Reviews > Culture

Hamlet or Betty the Yeti

Culture | Universities that reject dead white males like Shakespeare are committing intellectual suicide

Issue: "Bible translation blues," Nov. 21, 1998

A drama professor from Arizona State University has been fired for teaching plays so offensive, so outrageous, so dangerous that the faculty will not allow them in the classroom. What was it, exactly, that warranted the firing of this rebellious academic? Teaching the works of William Shakespeare.

Jared Sakren, a former director of the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, was hired by ASU in 1994 to "establish a nationally respected actor training program." The Julliard graduate and former faculty member at Yale had turned out scores of successful actors, including some who went on to become Hollywood stars, such as Val Kilmer and Annette Bening.

His method was to have his students work with classic plays-Aeschylus and Ibsen, but especially Shakespeare. Learning how to act in great works of literature would stretch their abilities and enrich their artistry. Professor Sakren's students thrived under this approach and became devoted to him. But after his second year, his colleagues in the department voted not to renew his contract. In the words of Lin Wright, the department chair, "the feminists are offended by the selection of works from a sexist European canon that is approached traditionally."

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In a letter to the dean, Ms. Wright concedes that Mr. Sakren is a "good acting teacher," but says that what he is doing does not conform to the goals of the department, which involve "confronting our theatrical heritage. There is a tension between the use of a Euro-American canon of dramatic literature and production style vs. postmodern feminist/ethnic canons and production styles."

"Work with student actors should help them all move beyond stereotypes to a personalization of the text," she insists, and they should be made to "accept the challenge to create a vision for the work that includes the unique contributions of minority artists."

While Mr. Sakren had his students performing Midsummer Night's Dream, his colleagues were having their students put on plays like Betty the Yeti, an "eco-fable" about an evil logger who transforms into an environmentalist after having sex with a Sasquatch.

The principle of academic freedom-that professors are not to be restricted in the ideas they raise in their classes-is almost sacrosanct in academia and has long been used to protect "postmodern feminist/ethnic" professors. But it did not protect Mr. Sakren's advocacy of Shakespeare.

So he's taken his case to the courts. Mr. Sakren is using the novel grounds that he is the victim of racial discrimination. He lost his job, he contends, because of his European descent and because he was teaching male European playwrights. Students flocked to his defense. Even former students who have made it big in Hollywood are speaking out. In an interview with the conservative student magazine Campus, Ms. Bening lauds Mr. Sakren as her mentor and emphasizes the value of studying Shakespeare. She calls the notion that one should not study artists from societies that do not measure up to today's political concerns "absurd."

"The conditions of a given society," she points out, "do not take away from the genius or brilliant creativity of the great writers." Besides, "the great geniuses were not demeaning to women. Quite the opposite," pointing out that the greatest roles for women were written by Shakespeare, from Juliet to Lady MacBeth.

"The careful study of classic texts is a method to reinvigorate acting and the art of acting," she insists. "Any program that doesn't involve the great works is a mediocre program.

By those standards, American universities are fast becoming ivy-clad bastions of mediocrity. A publicity poster for the English graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh cites its role in "reinventing English studies." Hailed as "one of the pioneers in disciplinary change," Pitt's English program now has three concentrations: composition, creative writing, and cultural studies. Literature, the study of great works of literary art, is gone from the curriculum. What used to be the major focus of English majors, studying great works of literature, has been banished from the English department.

To be sure, Pitt English students still read literature, but only as "cultural studies." Essentially, the cultural studies approach is to use the study of literature as a pretext for talking about feminism, homosexual rights, and environmentalism. Typically, the great works of the past are "interrogated," to use a current critical term that conjures up images of the KGB and the gulags, to reveal their political crimes.

Shakespeare's The Tempest, in which the hero brings civilization to a desert island, is accused of being an example of western imperialism. In King Lear the villainous daughters who throw their aged father out into the storm are considered feminist heroines who overthrow the patriarchal family. Shakespeare can then be dismissed, as a mere construction of an incorrect culture, in favor of more liberating contemporary works by writers of "diversity." Such as Betty the Yeti.

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