A Black Heathcliff in the New ‘Wuthering Heights’
Posted on November 20, 2010 at 8:00 am
One of the most famous characters in literature is the brooding Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Since its publication in 1847 it has captured the imagination of generations of readers with its story of a tragic love affair in the Yorkshire countryside. A wealthy man impulsively adopts a street urchin with just one name: Heathcliff. He is described as “dark-skinned gipsy” and as “a little Lascar, or an American or Spanish castaway.” He grows up passionate and impetuous — and deeply in love with Catherine, the daughter of the man who took him in. She loves him, too, but marries a neighbor with whom she is more comfortable. Heathcliff’s passion becomes vengeful and the consequences are heartbreak and tragedy.
The story has been filmed many times. The actress Helen Hayes wrote in her autobiography about seeing a young actor on a tennis court she thought would be perfect to play the role. She told her husband, Charles MacArthur, who was co-scripting the screenplay, to suggest him for the part because he was a “fine, brooding, broth of a boy.” That is how Laurence Olivier got his first major Hollywood role. Heathcliff has also been played by Timothy Dalton, Tom Hardy, and Ralph Fiennes. A new production has just completed filming, directed by Andrea Arnold. It has just become public that the cast includes newcomer James Howson, who is black.
Like the recent casting here in Washington DC of a black actress in a theatrical production of “Sabrina” (in the role played on screen by Audrey Hepburn and Julia Ormond), this decision is respectful of the text but gives audiences a fresh perspective. In both stories, it can help modern viewers, who can have a difficult time relating to the barriers that previous generations imposed, to better feel the class and cultural differences of the characters. Howson will bring not only his own talent and understanding of the character but the ability to surprise us and to become the role without any preconceptions or other associations that only newcomers have. I love the idea of opening up even classical parts to a wider range of actors to make sure the role goes to the most qualified performer and look forward to seeing what Howson brings to the role.