I’ve been examining the “Hamilton” / Mike Pence dust up from all angles and only now do I have a clear-cut conclusion to my personal view of it. As you may know, Vice President-Elect Mike Pence and his nephew and daughter attended a showing of the musical play, “Hamilton”– winner of 11 Tony awards. When the cast took their final curtain call, one of the actors, Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor who played Aaron Burr, stepped forward and read (supposedly on behalf of the other actors in the cast), a statement specifically addressing Pence:
“We hope you will hear us out. …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 all of us.”
Until I saw this in print, I had gained the impression that the statement was considerably more militant and confrontational. The actual statement sort of pales in comparison with the sense that I had in hearing the event discussed by those who were dismayed at the statement. Donald Trump’s reaction and that of his Vice President, seem to be not quite on the same page of music. Trump’s response to the event was to Tweet this:
In conformity with the eternal validity of the “Broken Clock” principal, Trump technically got this right, although he probably is the last person to be a credible messenger regarding decorum and what is decent. Mike Pence, on the other hand, was diplomatic, in keeping with his role of diffusing confrontational situations and statements that have constantly reared their head from and in reaction to Trump’s toxic campaign persona.
Pence showed up on “Fox News Sunday” and with reference to the event, told the hosts that he “wasn’t offended” by the message from Dixon or the booing from the audience on his arrival to the performance. “That’s what freedom sounds like,” he reportedly told his daughter. Pence also had a generous appraisal of “Hamilton” and despite the dispute, said, “I really enjoyed watching Hamilton. It was a real joy to be there. I heard a few boos. I wasn’t offended by what was said.”
I do appreciate Mike Pence’s inclinations to conduct himself in a classy fashion and his instincts toward political diplomacy on the national stage, yet I myself have some reservations about the behavior of the cast of “Hamilton” – Brandon Dixon’s in particular, but generally the agenda of the show producers, as well.
First, let me place my cards on the table face up regarding free speech. As others have said, I defend the right of free speech such as that of Dixon’s or anything similar to it. My writings reflect that sometimes unpopular view that anything short of rioting, violence or infringing on others’ rights (i.e., blocking highways and freeways) is acceptable speech in accordance with the Constitution. So, what I have to say next, is not a criticism of the content of the speech – though I do take exception to the preachy and condescending tone, but rather with the venue in which it occurred.
In my view, the act, while not particularly egregious or toxic in isolation, was out of place and the behavior was unprofessional. Why? My wife’s professional background is in theater as a choreographer, a director, and an educator of aspiring talent, and from that perspective, explained to me – (a mere plebe whose only exposure to the theater was a role in one high school play, a number of years ago) – that as an actor, individually, and as part of a company, there are two things you never do on stage.
One is that no matter what is going on with you personally, you do not bring your problems with you to the performance. It’s one thing if you are portraying a character that just experienced the death of a loved one and your own experience lends emotional depth to your performance, but even that is fraught with risks.
The other is that you never step out of character. It is called “breaking character” or a violation of the “Fourth Wall-” which describes the invisible wall that ostensibly separates the characters and their movements, actions, and speech from the audience. Some might argue that the fourth wall does come down at the conclusion of the play and during the curtain call, but traditionally, most directors and producers would consider a speech directed to a member of an audience, while the actor is still on stage and still in costume, to be a breach of convention and professional ethics. I do, as well, and have found little evidence to the contrary.
Then there is the impropriety of injecting politics (other than what is intrinsic to the script and plot itself), into the theater setting, when it intrudes upon or destroys the desired suspension of disbelief. In the Washington Times, theater critic Alan Nathan defined “suspension of disbelief” as “a literary term of art referring to one of Aristotle’s principles of theater in which the audience accepts fiction as reality so as to experience a catharsis, or a releasing of tensions to purify the soul.”
For some theater-goers, even some who might be sympathetic to the views expressed in Dixon’s verbalized post-script, the act of doing so violates the propriety of the venue. My wife, in such an event, and I must confess that I would join her – would march directly to the office of the management of the theater and demand a refund of the cost of the ticket. I have to imagine that there were more than a few that considered the diatribe – perhaps more an unsolicited sermon, to be a despoiling of their enjoyment of the entertainment of that evening.
Another example of how this act is intolerable in an entertainment context is the well known and stringently enforced ground rules of Disney in every phase of their amusement park operations. Every employee you see or come in contact with as a guest at the park is a “cast member.” Cast members include everyone from the folks in costumes portraying Mickey and Goofy, all the way down to people picking up trash or serving you from concession carts. None are allowed to introduce any personal behavior or attitude that diverges from the themes that Disney is projecting.
We should expect nothing less from Broadway. Had it been advertised in advance that the musical was going to include a political shout out, it is likely that many would have second thoughts about purchasing a ticket.
The producers of the “Hamilton” show are making efforts to justify, and it seems, even endorse the actions of Dixon – and the New York Times was reporting that screed that was read by Dixon, was less a product of Dixon and the cast members than it was of the show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
“We had to ask ourselves, how do we cope with this?” Jeffrey Seller, lead producer told the New York Times. “Our cast could barely go on stage the day after the election. The election was painful and crushing to all of us here. We all struggled with what was the appropriate and respectful and proper response. We are honored that Mr. Pence attended the show, and we had to use this opportunity to express our feelings.”
My response is “no, it was not the ‘ appropriate and respectful and proper response’ and you didn’t have to ‘use this opportunity to express (your) feelings.’ It was improper in terms of the old common sense dictum, “neither the time nor the place.” And here again is the reason that actors are expected to leave their personal emotions and attitudes at home. The audience is paying for entertainment, not sermons or lectures.
Entertainers have become so conceited and arrogant in recent years that they harbor an obligation to lecture us on their worldview and opinions as if they are better informed than our own. I, for one, am here to remind them that they aren’t and that such opportunistic salvos as occurred at “Hamilton” don’t enhance their art, but instead, cheapen it.
They are free to take advantage of every opportunity the media provides them to get on their moralizing soapboxes, but they are not free to intrude on my experience as a paying customer – especially at a play or a musical theater presentation, which unlike pop concerts, have up until last week, remained a reliable refuge from political pontificating.