If 'Times Are-A-Changin,' Should Classic Stories Change, Too?

If times are-a-changin’ should classic stories–like CARMEN–change too? No… and (sometimes) YES.

In general, I say “No.” I’m against revisionism of the past or the changing of classic works—I don’t believe they should be edited, whitewashed or altered to fit modern sensibilities. Though they may not be politically correct or include what’s no longer acceptable (or should be) in today’s society, they show ‘the way things were.’ When we see the wrong in them, we should regret that’s how it was, be thankful things have changed and continue to improve how we treat each other (even though we all know we still have miles to go).

But in the case of live performances of a classic story such as CARMEN, I believe it’s necessary.

The globally popular opera by French composer Georges Bizet, that held its premiere in 1875, will have a new ending when it opens on Jan. 7 in Florence to highlight the ongoing battle to stop violence against women in Italy.” Varsha Saraogi, Reuters

In the story—and opera—Carmen is not an angel. In the traditional telling, she’s a Gyspy factory-girl that all the local men desired. And a seductress (granted, with no opportunities in life or resources—she used what she had, her looks) who when arrested, woos a guard to release her then runs away. The enamored guard, Jose, finds her and they have a turbulent love affair that falls apart. He confronts her in the town square. Trying to get her to forget what’s past and start a new life with him, Jose tries to force her to leave with him. Taking off the ring he gave her, she throws it down and tells him, “It’s over. I was born free and will die free.” In a rage, Jose kills her with a dagger and is then stunned by what he had just done. The End. Curtain comes down.

Now, not so—that ending doesn’t happen—in the new version mentioned above.

This significant change [to live performances of CARMEN’] was made in support of ongoing efforts to end the widespread violence against women in Italy, where cases of femicide, or women who are killed by jealous husbands or boyfriends, now account for 37% of all homicides. As Cristiano Chiarot, head of Teatro del Maggio Musicale Foundation, asserts: ‘At a time when our society is having to confront the murder of women, how can we dare to applaud the killing of a woman?’” –A Mighty Girl, Facebook

I’m a devout believer in women standing up for and protecting themselves (in all ways, including emotionally and financially) and putting fear in any man who thinks he can lift a hand to her—or someone she loves—with impunity. [My stories The Candle, NIGHT NOISES, Union Station, BLINDED, All That I Am, The Crossing and Thou Shalt Not-Thou Shalt Not-Thou Shall,’ reflect that belief.] In my stories those who mess with, hurt, the main female character are going to get their ass kicked. They’re going to pay the price and suffer the consequences.

“The dramatic departure from operatic orthodoxy is an attempt to shine the spotlight on the modern-day abuse and mistreatment of women, an issue given added resonance by the outrage over the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein and Donald Trump.” –Nick Squires, The Telegraph (UK)

“It’s a way to say to all, men and women, ’enough of the violence,’” soprano Veronica Simeoni told The Associated Press. “In this case, there’s a precise message against violence targeting women, a plague that has concerned all of us always, and in this moment, is before the eyes of everybody.” –Breitbart (surprisingly)

This—the changing of a story long told traditionally in one way—is nothing newfangled. But sometimes it goes too far…. I’ll reiterate here, I don’t feel that the case with the change in CARMEN. But sometimes, good intentions skewed wide of the mark and flawed (or suspect) motives, make it is just plain wrong. The following is from a New York Times article by Michiko Kakutani titled, ‘Light Out, Huck, They Still Want to Sivilize You.’

Efforts to sanitize classic literature have a long, undistinguished history. Everything from Chaucer’s ‘Canterbury Tales’ to Roald Dahl’s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ have been challenged or have suffered at the hands of uptight editors. There have even been purified versions of the Bible (all that sex and violence!). Sometimes the urge to expurgate (if not outright ban) comes from the right, evangelicals and conservatives, worried about blasphemy, profane language, and sexual innuendo. Fundamentalist groups, for instance, have tried to have dictionaries banned because of definitions offered for words like hot, tail, ball and nuts. In other cases, the drive to sanitize comes from the left, eager to impose its own multicultural, feminist worldviews and worried about offending religious or ethnic groups. Michael Radford’s 2004 film version of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ (starring Al Pacino) revised the play to elide potentially offensive material, serving up a nicer, more sympathetic Shylock and blunting tough questions about anti-Semitism. More absurdly, a British theater company in 2002 changed the title of its production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ to ‘The Bellringer of Notre Dame.’”

Carrying it beyond political correctness, solely for commercial purposes (studio greed), the 2001 movie PEARL HARBOR with Ben Affleck made a concerted effort to revise history.

From editing to marketing, Buena Vista International, the Disney division distributing the film in Japan, appears to have gone to great lengths to try to soften Pearl Harbor and dodge historical polemics with the lucrative Japanese market in mind. A soliloquy at the end about America’s victory was toned down here, and the publicity banners and brochures handed out Thursday night even read ‘Pearl Harbor, Love in Tokyo.’” Howard W. French, New York Times

Now, that pissed me off, and though I—being a surface warfare Navy veteran—love a good ‘war’ movie (which, based on critics and most of the public who’ve seen it, it is not) I did not—and will never—watch it. Some things cross a red line with me. It did.

Revising or altering history (in books or for purposes of a movie) or classic literature to make the stories politically correct, to meet a self-serving political or religious agenda (or to slant them to make more financially rewarding) is wrong and should not be tolerated. I don’t believe in changing them to eliminate what may offend someone (whether individuals, a creed, ethnicity or gender). If you’re hurt by something in them, don’t read (or go see) them.

As a writer, I am mindful of how I portray sensitive issues, such as racism, bigotry, homophobic and xenophobic behavior. To serve the story, I create characters that exhibit those traits. And sometimes they are plain evil, self-serving, malevolent, malignant assholes because, just like in real life, that is who they really are inside. They’re racist, abusively cruel (both emotionally and physically) to others (to animals too, damn them). They’re cheaters, adulterers, bullies, cowards, psychos, perverted sociopaths (even the kind of people that can run for and sometimes become elected to high public office nowadays). I bring to life characters that are the kind of people I hate, the type of person I am not. And I create storylines that enable those characters to do terrible things, often (usually) to good people. But there’s this thing. I create good characters, too (with whom I share some of their finer attributes, and others I’m shooting for). And in my stories, there’s always at least one—often a female—that’s going to fight back. They’re the ones that get ‘mad as Hell and they ain’t gonna take it anymore.’ And they won’t stop—even when they are scared, scarred and wounded—until they win. Or get some serious payback.

CARMEN LIVES In The End Short Nonfiction by Dennis LowerySo, I believe this new CARMEN deserves to exist. Maybe it is part (or the result) of the #MeToo movement. And rightly so. Too many women—for too long—have suffered at the hands of abusive men. Men who get off on wielding physical, financial or emotional power over women, to bend them to their will, to fulfill their wants. And even though when caught, they show remorse (whether feigned or real) after the fact… they still have gotten away with it. But no longer. Not this time. In the new version, Carmen—defending herself—lives in the end. And that’s a good change.

PLEASE READ: This--below--is where intelligent comments are exchanged and threads of meaningful and thought-provoking discussion can take place. Some of my favorite stories I've written started with such exchanges and through them I've met some truly wonderful people. This comment section is a place where it's almost old-school in that responses--if one is needed--may not be immediate but will come. Kind of like postal mail correspondence, an easier pace that allows thoughtfulness and not knee-jerk fingers flying over keyboard replies, or something that comes out as top of mind, a stream of conscious superficiality. I hope to hear from and interact with you on anything I've written that sparks a thought or urge to comment.

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