Don Fried — Playwright & Author

Just Treat Me Like You Would Shakespeare

Posted on: August 8, 2009

Last night we had the 6th of 8 performances of Taste of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice.  (I’m in a Renaissance quintet that we formed to sing before and during the play.)

Merchant of Venice has sometimes been tough to swallow.  It’s a great play, but it’s deeply anti-Semitic.  While it’s probable that Shakespeare didn’t have anything personal against Jews — they were expelled from England in 1290 and weren’t officially allowed back in until 1655 — anti-Semitism remained widespread in Britain.  As well read as Shakespeare was, he would have been exposed to it in literature and come to regard it as accepted wisdom.  The play reflects that fact.

Nonetheless, we’ve gotten through 6 performances of Merchant of Venice so far without any picketing.  It is Shakespeare, after all, so people make allowances.

Jump forward 400 years to the readings of my play, Postville, (The Plays, They’re Hijacking My Play) this past week.Postville Reading

When I started talking about writing a play about the events in Postville, my family and friends pleaded with me not to.

“There’s no way you’re going to be able to write this play without it being anti-Semitic,” they told me.

“Sure there is,” I responded, although I have to admit that at the time I wasn’t quite convinced.  Unless the play was going to be too sticky-sweet to say anything, it was going to have to tread through a host of “ism” minefields — anti-Semitism, anti-immigrantism, anti-Midwest farmerism, …

I’m convinced that I’ve achieved the objective of writing a play that deals sensitively and appropriately with a number of difficult issues.  But each time there’s a public reading — this past week were the second and third — I’m concerned that I’m going to get the crap kicked out of me by people who hear individual sentences but miss the point.

“You said that Jews are cheap!”  Kaboom!

“You showed a Hispanic immigrant who couldn’t speak English well!”  Crash!

Some of that happened in Des Moines in March, but I knew it would.  (See Write Your Own Damn Play.)

There was only one instance of it this week.  And that was a woman who beat me up for not following up in the play on the otherwise un-referred-to occupants of a bus that gets clobbered by a train.  Anti-innocent-bystanderism?  (Come on, Lady, even Tolstoy when he was writing War and Peace had to make choices about what to include and what to leave out!)

I’m hugely relieved, but I’ll continue to worry about people who are so burned by their hot buttons that they can’t or won’t see things in context.

So here’s my plea. Just treat me with the same consideration you’d give Shakespeare.  That wouldn’t be so hard, would it?

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