I have seen a female Hamlet and a female Duncan (the stately king of Scotland in Macbeth); both performances were hard to get the imagination around, but that was due to acting skill rather than immutable essences. We have all seen, probably more than once, a white actor play Othello. Now we are used to seeing, in larger cities at least, visible minorities playing the whitest guys in the repertory. And of course we know that all the female parts were played by men in Shakespeare's lifetime. It's not a problem: Acting is pretending you are someone else.
And I've seen Twelfth Night set in the swinging 1960s and As You Like It in the First World War. I've seen the opera Don Giovanni as a reflection of 1990s' nouveau riche culture, and Un Ballo In Maschera set in the U.S. South during the Civil Rights era. Plays have to be interpreted.
Tell all this to famed playwright David Mamet, who does not seem to understand his own art form. Last week, his representatives reacted angrily to the way a regional theatre company chose to interpret his 1992 play Oleanna. Alchemist Theatre in Milwaukee opened the play with a surprise: The female lead, Carol, was being played by a male actor named Ben Parman. The character was still called "she," but now a transgender she. The theatre had not informed the playwright – or even the ticket-buyers – of this innovation. The play is about gender relations, so it was a significant surprise.
Mamet didn't like the idea, and his New York-based management firm immediately sent a cease-and-desist letter. The theatre had no choice but to cancel the production and issue ticket refunds.
The play, a tense struggle between a university professor and a student who accuses him of sexual misconduct, is a commentary on what was known in the 1990s as political correctness. It depicts a young feminist bent on destroying an older guy's career with apparently ideological – even conspiratorial – motivations. The guy reacts with violence, proving her views.
Oleanna is often called a reaction to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill affair, referring to Hill's accusations of sexual harassment against Thomas, a nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court. But it was also a comment on the heated university politics of the time.
Mamet, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is known to exert strict control over the representations of his work: In the 1990s, he stopped an all-female cast from performing his play Goldberg Street in New York. He wants his guys to be guys.
He does have the contractual right to do this. It's just a really dumb idea.
In the Alchemist Theatre case, not a word of the text had been changed. The play was exactly the same. If anything, Carol's lines about having "some doubtful sexuality" stand in greater relief. But they were already there in the original.
The theatre claims it found that the actor who auditioned best suited the part, and that the role evidenced gender fluidity. "I just really felt and feel that the character he has written is gender-fluid," wrote the director, Erin Eggers. "On any given day, in any given act, Carol might identify as female or male or both or neither." The first performance of the play was well reviewed in local press.
Mamet is a political and social conservative, as he has announced in numerous essays. He probably hated the ideological intentions of the Milwaukee theatre, which reacted to his intervention with a Gender Studies 101 lecture, on its website, about identity and orientation and self-presentation. It does seem that the theatre wanted to turn the 1990s play into a more up-to-the-minute examination of transgenderism, and I can see why Mamet didn't like that. Mamet's grim, macho conservatism and the theatre's trendy pieties don't offer a terribly exciting choice – it's almost like listening to the two characters in Oleanna arguing.
But Mamet is wrong to insist that his work is, unlike every other repertory play, not a vehicle for contemporary issues. That, in fact, is what happens to the best of plays. Why do we keep performing old plays at all? Haven't we seen A Doll's House enough? Surely it's because we think it is relevant to contemporary struggles, not just because it is a faithful depiction of Norwegian domestic life in 1879.
Each one of these familiar texts is a vessel for new ideas, and the fact that performance is a flexible art is what makes repertory theatre unique, and popular.
One of the worst riots in the history of New York, the Astor Place Riot in 1849, was over warring interpretations of Shakespeare. (Those, too, were ideological: The refined British actor represented the privileged classes, while the emotional American performer represented the working classes.)
The "intentions" of the play itself, whatever they ever were, are completely immaterial to this history. This is what happens to plays when they make it, when they become so popular that they pass into some kind of canon. Mamet should be highly flattered, and proud, that his play has become this kind of art. And he should sit back and see what it becomes.
Editor's note: The original version of this article incorrectly said A Doll's House depicts Danish domestic life. In fact, it was set in Norway. This version has been corrected.