Ok, I have a lot to say, so I'm going to write two posts, one addressing the WHY of the language change, and one addressing the HOW. This is the HOW post, and it's much shorter than the other one.
When I first posted, I thought maybe I'd hear from some folks who had already done some creative problem solving around this that I (and other) could benefit from. I did get a direct message from someone that included some suggestions – thank you, Scott! Then I found and shared a blog post about a production in which the creative team chose the word to "kink" after consulting with their dramaturg. I like their line of reasoning, but I get that it might not work for everyone; I'm not sure it's the solution for me either, though I might end up using it. It is probably the simplest solution in terms of the rhyme and meter considerations. Also, "Show me thy kink," is funny, but maybe distracting in a different way?
Several people have suggested just using hole. For the Wall speech, which is in rhyming couplets, that doesn't work without other changes. Also, I think that saving "hole" for "I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all" makes that punchline stronger.The two possibilities I've come up with for that couplet so far areAnd such a wall, as I do you assure,That featured a crannied hole or fissure.
(That second line isn't iambic pentameter, and "fissure" is not as funny a word to me as some others, but it's ten syllables.)
And such a wall, as fate would have it hap,That had in it a crannied hole or gap.
(I mean, I'm no Shakespeare, obviously. But I think it sort of works with the style of the other Rude Mechanical speeches. And it's IP.)
I consider myself something of a Shakespeare super-fan, but I also cut his scripts down radically for my classroom use, which at times means rearranging lines to preserve verse structure, and feel free to cast girls in any of the roles, sometimes changing the characters' gender, name, and associated language, sometimes not. I've even been known to encourage the actors to ad lib a little bit. So an enthusiast, but not a purist.(Throwing down the gauntlet, with supernatural echo:) I look forward to hearing from others who DARE (dare dare) to RE-WRITE (write write) SHAKESPEARE (peer peer).
Obviously, it's Shakespeare, so you're free to change anything you like. Replacing it with hole is fine.
I must confess this change flummoxes me, much as the Senator who was criticized for using the word "niggardly." In this instance, the word does not refer to an ethnic slur, and has a completely different meaning. Words only have meaning in context with other words. No one would listen to the speech in Midsummer and think that he meant any type of racist slur by it.
Simply because a word sounds similar to a slur, should it be excised? I'm not sure I have the answer to that. But do you think people would be offended by the following words or phrases?
--Jack Frost nipping at your nose
Even though these words sound similar to slurs, in context it's obvious they're not being used as slurs.
Just because someone's offended, doesn't mean they're right. And I say that in context of audience members trying to shut down a play of mine because they were offended that it contained a same sex relationship. Those people were offended, but they weren't right.
I don't know how this should play out, but I have concerns about us changing language because we're afraid someone might misunderstand a word. There are LOTS of words that can cause misunderstandings, and I would hate to think we could be fired because an audience member misconstrues something as offensive. We'll never be able to anticipate all the words that someone could misunderstand in the audience.
The Oxford definition of chink is "a narrow opening or crack."Every time I've directed Midsummer, the actor playing Wall popped out a sideways peace or victory sign on the word "chink," then the lovers looked through those spread fingers to see each other.I've never had anyone question the word, even in a school that had quite a few students who had been adopted as children from China. Maybe that was because chink means "a narrow opening or crack", except when it is being used as a racial slur.If students question the word in the classroom, it can be a teachable moment. No, we never call a person who might be of Chinese descent a "chink" because it is a derogatory term. But Shakespeare was using the word in its dictionary meaning.I never changed "ass" to "donkey" either.
There are lots of lines in A Midsummer Night's Dream that could be upsetting to an audience. But I have directed it four times and never had a complaint. The high school students love all the double meanings. I think it is fun for them to be able to laugh about sex.
The first time I directed A Midsummer Night's Dream, the student playing Tom Snout (Wall) asked me about the following lines:
O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,For parting my fair Pyramus and me!My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.
He wondered if the term "cherry lips" and "stones with lime and hair knit up in thee" might be referring to the parts of the human body. I said that makes sense to me with all the other double entrendres in the script. He then started to break down all of them, including the word chink. For example:
O kiss me through the hole of this vile wall!
I kiss the wall's hole, not your lips at all.
The word chink is used 5 times in the script. Once in Act 3 Scene 1 as the actors rehearse the play and four times during the Act 5 in the Pyramus and Thisbe play. I feel confident the word is used as double entendre, just as the word ass seems to be joke, especially when you consider that Bottom is turned into a donkey.
Several years ago, I was at a workshop led by Michael Sexton, director of The Shakespeare Society at the Public Theatre. The conversation let to a discussion of the word ass in A Midsummer Night's Dream. I was led to believe that ass and bottom probably didn't mean the same thing when the play was written. I find that hard to believe today, but words change in meaning. Today, the mix of those two words makes the play even funnier to me. Bottom seems to be a fool. The word ass seems like a similar meaning to the word fool. Puck turns Bottom into an Ass. As Quince says, "Bless thee, Bottom! Bless thee! Thou art translated." I just love that Bottom as been "translated" into an "Asshead."
