Transforming Hamilton

In February 1601, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men gave a command performance of Shakespeare’s play, Richard II. The aim was insurrection; Lord Essex was hoping that the play (which depicts an unfit monarch getting deposed by a righteous usurper) would stir the commoners’ hearts to support an actual coup d’etat against Queen Elizabeth I. The mob was unstirred; Essex got arrested and, inevitably, beheaded; and Richard II was added to the dynasty’s long list of censored plays. I mention this unsuccessful use of theatrical subversion because it’s part of the genre’s long tradition of making political leaders uncomfortable.

Now let’s talk about Hamilton.

When VP-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the Broadway mega-hit, audience members booed him, and during the curtain call the cast delivered a heartfelt plea:

“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.”

Pence later said he wasn’t offended by the message, but of course Trump got his panties in a twist, and used his favourite soapbox, Twitter, to demand an apology. From the perspective of a theatre professional, did the cast of Hamilton do anything wrong?

Acknowledging famous audience members is a tradition older than the fourth wall. But delivering a political message to a captive audience is a breach of protocol – though not an unforgivable one. The plea was polite and uncritical, with a tone of forward-facing optimism that I’m willing to bet the cast did not feel. They – we – are terrified of Trump and Pence, both what they have said and done already and of what they represent for the future of America. But their words sought to move beyond confrontation, and towards collaboration.

I haven’t seen Hamilton (and thanks to this controversy, I’ll never get a ticket), so I can’t say if the musical could inspire Pence, or anyone, to “uphold American values” or “inalienable rights.” But it’s a play about American political history, and that’s likely the best justification I can offer for the cast’s impropriety. If Pence were attending The Lion King or Phantom of the Opera, a similar speech from one of those casts would have been much more of an ambush.

Instead, what Pence got was an overt reminder that Hamilton’s themes are still relevant. Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant who, according to the show’s song, “gets things done.” The play aims to show that America could not have fulfilled its promise as a free, democratic nation without diversity within its ranks; and the post-show polemic argued that “making America great again” must perforce involve diversity, because it’s always been that way.

The message should not have been needed; it’s baked right into the production, specifically the “integrated casting.” Pence was watching the American Revolution recreated (and set to hip-hop) by black and Hispanic actors. If he was paying attention, he’d have made the connection himself, without the apologia. Maybe he did. But maybe he wasn’t interested in the thematic resonance of Hamilton: The Liberal-Progressive Revisionist Fantasy so much as the acclaim-by-association of Hamilton: The American Capitalist Success Story.

And it wouldn’t surprise me if the cast were speaking out partly to reclaim their status as provocative artists, not sellouts. In The Empty Space, the definitive 20th century work of drama theory, Peter Brook describes four types of theatre: Holy, Deadly, Rough, and Immediate. The success of Hamilton puts it in limbo – it no longer has the Fringey grit of Rough theatre, nor the arresting, confrontational directness of Immediate theatre; and while theatre nerds might revere it as Holy, the sad truth is that repetition and familiarity tend to make Broadway musicals Deadly over time.

Brook doesn’t mean Deadly literally, of course; he’s referring to the soul-deadening effect of a theatrical environment choked with fixed expectations and rules. Deadly theatre is entertainment with no potential for provocation or change. In short, Deadly theatre is Cats – which got its Broadway revival this year, incidentally, after 16 years on the Heavyside Layer. That’s right, in a year that robbed us of Bowie, Prince, and Leonard Cohen, the Cats came back.

I’m not sure whether Deadly theatre existed in Shakespeare’s time, but if it did, it would have been Elizabeth’s favourite. In fact, all politicians right on down to Trump find it easiest to deal with art that never budges from the crosshairs. “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” Tweeted the man who, along with Pence, made an entire nation of non-white, non-male, non-cis-straight Americans feel unsafe overnight. That’s no contradiction in Trump’s eyes, of course, because Trump has never, and will never, think of anyone but himself. He wants art to be safe for him and his regime.

Ultimately, that’s why I think the Hamilton cast’s plea was necessary. In the years to come, whenever artists – or the media, or internet users, or anyone – use their platforms to criticize Trump, he will strike back. And the conservative voices who bark so loudly about Freedom of Speech are never going to come to the defense of artists. Censorship is a real possibility – and not the small-c “censorship” that apparently happens whenever anyone types “shut up” on the internet; the dictionary-definition, government-mandated censorship. The fascist kind.

Here’s the good news about artists, though: we have practically nothing to lose. The Hamilton tempest may have been a rare contemporary intersection between politics and theatre, or it may have been a watershed, heralding the resurgence of Immediate theatre – and music, and art, and dance, and film.

Trump’s administration is a force of evil, bound to make America “great again” only for themselves and those who believe (and look) exactly alike. It’s going to take much, much more to oppose them than diplomatic speeches delivered on Broadway stages. Nor will a revolution in the arts be sufficient to counteract the fear and anger of Trump’s lockstep anthem. But diversity needs anthems of its own, and desperation breeds artistic miracles.

And, if we all manage to survive this, we’ll come out with some astounding creative artifacts of protest and resistance. It’s not much consolation, but it’s a start.


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