- Euripides's tragedies. Yes, he speaks freely about slaves, since that was the reality of the time, but he does recognize that the slave can have virtues (even if these are largely variations of Undying Loyalty toward the master), he speaks against enslaving war captives, since it allows a citizen to become a slave, and he shows that enslavement by no means makes one a slave in their soul.
- Carousel: Modern audiences tend to find it disturbing that Julie could consider staying with a man who hits her. At the time it was written, though, what was unpalatable to the audience was that she would admit to being abused at all.
- Several operas of the past were really quite progressive back in the day. Examples:
- Madama Butterfly and Lakme were both stories about innocent women from the East being taken advantage of by men from the West. Nowadays, some people consider them mildly racist for their portrayal of Asian female stereotypes. But at the time, they were a rather loud reproach to Western people for their White Man's Burden mentality toward Asian people and their culture. Pinkerton's and Gerald's treatment of Butterfly and Lakme respectively was repellent to any decent person, and probably more than one person left the opera house rethinking their ideas of Western superiority.
- La Juive was an opera that really addressed anti-Semitism of the day. A Christian prince disguises himself as Jew to woo a Jewish woman, but when their relationship is discovered, the Jewish woman and her father are sentenced to death by a hateful and anti-Semitic judge. But just when it is too late, the Judge discovers that the girl who he considered so filthy was in fact his long lost daughter, who was rescued and raised by the Jewish man. This really rebuked the idea of the supposed differences between Christian and Jew in a tragic way.
- La Traviata features the courtesan Violetta, who repents and gives up her life of debauchery in order to live with her true love, Alfredo, but is forced to leave him because the scandal of Alfredo living with a former courtesan is wreaking havoc with his family. Modern feminists might object to the fact that she has to "redeem" herself by sacrificing everything, as well as the fact that she conveniently dies in the end, "freeing" Alfredo from scandal once and for all and even urging him on her deathbed to marry "a chaste virgin." Still, the opera portrays her as an unquestionably noble and selfless heroine, and exposes the hypocrisy of the social more that women who fell were Defiled Forever. At one point, Violetta almost directly rebukes the audience by claiming "Though God forgives, man never will".
- The Marriage of Figaro was unquestionably far beyond fair for its day. It is true that the "happy ending" has the arrogant, lecherous Count Almaviva still fully in power and forgiven by his emotionally abused wife, with no hint that his behavior will change in any long-term way. But the play still has a denunciation of aristocratic abuse of power, which led to the play being banned across Europe and helped to inspire The French Revolution. And its gender politics are still widely praised as extremely proto-feminist.
- The world premiere of Gruenberg's adaptation of The Emperor Jones featured (white) American baritone Lawrence Tibbett in Blackface. But the thing is, it also featured actual black dancers from Hemsley Winfield's New Negro Art Theater. The Met management was originally going to feature white dancers in Blackface, but Tibbett demanded that Winfield's dance troupe be included or he (Tibbett) would back out of the production. Thus Hemsley Winfield's dance troupe, while mostly uncredited, were the first black artists to appear on the stage of the Met, but it wasn't until 1955 when Marian Anderson became the first black singer on that same stage.
- Minstrel shows are remembered today as the origin of Blackface and all the nasty things that entails, which it is, but credit where credit's due:
- The minstrel show was one of the few ways that actual black performers were seen by a large audience. They would also appear in blackface and often disguised the fact that they were actually black. There were, however, several famous black minstrel show performers.
- To try and stymie the stereotype of Black people as barbaric savages, all black characters would be dressed in the most dapper outfits possible.
- The script for The Skin of Our Teeth, there are three characters that are specifically stated to be black; all of them are in servile roles (a "chair pusher" and two maids) and embody stereotypes of their race, and the script uses the term "colored" (rather than "black" or "African-American"), a term that's generally considered offensive, to denote this fact. However, when Wilder wrote the play in 1942, it was considered quite progressive to write in roles for African-American actors at all, and doing it the way that he did kept it just within the lines where theatres would still be willing to perform it at all; if he had gone any farther, the play would likely have been shelved or cast aside, making those roles worthless in any case.
- The King and I: Yes, there are crude stereotypes and comically ignorant, misogynistic Asians speaking pidgin English, who need a white woman to civilize them. But at the same time, it also articulates the King's struggle between tradition and modernity with more insight than would normally be expected in '50s America — contrast it with the Japanese guy in Breakfast at Tiffany's.
- William Shakespeare often wrote characters that would be considered in very poor taste today, but for his time were fairly even-handed.
- The Merchant of Venice has created a great deal of debate over how fair it is to its Jewish villain Shylock. Shakespeare often wrote villains with understandable grievances, and Shylock is no exception. He is given a famous monologue in which he eloquently complains about the many injustices he has suffered for his faith, which puts his actions in the light of racist persecution. In the end, Shylock is forced to convert to Christianity, which is a pretty lousy fate by modern standards, but in Shakespeare's day this was seen as a merciful Happy Ending, as Shylock lives and his soul is saved. Other villains in such plays usually receive a gruesome Karmic Death.
