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Much Ado About…What Exactly?

Changing Shakespeare’s Text Results in
Controversy beyond Creative Considerations

Shakespeare with a diretor on a long leash that has twisted around and tied up ShakespeareIn its currently running production of Much Ado about Nothing, set in a 1930s Cuban sugar plantation—complete with language and reference interpolations in the text—director Ethan McSweeny renamed two characters of the Watch from Hugh Otecake and George Seacole as, respectively, Juan Huevos and José Frijoles (the last names being Spanish for eggs and beans).

They have now been re-rechristened Otecake and Seacole after a nationwide hue and cry from Latino theater artists. Among those quoted in a Washington Post story about the controversy was director and dramaturg Tlaloc Rivas. “I was very concerned about their student matinees, and children going to this and associating those names with fellow members of their community,” he told The Washington Post.

Wow! this issue stretches across the whole spectrum of PC sensitivity. On one end are people willing to accept Shakespeare’s joke at the expense of white people but not wanting it translated into a joke at the expense of Latinos. At the other end are people who consider any dilution of ethnically or racially charged expression much ado about nothing. In the same edition of The Washington Post was an article about Maya Angelou contributing one of her poems to the rapper Common, who used it in a song, “The Dreamer,” wherein he thrice casually uses the N-word. She expressed surprise and disappointment; he called it creative differences.

Where am I on that spectrum? More important, I’m looking at a whole other spectrum, which intersects with the PC one. For while McSweeny and the Shakespeare Theatre Company are being accused of insensitivity to Latinos, I accuse them of being insensitive to Shakespeare. That ultimately is what led to their trouble.

First, to establish my credentials with my Latino brethren—I have none. I am 100 percent white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, grew up an Air Force brat (and, so, a person of privilege) and currently my equally all-WASP wife and I reside just over the line from the 90 percent. Except for crossing paths with a few Latino friends and colleagues, I have zero percent affinity with that community. That's important to remember as we proceed here.

On the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, I, then 10 years old, was so moved I wrote a report on the man I had just learned about for the first time from my distraught parents. The next morning I asked my fourth grade teacher to read it. He grew quite consternated—more likely his concern was with the quality of my report and not the subject matter, because he acknowledged that we should devote time in class to discuss King and his assassination. This moment, albeit I was pretty ignorant at the time, was the start of my lifelong activism regarding civil rights.

A large portion of our library is devoted to King's work and words, and I borrowed much from him when I became a published advocate for disability rights in the 1990s. I was also at the center of language-use issues regarding people with disabilities, preaching “people-first” verbage. Google “disability etiquette” and you will land on lists that I either created or that borrowed heavily from the material I wrote for magazines or the President’s Committee on People with Disabilities. My master’s thesis in disabilities studies discussed Hollywood’s images of people with disabilities and compared those portrayals with similar stereotypes that Hollywood relied on to portray Native Americans in film.

So, while I have no natural affinity with Latino issues, I fully understand the impact of language use and portrayals on a disenfranchised community. Because of that I lean toward the sensitivity end of the PC spectrum and side with Rivas and Angelou. Knowing that Joseph Goebbels effectively mined the other end of the spectrum in perpetrating the Nazi’s campaign against the Jews, I consider Common’s "creative" use of the N-word naïve pandering to the forces of persecution.

However, the spectrum I think is equally pertinent in the discussion over Hugh Otecake versus Juan Huevos is that of artistic license. When—and how—is it OK to mess with Shakespeare’s texts?

When I attended the production, which I both enjoyed as entertainment and respected as interpretation, I just thought the change of names was silly (in my original review I wrote “cute” in parenthesis after that reference, but cut it in editing). If you surf through Shakespeareances.com enough you will know that I have no issue with re-setting Shakespeare and can accept conceptualizing Shakespeare if done well. However, directors doing that can easily jump the shark with their translations. To me, that line isn’t fuzzy at all; it’s when you roll your eyes.

But what exactly was McSweeny guilty of in the seemingly innocuous decision to rename Otecake Huevos other than being too cute? Is purity of text so important in such an instance?

Yes, it is, from both sides of the equation. Having the Watch name two of their own as Otecake and Seacole was Shakespeare’s joke, told at the expense of his own kind. Anytime you try to translate the text of the joke without the context, you are risking alienating both the joker and the butt. The butt of this translated joke—Latinos—spoke up loudly, and now I’m speaking up on behalf of the original joker.

McSweeny took other licenses with the Much Ado text: “Si, senor” was part of the players’ lexicon, Borachio was paid in pesos instead of ducats, and Hero’s wedding gown was compared to that of Hedy Lamarr’s instead of the Duchess of Milan. And yet, the characters otherwise all spoke English. And just as Otecake and Seacole are nomenclature jokes, so are Dogberry and Verges. Wherefore the inconsistency? If shifting the setting was so important as to change oatcakes and expensive fuel to eggs and beans, what line did you hold, and why?

The name change debate also points to the risk an outsider looking in takes in staking an ownership claim, even a creative one. Otecake was and may still be a nice joke aimed at Stratford wool merchants; but what the heck does beans and eggs say about Cuban plantation workers? I bet a director with Cuban heritage might have made an appropriate translation (or probably kept Otecake), but a WASP like me should never ever attempt to make that translation. That’s why I was so clear about my zero percent affinity with the Latino community at the top of this discussion; I’m not trying to co-opt their argument because I simply cannot. In fact, I found myself scoffing at some of those quotes from Latino artists in The Washington Post when I first read them. Why? Because I’m 100 percent WASP and don’t see things through Latino lenses. My bad for scoffing first and understanding later: I should know better. And directors need to know better before making such decisions.

This is not to discourage directors, writers, or any artists from going outside their comfort zones. However, even the most open-minded people view things through cultural prisms, and that must be at least fully understood and factored in before presenting your work to public audiences. Second, when you re-interpret Shakespeare, don’t look only at the text but the context. Failure on the first leads to unintended consequences; failure on the second leads to unintended corruption of Shakespeare's meaning and purpose. Both can lead to inadvertant controversy. Being cute is simply not an excuse.

Eric Minton
December 23, 2011

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