Sunday, November 20, 2016

Hamilton Plays Burr to Pence

Perhaps it is a queasiness that comes from having given numerous public performances, and feeling like the objective distance between the two is actually part of what makes it an art. Or maybe it's the lingering sense of awkwardness from recollecting political speeches from the stage of the Academy Awards. Or perhaps the feeling that a speech given at Broadway ticket prices of up to $199 a seat isn't exactly the voice of the masses. Or that while I am always happy to know there are still quality musicals being written and performed, the outsize reputation of Hamilton provides a sort of cultural bully pulpit that is not to my taste.

Or I could just be feeling contrary today. But my gut reaction is that it is not okay for performers to pinpoint a member of the audience and take the opportunity to make them the object of a monologue exhorting them to behave nicely. Even if that audience member is a rightwing, gaybashing, anti-abortion creationist whose most positive quality is the limited power he will have as VP.

It is not, mind you, that I have any sympathy for Mike Pence, who is not only a nightmare himself but was elated to be the running mate of boorish Neanderthal Trump. Had an audience member confronted him and asked him what the fuck he was doing bringing his unwanted presence to a show that celebrates diversity (which he falsely responded was just what he and Trump were about) I would have enjoyed it immensely. Had some passerby spotted him leaving the theater and lobbed a cream pie in his direction (anyone remember that other famous Aaron - okay, Aron - the pie-thrower?) I would have been elated. As the running-mate of the most disrespectful candidate who has ever appeared on the national political scene you should expect to draw the same amount of respect as you dish out.

In fact, the little 30-second sound bite directed at Pence was far more respectful than hundreds of emanations from the Twitter account and campaign speeches of Trump, who had the gall to demand an apology! Someone should take him up on that: you start, and keep going until you've apologized to everyone you insulted during your campaign, and we will apologize to your illustrious Veep-elect. It was also, according to reports, more respectful than a number of audience members were, as be was apparently received with loud booing, which continued after the show.

But the problem, in my view, is that it demeans the profession, because it opens the door to anyone who wants to use a stage provided for one purpose as a platform to expose someone they don't like. It is of course a judgment call where "not liking" someone crosses over into being personally threatened or insulted, and it becomes fair game to sound them out wherever they go. Much of what Trump and Pence appear to stand for is borderline fascism, which cannot be left to its own devices in any corner of society. But I still doubt that using the theater as a platform for that sort of confrontation is a good idea. Once you breach that distance; once you discard that form of etiquette; once you open that up as a partisan forum, you open yourself up as well, and release anyone who might find your views unacceptable from respecting the neutrality that was previously assumed. You can't take advantage of your privileged position, where you start with a presumption of sympathy from your audience, and utilize that to make a target of someone, unless you want to encourage others to do the same. 

That this could backfire badly goes without saying, since the impulse to do it in the first place is an acknowledgment of just how far the other side has been willing to push against the bounds of decency. Best not to take that bait. Let them be the ones to flout cultural norms; they will generally look disrespectful and lose what weak support they have from decent people if they do.

It is not as if there were some missed opportunity had the cast refrained from saying anything to Pence. What opportunity? To change the mind of the Vice President? To annoy Trump? To alter the course of history? Nothing important happened there, except potentially handing Trump an example of critics to his left (and who isn't to his left?) displaying bad manners and poor judgment.

Keep in mind this is not about the content of art; I have never believed in anything like a requirement for art to be apolitical or neutral. Neither have many of the greatest artists in every genre you can think of. That is not the question at all. It is about the dignity of the performance medium and the best interest of the arts. 

Our two worst choices for President have been a Hollywood actor and a reality show star. (Okay, GWB doesn't have any screen credits to my knowledge, so maybe it's 2 out of the 3 worst.) That doesn't make me hopeful that thespians will be the ones to alter our sad fate in the recent election. In any case, actors can say more with great acting than with political stage whispers.

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