Saturday, October 1, 2011

Two contrasting tales of racism and renovation

The screwball subtext of the original His Girl Friday?

Recently I've been mulling the role of race in our theatre (again!) as I've pondered two local productions, Porgy and Bess, or rather The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess (closing this weekend, but sold out anyway) at the A.R.T., and His Girl Friday down at Trinity Rep (up through next weekend, and worth a visit).

I'm still not sure what to make of the apparent contrast between these two productions, frankly.  Or perhaps I'm more puzzled by the contrast between their press receptions.  Porgy and Bess - which I caught earlier this week - was, of course, the middlebrow cause célèbre of the season, ever since director Diane Paulus and adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks announced, in a pre-show puff piece in the New York Times, that they were renovating the Gershwin classic with the insinuation that the original opera was racist.  Soon a hilarious, and deadly-accurate, sneer from Stephen Sondheim followed in that same paper (with a raft of outraged support attached to its comments section), and the usual suspects began to scurry and scuttle; by the time the show opened, the rumored "happy ending" had been dropped, the "renovations" mostly amounted to streamlining for commercial purposes, and Parks and Paulus - now faced with the scorn of an artist of far greater prestige and talent than their own - were babbling about "fleshing out the characters" and "failures of understanding."

And once it opened here in Boston, the fact that the resulting production wasn't nearly as bad as expected caused most of the critics to fall to their knees and kiss the ground in gratitude (sucking up to Paulus wasn't going to be nearly as painful this time as it had been so many times before).  The New York reviewers who saw the show, however - and who of course are much less under Harvard's thumb - told a different, more disappointed story, although everyone praised Audra McDonald's stand-out performance as Bess.  I'd disagree with that, actually - vocally MacDonald is indeed stunning, as expected.  Dramatically, however, her work is a mixed bag - because the one major, misguided renovation that survived the Sondheim imbroglio turned Bess from a recovering addict into a Power Grrl, which in many ways ripped the tragic heart right out of the opera.

But I'll go into that failure of misunderstanding in a full post-mortem later this week.  What I want to talk about now is the contrasting reception to His Girl Friday in the press.

For while I cannot agree that Porgy and Bess is, or ever was, racist - in fact I think the idea is ridiculous on its face - I'm afraid I think the original His Girl Friday, and the play on which it's based, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page, are actually kind of racist.  Indeed, obviously racist.  So it's no surprise the adaptation, by John Guare, directed by Curt Columbus (both at left), that has unfurled at Trinity Rep over the past few weeks, has amounted to a renovation far more radical than anything Diane Paulus and Suzan-Lori Parks attempted (or could attempt) with Gershwin.

And yet the press has kept almost completely mum about this fact.  Perhaps because the original works in question cast an unseemly light on the racism the press long tolerated in both its readership and itself.

First let's take a look at the rather over-written The Front Page, and the sleeker, superior adaptation, His Girl Friday.  The central difference between the two, of course, is that in Howard Hawks's screwball comedy, the central character of "Hildy" Johnson has been transformed from a man (Hildebrand) to a woman (Hildegard) - and thus the "bromance" between Hildy and editor Walter Burns becomes a straightforward heterosexual seduction.  (I've often wondered whether the original text could be tweaked into gay comedy, but that's a question for another day.)

What Hawks didn't change, however, is that the headline story Hildy is chasing is one in which a white man has shot a "colored" policeman.  There are a lot of extenuating circumstances to the crime, but the perp (who has also been smeared as a Communist) is going to swing regardless because the political establishment "needs the colored vote."

I know.  Isn't that interesting.  This issue has always "colored," if you will, my reaction to the Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell confection, delightful as it often, but not always, is.  (There's also a crude reference to a "pickaninny" later in the film.)   It seems somehow - well, suggestive that the script, written by white men for a white audience, should portray a white man who killed a black man as a figure of sympathy, and that "the colored vote" should worry the lady with the Teutonic name as a corrupting influence. [And it's perhaps worth noting that in an earlier Hawks movie, Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant says to Katharine Hepburn, "That's mighty white of you."]

Such issues (and cultural framing) are far more troubling than anything in Porgy and Bess, it seems to me.  And so it's no surprise that adaptor John Guare has completely expunged them from his revised version, which conflates Page and Friday, but more importantly reverses their political spin.  In Guare's take, the perp is Jewish - he's even Czech - and he has been convicted of shooting a Nazi sympathizer (probably straight out of Germantown).  Guare also sets the action the day before Hitler invaded Poland!  In one fell swoop, he precisely flips the text's political overtones.

