Published by ConservativeHome
“Able-bodied actors should not play disabled characters,” says film critic Scott Jordan Harris, writing on the website of the late Roger Ebert. “That they so often do should be a scandal,” Harris submits.
He develops his argument from the anti-discriminatory moral perspective of social equality, advancing that the modern world should no more entertain the able-bodied playing a disabled character than we would a white man playing the Moor of Venice or a chap in Ptolemaic drag prancing around the stage as Egypt’s Cleopatra. Indeed, audiences would most likely find justifiable grievance in a pale actor donning “the Thick-lips” of Othello, or having to watch “Some squeaking Cleopatra boy (her) greatness / I’ th’ posture of a whore”. Nowadays black people play black characters and women play Shakespearean heroines, so there is a certain logic in the belief that disabled roles should be reserved for disabled thespians: in Harris’s terminology, the “performance is automatically authentic”.
I agree with him that acting opportunities are disproportionately limited for the disabled, just as they are for women, especially in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. I grant that it is abhorrent that (say) a deaf actor might be summarily discounted for a part where their impairment may present no barrier at all to the essential art of dramatic characterisation. And I recognise that more could and should be done to encourage casting directors and theatre/film producers to employ disabled actors.
But Harris – who himself suffers chronically with ME and so knows infinitely more about living with disability than I or any able-bodied person – is wrong on a number of artistic, social and moral levels. And, curiously, he chose to make his case on Rogerebert.com, when Ebert himself repudiated the “emasculation of political correctness” which, he said, constitutes an “artistic straitjacket” that exiles minorities “to a benevolent limbo”. The objective must be the creation of great art: any socio-ethical responsibility towards a specific community must be subsumed to that primary vocation.
You may argue that Ebert is talking about innate ethnicity while Harris is concerned with disability – which may or may not be congenital – and so we are dealing with very different aspects of minority identity. But this is the parallel which Harris himself draws. For him, the only “convincing” Othello is a black man, and so the only “convincing” portrayal of disability can come from the disabled. This is an egoist assertion of the dominant rights agenda: the sacrosanct belief that disabled actors somehow have a right to be cast in all disabled roles because they are undeniably better suited, whatever the detriment to communal artistic morality.
I saw King Lear at the National a few weeks ago. The title role was played by Simon Russell Beale, who is 53 years old. Lear tells us that he is “a very foolish fond old man, / Fourscore years and upward”, but there’s not a senile pensioner or even a compos-mentis 80-year-old with the mental agility and physical stamina to cope with just the storm scene, let alone scale the entire magnum opus eight times a week. And last Saturday I saw a superb production of Julian Mitchell’s 1930s public-school masterpiece Another Country at the Trafalgar Studios, which explores the themes of institutional coercion, social constriction, power abuse and homosexuality. Should the role of Guy Bennett be reserved exclusively for gay actors?
I don’t wish to conflate homosexuality with notions of disorder or disability. But if the matter before us is the “scandal” of how disabled roles are cast, we must surely consider all minorities equally. Gay actors obviously don’t suffer discrimination in theatre like the disabled, but they certainly have done and many still do in the predominantly hetero-normative world of movie-making. Why should inner psycho-sexual complexity be treated any differently from outer skin-colour or physical disability? Or is the concern only with the depthless injustices of phony Hollywood appearances?
The essential art of acting consists in being that which one is not: the shy man pretends to be debonair; the arrogant man feigns humility. The Greek word for actor is ὑποκριτής (‘hupokrités’, from which we derive ‘hypocrite’), meaning dissembler or pretender. It is to be figuratively two-faced; someone whose profession does not match their practice; those who say one thing but do another. It follows that the truer one is being to oneself, the less hypocritical one is being. And the less hypocritical one is being, the less one is pretending to be that which one is not. Emotional authenticity, psychological truthfulness and physical accuracy combine to create great acting.
My mentor in movement psychology – the late, great Yat Malmgren – used to talk about outward physical transformation originating from “inner attitudes”, and we would be packed off to Regent’s Park Zoo to consider the ant and scrutinise penguins or hippos. Then, through some tortuous Laban-Stanislavski invocation, we would painstakingly appropriate aspects of creaturely physicality into our dramatic imaginations. Such creativity is the very antithesis of being “automatically authentic”: the actor’s task is to express the inner emotional life through movement. Some disabilities, like autism or Down’s, can actually inhibit or completely block empathy. But this needn’t be an insurmountable expressive hurdle: the talented actress Sarah Gordy managed to secure the role of Lady Pamela Holland in the BBC’s recent revival of Upstairs Downstairs despite having Down’s. And please note that she is an actor who happens to have Down’s; not a Down’s actor.
But there is a manifest moral tension here, for in making the case of privileging physically-disabled actors, we must discriminate against some types of neurological and mental disability, because each disorder is unique. Isn’t it true that RJ Mitte could only play Walter White Jr in Breaking Bad because his cerebral palsy happens to be very mild? Indeed, doesn’t he purposely ape a speech disorder in order to convey a more “authentic” pathology? Do we then need to develop a scale or points system to categorise degrees of disability, as is done with the Paralympics?
And then what about the more disquieting moral questions? While the disabled are, by definition, imperfectly formed, they are still made in the image of God. At least that’s what I believe. They are no less human for their afflictions – except, of course, in the womb, where, unlike the perfectly-formed Eddie Redmayne for whom there was a 24-week abortion limit, Sarah Gordy might legally have been snuffed out right up to her mother’s full term of gestation. And Parliament has left it to doctors and nurses to discriminate rather subjectively whether Down’s, cerebral palsy or a cleft pallet constitute an unbearable “disability”.
This, to me, is an inexpressibly more shameful discrimination against the disabled than the relatively superficial “scandal” of prejudiced film producers and theatre directors who restrict the casting couch to visions of perfection.
So, before we are compelled by quota to reserve the mighty role of Richard III exclusively for paraplegic or scoliosis-suffering actors, let us also reflect upon how many babies diagnosed with these disorders never get to see the light of day. And then let our discussion of what we might call “disabiliphobia” not be so morally-narrow or restricted by political correctness as to deny consideration of the real fons et origo of the chronic injustice, prejudice and suffering experienced by disabled actors – even before 90 per cent of them get to breathe their first breath.