ophelia was actually played by a woman. Nor would he, for that matter, have imagined the panoply of temporal and environmental backgrounds future theatres might use as the setting for his stories. Last I heard, however, no one’s spending much time grousing that Shakespeare’s intent has been bastardized by contemporary artists bringing new and different influences to bear.

Rather, the response by many is to praise Shakespeare for providing a template which continues to resonate and inspire, which ebbs and flows in a way that allows it to remain relevant, rather than proving itself a hidebound cultural dinosaur.

3) The Slippery Slope

Otherwise known as “Good God! Next you’ll say you want women playing men” and … probably?

Look. I am just the wrong audience for this kind of thing because I’m not seeing the problem here. Aside from my previous point re: Shakespeare, honestly, even if your show is explicitly “about” men, I still can’t think of a lot of instances where there isn’t something interesting an artist might bring to the work through variable gender casting, not least of all interrogating the notion of Man.

Also, let’s be honest, there are still painfully few acting roles for women with the same richness and variety as exist for men. Ditto actors of color and other marginalized identities. If it takes women in traditionally male roles and ethnic minorities in traditionally white roles for audiences and playwrights (or their estates) to stop making lazy, default cultural narrative choices about what constitutes a character of a given gender expression or a character of color or a character of disability or a character of a given sexuality or, or, or? Then I say re-cast the hell out of that shit.

4) “Historical Accuracy”

I’m sorry. I can’t even write that phrase without the scare quotes.

It took me a hot minute after entering “African-American professors 1962” in Google to have third party verification of what I shouldn’t have to prove to reasonably well-educated people: not only did African-American professors in the US exist in mixed race settings, but they’d been around for over a century already:

1849: Charles L. Reason is named professor of belles-lettres, Greek, Latin and French at New York Central College in McGrawville, New York. He appears to be the first African American to teach at a mixed race institution of higher education in the U.S.

That Albee couldn’t conceive of a scenario in the 1960s where such a character could exist without hopelessly straining credulity says a metric ton more about institutional erasure and the success of privileged narratives than it does about verifiable historical reality.

That those caring for Albee’s estate continue to be unable to imagine such a scenario in 2017, especially in a play where every other damn thing the characters say has two or three meanings and / or is elaborate fiction meant to stymie genuine interaction — where the primary actors go so far as to invent people who don’t actually exist but apparently it’s too difficult for the rights holder to imagine people who do — borders on intellectual failure of the sort that, come to think of it, deserves Albee-style disdain and mockery.