Good evening, fellow citizens of the U.S.A. and of the world.
The facts with which I shall deal this evening are mainly old and familiar; nor is there anything new in the general use I shall make of
them. If there shall be any novelty, it will be in the mode of presenting the facts, and the inferences and observations following that presentation.
In his Tweet, as reported by CNN, President-elect Trump said:
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”
I fully accept this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so adopt it because it furnishes a precise and agreed starting point
for a discussion about the nature of theatre.
What is a “special place?”
I suppose that most of us consider a special place to be a location or locale that we hold more dear than other locations or locales.
What is the Theater?
Many would understand “the Theater” writ large (and capitalized) to indicate the performing art in which stories are told –
live – in real time – through the convention of the story’s characters enacting the story.
What is safe?
Again, I suppose that most of us would give credence to the idea that to be safe is to be protected from, or not exposed to, danger or
risk. Safety in this case means being uninjured with no harm done.
Now that we have laid out what should be largely agreed upon concepts and definitions, we return to the text which we accept for this
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”
We note that the text affirms an explicit command. Rather than suggest a preference or prescriptive desire with a “should” or
a “wish,” the text commands that the Theater must be a safe and special place.
We should look to see if in its past, theatre has been a safe and special place.
If we look to the activity in the theatron (from which the modern word “theatre” derives) of ancient Athens, we would see that, indeed, the place was special. Proceeding down a slope from the Acropolis, the Theatre of Dionysus evidently provided the location for the early tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Also, that same location served as a home to the first performances of the plays of Aristophanes and his colleagues and competitors.
Records show that a competition in tragedy was part of a large civic festival observance that lasted several days and included sacrifices,
civic pageantry, and public expense. As such we may conclude that the theatre was a place that held some level of specialness for the people of Athens.
We observe that the ancient world continued to build and architecturally develop the physical plant of theatres in many towns throughout Greek
and Roman areas.
Pompey wanted to garner favor with the people of Rome and partly did so by building the city’s first permanent theatre. We’re
told by Suetonius that a Greek actor named Mnester was a favorite during the reigns of the early emperors Caligula and Claudius. Along with many other instances, one could
conclude that Romans felt the theatre to be a special place.
Again, for several hundred years after its formation, the Catholic Church published rules condemning theatre and theatrical activity; further
suggesting that even outside of architectural environs, the people of Europe found theatre to be something special. And later, as the Church and the people used the enacting
of Bible stories to attract tourists for festival days in cathedral towns, theatre was something special.
The great genius Shakespeare utilized theatre as the means to tell the stories of such characters as Hamlet, Cleopatra, King Lear, Othello,
Shylock, and Juliet (among many others) and to give voice to his country’s great history.
As we look at playwrights from Moliere to Ibsen to Chekhov to Williams and Miller and Ruhl and Baker and Kushner and Wilson and . . .
.and . . .and . . . .; we find people who might have told their stories using a variety of other art forms. They chose theatre. And audiences have shown by
the numbers of people who have flocked to see their plays that they believe that there’s something special in this form and its content.
The people of this and many other countries have spent large sums of money to provide appropriate spaces for theatre to occur. Groups of
people gather in unusual and one-off spaces as well to bear witness to theatre and perceive something special.
But in each of these instances, has the theatre been a place of safety?
An ancient legend told in a life of Aeschylus suggests that the appearance of the Erinyes in the Oresteia struck so much fear in the audience that a woman named Neaira suffered a miscarriage and died. Aristophanes regularly chided audience members from the stage. No less eminence than Harold Bloom has suggested that Sophocles used the audience’s familiarity with a real politician named Cleon to establish resonances for his Theban character, Creon.
Tertullian reports that an actor was burned to death in the role of Hercules and another castrated as the character Attis.
During the Essex rebellion, Shakespeare’s company was hired to perform Richard II in a special showing probably to help inspire the deposing of a monarch. The result included having some of the actors having to explain themselves to keep out of jail (or worse).
In 1849 at least 25 people died and more than 120 people were injured outside the Astor Opera House in New York City. The riot (which had
as an impetus the class disputes between wealthy Anglophiles and working-class immigrants) was reportedly the first use of a state militia called out to keep order that shot into
In 1913 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees, Carl van Vechten reported that during the near-riot that accompanied the first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps, someone
was beating rhythmically on his head.
While these examples are but a few, they represent the whole. And there can be no doubt about these examples.
We have but to mention the experience of seeing a great performance that takes our breath away, gives us chills and goose-flesh, and brings us
to tears or roars of laughter; and immediately all of us recognize the other kind of risk possible in the act of witnessing theatre. No less authority than Aristotle commented
that tragedy leads us to experience appropriate fear and pity so that we may gain catharsis – whatever we figure that to mean.
But to feel fear and pity, we leave ourselves vulnerable. And anytime we leave ourselves vulnerable, we’re at risk.
What may we conclude from this presentation of what we can know about the theatre?
