Playing Jackie Robinson

The students, born in the 1970s, had little prospect of answering a query about a film made in the early 1950s. Still, there was a point to be made in putting the question: who had played the lead in the Jackie Robinson story? My students knew the legend of Jackie Robinson, but of course I did not expect them to recall this obscurity film.

The question was meant to deliver its surprise when people discovered just how distant they were from the state of affairs that made the casting of that role such a difficult business. For as it turned out, there was not, in the early 1950s, an ample supply of black male actors who could offer types in a wide, masculine range, from the dramatic to the comedic. The story of Monty Stratton, a pitcher on the White Sox, could recruit no less a figure than James Stewart to play the lead. For Grover Cleveland Alexander, a pitcher on the Cubs, there was the Gipper, Ronald Reagan.

But for the story of Jackie Robinson, the male lead went to … Jackie Robinson himself. Who else would have that same, youthful, muscular quality, while radiating that sense of good will and self-possession? Who would bear those qualities any better than Robinson himself, as the original, so manifestly bore them; and who could be any better in conveying them to the screen? No one, apparently, among the black actors on the scene.

In short, Hollywood had not offered, at the time, a wide field for black actors in leading parts. But it went without saying that there would be no attempt to recruit a celebrated white actor to play this part “in black face.” That a white actor might have played the role without black face — played it, that is, as a white actor, while the movie pretended not to notice the race of Jackie Robinson — was unthinkable. The story, after all, was about the man who broke the color line in major league baseball. The very point of the story would have been lost if Jackie Robinson were not represented in that story as he was — not merely as a man with vast athletic gifts and a large soul, but as a man whose story was deepened by the fact of his race.

Not even Hollywood could yield a producer brash enough to suggest anyone but a black man to play the role of Jackie Robinson. For it was apparent, even to the most vulgar wit in Los Angeles, that there was a need for a natural resemblance between the actor and the role, between the representative and the person represented. Without that close, obvious, natural connection, the story would be so impaired in its authenticity that it would lose its integrity and meaning as a story.

No notion of artistic license, then, had brought within the range of possibilities the prospect of shifting the racial identity of the characters. And with much the same understanding, another filter had evidently been in place. The artistic imagination might have been slightly duller in that era, but no one at the time proposed the novelty that springs up more often in our own day: No one suggested that this story of conventions unsettled could be given a further, dramatic underscore if the producers switched the genders and cast a woman in the part of the first black player in the major leagues.

There might have been, at the time, more black actresses than actors, but the identities of gender were quite as firmly fixed in this story as the personae defined by race. Major league baseball was an enterprise confined to men. Its roughness, its styles of aggression, its vulgarity and coarseness, as well as its spiritedness and its loftier qualities, were shaped by a masculine character. The insults and nastiness visited on Jackie Robinson were the kinds of assaults that came distinctly from men. And finally, of course, there was that ineffaceable fact that Jackie Robinson was a man.

None of this is to say that the advent of the first woman in major league baseball would not have created shocks quite as jolting, or that it would not have inspired many people to look again at the world with a different lens. Nor would it say that the Jackie Robinson story in drag could not be, as an exercise in the theater, an experience that flexes the imagination. All of these things may be true, and they may begin to suggest the rationales that could be offered, on occasion, for switching gender even in plays that are well known, with characters firmly settled in the public mind. And yet, none of these rationales could have served in this case. For the device of switching genders could not have brought forth a production faithful to the story. With the inventiveness of art, a production of this kind could have inspired many new stories, but they would not have been the story of Jackie Robinson.

It may he taken as a measure of our times that the switching of genders would not be ruled out so reflexively today, as a prospect beneath discussion. And in fact, we have seen in recent years a mild explosion of productions with switches in gender. Not even Shakespeare has been immune to this deconstruction, and not only in the comedies.

Yet, as ever, there are masks behind masks. People may stage, on occasion, a comedy with the genders switched, but they know that the public will not suffer an unrelenting schedule in which every play of Shakespeare is recast and served up by this formula. And at a certain point, even people much taken with their own artistic license will feel a certain obligation to honor the “authorial intent.” Even the most “innovative” directors will sense a need to respect, for the most part, Shakespeare’s own design for his work.

