No, Mr. President-Elect, Theater Isn’t Meant to Be Safe
When Vice President-Elect Mike Pence arrived to scattered boos at the Richard Rodgers Theatre last week for a Hamilton performance and remained for a personal and gracious curtain-call speech delivered by actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, Pence subsequently said that he “wasn’t offended” by the group-developed request for across-the-board tolerance:
Not so President-Elect Donald J. Trump, who, when told about the occurrence, put his Twitter-happy fingers to work admonishing the Hamilton troupe. “Apologize!” he demanded — this from a man well known never to apologize, although he maintains that he would apologize were he ever wrong.
No doubt there’s even more unsafe theater in the pipeline.
Always primed to denigrate anyone who questions him directly or indirectly, Trump further stated, in one of his four anti-Hamilton tweets, that Hamilton is “highly overrated.” (Of course, he’s never seen the blockbuster and likely never will, so long as it contains the regularly applauded line: “Immigrants, we get the job done.”) Trump further fulminated against Dixon for not memorizing the speech — this from a man who either extemporizes or reads prepared speeches from teleprompters in affectless tones.
Yet it was the first of Trump’s cyber attacks that startled me. In that one, Trump declared, “The theater must always be a safe and special place.” He’s right about the “special” part, although theater too often isn’t special but doggedly mundane. However, Trump has the “safe” part wrong. It may be that when theater is intended to be purely escapist entertainment, it can be safe, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be. It’s likely that no one has ever exited Hello, Dolly! feeling unsafe or threatened.
At a drama, on the other hand, the notion of playing it safe is diametrically opposed to its purpose. The whole point of serious theater is to question received ideas, to threaten easy assumptions, to goad attendees into examining and reexamining their most cherished beliefs. It’s to challenge. It’s to disturb.
Isn’t that the point of every classic drama we have since the Greeks developed the form? Is Sophocles safe? Aeschylus? Euripides? Aristophanes may be funny, but he’s also not safe. There’s no need to list the profoundly unsafe plays through the ages right up to, and past, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, arguably the best American play of the last 25 years.
If serious theater doesn’t accomplish these aims, it fails. If serious theater exists merely to reassure people of their beliefs, if serious theater exists merely to be congratulate ticket buyers on entrenched behaviors, if serious theater exists merely to pat patrons on the back, if serious theater exist merely for safety, it adds nothing to a culture. Safe theater is useless theater.
Which leads us back to Trump — if not to Pence, who also said that what he heard was “what freedom sounds like.” Trump has spent the entirety of his public life indicating he doesn’t appreciate being questioned. He sees no worth in having it pointed out that he may not be in the right about this or that.
So of course Trump wants theater to be safe. Fortunately, we are entering a phase when, in response to nationwide concerns, agitated playwrights will be anything but safe. It’s a fairly good bet that more of today’s playwrights voted for Hillary Clinton than for Trump. In the months and years ahead, they will make clear why in their work. Certainly some of that non-safety will be satirical depictions of Trump — and they’ll be more indelicate than Alec Baldwin’s Saturday Night Live impersonations.
Right this minute, some theater scribe might be preparing a companion piece to MacBird!, Barbara Garson’s 1966 send-up of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Or some theater outfit may be rehearsing Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, in which the titular role, a monster-monarch, wears bronze make-up and an orange wig.
No one ever exited Hello, Dolly! feeling unsafe or threatened.
Actually, we already may be well into a new and politically explosive theater movement. Party People, a play about Trump-era racism currently running Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, is one sign. Also at the Public is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Richard Nelson’s Women of a Certain Age (set on election night, Nov. 8, 2016) and the revival of David Hare’s Plenty. At Signature Theatre is Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World aka The Negro Book of the Dead. At Second Stage is Anna Deavere Smith’s Notes from the Field, her one-woman stage documentary, about race. At Manhattan Theatre Club, Sarah Jones is offering Sell/Buy/Date, her one-woman fictional documentary on the subordination of women. At Roundabout Underground, women’s body image issues arise as well in Jenny Rachel Weiner’s Kingdom Come.
No doubt there’s even more unsafe theater in the pipeline. Nothing will be safe in the theater because nothing should be safe. As for the phrase “Better safe than sorry.” it’s going to be “Better unsafe than sorry” from here on in.