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Shakespeare's women


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#1 Mashinka

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 02:31 AM

I enjoyed reading this post by Janet Suzman, though I don't altogether agree with her:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2012/jul/19/shakespeare-women-roles-theatre

One of the comments underneath echoes my own view that Beatrice and Portia are strong women with some of Shakespeare's best lines. Perhaps as Shakespeare was writing these parts for pre-pubescent boys it might explain why the complex roles were best left to the men.

Suzman has a lot to say about Cleopatra, I once saw Glenda Jackson in the role at the RSC and still remember vividly her power house performance, but with current tastes turning to actresses chosen to look good in HD, I despair of discovering a great actress of the future, at least not in the English speaking world.

Can I add that I abhor the term 'female actor'' and male actor is tautology pure and simply. What is wrong with the word actress? You would think an actress of Ms Suzman's standing would have a better relationship with the English language.

#2 bart

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 05:13 AM

What a marvelous piece. I never saw Jackson's Cleopatra, but bits of Susman's own performance (from a British tv production, 1974) are on YouTube. Readers can compare her thoughts about the character, c. 2012, with an actual performance, c. 1974.

Antony and Cleopatra is a play rarely performed in the U.S. in recent decades. Too big a cast, I imagine. The only full productions I've seen on stage was Colleen Dewhurst chewing the scenery at the NY Shakespeare Festival back in the 60s and an underpowered Helen Mirren in the 90s.

One of my earliest theater memories was hearing my parents talking about Vivian Leigh's and Olivier's A&C on Broadway in the early 50s. Unfortunately I was too young to attend. I did get a chance to see a quite different Cleopatra by Leigh in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra -- the movie with Claude Rains, shown often on New York City tv in my youth. I am a big fan of that play.

I would love to have had the chance to see a couple of unexpected Cleopatra casting choices -- Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, Judy Dench, Frances de la Tour in the nude, (It's about Bankhead that a reviewer famously wrote: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile as Cleopatra last night -- and sank.")

One of the comments underneath echoes my own view that Beatrice and Portia are strong women with some of Shakespeare's best lines. Perhaps as Shakespeare was writing these parts for pre-pubescent boys it might explain why the complex roles were best left to the men.

I enjoyed the conviction in Susman's voice when she writes: " he clearly had some fine male actors to bring them to life on his amazing stage (not boys dump the insult of a teenage boy attempting Cleopatra or Volumnia, please).

"I also loved her lament about the lack of "interiority" in even the major female characters in Shakespeare, who reserved his big soliloquies for male characters. Generally Susman is on target about the limitations in the way the the big female roles are constructed. For example:

Lady Macbeth, Gertrude and Ophelia sort of fizzle out by becoming a bit nuts (though Queen Margaret in the Henry VI plays is interesting when young and ambitious). Emilia and Desdemona both die for being unassuagably truthful, as do Cordelia in King Lear and Hermione in The Winter's Tale (albeit, with Hermione, a faked death) nothing to sniff at there, quite the reverse, but their fates are sealed. The two other Lear sisters are intermittently psychotic and lustful, and get their comeuppances. Isabella in Measure for Measure is interesting but, I think, still a victim; she takes a very womanish ethical stance that of her chastity to exercise power. Poor bloody women it's always the same Lysistratean leverage.

The point is valid, even though there is much in the language given to these characters that makes them memorable.

I've been thinking about your final point;

Can I add that I abhor the term 'female actor'' and male actor is tautology pure and simply. What is wrong with the word actress?

I'm ambivalent about "actress." I understand the motivation for calling oneself an "actor" regardless of gender, even if it requires adding the "male" or "female" for clarity in certain kinds of discussion (as when awarding prizes that distinguish between women and men). I remember quite well the old days when some portions of the press still resorted to odd, genteel-sounding labels like "aviatrix," "manageress," etc., and when no one snickered at phrases like "Diana the Huntress." On the whole, am glad that those days are gone.

#3 dirac

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 09:56 AM

I remember quite well the old days when some portions of the press still resorted to odd, genteel-sounding labels like "aviatrix," "manageress," etc., and when no one snickered at phrases like "Diana the Huntress." On the whole, am glad that those days are gone.


Yup. Female poets used to be called "poetesses" and there was often a hint of condescension involved. In a similar vein, "suffragettes," which still appears more frequently than it should, was a derogatory term for "suffragist." Luckily, female novelists never had to worry about being called "novelettes."

I will say that where actors are concerned maintaining the distinction has some practical advantage. Given the dearth of good roles for women compared to men, the ladies would be at a distinct disadvantage if awards associations dispensed with the separate Best Actress category. They do call it Best Female Actor and Best Male Actor at the BAFTAs, which is a trifle clunky. But the elimination of the "-esses" in general is a positive development.

Thanks for posting this, Mashinka. Very intelligent observations from a wonderful actor. :) The answer to the question of the headline, of course, is "yes." There are no female roles in Shakespeare to equal the great roles for men, although he provided plenty of fine roles for women to play. The exposure you could give to men playing women, however skilled the actor, was inherently limited (which is why generally Cleopatra's charms are more spoken about than seen). Beatrice and Portia are wonderful parts. They are nothing close to the best roles for the men.

#4 dirac

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 11:24 AM

One of my earliest theater memories was hearing my parents talking about Vivian Leigh's and Olivier's A&C on Broadway in the early 50s. Unfortunately I was too young to attend. I did get a chance to see a quite different Cleopatra by Leigh in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra -- the movie with Claude Rains, shown often on New York City tv in my youth. I am a big fan of that play.

I would love to have had the chance to see a couple of unexpected Cleopatra casting choices -- Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, Judy Dench, Frances de la Tour in the nude, (It's about Bankhead that a reviewer famously wrote: "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile as Cleopatra last night -- and sank.")


The Oliviers did back-to-back productions of Antony and Cleopatra and Caesar and Cleopatra in London and New York. According to most reports your parents benefited by seeingo A&C in the latter city, where both Oliviers were much improved. Neither was ideally cast.

Probably the most unexpected Cleopatra was that of Edith Evans, of whose performance Kenneth Tynan wrote that she presented a Lady Bracknell cruelly starved of cucumber sandwiches.

#5 bart

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Posted 26 July 2012 - 01:51 PM

How could I have forgotten "poetess"? Or executrix, janitress, temptress, co-redemptrix... even dominatrix.

I can imagine Edith Evans bringing enormous grandeur to "I have immortal longings in me."

And then there is, of course, Elizabeth Taylor, incredibly gorgeous at the other end of the spectrum. But that's another time and another playwright. (I mean, screenwriter).

Janet Suzman has directed Kim Cattrall in the Shakespeare role. Has anyone seen the production? Does she have the qualities that might live up to Enobarbus's famous compliment ...

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies.

???

Clare Brennan's review in The Guardian certainly makes Suzman's interpretation, as well as the work of Cattrall and her Antony, sound interesting:

http://www.guardian....leopatra-review


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