But in that holding back, the theatrical crowd rather detach themselves from the current scheme of feminism in our law and politics. How else would we explain why the world of theater has been given such an exemption from the litigation launched in all other businesses over the discriminations practiced against women? After all, by the usual measures of “disproportionate impact,” the pattern of results seems quite telling: In the traditional canon, say, of Shakespeare, women are systematically closed out of the most significant parts. Of course, there is always a need for a leading lady, or a strong female (Portia, Cleopatra, or even Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus); but the leading characters remain Hamlet, Henry IV, Richard III, or even Falstaff. If these roles are played “straight,” in a manner that is faithful to the gender of the characters, the pattern of results would have to be interesting to anyone who looked on the matter through the lens of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. For these assignments of leading roles would be strikingly imbalanced in the distribution of jobs between men and women.

The investigator from the EEOC might allow that, yes, there are plausible reasons on the face of things for having a man play Hamlet; but there were comparable reasons, plausible on their face, to explain why women were not to be found in the ranks of longshoremen, or among the crews doing heavy construction work. And yet, those traditional patterns, rooted in the differences of gender, were not to be regarded as decisive in all instances. There might be some women, after all, with an interest in this out-of-doors, “physical” work, and many of them indeed have been showing up recently in construction jobs, under the prodding of affirmative action.

Wielding a shovel, or playing Desdemona, may seem to engage strikingly different arts, but when it comes to the laws on discrimination, those differences fade from the sight of the judges. And so the judges have not exactly shown a disabling diffidence when it has come, say, to judging the claims of university professors who have been denied tenure in Biology or Physics or English. In one recent case, a federal judge simply counted the number of publications produced by a woman who was denied tenure in a Department of Biology. By this measure he could proclaim, with the authority of the law, that she was plainly more qualified than other people I her department who had been awarded tenure.  That he was incapable himself of judging the quality of those publications was a matter that simply receded in significance when the dominant concerns of the law were placed in the focus of the case: Had there not in fact been an “imbalance” in the employment of men and women?

All over the landscape, in all varieties of fields, employers have been placed under a certain burden to “improve their numbers,” to hire more women. The wonder, again, is why the world of the theater has been exempted from this familiar bit of dramaturgy.

The worldly lawyer, enforcing the federal laws, may say, “Perhaps it would be unreasonable to cast all of the men in Shakespeare with women, or do that most of the time. But you are evidently willing to switch genders on occasion for the sake of making an artistic point, and so why don’t you think seriously about making that point about 20 per cent of the time? That would still be but a fraction of the performances. And yet, it would be an addition, by 20 per cent, of the leading roles that are available to women. With that increment, opportunities would be opened all over the country for some of our most resourceful women. And it would give those women just that added edge of experience — that added line to their vitae — to move their careers along. Or to take a line from Henry James through this modest arrangement, we may succeed in putting some ‘wind in their sails.'”

Framed in the right, disarming way, a case of this kind may seem so reasonable that it begins to seem curious that we have not yet heard it. But if we have not heard it; if it still seems to us a bit bizarre, it could only be for these reasons: Even with our willingness to accord, to our artists, a wide room for reinvention, there is a lingering sense that we should be obliged to respect the “authorial intent” of a Shakespeare; that we must begin with a willingness to respect the design of his own art.

But I take it that my purpose here has been transparent: If all of this is so obvious, even to the dimmest of wits, why are the same defenses not available instantly to the Church? Why is there not the same tendency to cut off at the very threshold the charges raised by feminists, in and out of the Church, that the Church discriminates against women because it confines the priesthood to men? The fact that women have been virtually excluded from the playing of Hamlet has not produced the charge that Hamlet, as a play, is discriminatory against women. Nor has anyone suggested that the production of Shakespeare over three hundred years has produced an ongoing, historical record of discrimination.

But if this much is evident about a “play,” or a body of work, how is it that the same understanding has not enveloped, even more powerfully, that deeper sacramental performance acted out by the priesthood? For someone outside the Church, or an investigator from the EEOC, there may be a temptation to describe the nature of the priesthood by its administrative functions. The investigator may think that the “job description” reads in this way: “offers wafers and wine, hears confessions, administers rites to the dying, does counseling, with some occasional responsibilities in the managing of an office.”

But the account of the vocation, cast in these terms, abstracts from the character of the priest as a man cast in a role. Apart from the activities he performs, the priest is part of a sacrament because he himself has the function of being a “sign.” As it was put, in a classic statement, by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,

[T]he bishop or the priest, in the exercise of his ministry, does not act in his own name, in persona propria: he represents Christ, who acts through him: ‘the priest truly acts in the place of Christ,’ as Saint Cyprian already wrote in the third century. It is this ability to represent Christ that Saint Paul considered as characteristic of his apostolic function (Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood, 1976).

