‘Raise a glass to freedom’: Should actors be allowed to express freedom of speech on the stage, outside of their performance?

Featured Image from Hamilton 

‘Is all theatre political?’ is the question famously asked by Michael Kirby in his article ‘On Political Theatre’ (1975 129). Within Kirby’s interrogation of his question, he goes on to state ‘Most political theatre, rather than merely posing political questions and problems, attempts to change the beliefs and opinions of the spectator’ (1975 132). This statement can be no more aptly applied than to the smash-hit, Pulitzer and Tony award winning Broadway musical Hamilton, currently playing at the Richard Rogers Theatre in New York. It is with its biographical telling of the life of American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, through hip-hop and rap music, using an ethnically diverse and multi-racial cast that the show is inherently political. Hamilton attempting to challenge what spectators think about race, storytelling and American history, which creator Lin-Manuel Miranda defends as ‘a way of pulling you into the story and allowing you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door’ (Weller, 2016). The intrinsic political nature of Hamilton is perhaps what situated it in the midst of controversy, where on November 18th 2016 the cast made an open address to Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence, whom was sat in the audience. This address sparking widespread discussion on the politics of theatre, the place of freedom of speech within it and the right of actors to exert freed speech outside of their characters, and performances, on stage.

When discussing what Hollywood can learn from Hamilton, playwright Danai Gurari asserts that ‘The theater never has been solely a place to be entertained. It also can be dangerous’ (2016). This political discourse is a belief which was certainly employed by the Hamilton cast in their open address to Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence. The speech in question was led by actor Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, after being jointly written by the cast with input from Miranda and producer Jeffery Seller (Sullivan, 2016). At the end of the show after the cast had taken their bows, Dixon requested Pence to ‘hear us just few more moments’ before stating:

‘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 of all of us’ (Youtube, 2016a)

The speech was met with immediate, rapturous applause from the show’s audience but outside of the theatre the response more mixed. Regardless, Dixon defended the action of the cast in the days following the speech, stating on talk show The View that Hamilton is a ‘global phenomenon’ and ‘we recognise the responsibility of that and the responsibility as artists and cultural figures to comment on our politics […] when we have an opportunity to speak with one another, when we have an opportunity to speak with our elected representatives, you must seize that opportunity’ (The View, 2016).

It is in the mixed response to Hamilton’s speech which divided opinion on the expression of free speech in the theatre; henceforth complicating the issue of free speech in general. Many of those who commented on the topic taking one of three stances: 1) The theatre is a place of entertainment not politics 2) The audience want to enjoy characters on stage, not actors 3) It was disrespectful to address Pence in such a way. Of these views, President-Elect Donald Trump most notably took to Twitter to publicly voice his outrage towards the cast in a string of four tweets, one directed at Dixon himself which Trump swiftly deleted. He initially stated, ‘Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!’ (2016a). To this Dixon was quick to retort, replying ‘conversation is not harassment sir. And I appreciate @mike_pence for stopping to listen’ (2016). However, it is Trump’s second tweet which exposes the Hamilton-Pence situation as a microcosmic picture of wider issue: one that concerns freedom of speech and expression. The tweet in question stating: ‘The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!’ (2016b).

Trump’s description of a ‘safe and special place’ is much in line with columnist Katie Hopkins view that the theatre ‘like a cinema, spa or an empty church, is supposed to be a sanctuary […] A place where neither politics nor your mother-in-law can get to you’ (2016). This discourse is particularly interesting as it suggests that both Trump and Hopkins see the theatre as a ‘safe space’, which is an environment that a person is protected from criticism or discrimination that can cause emotional or physical harm. This is interesting in the sense that the latter has publically denounced them (Hopkins, 2015a, 2015b & 2015c) and the former is a hard line conservative, so the notion he would endorse such a liberal concept is almost nonsensical. Therefore, it suggests that both Trump and Hopkins are less interested in creating the theatre as a protective, safe space for audience members as they are about keeping freedom of speech out entirely. If anything, this provides evidence that people are uncomfortable with the notion of freedom of speech in the theatre, or, in art as a wider concept.

Be it Benedict Cumberbatch discussing the refugee crisis after his performance in Hamlet or the cast of Broadway’s Kinky Boots celebrating marriage equality post curtain-call, some have said that the theatre is no place for such political speeches. In one example, when discussing the Hamilton-Pence situation on the CNN panel segment The State of the Union Mike Rogers affirms ‘I’m old fashioned about my entertainment, I just like to go to be entertained. If I want politics I’ll go to a town hall meeting. I’ll turn on cable news. There’s lots of outlets you can go to get politics, even the issues and ideas that you disagree with’ (2016). The notion that the theatre is not the place for politics effectively ignores that, in fact, the theatre is an inherently political art form. Theatre being reflective of the societal landscape it is created in, where it seeks to deconstruct and challenge current social, political, cultural and economic issues. This being no truer than in Hamilton which engages with issues of race, identity and history in a nation divided by the 2016 Elections, following an aggressive rhetoric on immigration. Or as Gurira believes, ‘Hamilton’s greatness is that it tells the story of the birth of our nation through the voices of 21st-century America’ (2016). Thus, when discussing Hopkins view on theatrical safe spaces for the Union of Brunel Students newspaper Le Nurb I stated, ‘I can’t help but feel that she completely misses the point of Hamilton. Scratch that, she completely misses the point of theatre itself’ (2016). This being for the fact that the theatre is not a safe space and can be, as Gurira said, a ‘dangerous’ place. It is a space of challenge, of controversy, where anyone who walks through the doors ‘should be prepared to have preconceptions challenged, beliefs questioned, certitudes shaken, ideas adjusted, worldviews broadened, and perspectives shifted’ (Harris, 2016).

As I mentioned, Trump and Hopkins’ views provide evidence that people are not entirely comfortable with the notion of free speech in the theatre, or in art in general. This being because people attend a theatrical performance, a physical theatre piece or an art instillation with a certain level of expectation. An idea conceptualised in the ‘horizon of expectation’ reception theory of Hans Robert Jauss in which ‘cultural norms, assumptions and criteria’ shape the way that ‘readers understand and judge a literary work at a given time’ (Baldick, 2008 157). For example, one might attend a performance of Wicked expecting to lose themselves in the world of Oz but they are then confronted with real life at the curtain call, by the cast asking for donations to the charity Stonewall (2015). Therefore, it can be argued that the uncomfortableness felt towards free speech in the theatre predominantly comes from the notion that the theatre is only ‘an ethereal or imaginary world’ (Hopkins, 2016). It is in this that a dichotomous illusion is created between the ‘imaginary’ inside the theatre and the real world outside, where any associations, be they social or political, are ignored or seen as not to exist. Thus, an actor or cast exerting free speech in the theatre effectively breaks this extended fourth wall, revealing that politics, social issues and cultural wars rage on the stage as much as they do in the White House. Something the cast of Hamilton acknowledge, for ‘If people are coming to see Hamilton to leave their politics behind then you came to the wrong show’ (The View, 2016).

When concluding this piece it is perhaps best to draw from Pence’s own response to the Hamilton speech. Speaking with Fox News Sunday, he stated ‘I did hear what was said from the stage. I can tell you I wasn’t offended by what was said – I’ll leave it to others as to whether it was the appropriate venue to say it’ (2016). Clearly, the issue with free speech in the theatre stems from the fact it takes place, simply, in a theatre. Therefore, the problem may not lie with actors but with audiences whom seek to disassociate real life debates from the themes of the shows they are watching. Instead audiences should be taught to revel in the politicised manner of theatre, as Pence did who nudged his ‘kids and reminded them that’s what freedom sounds like’ (ibid). For, as they sing in Hamilton: ‘Raise a glass to freedom / Something they can never take away / No matter what they tell you’ (2015).

WORD COUNT: 1650

References

Baldick, Chris. (2008) The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Dixon, Brandon Victor. (2016) 19th November. Available at: https://twitter.com/BrandonVDixon/status/799977281875755008 (Accessed: 2nd January 2016).

Fox News Sunday (2016) FOX, 20th November.

Gurira, Danai. (2016) What Hollywood Can Learn From ‘Hamilton’s’ Address to Mike Pence. Available at: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/hamiltons-address-mike-pence-what-hollywood-can-learn-952711 (Accessed: 7th December 2016).

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015) Directed by Thomas Kail [Richard Rogers Theatre, New York].

Harris, Mark. (2016) The Hamilton-Pence Incident Was More Than Just a Distraction. Available at: http://www.vulture.com/2016/11/why-the-hamilton-pence-incident-matters.html (Accessed: 13th January 2016).

Hopkins, Katie. (2015a) 19th December. Available at: https://twitter.com/kthopkins/status/678256797766021120 (Accessed: 13th January 2017).

Hopkins, Katie. (2015b) 9th October. Available at: https://twitter.com/kthopkins/status/652492121971273729 (Accessed: 13th January 2017).

Hopkins, Katie. (2015c) 8th December. Available at: https://twitter.com/kthopkins/status/674202102659465216 (Accessed: 13th January 2017).

Hopkins, Katie. (2016) Celebrities, please note: Just because we pay you to entertain us it doesn’t mean we want to hear your lectures – any more than we did when you were waiting tables. Available at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3955064/KATIE-HOPKINS-Celebrities-note-Just-pay-entertain-doesn-t-mean-want-hear-lectures-did-waiting-tables.html (Accessed: 7th November 2016).

Kirby, Michael. (1975) ‘On Political Theatre’, The Drama Review, 19(2), pp. 129-135.

Perry, Sophie. (2016) A Message to Katie Hopkins. Available at: http://lenurb.co.uk/a-message-to-katie-hopkins/ (Accessed: 26th November 2016).

Sullivan, Lindsey. (2016) Exclusive! Brandon Victor Dixon on the Hamilton Fam’s Speech for Mike Pence: ‘I Hope He Remembers Us’. Available at: http://www.broadway.com/buzz/186795/exclusive-brandon-victor-dixon-on-the-hamilton-fams-speech-for-mike-pence-i-hope-he-remembers-us/ (Accessed: January 2nd 2017).

The State of the Union (2016) CNN, 20th November.

The View (2016) ABC, 21st November.

Trump, Donald. (2016a) 19th November. Available at: https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/799972624713420804  (Accessed: 2nd January 2017).

Trump, Donald. (2016b) 19th November. Available at: https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/799974635274194947?lang=en (Accessed: 12th January 2017).

Weller, Chris. (2016) ‘Hamilton’ is the most important musical of our time. Available at: http://uk.businessinsider.com/hamilton-is-the-most-important-musical-of-all-time-2016-3?r=US&IR=T (Accessed: January 2nd 2017).

Wicked by Stephen Schwartz and Winnie Holzman (2015) Directed by Joe Mantello [Apollo Victoria Theatre, London. 18th November].

Youtube (2016) ‘Hamilton’ stars give Mike Pence a message. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bNfTONoEfWI (Accessed: 7th December 2016).

 

 

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