Mixing politics and the theater is hardly new, despite the dustup regarding the hit musical “Hamilton” and the incoming Trump Administration.
As you may have heard, Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence attended a performance last weekend of the musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, the brilliant, Caribbean-born founding father who was the architect of our nation’s financial system.
At the end of the performance, the cast addressed a statement to Pence saying they were “alarmed and anxious” that the Trump administration would not protect a diverse America and hoped it would “work on behalf of all of us.”
Pence later said he was not bothered by it, but President-Elect Donald Trump tweeted that it was “very rude” and said Pence had been “harassed.” He called on the cast to apologize.
The late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a similarly polarizing figure, also drew a sharp response from the theater crowd.
At the close of a Broadway performance of Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1990, actress Kathleen Turner asked if there were any North Carolinians in the audience, and if so would they vote against Helms?
Helms’ crusade against federal funding of the arts – especially if the art was obscene or irreligious – as well as his hostility to gay rights made him a special target of theater people.
There was also a bit of prudery in Helms’ politics. A Helms aide once called the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger Library in Washington D.C., after viewing a performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor. She wanted to know whether she correctly heard the word “erection” in act 3, scene 5, and, if so, was that part of Shakespearean text or the director’s addition? She was assured that it was the words of the Bard. (“She does so take on with her men; they mistook their erection.’’)
Despite his criticism of “Hamilton” as overrated, Trump has a reputation for being a Broadway fan, a fact to which I can personally attest. Several years ago, my wife and I sat across the aisle from the Trumps at a performance of “Tango Argentino” at Broadway’s Gershwin Theatre.
After the performance, he was ushered out through the crowd by a bodyguard to his waiting limousine, while my wife and I headed to the nearest subway station for a ride back to our hotel.
Besides reporting on Trump from time to time, I have on occasion wandered into Trumpland. Over the years, we have gone window shopping (but not buying) in Trump Towers, splurged on a meal in Trump-owned Nougatine at Jean Georges in New York, and driven past his Palm Beach Mar-a-Lago Club.
Not your typical working-class pol.
Politics and theater have always been intertwined, going back to the Greeks.
That was the case in Arthur Miller’s classic play, “The Crucible.” Although written about the hysteria surrounding Salem witchcraft trials of the 1600s, the subtext of the 1953 play was about McCarthyism and the anti-communist hysteria.
“Just about anything that flew out of his (McCarthy’s) mouth, no matter how outrageous and obviously idiotic, could be made to land in an audience and stir people’s terrors,” Miller said.
Miller, although perhaps best known for having been married to Marilyn Monroe, was one of America’s literary giants. He was investigated during the McCarthy era and was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee where he testified but refused to name names.
As a result, Miller’s invitation to appear at the University of North Carolina Arts Festival in 1965 was canceled.
That was because during the last day of the 1963 legislative session, North Carolina became the only state in the nation to pass a law barring from speaking on state campuses known members of the Communist Party, those who advocated the overthrow of the U.S. or state constitutions or who had pleaded the Fifth Amendment in answer to questions about subversive activities. (Miller had cited the First Amendment, not the Fifth Amendment in refusing to testify, but that did not seem to make any difference to UNC administrators concerned about repercussions from a conservative legislature.)
Miller was no communist, but he objected to the witch-hunt nature of the proceedings. The Speaker Ban was later ruled unconstitutional by the federal courts.
Even if Miller couldn’t make it to Chapel Hill, his play about political hysteria finally did. A production of “The Crucible” was performed this fall by PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill’s Paul Green Theatre.