Although as you may guess from those details, Guare's liberal politics are a bit more heavy-handed than the original's racist ones were; it's as if he wants, understandably enough, to stamp out their very memory.  And in my full review I'll have a few caveats about how easily this new political frame - and its critique of 30's America - sits with the breezy screwball romance (although it certainly sits more easily than the original racism did!).

What I want to pause to ponder, however, is the press silence regarding this "renovation."  Reviewers seem to avoid discussing it directly, in fact.  The Globe's Don Aucoin, always a stickler for every plot point, did mention that "The man whose execution the reporters are awaiting is now a Jewish immigrant," but he avoids any contemplation of the character's original identity, or what the change in that identity means. Scanning other reviews for the show on the web, I couldn't find anyone who went into the issue, either - although one or two praised the show's new political spin, none discussed the racial history of the text.  [Update!  Don Aucoin suddenly returns to this topic in an article in the Globe today, but typically enough for this writer, he still can't bring himself to state clearly what the issues really are with The Front Page.]

I'm not sure what to make of this. On the one hand, I think it's hard for the press to face its own racism directly - particularly the racism of the "swashbuckling," romanticized era that The Front Page represents. (In a way, Guare has recast the press of the past as the crusading heroes today's critics would like to imagine they were.) It's also difficult for a reviewer (other than me) to confront his or her readers with unpleasant facts about a movie as beloved as His Girl Friday. On the other hand, however, you could interpret the press silence on the true nature of these originals as a tacit admission that yes, they were obviously racist, and required renovation.

Which makes all the ballyhoo over Porgy and Bess all the more amusing. Yes, I know the original staging included the "n-word," and that Catfish Row is portrayed as abject, and that the book and music were written by white guys - but does anyone really believe that Porgy and Bess actually objectifies and demeans its characters? I mean seriously, really - does even Diane Paulus believe that? It's just not possible. Not even Suzan-Lori Parks could be so blindered by political correctness as to lose all contact with human and dramatic reality. And at any rate, if in the end she and Paulus didn't change anything substantial about Porgy and Bess - as people like Ed Siegel, Don Aucoin, and Carolyn Clay insisted - then it's still racist, right? I mean, am I missing something? If you don't change something's essential nature, if you're "true to its spirit," then it still is that thing.

Or was the brouhaha around Porgy and Bess really just a subtler kind of social stand-off, a sort of publicity stunt based on generational political vanity, a kind of diluted theatrical form of radical chic? I'll ponder these issues further in reviews of both shows later this week on the Hub Review.


  1. I saw His Girl Friday a couple of weeks back and loved it - it's a really well put together production. My only quibble with it was that some of the comedy felt a little forced, as if the humor was being anticipated rather than occurring naturally as a response to the events in the play. That happens sometimes at Trinity, not so much as to put me off, but I've felt more often then not when I'm watching a play that there is a tendency to go for the "BIG" moments and laughs; it might just be certain performers there, I don't know. I don’t even necessarily know if it detracts that much, or if it’s more just a stylistic choice I’m not used to, but it always jogs something in my mind. All that said, it's a great production and one I've recommended to a number of people.

    As for the Front Page being racist, I don't think there's much misconception about that - which is why the original play is staged so infrequently. The attitudes and the language in it are just too uncomfortable now which can't be simply excised. But it is interesting, as you point out, that there's quite a bit of that which made the crossover to the film His Girl Friday that's now scrubbed for the play version. When something is as brilliant and sparkles as much as the film for His Girl Friday, it's easy to look past the smaller flaws. So much of the time with a play whether or not a production is a success can be highly variable (as we know!) from version to version, whereas Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell truly are for the ages.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Dan. But I'm afraid I disagree with you that there are no "misconceptions" about The Front Page - indeed, I think people aren't sure what to make of it, because co-writer Ben Hecht's personal politics were known to be so liberal. He actually campaigned against the KKK in real life, and also pushed for an earlier American offensive against Hitler - precisely the politics that Guare inserts into his "renovation" of The Front Page! So why the odd racial frame of the original version? Perhaps it was Charles MacArthur's doing? (I know less about his politics.) So the back-story is complicated (as I'll go into further in my full review); still, I think the best you can say for Hecht is that he suppressed his own political instincts to match the prevailing ones of his day.

    As for the Trinity style - I don't think you're wrong; they tend to get shouty and a little over-choreographed. I'll have more to say about that too.