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Theatre and Race

Harvey Young
Palgrave MacMillan

Theatre & Race

This is a very short book that takes on a deeply significant topic. However, readers will discover that it barely scratches the surface of an issue that could easily fill a volume comprising ten times as many words.

Harvey Young is something of an expert when it comes to race but seemingly has more limited knowledge of theatrical history.

The first quarter of the book attempts to pin down exactly what we might mean by race, probably coming to conclusions that will surprise. For example, the author explores race in the classical world in situations where skin colour was not a determining factor, meaning that, for most of those, nationalism would be a more accurate description.

The question about whether Judaism is a religion or a racial category is undecided, since, while stating after some internal debate that it is not a race, Young then proceeds to look at both The Merchant of Venice and Marlowe's The Jew of Malta.

More convincingly, he also considers Othello and Titus Andronicus, deciding that Aaron in the latter is a more compelling representative of his race than the Moor of Venice.

Harvey Young goes on to write more informatively about blackface minstrels, plus red face, yellow face and even white face performers, concentrating at least as much on film as theatre. As such, his speciality might more accurately be human stereotyping as opposed to the depiction of race and racism on stage.

This is all good as far as it goes but there is very little depth in the analysis and the rich seam of British stage writing about race and racial issues, including those of immigrants from the subcontinent (not even mentioned here), which is likely to have been repeated in many other countries around the globe is completely ignored.

There is certainly a book to be written about such an important subject, perhaps extending the brief more explicitly to include racism, and Harvey Young has started the ball rolling, but he or possibly somebody else might now wish to take the opportunity to finish the job.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher