Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor

Ken Ludwig�s Lend Me a Tenor
Production still from Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor

 

Ken Ludwig is an American playwright and theatre director from York, Pennsylvania. His farce, Lend Me a Tenor, premiered in London’s West End in 1986 and opened on Broadway in 1989. The work was nominated for six Tony Awards, a Laurence Olivier Award and six Drama Desk Awards. The work was hailed by the New York Times as “one of the funniest farces to appear on Broadway,” and by USA Today as “Uproarious! Hysterical!” (Reviews-Lend Me a Tenor Study Guide). As with many successful American productions, the work has been performed across Canada in a multitude of theatre settings. From regional theatre in St. Jacob’s, Ontario and Fredericton, New Brunswick, to professional theatre in Regina, Saskatchewan, and Richmond, British Columbia, as well as in high schools and Universities. Though an American play and loose meta-adaptation of Shakespeare, its wide cultural circulation in Canadian contexts has meant it taking a place on the Canadian cultural scene, and for this reason CASP has included it in its archive: Canada is a site for intercultural transmissions, some of these being Shakespearean adaptations, and these transmissions merit a place in the adaptation continuum that is the object of this research project. Controversially, in the case of Ludwig’s work, this mode of cultural transmission has brought to Canada a tradition of racist caricature, colonial mentality, and a legacy dating back to the days of American minstrelsy, through the play having two white actors present on stage in blackface.

In Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor, a world famous tenor, Tito, prepares to play the role of Otello is Verdi’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s work, a role that requires the white actor don blackface and a large wig. Through a series of circumstances, Tito is believed to be dead, and is quickly replaced by Max, an assistant with little stage training. The stage manager contends, “black[en] his face.  Huge wig, lots of padding.  If we didn’t tell the audience, they’d think he was Tito Merelli” (Playscript 62). Yet, in farcical fashion, Tito isn’t actually dead and awakens just in time to go on stage.

Blackface is a style of theatrical makeup, where actors blacken their faces with makeup or burnt cork and exaggerate their lips with red lipstick. This performance style originated in the United States in the 17th century and was used in Minstrel and vaudeville shows, and on the American stage more generally to perpetuate racist African-American stereotypes. During this period, actors in blackface would wear woolen wigs and rag-like clothing, and would play to stereotypes that involved excessive superstition, laziness, acting the buffoon or the dimwitted, erotically provocative slaves and servants. This performance mode had several purposes: one was as means collectively to demonstrate the fears of White America regarding the unknown of African American diasporic, and to reassert their supposed superior rights over a race characterized as inferior. Ironically, black performers began to take part in minstrel shows in the 1850s, despite their dark skin, they were forced to use blackface and act in the stereotypical manner. Many actors, by contract, had to keep this routine up even offstage in order to maintain the racist illusion. Minstrelsy continued into the 1950s, and its outgrowths are still present today.

    Production still from Ken Ludwig�s Lend Me a Tenor
Production still from Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor

The tradition of blackface is substantially interspersed with the tradition of Shakespeare, because of his two characters; Othello, from Othello, and Aaron the Moor, from Titus Andronicus. In contemporary theatre, Othello and Aaron are most often played by African-American actors, yet as recently as the 1980s huge theatres and broadcasting companies, like the BBC were using white actors in blackface. This tradition has largely been stopped by Actors Equity Unions, to try to counter the inherent racism of the performance practice, but the legacy of this insidious practice remains.

Djanet Sears, a Canadian playwright, who wrote the groundbreaking Shakespearean adaptation Harlem Duet in 1997, discussed her experience with blackface in an interview with CASP. Her play is a prequel of Othello that explores the relationship of Othello and his first wife, Billie, in contemporary Harlem. Sears stated that seeing Laurence Olivier play Othello in blackface as a child “was like a grain of sand in the belly of the oyster. It stayed there inside me and as I studied theatre, it continued to irritate me, and eventually grew into the pearl that became Harlem Duet” (Djanet Sears Interview). This form of talkback via adaptation as a way of dealing with difficult experiences for oppressed and marginalized groups, such as African-Canadians and First Nations peoples, has become an emergent mode of adaptation in recent years in Canada.

Of all the performances of Ludwig’s piece done in Canada, tellingly, none of the available reviews cite the use of blackface as a cause for concern. Many, in fact, do not mention it all, or simply state it as part of the synopsis; “at one point there are TWO identically costumed Otellos in blackface and fright wigs racing around” (http://www.stu.ca/~hunt/reviews/tenor.htm). This lack of concern or awareness in a play that brings a negative, and obvious racial stereotypes into Canada from the United States is demonstrative of how indoctrinated and passive Canadian audiences have become to foreign theatre and broadcasting. Even though Canada prides itself on being a liberal, open-minded, and multicultural nation, the lack of critique is evidence that cultural transmission can be a damaging and destructive force that is often not scrutinized or questioned critically.

Danielle Van Wagner (with Daniel Fischlin)

 


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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project . University of Guelph. 2004.

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