“The supreme expression” of this role comes in the administration of the Eucharist, which remains, as the Congregation said, “the source and center of the Church’s unity.” When the priest offers the body and blood of Christ, he is standing in the place of Christ, with the power conferred by Christ, and to slip again into the image of the theater, he is “in persona Christi, taking the role of Christ, to the point of being his very image, when he pronounces the words of consecration.”

A sacrament involves a sign. As the Congregation remarked, “the priest is a sign.” But a sign, in order to work, must signify. That is, it must be perceived at once, or identified instantly with the thing or the person it is meant to signify: A sign “must be perceptible … and the faithful [or the audience] must be able to recognize [it] with ease.” And, as Aquinas appreciated, sacramental signs are enhanced as signs if they “represent what they signify by natural resemblance.” In this particular case, as the Congregation argued, “there would not be this ‘natural resemblance’ which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man…. For Christ himself was and remains a man.”

The latter point can hardly be discounted as an historical accident, since it is rooted both in nature and the incarnation. “Male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). In the laws of the United States, and in the blur of modern liberalism, “gender” is thrown into a list of attributes that may become the object of discrimination. And so it is often found further along the list, after the provisions have been made for the animosities arising from race, religion, and ethnicity.

But it fell to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to point out that the difference in sex is a far more fundamental fact of life, with an even deeper influence on the person, than differences in ethnicity. Jews may be utterly persuaded of the deep differences that separate Sephardim from Ashkenazim, and the rest of us would not doubt for a moment the striking contrasts between Italians and Germans. Yet, over time, the differences between the New Jersey Italians and the Massachusetts Irish may begin to fade. And we remind ourselves that there is no strict necessity that there be, in nature, a New Jersey, or even an Italy or Ireland. But if human life is to continue, the difference in gender cannot recede. That difference must be at the root of human nature, for it provides the fundamental condition for the preservation of human beings. As the Congregation put it, that difference in sex is “directly ordained both for the communion of person and for the generation of human beings.” Or, in the immortal words of Justice Blackmun in Roe v. Wade — perhaps the only thing Blackmun managed to get right in that opinion — “if man is to survive, [pregnancy] will always be with us.”

Still, if men, and only men, can play the role of Christ, then it seems apparent to critics of the Church that the pre-eminent roles in this production are reserved exclusively for men. And in that construal, women would be, in the same measure, denigrated, or placed quite explicitly in a subordinate position. Yet, the Church has earnestly denied that this assignment of roles must imply any disparagement of women in the Church. The apostolic ministry may be reserved to men, but in the teachings of the Church, Mary has always been given a higher standing than all of the apostles. Women have contributed, along with men, to the theology of the Church. In the book of Acts, or in the Epistles of Paul, there are references to several notable women (Priscilla, Lydia, Phoebe) who took leading roles, with the apostles, in establishing the Church and advancing the progress of conversions.

One may no doubt argue about the relative place of women in the Jewish and Christian traditions, but I don’t think it is reasonable to deny the prominent Christian teaching of respect for women. When set against the tribes and societies found all about them, the Christians recognized a far larger measure of equality for women as persons with the standing and competence of moral agents. They were not suited, as natural persons, to stand in as natural signifiers, to represent the man who is Christ. But as the Church has argued, nothing in that want of fit for this role could possibly alter the grounds on which the Church has accorded its respect to women as persons, theologians, saints, and, in the case of Mary, the very model of the Church’s faith and charity. Or as the Congregation, once again, has put it, nothing here would alter “the fundamental equality of men and women, as children of God in Christ.”

A Church that recognizes the competence of women as theologians could hardly be accused of denying the competence of women to discharge the daily functions of priests. Clearly, if the Church is held back on this point, it is not because it suffers any doubts about the capacities of women to pursue a religious vocation, or to incorporate, in their character or teaching, the mysteries of the Church. The Church holds to the traditional teaching about the ordination of women because, as the Congregation has stated, quite simply and precisely, the Church “knows that she is bound by Christ’s manner of acting.”

Christ broke with the conventions of his time in the treatment of women. Nevertheless, he did not choose women for his apostles, and for the ministry he assigned to them. It seems evident, from “Christ’s manner of acting,” from his moves and his words, that the priest was to stand distinctly in his place, to mark the continuity of this office. His role in the Eucharist would have to be taken by a man, but as the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith observed, that difference in role “does not stem from any personal superiority… in the order of values, but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service.”

