I’m not against ‘PC’ in certain circumstances, to spare feelings where they’re worth sparing; but I have to say I object to it when it comes to the classics. The other day we saw a production of Bizet’s Carmen at Stockholm’s Kungliga Operan, where I assume that the liberties taken with it were for PC reasons. No bull-fighting; instead a wrestling match. (One of the fighters was nicknamed the ‘Toreador’, in order not to have to change the words of the famous chorus.) The women didn’t seem to be working in a cigarette factory – ‘smoking can damage your health’ – but in a centre for sorting second-hand clothing for Oxfam shops. (Or the 19th-century Spanish equivalent.) And Carmen of course wasn’t played as a seductress – after ‘Me Too’, women can’t be blamed for inflaming men’s desires – but as a girl whose attraction clearly lay elsewhere. As a result, the production was a travesty. (Not the music, which was played well under a woman conductor’s baton.) The whole point of Bizet’s ‘orientalist’ opera – Spain was France’s nearest ‘Orient’ – was that it should be bright, fiery and sexy. It’s in the music; but it needs to be in the stageing too. This was a cold and rational – very Swedish? – version.
The last time I experienced this sort of thing was in a Swedish-language production at Stockholm’s Dramaten theatre of Shakespeare’s Richard III, in which Richard was entirely able-bodied. No hint of a hunchback – which I understand the skeleton recently exhumed in that Leicester car park shows he really did have. That necessitated some textual changes, with the early ‘Dogs bark at me in the streets’ soliloquy – so important to the play – cut out. We don’t want to associate physical infirmity with evil, do we? This incidentally was the exact opposite of a recent British version, which cast a genuinely disabled actor in a wheelchair as the king. I wonder what the PC brigade made of that?
How far can this go? A young King Lear, so as not to seem ‘ageist’? A white Othello? A gentile Shylock? I’m sure the last two have been tried; I’m just glad I didn’t get to see them. Quite apart from anything else, there’s enough in these four plays to show that Shakespeare could empathise with their disadvantaged villains – ‘If you prick me, do I not bleed?’ – which provides a dimension to the age-race-disability aspects that merely censoring them out of the plays can’t do.
In any case, plays (and operas) are of their times, and in general – except perhaps to make them more comprehensible to modern audiences – shouldn’t be wrested completely out of those times; certainly not in order to conform to the sensibilities of the modern day. We ridicule Thomas Bowdler for having done exactly that with Shakespeare in the 18th century – cutting all the sexual and other references, to spare young women’s blushes. (We were still given those versions at my school in the 1950s; luckily our teacher de-Bowdlerized them for us. The result is that it’s the rude bits I remember best.) Today’s sensibilities are different; but pandering to them is no less ludicrous. And, of course, shockingly ahistorical; which I suppose is partly why I, as a historian, am so offended by this kind of ‘political correctness’. (If that’s what it is.)