Ben Brantley is the chief theater critic at The New York Times. Brantley is the editor of “The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century" (2001) and received the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism in 1997.
Ben Brantley: There are some critics, Harold Bloom among them, who think that The Merchant of Venice simply should never be performed because it’s too impossible to present Shylock in a way that won’t foster anti-Semitism.
I think what makes any great work of art great is a combination of elements not all of which are necessarily going to be savory, so if you cut Jim out of Huckleberry Finn--or certain unsavory references to him out of Huckleberry Finn--you’re diluting the work. You’re playing with its central structure, with the fabric that makes it what it is.
People have to read in context. Every era has its own mores. Being too literal and political correctness can be a straight jacket. I mean, do we not listen to Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, the soprano, because she was possibly a collaborator? Do we not watch Harlantian movies or Maurice Chevalier?
Where do you draw that line? It’s endlessly debatable, but you can’t shut out everything that is polluted in art or else you wouldn’t have any art.