- Othello is about a black man who suspects his white wife is cheating on him and chokes her to death. In the original story on which the play was based, however, the Moorish character doesn't even have a name, and it ends with Desdemona lecturing the audience on why interracial marriage is evil. In his adaptation, Shakespeare gives the Moor a name and fully fleshes out his character into a sympathetic war hero who is intelligent and sensitive enough to woo Desdemona with poetry. Shakespeare also has the character of The Ensign, here called Iago, serve as the play's villain, a white man who manipulates Othello into a jealous rage For the Evulz, and Iago ends the play with getting arrested for his crimes against Othello. The only overtly racist elements of the play are spoken by Iago and Roderigo, the two unsympathetic characters.
- The Taming of the Shrew has a fairly sexist plot, but the standard "uppity wife" play of the time usually involved gleefully beating her into submission for the audience's amusement. By having Petruchio find a psychological solution (make her realize how mean-spirited her behavior has been), never laying a finger on her, and letting her change in behavior be of her own choosing, it was downright enlightened. The play also shows the obedient, submissive Bianca, pretty much the epitome of a desired girl, turning out not to be quite the ideal wife her husband expected.
- King Lear features Edmund, a version of the villainous bastard stock character popular at the time. But while he is a resentful and conniving jerk who fits every stereotype, he is actually a Deconstructed Character Archetype who has a pretty darn good Freudian Excuse for hating his family and nobody but his father ever really brings up his illegitimate heritage. He even inherits his father's land and title (after scheming to have his father and brother killed of course), and goes on to woo both heirs to the throne. He even tries to undo his last acts of villainy.
- In Cymbeline, Posthumus carries out the antiquated theatrical role of a jealous, gullible husband who attempts to kill his wife after being duped into thinking she has cheated on him. However, he departs from the several other Shakespearean (and many non-Shakespearean) examples of this role by repenting and forgiving his wife while still mistakenly believing her unfaithful, and even questioning the morality under which husbands feel justified in killing their wives "for wrying but a little".
- Christopher Marlowe's plays tackled such conceptions as Religion Is Wrong, homosexuality and racism and his plays were cited by Orson Welles and Bertolt Brecht for having a great deal of Unbuilt Trope. While some have argued that Marlowe's The Jew of Malta is more racist than The Merchant of Venice because the Jewish villain is punished, others argue that Marlowe's play is, seen as a whole, far more sympathetic. While not free of the anti-semitism of its premise at the very least has a Jewish Villain Protagonist (where The Merchant of Venice has a Jewish Big Bad and supporting character). Barabas also makes it clear that his actions are inspired by racism and oppression at the hands of Christians and Muslims. One speech is cited by scholars to have inspired Shakespeare's famous monologue:Barabbas: Why, I esteem the injury far less,
To take the lives of miserable men
Than be the causers of their misery.
You have my wealth, the labour of my life,
The comfort of mine age, my children's hope;
And therefore ne'er distinguish of the wrong.
- Also where Shakespeare's play makes a big deal about how the Christianity being "the quality of mercy", in Marlowe's plays, all the characters (Christians, Muslims, Jews) are shown to be equally corrupt, and the play makes it clear that politics drives religion ("I count religion a childish toy/And hold there is no sin but ignorance") and the overall focus is how oppression forces minority groups to start Becoming the Mask and make them decide Then Let Me Be Evil, which makes Barabas a Byronic Hero who refuses to convert and dies defiant and unrepentant. While the forces that defeat him are not the forces of order so much as another machiavellian and corrupt authority.
- Show Boat seems pretty racist by modern standards, but at the time it was actually considered shocking that black people were even present together in a musical with white people. It is said that the audience didn't even clap at the premiere because they were all just sitting there gawking in shock.
- West Side Story can seem a little stereotypical today with its portrayal of Puerto Ricans, but for the time it was written in, the 1950s, it was revolutionary in that it had sympathetic minority main characters and touched on subjects such as immigration and the devastating effects of racism, poverty, and gang violence. You could argue that the reason for the Puerto Rican characters seeming stereotypical is because they are immigrants, and because they're still living in segregated communities, where the "stereotypical" accents and the old folkways linger a little longer. That's not prejudice, but social realism - which was also a new idea in the 1950s. Likewise, the white gang? Eastern and Southern Europeans (like the Polish Tony) were not considered "as white" as Western Europeans at the time and weren't treated much better or differently than the Puerto Ricans (which, arguably, was part of the whole point).
- In Abraham's Bosom: This play was probably thought of as progressive in its day, with the story being about a black laborer who dreams of bettering himself and founding a school for local children, only to be murdered by the KKK. But Abraham actually makes some of his own problems by his tendency to burst into violent rages when disrepected by white people. And even more disturbingly, the central message of the play is that he shouldn't be trying to better himself, that a black man seeking an education and hoping to rise up to the level of the white man is tragic folly."Time you's learning day white is white and black is black, and Gohd made de white to always be bedder'n de black. It was so intended from the beginning."
Fair For Its Day / Theatre