Last week, we had a cultural moment—the “Hamilton Incident.” Most of the shouting has died down, but before we get too far away I wanted to share a few thoughts on this, as it hits on several important issues that we in the arts grapple with all the time. And while this is hardly the most pressing national concern at the moment, the whole dust up hits on larger issues that are of critical importance right now, and resonate with me as an artist and as a citizen of the United States of America.
As I’m sure everyone on the entire planet now knows, the brouhaha began when Vice President-Elect Mike Pence stopped by the Broadway production of Hamilton: An American Musical… and things got interesting quickly. Mr. Pence was greeted by boos from the clearly partisan crowd as he moved to his seat, although there were a few scattered cheers as well. During a few surprisingly topical moments from the show, such as quips about immigrants “getting the job done,” the raucous crowd cheered loudly, bringing the show to a halt. And during the curtain call that followed the performance, the actor portraying Aaron Burr called for quiet and addressed Mr. Pence—and by extension, the broader public—with a request that the new administration defend and support all Americans:
Vice-president elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us at Hamilton: An American Musical. We really do.
We, sir, 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 work on behalf of all of us. All of us.
We truly thank you for sharing this show — this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
According to reporters, Pence had been leaving when the speech started, but hung back in the hallway just outside the auditorium and listened to it in its entirety.
For more on the encounter, and a video of the speech, click here.
But outside the dry, journalistic narrative of the event, I wanted to share the personal experience of Matthew G. Anderson, who has been a fixture in the local theater and film scene here in Minneapolis. Mr. Anderson happened to be in the audience of Hamilton that night, and wrote about how the evening went down.
I posted earlier about seeing “Hamilton” tonight with Mike Pence in the audience. I didn’t editorialize, but still received some comments (mostly from people I don’t know) about how it was “disgraceful”, etc. So, my two cents – here’s what I saw tonight:
Just before the show started, there was an eruption of booing and hissing like I’ve never seen in a theater. Leigha and I were up in the mezzanine, so it took (only) a minute or two for word to get to us that Pence had just been brought in. I didn’t boo. Frankly, it was disorienting and unsettling to me for a theater to be filled with that kind of hostility. There was obviously a shitload of unrest. A guy behind us yelled out “we love you Mike!” I later saw him loudly fighting with his daughter during intermission. The woman next to us proposed assassination. It was an ugly vibe.
Then the show started. And it washed away the discord instantly in a wave of art and dedication and intelligence and sincerity and craft.
Throughout the show, lyrical mentions of women’s rights, equality, immigrants (“we get the job done”) and the complexity of governing a nation (“What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own. Awesome. Wow. Do you have a clue what happens now?”) were met with pointed, thunderous, literally show-stopping applause. At several points, the cast just stepped back and rode it out with obvious appreciation. It was a show of force and a joyful one.
There weren’t so many extra-textual moments post-intermission as Act II shifts from revolution and rabble rousing to more sober concerns. We all just watched the show together.
When it was over, the cast cut the curtain call short to deliver a message to their “special guest” as he was on his way up the aisle. It was respectful and responsible and hopeful and strong. Very much in the spirit of what we’d all just experienced together. You can find the video of that probably all over the place now.
As we now know, things didn’t end on Friday night. At various points over the weekend, President-Elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to criticize the cast for speaking out, and to demand an apology (it bears pointing out that the audience was booing Mr. Pence, not the cast). Moreover, some of Mr. Trump’s supporters saw this as a cause célèbre; they similarly took to social media to rebuke the cast, demand an apology of their own, and to organize a boycott. Another Trump supporter apparently interrupted the Hamilton production in Chicago by yelling, among other things, “We won!”
A week later, the controversy is still going, with some arguing that the actors were right to make a political statement in what is otherwise a purely artistic event. This argument is bolstered by the fact that Hamilton is an overtly political piece that centers around arguing factions sitting down and trying to build a government for the newly-created United States of America. Others have suggested that this was out of bounds, particularly in that the actors singled out a single person for their message.
There is a deeper criticism as well. A great many people have argued that theater (and the arts generally) should simply exist as a diversion. Something to be nice. Mr. Trump said this himself in comments he tweeted out later that night: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place.” Or “theater should just be entertainment.” Similarly, I’ve heard variations of thinking all the time in music, where people say they show up to a symphony orchestra because it’s “relaxing” or “beautiful.”
I could not disagree more.
The Arts Are Deep
As I’ve repeatedly said, if people are listening to music simply because it’s beautiful, they’re listening to the wrong music. And the same holds true of the theater. Of all the arts.
The arts are about so much more than loveliness, so much more than entertainment. Since the beginnings of human civilization, the arts have served a far deeper, more important purpose: they summarize and articulate the full range of human experience, reflecting it back to us as if in a mirror. This allows us to understand these experiences more clearly. The arts speak of our deepest thoughts. They bring forward key ideas that we otherwise have a hard time articulating. They speak things aloud that too often we only think about in silence. They unify us, show us where our dividing lines are, teach us, warn us, mock us, soothe us. Through the arts we can laugh, fall in love, heal, mourn, and more.
