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Nathan Thomas
Americans At The Theatre
Scene4 Magazine-inView

december 2006

Americans make an interesting people.  We've seen so much of that in recent weeks.  A major leader of the evangelical movement turns out to enjoy the company of male prostitutes and crystal meth.  The happily married Ms. Spear divorces her husband of two years (a fairly long period of time, comparatively), but a major entertainer's treatment of marriage like so much used nose tissue doesn't threaten the sanctity of the American family – the prospect of a gay union does. And Tom Cruise gets married to the mother of his child.   

I don't raise these issues to be a public scold.  America has a surplus of public scolds, and this writer needn't give competition to those who already have practice and facility in the field.  Rather, our attention should rouse at the on-going parade of contradiction of American affections.  Probably the chief example is the combination of horror and titillation of the prospective Fox special about OJ Simpson speculating on how he might have killed his wife.

Now some writers (and several readers, I imagine) might be ready to label this contradiction as rank hypocrisy, feel good at making the diagnosis and moving on to more important questions – like who'll get to the Superbowl this season or where to go to celebrate New Year's this year.  Y'know, the important stuff.  I disagree, though.  The contradictions in American culture don't necessarily signify hypocrisy.   Rather those contradictions form American notions of entertainment, and we ignore them at our peril.

Most folks know that the early Puritans that came to America were ambivalent at best about theatre.  Living by the pure word of Holy Scripture doesn't do much for professional theatre folks. Curiously there doesn't seem to be theatre or theatrical metaphors in the Bible.  So, the honest Puritan seems left without much of a guide to dealing with the theatre.   

As we know, actors lie.  Actor Joe Blow gets on stage and says, "It is I, Hamlet the Dane!"  Well, we know Joe ain't a Dane.  And, he's Joe, he's not Hamlet.  Bearing false witness?  Well, it certainly seems so.  And, if you get large groups of people together, somehow someone will think about licentious activity.  And the spectacle of it all.  And that Hamlet play certainly seems to suggest that Hamlet character can justify all that vengeful murder.  Hmmm. . . . . And the comedy stuff is no better. . . . . .

And yet.  And yet.  And yet we know that many American towns had theatre before they had sewers.  Yes, some touring actors were turned out of towns, but touring actors made a living. Thus, people came to see them act. And the tours continued across the great wide open of the ever-growing nation.

Good plays, mediocre plays, bad plays – Americans love stories.  Good actors, mediocre actors, bad actors – Americans love actors.  Always have, always will.  Where but America would people pin their national aspirations on an actor and start an actual riot (as happened in 1849)?

This writer knows some people who would say that live theatre is not a popular art – live theatre will go away and people will watch stories at home on their huge-screen, high-definition screens.  I strongly disagree.  Perhaps the overall theatre audience has shrunk some because of the introduction of radio, and moving pictures, and television.  But somehow theatres still operate.  The doors to the auditorium open, and people come and sit and watch actors – pretty much the same thing the fine citizens of Athens did all those centuries ago when Sophocles danced.  In some ways theatre technology changes, but in many ways it's exactly the same from century to century – one group of people watch another group of people act.  Now. Live.

But Americans have this on-going ambivalence.  Some people think we ought to like theatre because it's good for us.  In this way of thinking theatre is about the same as your mother serving vegetables – we have to eat them even though we don't always enjoy them.  Only you can't hide theatre in your napkin like you did the Brussels sprouts.  Meanwhile, other Americans seek out theatre as a means of finding something that can't be found in film or tv.  Regardless, Americans have always come to the theatre and will always come to the theatre.

Recently this writer closed a project that combined two plays dealing with the Iraq War.  Each performance ended with the National Anthem played quietly on a solo piano. No audience member ever stood up. Not once.  Do I consider these people less patriotic for not standing up for the Anthem in this situation?  No. They were struck with the ambiguity of this war.  They were struck with the contradiction of strongly supporting and respecting the young (and some not-so-young) men and women who fight for this country, but not being very happy about the situation in which those men and women found themselves. They were stuck between respect for the nation and its anthem and the lack of respect for the glib way in which this war was started.  A person is stuck with the contradiction, stand or not to stand.  And the Anthem simply plays.

By the way, the cast on and off stage stood.  Every night.

"American society as a whole has a very short memory. There are a lot of things we don't know or have allowed ourselves to forget. I was visiting a high school, Seward High School, in 1987, and one of the students in the classroom thought that slavery had ended in 1960. He was very serious about it."  August Wilson

"Democracy's a very fragile thing. You have to take care of democracy. As soon as you stop being responsible to it and allow it to turn into scare tactics, it's no longer democracy, is it? It's something else. It may be an inch away from totalitarianism."  Sam Shepard

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©2006 Nathan Thomas
©2006 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan 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 and is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
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december 2006

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