Aaron Sorkin & “To Kill A Mockingbird” on Broadway: Revising the Art
By Tom Warneke
There’s an old adage that ‘there is no new art’. Now whether you believe this or not, it’s also clear that an often popular way of generating new art is by reinterpreting or creating a new version of a previously created work.
Recently, Aaron Sorkin (famed Television screenwriter of The West Wing) was asked to pen a version of the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird, but not without contention.
The estate for Harper Lee has taken issue with a number of changes Sorkin has made which begs the question: What is okay when revisiting the past or interpreting the classics?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a famous novel about racial inequality and the ideas of race, gender, class and inequality in the deep south. While perhaps in a different light or form, many of these issues are still prevalent in the United States today, so isn’t it right to take these themes and stories of the past and update them with a modern day context or using modern day thought?
The idea of revisiting the past is also coming to the fore recently in music (particularly over Christmas just passed). ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ is a Christmas duet from decades gone by. In the current climate of moral absolutism, the song has been pulled from music playlists far and wide for its apparent promotion of ‘rape culture’.
My take on writing this isn’t to cause offense or to lessen any reader’s views or experiences but simply to ask that we as a culture absorbing population, take a step back and try not to take things in such a black and white way.
Let’s not forget this song was written in the 1950s – an era very different to current day. The context of the song in the 50’s wasn’t about rape culture or drink spiking. Two examples I’d present to you would be firstly lines such as ‘Say what’s in this drink?’ refer more to alcohol being a social lubricant than actual drink spiking and secondly, the gentle de-tant shown by the woman in lines such as ‘I ought to say, no, no, no sir’, ‘The neighbors might think’ and ‘But maybe just a half a drink more’ are actually the socially appropriate lines found in courtship back in the 50’s.
In a time of Tinder and Facebook, we think nothing of the casual hookup in 2019 but in the 50’s – this subtle protest was part of the chase and part of the courtship process. Lastly I would say that given we’re talking about lyrics in a Christmas carol, surely we should be reading between the lines to see that we’re not talking about malice and abuse, we’re talking about two adults singing about coyish love at a Christmas party.
For me, part of the charm of books like To Kill a Mockingbird or music like the song Baby, It’s Cold Outside is that it’s a window into a time before.
It’s not to suggest that we still hold these views or ideas or that they’re current – moreover they’re time capsules into a time before – whether that reference be the ideas of a time or simply the language and expression used historically. When you start tampering with the classics, you must be careful – tamper too much and you lose part of our history (for better or worse) but stay too true and you miss out on the cultural comparisons between the past and now.
Having said this, reinterpretations should be welcomed as a new variant on stories and ideas we know so well. Personally, I just can’t imagine Aaron Sorkin faithfully reproducing Lee’s text – where would be the merit in that? I will still prefer the original novel. Sorkin’s new version 0f To Kill A Mockingbird opened on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre in December and by January 2019, it has been named the highest-grossing American play in Broadway history, enabling audiences to see it in a brand-new way.
Also by Tom Warneke:
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