“The Theater must always be a safe and special place.”
The President-elect was explicit in his assertion. And we accepted the text as a starting place to look at theatre and test this assertion.
We have seen that, yes, the theatre is a special place.
We have also seen that theatre is not a particularly safe place – neither for the actors nor for the audience.
The thing that makes theatre a special place is its lack of safety.
(Let me quickly add my modern day caveats: I’m not suggesting that we should have theatres in which real actors are killed. Nor do I
suggest that we have theatres in which audience members get pummeled by other members of the audience.)
The theatre works as an art form when risk is taken. And risk is, by definition, unsafe. We leave ourselves open to hurt, failure,
disappointment, and harm when we take a risk.
And when we leave our minds vulnerable to new ideas, new thoughts, and new feelings; we’re in danger of being changed. This is why
totalitarian governments always work to control theatre. In the 1980s I worked with a Polish director who said to me more than once, “Governments always want to control
Theatre. Theatre never controls government.”
Theatre at its best teaches empathy. Most of you reading this have not committed suicide because of passionate love. But the double
suicide of Romeo and Juliet, the world’s great lovers whose very names suggest passionate romance is so effective that it’s probably the most popular play ever
written. Why? Because the characters and the story teach us empathy about the deep passion of youth. Our deep passion was different. We weren’t part of
a family blood feud. We didn’t meet our love, speaking an improvised sonnet at a dance. We didn’t kill ourselves for love. But the story and the
characters obviously pull our hearts into another space. We start to feel for our fellow humans.
I would speak to the media, if they would listen, though I suppose they will not.
The cast of Hamilton lectured no one. One actor who played an American vice-president spoke to our vice-president elect. He said:
“Thank you so much for joining us tonight. You know, we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice President-elect Pence, I see
you're walking out but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There's nothing to boo here ladies and gentlemen. There's nothing to boo here, we're all
here sharing a story of love.
“We have a message for you, sir. We hope that you will hear us out. And I encourage everybody to pull out your phones and tweet and post
because this message needs to be spread far and wide, OK?
“Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really
do. 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, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
“Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men [and] women of different
colors, creeds, and orientations.”
This has been called a “lecture” by a variety of folks in the media including Maureen Dowd and Mika Brzezinski.
I have served as a teacher and a preacher in my life. I have lectured students, parishioners, and family members in my day. This is
not a lecture. It is not a harangue.
The actor appropriately thanked Mr. Pence and his family for coming to see their show twice. Anyone awake in the aftermath of the
election saw protests in various cities across the United States. It was merely reporting to note that some people were anxious and alarmed by the results of the
election. Then the actor requested that the leaders of the people work on behalf of all of the people.
This is a lecture?
Not only people in the media, but my conservative friends also suggested that this kind of address came as an inappropriate response from
liberal, cry-baby theatre people.
My conservative friends, you can’t stretch your very active fancy to think that Paul Ryan is a liberal. And yet there were
somethings said by the President-elect during the campaign that Mr. Ryan suggested as the textbook definition of racism. If Paul Ryan thinks so, is it peculiar to suggest that
others might reasonably think so as well?
And while that may not lead to the direct conclusion that those who voted for Mr. Trump were racists themselves, what are we to make of the
fact that a large number of folks seemed to be reconciled with those racist and misogynist statements enough to go ahead and give Mr. Trump their vote? “If Mr. Trump
can change Washington, I don’t care what he says!” “If Mr. Trump can get me back my job, he can do whatever he wants.”
People who’ve argued for years about the importance of principle seem ready to throw it over in favor of a kind of transactional
relativism – if I get mine, I don’t care about anything else. And people who’ve argued about the importance of character suddenly seem to look past
character flaws for reasons of political expediency. It’s all for the greater good – lower taxes, repeal of Obamacare, Supreme Court nominations. The ends
justify the means.
This is cold. We find that John Adams is right. Political rhetoric is charged in all kinds of ways mostly to cover up the
truth. The truth is that people want power. And once power is achieved, the rhetoric of the campaign goes away, and we can hear about unifying again.
Please realize, my conservative friends, that the contrast between the rhetoric of the campaign and the normal speech of governance was so
strong this time around that it was a bit like whiplash. People are bound to be a little discombobulated.
I would now speak directly to my fellow theatre people now.
Whenever we realize that we’re “playing it safe,” also realize that the theatre was never meant to be safe. Risk is our
business. Doing big and wonderful things is what we’re here for. Aeschylus literally brought gods on stage and asked the audience to serve as a jury. The
most popular play includes several murders and a double suicide. These things are not small ball.
It’s when you look for the safe, you know that something’s wrong. Safety is not your friend in the theatre business. We
must take risks and convince our audiences to take risks with us.
And, so, let us rise up and take the risks we need to do to inspire, enflame, and impassion ourselves and our audiences.
[With a big shout out to Mr. Lincoln and his speech at Cooper Union.]