CONTENT WARNING: This following article and links discuss issues of sexual assault and sexual violence, including rape.
In an article she co-wrote for Emerson College’s HowlRound, a theater blog by Latinx Theater Commons, OxyArts director Deena Selenow said, “An equitable theatre that reflects the plurality and diversity of American culture is a relevant theatre.” With Occidental Theater’s turn at what the department calls “one of the most sophisticated of all musical comedies,” as conscious consumers and students of this college we must ask: is our theater equitable? Is our theater relevant? The recent production of “A Little Night Music,” directed by theater department chair John Bouchard, seems to offer an emphatic ‘no.’
Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night” (which also inspired Woody Allen’s 1982 film “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy”), Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music” explores themes of love, infidelity and family. The musical comedy of manners premiered on Broadway in 1973 to rave reviews, winning six Tony Awards. Despite all that initial critical acclaim, the musical does not serve the Occidental community well.
One problem, specific to this production, is the issue of race and casting. Only three of the eighteen actors are people of color, and two of these actors are playing domestic workers with little to no lines. This sort of representation is, at best, sloppy. Representation within entertainment and media is extremely important. The theater department might do well in taking advice, again, from Selenow’s article, in which she argues in favor of color-conscious casting, as opposed to color-blind casting: “To be blind to someone’s race or ethnicity is to be blind to their experience.”
Another problem with the show, however, extends beyond this specific production. The musical is, quite simply, rampantly sexist. In the song, “In Praise of Women,” a male character claims women are “understanding and reliable, / knowing their place. / Insufferable, yes, but gentle.” and that women are “very nearly indispensable / creatures of grace.” In the first solo of the musical, “Now,” lead male character Frederik Egerman contemplates if he should take a nap or sleep with his wife. This may seem typical of a sex comedy, but it’s much darker. Frederik’s wife, Anne, is only eighteen, younger than his son from an earlier marriage. Anne also — previous to their marriage — knew him as Uncle Frederik. If that weren’t enough, Frederik believes that his only options to ‘take the virginity’ of his bride are “A / the deployment of charm,” which, to him, means reading from risque novels, or “B / the adoption / of physical force.” He also believes that Option B “might arouse her,” but ultimately decides not to rape his niece/wife because his “nerves would be jangled / [his] energy sapped” and that “removing her clothing / would take [him] all day.”
Important to note is the setting of the musical: early 20th century Sweden. Gender and racial dynamics of the time were not up to par with the standards to which we hold ourselves today. The musical was also written in 1973, before spousal rape had first been considered a crime. However, if this play is primarily focused on, as the event webpage suggests, “rich characters that have us both laughing at, and regretting, how foolish we often are,” then the production should go beyond realism and historical accuracy. Instead of prioritizing white, upper class, male narratives for the sake of realism (which may deter actors of different narratives from auditioning if they feel unwelcomed), our production should, as many theaters often do, stray from the source material to create its own, unique take. The direction should make clear what is morally right and wrong, what is to be laughed at and what is to be taken seriously. If it does blur these lines intentionally, it must do so masterfully. After all, if old plays were never given modern recontextualization and a suspension of disbelief, Shakespeare could never be done with an all-bBlack cast. It also leads to several questions: why was this show even chosen in the first place? Why this? Why here? Why now?
In an interview with The Weekly, Selenow said that art (and by extension, those who create art) needs to “remember what community it’s serving.” This recent production has failed at remembering Occidental’s history, and the history of the oppression of women through sexual violence.
“Occidental has had a troubled and problematic history when it comes to preventing and addressing issues of sexual assault and violence,” Eleanor Goulden, a sophomore theater and cognitive science double major, said. “The [theater] department is no exception. We need to take this history into consideration and address these issues more carefully.”
In the fall semester, when it was announced that Bouchard was interested in directing “A Little Night Music,” a group of around 20twenty theater students voiced their concerns to the department faculty, noting that the musical might not be the best choice, considering the problems with the concept of virginity, the Madonna-whore complex by which women appeared to be viewed in the show, and the current political moment on and off campus. Goulden was one of those students.
“It’s just troubling that students voiced their concerns and were told the themes of the musical would be dealt with appropriately, only to be confronted with such a mishandling of the subject matter,” Goulden said.
Ultimately, after several departmental meetings were held to discuss the issues raised, Bouchard decided to move forward with his production, deeming it “educational.”
Regardless of the educational intent, the impact it has had matters, and must be noted. Concerns surrounding the disturbing content of “A Little Night Music” were raised, and not limited to theater students. Marjorie Morales, a senior kinesiology major who chose to attend the musical, shared similar sentiments.
“I felt very uncomfortable. I thought it was incredibly inappropriate given the fact that there was 1) no trigger warning about the sensitive content and 2) it has been known that the administration has tried to cover up cases of sexual assault in the past. The [second] song set an incredibly uncomfortable tone for the rest of the play and I personally don’t think it ever recovered,” Morales said.
For some students, attending the show was not a choice. Certain theater classes required attendance, such as THEA 210 Acting 1,* in which students must produce a written response that will be graded.
“It shows a gross disregard and misunderstanding of our current socio-political moment, both within the microcosm of Oxy and outside, to require students to see a play in which a man, in one of the first songs, casually contemplates raping his wife,” Gillian Yaple (sophomore) said.
Flyers, social media posts and the program for the show issued no trigger warnings for the mentions of sexual assault, domestic violence and rape. There were, however, warnings that there would be gunshots in the performance, which could be triggering for victims or witnesses of gun violence, veterans or those who suffer from gun-related post-traumatic stress disorder, suggesting a prioritization of certain traumas.
If you have yet to see the musical, it will continue to play April 21 and 22 at 7:30 p.m., April 23 at 2 p.m. and May 20 at 8:30 p.m. in Keck Theater. The cast and crew will likely be taking some notes and making some adjustments between performances. As a theater major, and as a person who believes in the potential of the department, I implore the faculty to listen to the concerns of Occidental students and uphold the promise of cultural relevancy in future productions. As Selenow said, “The plates are shifting in America, and, unless we want to fall through the cracks into oblivion, our theatre culture needs to shift along with it.”
Sophomore, Theatre Major
*An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that THEA 101 Dramatic Literature: The Art of Reading Scripts students were required to attend the play this semester.