The term “sexist” is falling rapidly from disfavor because it’s not hysterical enough; today, whenever some idea strays from the feminist line, it must be denounced as “misogynist.” Make a joke about one woman, even a fictional woman? You’re defaming all women. The artistic director of the Public Theater strongly implies, in the program notes for The Taming of the Shrew at the annual Shakespeare in the Park series (through June 26) that he has been conducting a one-man career boycott of the play because “I have never been able to get behind the central action of the play, which is, well, taming a woman.” Oskar Eustis says the play presents “problems” that are “intractable,” and an accompanying essay by the International New York Times theater critic Matt Wolf flatly declares the play “long-considered infamous for its misogyny.”
Since a thing cannot be misogynist, the Shrew detractors are declaring the creator of Cordelia and Portia and Viola to be a misogynist. Or did the Bard possess a fervent hatred of women only while he wrote Shrew? Did his misogyny come and go, like a disease? And given that Petruchio, the rough-hewn suitor who seeks to subdue Kate, is (apparently) a swinish, bad-tempered, money-grubbing lecher, is the play not misandrist as well? That would make Shakespeare a misanthrope. If hatred was his defining passion, everything Shakespeare wrote must have been hate speech and he should be banned immediately. Moreover, if a writer is his characters—if writing a misogynist makes you a misogynist—why stop there? Why don’t we retroactively charge Shakespeare with treachery, murder, and being Danish?
Political correctness can usefully be thought of a set of shackles, one that artists and critics love to place on others but also themselves. Watching otherwise talented people writhe against strictures of their own device is an inducement to uncontrollable cringing, and cringing is exactly the right response to the all-female production of The Taming of the Shrew that is going on in Central Park. The English stage and film director Phyllida Lloyd, whose movies showcase femininity both frivolous (Mamma Mia, 2008) and ferrous (The Iron Lady, 2011) has thought to turn the play on its head by disinviting men entirely. So alleged misogyny is used to fund women’s paychecks in much the same way, one supposes, that profits from the sales of Mein Kampf are often donated to Jewish groups.
Lloyd’s conceit is to make the play even more freewheeling by having the actresses, especially Janet McTeer in the role of Petruchio, play the menfolk as outrageously buffoonish, callous, and domineering, just to underline, boldface, and italicize the point that we all strongly disapprove of male chauvinism and maybe masculinity in general. Petruchio breaks wind and even urinates (in the masculine style) on stage, and by that point I felt like the stage. He drives a beaten-up Winnebago style vehicle (decorated with pinup girls and carrying the license plate “PISA ASS”) and the titular harridan Katherina (Cush Jumbo) spends much of the play frantically dashing around screaming like a badger caught in a bear trap. A Pat Benatar rock song introduces one scene. At one point a secondary actress playing one of many boorish and contemptible men simply stops the play dead to interject a gruesomely witless would-be humorous monologue on contemporary topics, noting, “This production is directed by a woman!” while railing about the attractiveness of stewardesses, suggesting women are useful only at dinnertime and at bedtime, and adding ruefully, two days after Hillary Clinton became the presumptive Democratic nominee for the presidency, “Now we got this woman gonna be president all of a sudden!” Oh, did I mention the play is staged in part as a beauty contest in which the contestants are lasciviously introduced by a Donald Trump soundalike, heard off-stage?
Petruchio’s onstage micturition was not the only stream of note; at the exit next to me, one of four such portals, patrons in their dozens flowed out the door throughout the play. Sadly, these early leavers missed the grand finale, in which Kate is shoved down a trap door but then re-emerges wearing a ripped punk-rock style T-shirt emblazoned with the word “SHREW” before joining the rest of the cast to sing Joan Jett’s girl-power punk song “Bad Reputation.” As is always the case with feminism, teasing out the logic of the underlying argument, if any, is challenging: Is the “problem” that Shakespeare created a shrew, even for comedic purposes? Or is being a shrew a quality women should “reclaim” in much the way women began to wear the word “bitch” as a badge of honor in the 1990s, even pushing a pop song by that name to nearly the top of the charts? Given that McTeer, in her motorcycle jacket and denim, seems not at all like a man but very much like a lesbian of the kind the queer (another reclaimed slur) community refers to as “butch,” the impression left by Lloyd’s direction is that bad behavior is fine as long as it strikes a blow against the patriarchy and especially the heterosexuality that helps perpetuate it. Or perhaps the crashing feebleness of the entire production is intentional, part of an elaborately ironic ruse meant surreptitiously to demonstrate, to those who suspect the term “feminist humor” is an oxymoron, how right they are.