Can Problematic Plays Be Saved? Should They Be Saved?

It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you – hit you hard – and not hurt at all.

Last week we examined how modern productions can adapt problematic scenes in classic theater for contemporary audiences. This week I’ll look at when it’s appropriate to change old texts for modern sensibilities, and when I feel it’s more effective to interpret them in a new way.

The most important question you can ask when mounting a new production is this: Why this play, at this time, for this audience? Almost every element of the production should be held to scrutiny with these three considerations in mind, and sorry – if your answer to the first one is “Because it’s popular,” you might want to dig a little deeper. 

The second part – “at this time” – forces you to consider what’s happening right in the world or in your community that makes the play’s message effective at this moment

Finally, think about your audience – not just what they will like or dislike, but what it is about the play’s message that’s important for them to receive. In the case of problematic material in a classic play, ask whether it will reinforce negative stereotypes or whether you can, instead, frame things in a way that allows the audience to confront the problematic material and move forward positively. 

These decisions should lead you to one of two scenarios. One is to change or remove the problematic content altogether. I don’t usually prefer this method of adaptation, but in certain situations, I feel it can be the right call. If your play involves a minor gag involving a racial stereotype, for instance, and you feel your audience will laugh in reinforcement of that stereotype, it might warrant a cut. If your interpretation of that gag can contextualize for your audience how negative that stereotype is, then there may be circumstances in which it can strengthen the show’s message. 

On the other hand, reframing problematic material to highlight its problematic nature can give older shows new meaning. A great example from 1945 is Carousel, which otherwise falls apart completely under modern scrutiny. 

Carousel is the story of Billy Bigelow, who physically abuses his wife, dies during a failed robbery and asks to come back to Earth for one day so he can help his struggling daughter move forward in her life. Unfortunately, he fails in his quest when he physically abuses his daughter literally seconds after talking to her for the first time. 

Billy is a bad man who’s given a second chance, only to waste it by repeating his bad behavior. If that were the end of it, that would be one thing. But this was a 1940s musical with song titles such as “That Was a Real Nice Clambake,” so of course Billy gets a third chance, along with complete forgiveness from his widow, who excuses his abuse by saying that someone can hit you hard, but it’s OK because you love him.

So how in the world do you stage Carousel today without saying that domestic violence is fine? Many revivals have tried, some more successfully than others. The 2018 Broadway revival opted to focus on nostalgia and was therefore criticized for its narrative shortcomings. An interesting attempt in 1992 had Billy strike his daughter across the face – instead of on the hand, as in the script – which I think moves closer to highlighting the problematic nature of the piece rather than reinforcing it. 

Carousel is difficult because the last thing you want to do in a modern production is make the audience think that, by the end, Billy has been redeemed – or worse, that he’s a hero. If he slaps his daughter on the hand, maybe we can get over that and see his redemption, but if he slaps her across the face, there’s no way he’s coming back from that in the hearts of the audience members.

Carousel is full of colorful characters, fun and exciting music, and excellent potential for jaw-dropping choreography, so I think the best way to stage it for a modern audience is to nail the things that made it beloved back in the day: bring the house down with every ensemble number, go all out with the set design and costuming, put on the most high-energy performance that you can, and get people to jump out of their seats in applause.

And then, when the abuse occurs, don’t gloss over it. Don’t downplay it at all. Make it as uncomfortable for the audience members to witness as it would actually be for them to see a neighbor strike his wife or child.

That way, when people leave, they may think, “Wow! That was such a great show! That part in the middle was really awful, though. We should probably have more conversations about things like that.” Then plays such as Carousel can stand as examples of problems that still plague us today and that we should continue to discuss.