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Ten safe and special thoughts about Hamilton, Mike Pence and the Limits of Empathy

“You know we had a guest in the audience this evening. And Vice-President elect Pence, I see you walking out but I hope you will hear us just a few more moments. There’s nothing to boo here ladies and gentlemen, there’s nothing to be here. We’re all here sharing a story of love. We have a message for you sir and we hope that you will hear us out.

“We are the diverse Americans 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 hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us.

“We thank you for sharing this wonderful American story, told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds and orientations.”

Brandon Victor Dixon to Mike Pence during the curtain call of Hamilton

 

1. For a moment there all of theatre was wetting itself because someone important said something about the theatre, even if that someone is a Donald Trump. While everyone was high-fiving over Obama, it’s not like he ever took the time to comment on the contested liminality of the theatrical space when he wasn’t sanctioning the remote extra-judicial execution of terror suspects or building the largest and most pervasive surveillance apparatus in the world. When was the last time a leader of the US or UK had anything much to say about the theatre? If the answer is you can’t remember it’s because theatre did not matter to them, and is entirely absent from the space that mainstream political discourse occupies. So while the giddy excitement of the nerdy, posh kid who suddenly finds himself centre stage is understandable, it would be a mistake to consider that this means that theatre’s importance has somehow grown, or that it suddenly somehow represents a threat to the operations of power. What Trump’s tweet represents is rather a particular kind of autocratic thinness of skin, a power that demands a warped version of respect from all corners of society, or at the very least the constant and ostentatious declaration of respect even where it is unfelt. If anything this should worry the theatre rather than excite it, because the powerful are in a position to dictate the kinds of speech that get spoken, even if they may not (always) do so through direct censorship.

2. But it isn’t simply Trump’s personal skin that’s as thin as his tiny hands are tiny, it’s an ideological thinness of skin. Thin-skinnedness as political position. Thin-skinnedness in order to shape the space of political possibility. Thin-skinnedness in order to exert pressure on the always already contested territory in which speech is formed, uttered and heard. When the powerful are thin-skinned, their power is liable to lash out at the slightest provocation and this warps the terrain in which speech takes place before it has been voiced. This is not an accident.

3. Clearly the theatre was not in any meaningful sense unsafe for Mike Pence. On the other hand, and for precisely this reason, the theatrical space was not in any meaningful sense special. The idea that the world falls away when the performance begins is seductive but false. Politics remains in the room with us, in our bodies, in our minds and in the spaces in between us. In the sense in which the theatrical space was safe for Power, it was exactly like all(most) other spaces all(most) of the time.

4. In fact, the theatrical space was more accommodating for Pence than it would have been for you. It’s not easy to get good seats for a Broadway hit at late notice for you and your entourage.

5. So when Trump talks of safety and specialness he is not talking about safety and specialness in relation to the body, security, or psyche of Mike Pence, who, theatre or no, seems to be fairly secure, cloaked as he is in his beliefs, his privilege, and escorted by his secret service convoy. In fact he’s talking about a safety and specialness for what Mike Pence represents. For the Power which Mike Pence is an avatar of, which is invested in Mike Pence, which he operates to maintain and which operates through him.

6. From the perspective of fascism, all the world must be a safe space for fascists. Because the ideological structures that hold fascism together are brittle and contradictory, this requires the erasure of everything non-fascist. No one is Switzerland. Fascism abhors difference. Safety and specialness should be read as comfort when fascism speaks. When power sits in the theatre it must be comfortable.

