Contemporary American Audiences and the New "Problem Plays"
Felicia Hardison Londré
For most 20th-century Shakespeare scholars, the term "problem plays" refers to three plays--All's Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, and Troilus and Cressida--that are disturbing in their lack of neat, psychologically and ethically satisfying resolutions.1 For contemporary American producers and directors, however, there is a new set of "problem plays," plays that challenge or offend the sensibilities of large segments of the theatregoing public by their implicit or explicit presentation of certain no-longer-acceptable assumptions about gender or ethnicity. Prominent among these are The Merchant of Venice, which culminates in Shylock's forced conversion from Judaism to Christianity; Othello, which contains "thirteen racist references to Othello in the opening scene" ( Salway109); and The Taming of the Shrew, which concludes with Kate's speech advocating women's submission to their men.
The problems posed by some of these plays are not entirely new. In 1950, for example, Clarence Derwent's guest appearance as Shylock at the University of Kansas City led to "strong local objections by liberals, Jewish leading figures, and businessmen that the Merchant of Venice was antisemitic" ("Notes" 293). Objections were withdrawn after Derwent's sympathetic portrayal made a martyr of the Jew. That interpretation, according to a report in Shakespeare Quarterly, "is the one likely to be tolerated today, if the play is to be tolerated at all, as more and more it is not, having been widely excised already from school curricula and stopped from stage presentation by court injunctions" ("Notes" 293). Variety reported in 1961 that high school English teachers in Minneapolis petitioned the school board to overturn a four-year ban on reading the play in classes. Their letter stated: "We recognize the possibilities for reinforcing undesirable intergroup attitudes when such works as The Merchant of Venice are studied. However, as professional people, we feel that we do, in practice, give them and all literature sensitive treatment."
Certainly, the extreme differences in world view between the Elizabethans and contemporary Americans mean that transferring the artistic product of one to the other is going to challenge some cultural assumptions.2 That general difficulty has undoubtedly been exacerbated by a long process of