The week of writing this piece, I had two interesting interactions with media from the past. In a class, the tutor proposes the use of trigger warnings for the word Anglo-Saxon. Anglo-Saxon is used most often in reference to medieval writings but has become appropriated as a dog whistle in right-wing groups online, to covertly and casually signify a belief in the supremacy of ‘white’ cultures over others.
Secondly, I attended a play written by Noel Coward. A 1930s comedy-farce, the plot concerns a few days in the life of an older comedian, Gary, who juggles the drama of his circus-like social life with his impending tour of Africa. Comic characters lament Gary’s upcoming journey to a dark and unsafe land, a ‘malarial swamp’ where he could meet a horrible fate (the play never leaves its London flat setting). The colonialist stereotypes are written into dialogue first performed in 1942, decades before a single African country is formally independent of European rule. The showing I saw this week had no adaptations made to Coward’s original text.
In both encounters, institutions of media strive for something that resembles care toward the contemporary audience as they present work from the past. The academic department sees how a term from the study of old texts is appropriated by particular violence exposed online and seeks to explore interventions in speech. The theatre programmers approve an old unaltered work, believing its extremities of speech to be part of the absurd comedy. Public acclaim for a 2019 adaptation of the show in London, where Andrew Scott plays Gary as an openly queer, highly flamboyant man, with the same plotline, is received well online – surely providing a basis of inoffensiveness for a staging of the Coward source material here in Fife.
I felt that these efforts by institutions lacked diligence or imagination. Seeking to please on a surface level, they ultimately derail the ability of the complex, specific audience in forming comprehensive relationships with art from the past. To view no other contemporary violence in the subject matter of medieval Anglo-Saxon texts and the conditions by which they are taught in literature classrooms in Western Europe and around the world, but to centre on trigger warnings for a term of newly mainstream discussion, is a performed care. To believe that an audience at the oldest university in Scotland is so far removed from the conditions of colonial exploitation under which racist imaginaries about Africa circulate, so that racist joking can only be today read as satirical and wittily absurd, is a performed care.
This performance hinges on the presumption of the audience are ubiquitous. It demands that all recipients of a lecture on medieval literature are of an anti-fascist opinion and are equally distanced from far-right notions of white people having a supreme cultural heritage, with no need for further deconstruction of this idea and its danger. Performed concern believes that all of the play’s audience is equally and unitedly distanced from bigotry, that all are able to laugh at the insults of Coward’s writing, and cannot be affected by racist terms echoed from the 1930s into the present day. It prioritises the cult following of one metropolitan adaptation to support a staging of the original script in front of a university town audience, despite insults or ‘jokes’ making up 56% of racist incidents reported in a survey of student racial harassment by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2018/19.
To enact real care for the audience when re-exhibiting old media, one must look beyond appeasing what seems like popular opinion. To reduce harm comprehensively, institutions should adopt strategies like textual adaptation and decolonial pedagogies to urge the specific, complex audience to see how text from the past interacts with the values society holds today. Phrases, representations or images in old media that are violent need to be addressed with awareness of who is targeted as victims, working with those specific groups, and being honest about what this says about our contemporary relationship with the art of the past.
I see the 2020s with all its complex concurrent issues as bringing with it a crisis of imagination, that demands a renaissance (from among other professions) of those behind the scenes in media. Responding to the crisis of imagination – in which heterogeneous audience, social meaning and connection are battlegrounds – requires looking within text from the past to identify its specific social impact and reckoning with it. Adopting this approach in literary lecture halls and in the theatre can only benefit the health and promote the growth of audiences who are diverse in all ways – and who are certainly more diverse than the crowds imagined by the authors of the works being brought to the fore.
We desperately need interactions with media of the past that strives beyond the performance of care.