Watching Shylock today raises hard questions about old fears of the "PC Police"
Written by Mark Leiren-Young. Directed by Sherry J. Yoon. Produced by Bard on the Beach on the Howard Family Stage on September 7. Continues to September 15
Even in 1996, when Mark Leiren-Young’s Shylock debuted at Bard on the Beach, the term politically correct was more often an insult than a compliment, despite all of the people genuinely attempting to disengage themselves from or challenge racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. The “PC police” were insufferable nags ruining everything because they couldn’t take a joke or understand context.
Shylock is a one-man show about a Jewish actor, Jon Davies (an impressive Warren Kimmel), whose performance of the titular character in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice draws the wrath of an angry professor who accuses him of anti-Semitism and calls for a boycott of the play. We’re told about how her outrage has rallied others to the point that the production stooped to offering nightly talkbacks after every show, and eventually picketers showed up, leading to Merchant of Venice’s early cancellation. Frustrated by what he perceives as bowing down to censorship, Davies stages his own talkback to address the controversy.
As Shylock progresses, the exploration of anti-Semitism and Jewish history is fascinating, but all of that ends up taking a backseat because every five or 10 minutes, there’s another reference to how “nobody will ever have to be offended again.”
The character of the professor is such a cartoon of outrage that there’s never any real sense that Davies takes her seriously, particularly because he interprets her successful shutdown of Merchant as the beginning of the end for all “great” art that happens to be problematic. His slippery-slope panic imagines a future where everything is banned. This faux hand-wringing is frustratingly familiar, and smug dismissals, false equivalencies, and ill-advised contemporary tweaks abound. Davies calls talkbacks “nightly apologies” and “safety nets so no one gets triggered”. He casually shrugs off concerns about “improper pronoun usage”, invokes Donald Trump, and uses phrases like “the sensitivity police”. If one spends 90 minutes complaining about sensitivity, who is the overly sensitive one?
Twenty-one years after Shylock’s debut, there is, arguably, an even sharper divide between those who challenge and confront systems of oppression and those who uphold them. In conflating the professor’s boycott with safe spaces, trigger warnings, and pronoun preference, Shylock passes on an opportunity to contend with a different approach to the conversation.
Imagine an alternate version of this play that isn’t about defending Shakespeare’s artistic value—that’s been established, he’s fine, we’re at Bard on the Beach, which is very successful—and instead challenges the systems of white supremacy that have gone into determining what is and is not “important” art for hundreds of years.