The best part about Shakespeare is that it is not copyright protected. You can do anything you want with the script. If the word chink will be a problem for your audience, change it
That being said, the more Shakespeare I direct, the less I change. It is beautifully written. It takes work, but you can make it relate to your audience.
While I have never had any complaints about my productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream, I have had several complaints about the word ass in Peter Pan. I think it is hysterical, but it always makes me wonder if my directing was not as good for Peter Pan. Or simply … maybe A Midsummer Night's Dream is the better play.
And finally, Shakespeare gives you the ultimate defense to use with Puck's last monologue:
If we shadows have offended,Think but this, and all is mended,That you have but slumber'd hereWhile these visions did appear.And this weak and idle theme,No more yielding but a dream,Gentles, do not reprehend:if you pardon, we will mend:And, as I am an honest Puck,If we have unearned luckNow to 'scape the serpent's tongue,We will make amends ere long;Else the Puck a liar call;So, good night unto you all.Give me your hands, if we be friends,And Robin shall restore amends.
Ok, I have a lot to say, so I'm going to write two posts, one addressing the WHY of the language change, and one addressing the HOW. This is the WHY post, and it's long. It references several of the responses that have been made so far, so if you haven't read the whole thread you might miss some of the context.
The original article I linked to was about how white theater practitioners and especially all-white creative teams could make the rehearsal room more welcoming to non-white performers. That's my main concern here; in my situation the rehearsal room is also a classroom of 8th graders, required to be there – for some of them, it may be the only rehearsal room they'll ever be in. I hear what Don Zolidis is saying about words that sound like slurs, but there's no softening ending at work here -- it's the same word. (And, as I side note, I have zero concern about safeguarding the use of "niggardly" – why, as a white person, use that word when you can use another?) Yes, in the case of "chink," Shakespeare's meaning is different, and completely unrelated to the meaning of the slur, but it sounds exactly the same, not similar, even the same part of speech, and no amount of explaining the meaning or intent changes that, and neither does pantomime. After reading CJ's post, I think I'd like to start a separate thread about how we handle 'teachable moments' related to racially-charged language or images, but in this situation, I'm not comfortable with what I might be teaching by first explaining the racist use of the word to students who might not be familiar with it, including students from China, and then saying we're going to continue to use it anyway because we don't mean it THAT way.
In the rehearsal room, it's not just hearing it once, and possibly being taken out of the play, although that's relevant too. (And since my students will be performing it for their peers, it's certainly possible there will be audience members who are struck by the word and don't understand its context. Not that the performances I direct aren't all completely enthralling.) It's asking two actors to say that word in front of their parents and friends. It's my encouraging the actor playing Bottom to really project and ham it up when saying, "Show me thy chink!" Repeating that multiple times, because of the need to rehearse the physical business involved in that section. And OK, yes, let's think about how it looks in performance. There's an actor in a Wall costume, who sticks out their hand after Bottom's line, showing more of themselves at that cue. Even if the actor isn't Chinese or of Chinese descent (and I don't think I've ever cast it that way), I don't think it's a great look, perhaps especially with my multiracial and very diverse cast, but maybe not so especially. Just because I've never heard any of my students use the word outside of the script doesn't mean they're not doing so, or that I'm not making some of them uncomfortable, or that some of them may feel emboldened to make their own related jokes.
I'm not afraid of getting fired, at least not because of this, and I don't think theater should be inoffensive. I'm completely comfortable leading middle schoolers in parsing Shakespeare's references to testicles and holes, and for me "Midsummer" would not be the same without the Bottom/Ass/Donkey trio. I love teaching middle school and anticipate those snickers. But when they snicker at "chink," it's different. When offensiveness has a racial component, one that punches down in the power structure, I want to consider it very carefully, and not dismiss concerns simply by saying "that's not the intent" or justify my choices with tradition, entertainment value, or fairy magic. And as a white director, I want to hold myself to a higher standard than "nobody complained."
It may sound to some of you as if I should just stop using "Midsummer," and maybe I will someday, but at this point for me the pros outweigh the cons, especially when I'm fine with changing out this word. When I made my original post, I wasn't consciously trying to prompt this discussion – I was just seeing if anyone else had a clever, or even not-so-clever, language substitute. But I think this discussion is really valuable -- I've found it useful to clarify my own thoughts about it, and in some ways prompting this discussion might make a bigger difference than anything that I do at my own school.
I've been teaching and directing "Midsummer" with 8th graders every year for probably 15 years or so, and it took reading this article, written by a person of color, for me to really commit to making a change. I get the defensive reactions about what we may have done in the past. We've got a lot to think about when teaching and directing. There are other things in my directing and teaching past that make me cringe when I look back. I should and hope to consider bigger changes to my teaching related to the racial issues that are in the forefront at this moment. But I invite you to consider making this small change in the future, or mentioning the issue when you're adjacent to or involved in a production in the future. As many of you have pointed out, there's a freedom to directing Shakespeare that for many of us is part of the appeal. There are other words we can use, so let's use them.