In the end, after several posts and a large number of comments about this incident, I am convinced that, more than anything, it shows how little the American public, even well-educated, culturally-engaged members of the public, and even participants in the entertainment profession understand and respect the importance of live theater.
This, at least, is no surprise. The New York Times recently reported that a survey had revealed that symphony orchestras no longer are viable without charity: fewer and fewer, mostly aging, patrons bother to attend concerts any more. Live theater is heading down the same path, probably irreversibly. Theater will never hit rock bottom, of course; it will always be possible to put on a show like Judy and Mickey, and live theater can exist as long as there is a single talented performer, a street corner, and a crowd. But theater is dying as something relevant to society, and that is a tragedy. Each generation goes to live theater events less and less. I have not seen the up-dated figures, but in the Nineties a study showed that Americans under 30 were more likely to have called a phone psychic at least once in the past year than to have attended a single live theater performance in their entire existence on earth.
The role of theater in society has been extolled by Aristotle and social critics through the centuries as a unique and important community activity in which citizens of all social strata engage in the ancient ritual of sitting together in a darkened theater, and not only experience the events being portrayed on stage but experience it communally, hearing and feeling the reaction of others. Now that social force has receded to the vanishing point. A vacuum has taken its place. Movies seldom explore serious issues any more, and younger audiences have increasingly retreated to watching films online, and often alone. The potentially life-altering experience that is being lost is hard to describe when someone hasn’t experienced it. The power of the medium to communicate ideas and concepts vividly and to change minds and lives is unmatched, and unmatchable. I have seen it. I have experienced it. I have even helped make it happen.
The department store mogul Bernard Gimbel attended an early performance of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway in 1949. The plight of Willy Loman, an aging traveling salesman being pressured out of the only employment he had ever known, so shattered Gimbel’s world view that he couldn’t sleep. The next day, he called his managers together and told them and all of his stores that no over-age employee was to be fired. Alfred C. Fuller of the Fuller Brush company asked Miller to dinner to seek his guidance on how to keep his Fuller Brush salesmen from quitting. That’s power. That’s wonderful. We should want influential people, elected officials, business owners, policy-makers, bankers, investors and corporate executives to see that kind of theater. In today’s New York Times, Ben Brantley, the Times drama critic, explains…
Theater, as the ancient and exalted public forum …exists to challenge complacency, to make us uncomfortable with our assumptions. It is a place where conversations of momentous moral, philosophical and political significance can and should be initiated. Such exchanges have been started by dramatists as different as Sophocles, Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Vaclav Havel, David Hare, Tony Kushner and…Albee. And even when the plays were written decades, if not centuries, ago, the dialogues they began have in many cases never ceased to reverberate.*
Miller was a very political playwright. He would have been horrified, however, if his cast of “Death of a Salesman” or “The Crucible” had refused to let his words and ideas percolate within every audience member’s brain and conscience, and insisted on a post-performance, grandstanding display of righteousness aimed at a individual audience member. Would Bernard Gimbel have been more or less moved to change his attitudes toward aging employees if a self-important actor had commanded him to, in front a thousand audience members?
Mostly, however, such unethical conduct from a cast and the threat of the same in other productions can have no other result but to keep the people we most want to see thoughtful and provocative shows surrounded by their community and the people they serve from going to the theater. Most of them don’t go already, like the rest of the population. By indulging its cast’s urge to grandstand, “Hamilton,” the first culturally significant Broadway hit since “Angels in America,” undermines its art, its medium, its power and its purpose.
“Hamilton” is doing that already, to its disgrace, by further pushing live theater into the elite, dead-end niche of cultural irrelevancy already occupied by opera, ballet, and concerts. Its ticket prices are pure gouging, grotesquely hypocritical for a company made up primarily of dreamy eyed young leftists, and an author and producers who have are already rich beyond their wildest dreams. One can’t hear Hamilton’s songs on commercial radio, and if you did, you wouldn’t understand them out of context. The show may run on Broadway for years, with touring companies charging similarly impossible ticket prices, but it won’t become a regular staple of college and community theater repertoires: it’s too difficult, and requires an all-minority cast. That means that it is probably an artistic dead end.
“Hamilton” could get young people excited about live theater again, if its ticket prices weren’t so unconscionable and they could afford to see it. The show could make white, insulated, conservative policy makers re-think their assumptions, if they didn’t fear a personal assault from the stage.
Instead, the production has chosen to jettison its once-in-a-generation opportunity so it can indulge its sense of self-importance and engage in just one more high-profile liberal tantrum over losing an election, and in so doing, slam another nail into live theater’s coffin.
* Lest I be accused of misleading readers, Brantley also mounts a weird and weak defense of the “Hamilton”/Pence episode. He writes,
Thinking more rationally, I believe it can also be argued that a great work of art — a distinction for which “Hamilton” easily qualifies — should be sufficient unto itself. Though Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-laden show has been embraced as Broadway’s favorite feel-good musical of the moment, this portrait of a revolution is in itself revolutionary, with the provocation and defiance that such a characterization suggests….The very presence of Mr. Pence — whose views on immigration, like those of Mr. Trump, are anything but celebratory — at this particular show (one previously embraced by the Obamas and Clintons) would seem to signal that an unspoken debate was going on that night. In that case, wasn’t Mr. Dixon belaboring the obvious in delivering the statement prepared by him and his associates (including Mr. Miranda)? Was what he said a condescending equivalent of supertitles for the inferentially challenged?…If someone were to single me out for a direct plea from the stage in a large theater, I would no doubt want to run home, dive into bed and bury myself under the covers.
All correct, Then he defaults to defending the cast, because, as far as I can figure out, he didn’t like Donald Trump’s tweets AFTER the episode, so this, he thinks, retroactively justified the cast’s attack on Pence. I think he felt obligated to side with his New York City, left wing, Trump-hating theater community, even though he knew they were wrong. He flunked his integrity test.