In response to President-elect Donald Trump’s assertion, via Twitter, that theater should be a safe space, many in the local theater community point out that theater and politics go back to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, and even curtain-call speech has precedent.
It was a tweet that likely will go down in the annals of American theater: A 26-word missive from President-elect Trump at 5:56 a.m., Nov. 19, 2016: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!”
The tweet — about the cast of the musical “Hamilton” directly addressing Vice President-elect Pence from the stage with a brief speech asking him to defend their inalienable rights — has been greeted by the theater community as absurd at best and frightening at worst.
“Theater has never been, should never be, a safe place or a special place,” said solo performer Mike Daisey, who’s been performing “The Trump Card” (about the rise of our new president) for the past several months. “Theater should be as dangerous and as common as air.”
In case you missed it, here’s what happened: On Nov. 18, Pence attended a New York performance of “Hamilton,” the massively popular, hip-hop-inflected musical about Alexander Hamilton — the brilliant, internally conflicted, mixed-race, orphaned founding father — that’s gotten more young Americans interested in early U.S. history than a century’s worth of civics classes.
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During the curtain call, cast member Brandon Victor Dixon (playing Aaron Burr, who infamously shot and killed Hamilton in a duel) addressed Pence from the stage, on behalf of the cast: “We, sir — we — are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights … We truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us.”
Then Trump sent his tweet calling the cast rude — although Pence later said he was not offended. The U.S. news cycle jumped on the moment, epitomized by CNN anchor Sophie Tatum saying in a surprised tone of voice: “The stage turned into a platform! A political platform, for the show’s cast and creators!”
But many in the local and national theater community responded by pointing out that theater and politics go back to the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes, and even curtain-call speech has precedent.
The only thing surprising about that moment, said local director and Cornish faculty member Sheila Daniels, is that people were surprised.
Directly addressing power from the stage, she said, “is a tradition that goes back thousands and thousands of years — some of those playwrights knew they were writing for the court … it’s always been the artist’s responsibility to challenge our leaders and the world to be a better place.”
And direct address from the stage, especially during a curtain call, isn’t common but certainly isn’t unprecedented. After 20 years as a theater critic, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard actors step out of theatrical conventions (usually during the curtain call, but very occasionally in the middle of a scene) to get something off their chests, to ask the audience to donate to a cause, or fling insults at critics.
Theater is, in theory, a “pretend” place, a “suspension-of-disbelief” place — like the Roman Saturnalia, where the slaves get to play masters for a day and vice versa. In its best moments, Daisey and Daniels argued, the stage is more powerful than any courtroom or legislative assembly — a place where the deepest, most uncomfortable truths sometimes get spoken.
Aristophanes made lewd jokes and mocked the patriarchy of Athens. Shakespeare laughed at kings. Moliere skewered religion. Vaudeville (the word comes from “voix de ville” or “voice of the city”) mocked everything in sight, from magistrates to abusive husbands. Bertolt Brecht took on capitalism.
On the opening night of Odets’ “Waiting for Lefty” in 1935 — inspired by a real-life taxi strike in New York — the audience famously stood up, raised their fists and started shouting: “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
Edward Albee eviscerated the “normal” American family. Lorraine Hansberry and August Wilson dissected race, class, gender and family in the United States — from different perspectives, but they were both fond of devastatingly wry humor.
We buy tickets to see that kind of truth.
The “Hamilton” cast’s use of the stage for political commentary, Daniels added, is like Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin’s recent trip to Olympia to talk with politicians about police shootings. (Baldwin is the son of a longtime Florida police officer.)
“I’m a huge football fan,” she said, “and I have such respect for Doug Baldwin, the cast of ‘Hamilton’ and any people who recognize that they have a voice and some power in a unique moment, then use it.”
For thousands of years, Daniels said, theater — from Aristophanes to “Hamilton” — has been one of the few places where underfed outcasts have been allowed to speak their minds to kings.