Again and again, we’ve seen how arts can help break the logjam of latent ideas and unspoken assumptions and bring them to the forefront. Works as diverse as South Pacific and Uncle Tom’s Cabin forced Americans to reckon with racial prejudice by showing how these prejudices affected the lives sympathetic characters in real, concrete ways. An episode of the original Star Trek series to make a powerful statement about American race relations by showing race relations on a different planet. Throughout history, great works of arts have sparked major social change—often more effectively than a dry treatise or a logic-based argument.
Arts and Politics
And if art and artists can deal with joy, terror, humor, racism, and all sorts of weighty issues, they can certainly deal with politics.
This is nothing new. Take Euripides’s The Trojan Women, a masterpiece that still holds the stage strongly today, 2,400 years after it was written. It deals with the horrors of war—particularly the horrors that befall the defeated—in ways that are universally understood and emotionally gripping. But this wasn’t an abstract rumination on suffering, or a work that somehow was written in a vacuum; the play premiered during a particularly tense moment of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens was forcing the Greek cities to chose sides, and dealing harshly with those it perceived as enemies. And the actions of the drama clearly reflect the horrors Athens had just inflicted on the island of Milos in 416 BCE, the year the drama premiered. Milos had tried to remain neutral during the war, but Athens lost patience and delivered an ultimatum: join the Athenian alliance (and provide material support, naturally) or be treated as a hostile power. When Milos refused, the island was invaded and conquered. The fate of its capital city closely matched the fate of Euripides’s Troy. And of course, the drama premiered just as Athens was readying an invasion of Syracuse in Sicily; it is often remarked that it is a testament to the strength of Athens’s ancient democracy that it allowed such play to be presented in a time of war. But that’s why Euripides wrote it… to force Athenians to realize what they were doing.
Shakespeare’s plays are also political statements, and his history plays are often only a step away from being propaganda. For example, the Shakespearean character Macbeth bears no resemblance to the historical Macbeth; and while the play takes place is early medieval Scotland, it is clearly designed as a commentary on and celebration of the reign of James I. Henry V is a similar figure who Shakespeare used to make contemporary political points. This trend has continued—future generations have continued to use Shakespeare’s play to whip up patriotic fervor during times of national peril.
And politics doesn’t just infuse theater… my own genre of classical music is similarly rife with politics. Sibelius’s tone poem, Finlandia, became the focal point for Finnish nationalism, to the point that the piece was banned by the Russian government. It appears that Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, which purports to celebrate Stalin’s regime, was actually written to subvert and satirize it. Verdi’s “Va pensiero” from the opera Nabucco became a rallying cry of Italian unification.
If we try to remove politics, or anything controversial from the arts… they quickly lose value. Washington Post writer Peter Marks put it succinctly in his excellent piece on the Hamilton controversy: “‘Safe’ theater is dead theater. Conflict is what drives drama, and sometimes, emotions in that public space become intense and things get messy.”
Importance of the Arts
And that brings us back to why the arts are important. Because they deal with human issues, because they tackle difficult problems, because they can bring up controversy in a public fashion… they can inspire change. In their unique blend of ideas and emotions, the arts can change minds and change hearts. They can go deep. They can reframe a narrative to force us to think outside ourselves, and to think outside the box.
And the “Hamilton Incident” did just that.
As Mr. Anderson went on to say in his description of what happened in the theater that night:
Someone disapprovingly commented on my original post that people should “just let theater be theater”. What I saw tonight was the best example of the potential of theater I’ll probably ever see. “Hamilton” – a show that, from its conception, has always had more on its mind than just giving folks a few hours of entertainment – invited an audience into conversation. Most of that audience hold the same values the show espouses; some have seemed to feel differently. Most of us feel powerless right now; one of us is newly very powerful. And we all watched a piece of theater that found vital relevance for the present in examining our past through the perspective of a company of artists.
Who knows what Mike Pence took away from tonight. Personally, I feel very, very lucky to have been a part of the conversation.
Amen. Euripides and Shakespeare would have reached for just such a moment, and treasured it when it happened.
That’s what I ultimately want from the arts—that kind of immediacy, that kind of authenticity. Arts can be purely presentational, with the audience passively receiving the information, but that misses their importance, their value, and their potential. The arts must engage people, and that means tackling and reflecting, real-life concerns, real-life arguments, and real-life events.
That’s what happened at Hamilton, and that is far more important than the Monday-morning quarterbacking going on. At the end of the day, it sounds like the people where were there that night went away engaged, energized, and aware of the power of the moment that they had shared… even if they disagreed with its propriety, timing, or delivery.
That’s the power of the arts. I wish I had been there.