“If Juliet is represented as a girl ‘very like Juliet’…..moving about in a ‘real’ house with marble staircases, rugs, lamps and furniture, the impression is irresistibly conveyed that these events happened to this one girl, in one place, at one moment in time. When the play is staged as Shakespeare intended it, the bareness of the stage releases the events from the particular and the experience of which Juliet partakes is that of all girls in love, in every time, place and language.” —Thornton Wilder, in his essay “Some Thoughts on Playwriting”
In keeping with the Elizabethan period convention that women did not appear on stage, a teenage boy portrayed Juliet in William Shakespeare’s original production of Romeo and Juliet. Though born out of sexism, this convention allowed Juliet’s experience to become universal, not only to all girls, as Wilder stated, but also, perhaps, to all people regardless of their gender or age. Similarly, since its first mounting nearly 40 years ago, the Goodman’s annual production of A Christmas Carol has featured actors of diverse backgrounds, implying that Charles Dickens’ Victorian tale of redemption belongs not only to British people or Caucasians, but to all audiences. In addition. the Goodman’s production of The Matchmaker features actors who are not white, an actor who does not identify as cisgender* and a differently-abled actor—all casting choices which universalize the story. Other plays, in which gender, race or age are essential to the story, might call for casting choices in which the actors resemble their characters: most directors of August Wilson’s plays, for example, would not choose to tell his specifically African American stories with a non-African American cast. Casting choices, like any other theatrical decision, provide meaning. And meaning, of course, is the primary business of theater.
When Wilder wrote about Juliet in 1941, he likely did not imagine a future in which people of color might play characters previously assumed to be white, that a woman might play a male character, or that a differently abled actor might appear in a play in which the writer had not expressed that any characters were differently abled. He might never have imagined that the very notion of gender would someday become more fluid, viewed as a spectrum rather than a binary. His own plays, including The Matchmaker, were produced with white, cisgender, able-bodied actors who most often were “very like” their characters in terms of age, gender, race and physical characteristics. In fact, Wilder, who was born in 1897 and died in 1975, lived in a rare age in theater history: an age during which convention dictated that actors should “be like” their characters.
In the ancient Greek theater, men played all roles, and their appearance and age mattered little because their faces were obscured by large masks. In Chinese opera, a theater form that includes dialogue, acrobatics and singing, actors traditionally specialize in a single type of role, mastering its musical, physical and dramatic requirements. Examples of such roles include the laosheng (old scholar) and the xiaosheng (young scholar); actors do not begin their careers playing young scholars and then progress to older ones, but rather play the same type of role throughout their lives. And in Shakespeare’s day, of course, female roles were played by teenage boys; differences in diet and environment likely meant that their voices remained high and their bodies less muscle-bound until their late teens. But their voices and slim physiques likely did not fool audiences; viewers could tell the actors were male and simply accepted the convention. Wilder himself wrote of an instance in which he saw Eleonora Duse play the role of Hedda Gabler, a 29-year-old character: “She was a woman of 60 and made no effort to conceal it…And the performance was very fine.”
In the late 19th century, European playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov revolutionized theater by suggesting that the art form ought to resemble real life as closely as possible. Their plays featured everyday characters in quotidian situations, and used conversational language rather than poetry. Casting followed suit, with producers and directors aiming to find actors who physically resembled the characters as written on the page. Wilder respected these dramatic titans, writing “Ibsen and Chekhov carried realism as far as it could go, and it took all their genius to do it.” But he also noted that, with the rise of cinema, “now the camera is carrying it on…” suggesting that the theater ought to return to its usual business of being stylized and non-literal.
This anti-realism sentiment comes to bear in the The Matchmaker with casting choices beyond Wilder’s imaginings. And yet, these choices help make The Matchmaker a more universal play—or, in 21st century parlance, a more inclusive play—one that acknowledges our diverse society and captures the spirit of Wilder’s playwriting ideology, and his view that art should be comprehensive, broadening and vast.
*Those who do not identify with the gender of their birth