Theatre has never been a safe space

Mike Pence attended a performance of the extraordinary – and deeply political – hip-hop musical Hamilton last night. The cast and crew had been told in advance that he would attend, and chose to use their platform to speak out about their alarm at the way the country has responded to his election.

This statement has caused quite a stir, as I’m sure you’re aware. Firstly, President-elect Trump has argued that theatre should be a “safe space” and that Mike Pence has been denied that, and secondly many people have argued that something about the time and the place was inappropriate – that VP-elect Pence paid(?) to see a show and not to be hectored.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the theatre has ever been a “safe” place in the way Mr. Trump seems to mean. Art is not neutral; however it is dressed up and presented it is part of the cultural conversation.

In the specific case of Hamilton, we are invited into the violent and turbulent political world of the 18th and 19th centuries where dialogue is anything but polite. The sheer diversity of background, culture, education, and politics is reflected in the rhythms and styles that shift and change around each character. From the prose style of George Washington to the superior and dismissive ring to George III’s brief appearances to the boisterous young revolutionaries everyone has a voice and those voices are almost constantly in conflict. The viewer isn’t safe, or contained, but drawn into a political conflict that feels so real it’s impossible not to see in it the echo of the Puerto-Rican American man who has lived in a country suspicious of his language and heritage whilst laying claim to the very country that heritage springs from. This is made all the more stark by the decision to cast professional productions entirely with performers of colour, with the exception of George III.

The musical also challenges the assertion that the USA is in any way a monoculture. As well as the way in which it highlights early differences in state culture, the founding fathers and their allies are shown to be a mix of heritages and backgrounds with influences ranging from the writings of the French revolution through to family culture, tragedy, and upbringings across the British colonies. Hamilton is described as, “A bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” and once gleefully cries to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” This is not neutral to current trends in dialogue; on the Hamilton Mixtape, a whole track with this title is dedicated to how we talk about immigration in the 21st century (lyrics, Spotify).

We could pick almost any piece of musical theatre and find similar controversy. Picture the moral outrage that was poured over Jerry Springer: The Opera, or the horror with with Georges Bizet’s extraordinary opera Carmen was greeted when it opened.

When a writer and composer set out to tell a story, everything about the way they choose to tell it reveals who they are and what they believe. Jerry Springer: The Opera lays the blame for the blame culture squarely at the door of talk shows and ‘reality’ TV. Prosper Merimée’s Carmen (on which the opera is based) places the blame with Romani culture for Carmen’s behaviour, and her murder, whilst the opera can be read as a more nuanced work that seems to view a man and his female victim as equally culpable when jealousy causes José to kill Carmen. You don’t have to agree with these viewpoints to be drawn into the story, or to enjoy the music. You don’t have to realise you’ve been exposed to them to be influenced by them. Whether we like it or not, art is political and artists have a major platform.

The cast of Cinderella, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, Feb. 2007

When I had my own opportunity to write for the stage, I chose the pantomime Cinderella, because it is so easy to parody. I was writing for two performances to a maximum of 1,000 people (I think about 600 saw it in the end) but I knew I had one chance to convince some of them that panto is more than a vehicle for last year’s I’m a Celebrity runner-up, and that I had a real chance to show that there is validity to telling our childhood stories through a queer lens. Yes, it was daft, yes, most of the best jokes were classic panto set-pieces, but even that microcosm of the theatre started with the idea that I have a right to see people like me on stage – an inherently political idea. (A side note, we had as our director the marvellously talented Luke Davies, who has continued this sterling work and you should all support him in that.)

Would I have used my platform to ask a man who has the potential to take my rights away to protect us instead? Perhaps. I hope so.

I applaud the cast of Hamilton for acknowledging their role and their platform, and choosing to use it. In the wake of a spike in violence, vandalism, and hate crime in the wake of his election to the office of Vice President I, too, am looking to Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump to say more than, “Stop it,” and to protect the people of the country they have pledged to unite. I am grateful Mr. Dixon’s gentle reminder to the audience that no one comes to the theatre to be booed, and would hope that if I were in his position I would have had the courage of my convictions to do the same.

The theatre is not “safe space” where the world is shut out. The theatre is where the world works out its politics, its philosophy, its meaning. Vive le théâtre! Vivent les artistes! Vive la révolution!

With the last word, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself;



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