I’m embarrassed to admit that even though I am an English Ph.D. I have not read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. I have to further admit that I knew nothing about the story except that the Joads—led by Henry Fonda—traveled in a rickety car to escape the Dust Bowl. I didn’t even know where they were going. So, it was with some delight that I could find out more about this arguable masterpiece by seeing a production of its play version at a large university, well-known for its theatre program.
As is usual, the production values at this institution were excellent: the lighting, costumes, props, and music all felt right. Also as usual, the acting was spotty, but this comes with the fact that you have 20-year-olds playing elderly grandfathers and grandmothers or simply characters with greater depth than a young person can even dream of at this point in his or her life. For example, the actor playing patriarch Pa Joad—whom I had seen as Grandpa in a production of You Can't Take it With You, and I thought was high-schoolish at best—decided that Pa would have a damaged arm that stuck out at his side at a near right angle and a bit of a hunchback. As the script made no mention of this condition, I guess it was an artistic decision. Unfortunately, it just looked weird, but not as weird as the actor playing Jim Casy.
For those of you with more information about the Steinbeck novel than I (and that would be almost any literate person), it is common knowledge that Jim Casy, the ex-preacher with the telling initials, is a man. Steinbeck introduces Casy with the following descriptors (emphasis added): "His eyeballs were heavy and protruding . . . His cheeks were brown and shiny and hairless and his mouth full . . . His stiff gray hair was mussed back from his brow as though he had combed it back with his fingers. For clothes he wore overalls . . . A denim coat . . . lay on the ground beside him . . . The man looked long at Joad.” Call me misguided, but I do know enough about the English language to know that the words I’ve highlighted are masculine, that is, referring to the greatest evil ever put on the earth: males (and a white one, to boot).
Imagine my surprise when the actor playing Jim Casy—the unmistakable man—was a woman! Yes, the director decided that the Christ-like figure, the moral center of the story, the unselfish Transcendentalist was nothing like Steinbeck described him. He was a she and that’s it, you provincial, unsophisticated, Philistine audience members! Mind you, this was the same director who had Pa Joad look like a little teapot. I thought of all sorts of concerns with this approach to character: doesn’t Steinbeck’s description (and the entire concept of authorial intent) mean anything? Why was the actor wearing men’s clothing (all white, I must add, which is also not how Steinbeck described Casy? White, apparently, has value except when it’s a skin color)? Why on earth did the Joads call him “Jim”?
And then, it hit me: this Jim Casy was a transgender!
Borrowing the pedagogical tactics of the Left, I have come to realize that this Jim Casy was meant to reinforce the point that, as Steinbeck’s Jim says, “all men got one big soul ever’body’s a part of” (how Steinbeck got away with using the slur “men” is beyond me). In 2018, we are not content with a male character espousing such an enlightened view; this view has to be forwarded by a more progressive figure, one that is both male and female (or just female; that’s okay, too). All this was done despite what Steinbeck had in mind for his character: this philosophy cannot be credited to a man.
Now all this is well and good—for an English class. But the theatre requires an audience and—just like Pa Joad being stuck mid-bowling approach—I’m afraid the audience is not going to pick up on the director’s thematic folly. What they are going to see is a woman dressed as a man and being called by a man’s name. And it’s weird. And we’re not at a point in human evolution where this obvious blend of masculine and feminine seems normal or understandable.
But wait—there’s more! The same director brought Lilian Hellman’s The Children's Hour to the same stage last year. Amazingly, male characters were played by men and female characters by women. But one character, Amelia Tilford, was portrayed as a militaristic, Nazi-like old crone. Tilford is the grandmother who believes her conniving granddaughter that the two teachers running the boarding school are lesbians. She alerts the parents of the other students, who proceed to remove their children from the premises. When it is discovered that her granddaughter is a world-class liar, Tilford seeks forgiveness; of course, it is too late. The director had Tilford walk in straight lines, stopping to turn as an enlisted man (or woman!) might, with a slight hesitation and at a very tight angle. It was obvious to me what she was doing, but I suspect the audience, in general, only saw a woman who walked weirdly, or walked as if she were in the army (which she wasn’t, so what gives?).
I’m kind of dismayed that theatre, that most communal of art forms, is often poisoned by the agendas of directors who think they are too clever by half. Such directors may be content to have their not-so subtle political motives understood by a very small percentage of like-minded fellow travelers (or people like me who are on to them). But for theatre to be truly communal, it needs to reach most, if not all of the community, and by giving characters unrealistic and odd traits—despite what the authors intended—seems to me to be alienating a good portion of those who should be included. Then again, the contemporary theatre is all about marginalization: mocking or ignoring those that breach the party line, and reinforcing the views of only one side, chuckling in silence at the little joke perpetuated on an ignorant audience of everyday people.