I have been content to rely here, almost entirely, on that brief, but compelling statement published in 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Declaration on the Admission of Women to the Ministerial Priesthood.” Part of my purpose in relying on that one document was to suggest that it was, in itself, quite enough. It was as ample and as rich as it needed to be, and I cannot imagine any statement on the same subject that would take the matter more clearly to the root of things, in nature and revelation. And I offer that estimate in part also to record my surprise. That there are, in the Church, men and women who find uncongenial this ancient position of the Church on the ordination of woman, is by now no cause for astonishment. The surprise, for me, lies in the mystery of how those people can affect surprise. They cannot be in the dark about the teachings of their own Church, because that teaching has been offered with a simplicity and transparency that should make it accessible to anyone who can read. That readers may not find it agreeable is again nothing startling. The only thing startling is why this sense of grievance and resentment should be borne by those who persist in calling themselves Christians.

Here, I do not rush in, to cast reproaches and hold myself to be more Christian than the Christians. Nor I can claim to be as tutored in the doctrines of Catholicism as those who have studied them longer and grown up in the Church. But it seems clear to me, as a practiced reader, and an observer deeply sympathetic to the Church, that any Christian who rejects the teaching of the Church on the ordination of women is showing a cavalier want of attention to teachings that are bound up with the most foundational understandings of his faith. Not everyone, of course, has settled in readily with the notion that the Word became flesh. Even those who find the idea enchanting may still find a certain trouble in absorbing the understanding that God became man in order that all men might share the life of God.

But I take it that if people bear serious doubts on that point, they would not call themselves Christians. I assume that, as Christians, they have incorporated at the very least the “incarnation” of God. But if they accept the notion that God shared the nature of men, then they must recognize also, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that the life of human beings is, of necessity, an “engendered” life. “Male and female he created them.” If God became human, he would have to be one or the other. If that person was Christ, then a decision was made that was hardly inadvertent. There would be no need then to say more on this point — and one could scarcely say less — than the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “For Christ himself was and remains a man.” To stand in the place of Christ, in ministering his service, is to stand in the place of a man. And that act of representation becomes more plausible as a “sign,” as an act of representation, when the actor bears a “natural resemblance” to the figure he is representing. That resemblance is not at all clear in the tint of its skin or its ethnicity. But in its gender it happens to be unmistakably marked.

It must be a curious reflection then on our own time that the most unschooled person would think it shocking even to suggest that a woman play the lead in The Jackie Robinson Story; but large numbers of people who call themselves Christians are not disposed to respect in the same way the casting prescribed by Jesus for the representation of himself. Perhaps they think it is far less important to preserve the verisimilitude in the story of Jesus than it is to be utterly fastidious in respecting the truth of the Jackie Robinson story. Perhaps they are simply unpersuaded by the accounts in the Gospels, or by the testimony of the scholars, that this was indeed “Christ’s manner of acting.” In one way or another then, they have become unpersuaded that this is the arrangement of things that Christ himself had prescribed.

But if they are prepared to doubt that, or refuse to credit the intentions of Christ on this point, it is hard to see just which of his claims they would find any more reliable or less extravagant. If we had a kind of provincial Roman governor reporting back from the province in America, his account might run in this way: “As to the Christians, that formally clamorous sect, it becomes hazardous now to speak, for they are no more immune than anyone else from the growing relativism of the age. Many of them show an affable willingness to believe that, on all of the central tenets of their faith, they could be entirely mistaken. And yet, there is a strange anchor beyond the turmoil of their disbelief. The Christians may be wildly various in their persuasions, but on the existence of Mr. Jackie Robinson or Mr. Joe DiMaggio they have not the least doubt. No theory of literary texts, no contrived theory of politics, will be credited for a moment if it suggests that these figures were anything less than real men, whose careers began and ended in a time certain, with records that can never be erased from the memory of man. As long as that certitude exists, we can say at least this for the Christians: As long as they have baseball, they will have an anchor in this world; and that anchor will hold against the waves of relativism that are surely coming now, ever more severe than they were in the past. And, of course, no one in a position of responsibility foresees anything, just yet, that would shake the Americans in their confidence in baseball.”


Hadley P. Arkes (born 1940) is an American political scientist and the Edward N. Ney Professor of Jurisprudence and American Institutions at Amherst College, where he has taught since 1966.

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