7. Where there was, in some sense, confrontation with Mike Pence (and what Mike Pence represents etc) it happened at best in the margins of the performance – during the curtain call, not during the theatrical event itself. This isn’t surprising – often the theatre addresses reality obliquely, through narrative, character, parable and metaphor, and as such it is considers itself ill-equiped to deal with what it is actually sharing the room with. But in order to work obliquely it must necessarily create a kind of safety for itself. You can’t have a beautiful silence in a room full of people screaming at you. There are limits to the kinds of experiences and collective meanings that can be created with a particular group of people. No one in the space is neutral, they all carry meaning. An extreme example, Hamilton couldn’t have played out in the room in The Ronald Reagan Building in Washington DC where the National Policy Institute were holding their conference – it simply wouldn’t be possible to generate the kind of meaning the piece seems to be designed to generate, with it’s diverse cast, it’s playfulness and an attitude to history which is clearly confusing to the racist, conservative mind, with a group of people who were emphatically not prepared to go there or think that. How much of an effect a single person(or a single group) can have within a larger collective is an interesting question here. Watching the musical Hamilton with Vice President Elect Mike Pence in the room is plainly not the same thing as watching the musical Hamilton without him there. Without having been there it’s impossible to tell how much of an effect his presence had on the generation of meaning in that room. But it seems to me that if the piece is a radical celebration of a country built on immigration and diversity then the kind of anti-immigrant mono-culture Pence’s politics represents must, if it’s avatar is living in the room, be at the very least a pretty large rock in the stream of its meaning. In these terms the intervention is perhaps best viewed not as the theatre’s intervention into the world of politics, but rather an intervention from the margins of theatre to protect theatre’s sense of itself from the reality of the politics in the room. In the multifaceted world of story, it is part of the story the theatre tells itself about itself, the narrative of self-identity without which theatre’s ego crumbles.

8. But even when viewed in the opposite way, as an attempt to work in the political sphere, it doesn’t really reach the level of political engagement. For one thing it meets Pence as though he is something he is not. Not only does it pretend that he does not think that a not insignificant proportion of members of the company and audience should undergo conversion therapy with all the brutality and potential for loss of life that entails, it also pretends that he is an ethical rather than a political agent, that an appeal to his better nature, his capacity for empathy, might shift something in him. But Pence is Pence not because he doesn’t know that there are, for example, queer people who have feelings. He is Pence precisely because he knows that there are queer people who have feelings and because his politics requires that something be done about this. Ironically the terms this address couches itself in (“Sir”… “We truly thank you for sharing this show ” etc etc) offers him precisely the respect that Trump appears to be demanding. Trump behaves as though Pence had been met with the radical confrontation which has been so carefully avoided. And so the political effect is a pushback with the force and violence appropriate to if there had been a major confrontation and threat, but what it is pushing against is purposely delicate. That which is delicate, delicacy itself, are smashed away in the broad angry sweep of the President Elect’s Twitter feed.

9. Here we see the limits of empathy as political/aesthetic strategy (perhaps the defining political/aesthetic strategy of liberalism). While the demand that Power have empathy will necessarily fall on non-existent ears, the concurrent attempt to empathise with Power simultaneously leads to a mistake in the understanding of what Power is, the kind of agency it has, and the way it can be effected; and has the effect of gentrifying dissent and robbing it of its claws. This is precisely what happened in the theatre – the audience’s boos, their direct confrontation being quelled and appropriated into a more rarefied speech. It makes no difference to the kind of policy that will get made in the US over the next 4 years whether Mike Pence is happy or sad about his trip to the theatre. If art hopes to work in the political realm it will not be because seeing art might make hard-right politicians nicer people who care more about others (it won’t), or because art might help us understand and empathise with hard-right politicians and their supporters. It is at once art’s egotism and despair which leads it to consider these fantasies either desirable or possible.

10. Even if we read the audience for their intervention to not be Trump or Pence, but allies who share the fear they express, it still takes the form of a performance of opposition which is at risk of confusing itself with opposition itself. This isn’t to attack Hamilton or it’s cast. I’m sure it and they are great. I’d love to see it when it comes over here. To speak out in the face of Power will never not be scary and never not take courage. But it is important not to misidentify political/aesthetic action and the political/aesthetic context in which it takes place.

Recommendations:

  • Do not give up your beauty to them, they will chew it up and spit it out.
  • Do not try to understand them except insofar as you’re doing so in order to beat them
  • If you make theatre, ask yourself if Mike Pence could sit comfortably through your show. If the answer is yes, ask yourself if this is what you want.
  • If this is what you want ask yourself why.
  • If it is because you are arrogant enough to think that you could change him, then consider the fact that it is far more likely that he should find himself in a position to change you.

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