"Let's Not Talk About This"  Nathan Thomas Scene4 Magazine SPECIAL ISSUE "Arts&Politics" January 2014

Nathan Thomas


January 2014

This little corner of the interwebs often concerns itself with politics in multiple manifestations.  Theatre and government in the U.S.A. in 1935.  The stories of Ira Aldridge and Thomas D. "Daddy" Rice.  A direct reply to Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.  Articles on the power of directors and the hegemony of Stanislavsky in actor training.

Politics.  It's all politics. 

There's a wonderful book edited by Ellen Margolis and Lissa Tyler Renaud about The Politics of American Actor Training.  Essay after essay clearly set out multiple political issues in actor training in private studios and in our major programs. 

Again and again, it all comes down to power.  Who has power, and how is that power exercised?

Governments in the 20th century exerted political – and sometimes lethal – force to inflict their will.  Stalin (or his functionary) writes an editorial about Shostakovich's Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  Meyerhold gets the "midnight knock" and is tortured and killed by KGB agents while his wife was left tortured and alive in their apartment. How many were jailed?  How many sent away to internment camps?  How many dead as a result of the Cultural Revolution?

And how about America?  The 20th century saw branches of the government hound artists – writers, actors, painters, dancers – for their political beliefs.  According to HUAC, the Land of the Free was only for people who toe the party line.  Different thinking could lead to blacklisting and real hardship for a number of America's great artists.

Why all this to-ing and fro-ing?

In the winter and spring of 1986, I worked with Jan Skotnicki, a Polish director who'd lived through Nazi occupation and Communist tyranny.  He watched the events in the USSR those months very closely.  Mikhail Gorbachev had introduced perestroika and glasnost in February.  Jan watched with wary hope.  More than once he said, "Governments always try to control theatre.  Theatre never tries to control anything."

So why are we so threatening?

The arts pose questions.  The arts poke around in the inner recesses of what it means to be human. Tyranny, by its nature, tends to dehumanize the oppressed.  The arts tend to recognize the humanity of every person.  Pauper and king tap their toes to the same melody.  The question of family, love and justice is the same for everyone. 

And at the heart of the arts are slight ambiguities.  Shylock asks, if pricked, will he not bleed the same as a Christian?  The question is both a heart-felt recognition of our common humanity in the midst of a cold-blooded justification of vengeance.   Resonances like this can only provoke more questions.

Probably the most important intersection of arts and politics rests in the person and artistry of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. (1732-1799)  Son of a watchmaker, his innovations helped make pocket watches more accurate.  A musician, he taught music to the daughters of Louis XV.

For Americans, Beaumarchais set up a kind-of fake company to launder French and Spanish money for the purchase of weapons, munitions, clothes, and provisions to the rebel armies.  Long before the French government officially backed American independence, Beaumarchais was a major supplier of the means of war.

And he was a playwright.  Most importantly, Beaumarchais created Figaro.  In The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais created one among the most memorable comic servant characters of all time.

Despite official government censorship, Beaumarchais' quality of writing persuaded officials to allow productions of the play.  And on their stage, French nobility and bourgeois saw a servant outwit his master.  While one play did not cause the French Revolution, it helped raise questions – questions uncomfortable to the power structure.

Power seeks control.  The arts provoke questioning.  An eternal tension.

Wise power remembers that power needs to be questioned and nurtures the human enterprise of the arts.

Max Reinhardt said, "These days we can see, hear and travel over the oceans.  But the path to ourselves and the human being next to us is as distant as the stars.  It is the actor who takes us on this journey. Carrying the light of the poet, he descends into the still unexplored abysses of the human soul, his own soul, in order that he may there be secretly transformed and emerge again among us with hands, eyes, and mouth full of miracles."

Besides, wise power remembers that no one remembers the power that was Christian Ludwig, a mighty important swell of his day.  While the Margrave of Brandenburg languishes in the dust, Bach's music dwells in the stars.

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Scene4 Magazine: Nathan Thomas | www.scene4.comNathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
 Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a Senior Writer and
Columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
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©2014 Nathan Thomas
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January 2014

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