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Trump's Hamilton outburst ignores the theater's history as a place for political protest

Hamilton performs at the 2016 Tonys
Hamilton performs at the 2016 Tonys
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

President-elect Donald Trump will not stop tweeting about Hamilton, and about how “very rude and insulting” the cast was to urge Vice President-elect Michael Pence to protect and defend all the diverse citizens of America after their curtain call on Friday night.

As my colleague Matthew Yglesias has already pointed out, of all the things that Trump did this weekend, the Hamilton mess is one of the least immediately consequential. It has nothing on the immense financial corruption in which the Trump administration is already enmeshed before Trump even takes office.

And there is a compelling argument to be made that Trump is being so loud about Hamilton at least in part because it drags the public’s attention away from his other, more immediately dangerous behavior.

But while Trump’s financial corruption is, undoubtedly, immensely dangerous and more than worth your time and attention, it’s still worthwhile to spend a little time thinking about Trump’s response to the Hamilton protest as well. Because it tells us something about the way that Trump thinks about art and free expression.

Trump’s attitude — and just how much it flies in the face of the theater’s rich history as a space for political dissent — could have enormous impact on what political art will look like in the years to come.

Historically, the theater is a space in which to give voice to political dissent

Trump’s central issue with the Hamilton protest is that he thinks it was rude to Pence, and that the cast should have been more courteous, especially within the walls of a theater. “The Theater must always be a safe and special place,” he tweeted.

It’s not surprising that Trump thinks the theater is a special place — he’s a genuine fan of the British megamusicals of the ‘80s — but he’s entirely wrong when he says that it should be a safe place.

The theater has always been a place from which to dismantle and disrupt the political status quo. And I do mean always: Scholars of ancient Greece tell us that in the height of Athenian democracy, playwrights like Aristophanes were “expected to expose the ideological framework of political life — to reveal the inner workings of democratic knowledge itself.” It was in the playwright’s job description to create political art, and the resulting plays were “consistently critical of the social and political status quo.”

That tradition continued into the Renaissance, as plays continued to comment on the politics of their day. They sometimes used metaphors and historical parallels to do it, but they weren’t doing anything secret: Everyone understood them. When a theater mounted Shakespeare’s Richard II, which deals with the deposition of a king, shortly after Elizabeth I foiled a deposition plot within her own court, Elizabeth got the message. “I am Richard II,” she told one of her courtiers, “know ye not that?”

In the 20th century, critics and playwrights like Brecht began to fear that the standard bourgeois theater of their day wasn’t political enough, so they developed new forms, like the epic theater, that were specifically designed to galvanize the audience and fire them up to fight for political change.

Under authoritarian governments, the theater became an especially important place to talk about politics. Theaters mounted classic plays — Greek plays and Shakespeare, things that were considered beyond reproach — but staged them with subtly subversive gestures that allowed the audience to read between the lines to see a critique of the oppressive government.

Contemporary American theaters have protested things like the government’s response to the AIDS crisis (The Normal Heart, Rent, Angels in America) and the Iraq War (The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, a mass production of Lysistrata, and many others). Hamilton itself falls squarely into the tradition of political theater, with its project of destabilizing the founding myth of America and reclaiming the American legacy for immigrants and people of color and women.

All of this is to say that if you are walking through the doors of a theater — especially a theater mounting a play like Hamilton — in search of an apolitical evening, then you are in the wrong place. The theater has never been a place from which to be safe from dangerous ideas.

The Hamilton protest was legitimate regardless of whether or not it was uncivil

One of the arguments against the Hamilton cast’s statement is that while it was public, it wasn’t part of the play itself, and that makes it inappropriate. Sure, the play might be political, the thinking goes, but it should speak for itself. It’s not the place of the actors to editorialize on the play they just mounted, or to single out a particular audience member. It’s rude, and it’s not what the audience paid for.

But there’s a long tradition of Broadway casts editorializing on the play they just mounted right after the curtain call. They do it every year for six weeks during the fundraising period for Broadway Cares, when shows pass around a bucket after the performance and ask the audience to donate to AIDS research, often explicitly paralleling the charity’s work with the show that the audience just saw. They do it every year on Kid’s Night on Broadway, when at the end of the curtain call, the actors customarily give the kids in the audience a pep talk about working hard and following their dreams. It is simply standard practice for a Broadway cast to talk to the audience at the end of a curtain call.

And if it’s not standard practice for a Broadway cast to single out a single audience member, Mike Pence is not a standard audience member. He is the vice-president elect of the United States of America. He is one Trump heart attack or impeachment away from becoming president. He is in a position to dictate this country’s policy, and he has consistently said that if he gets his way, that policy will be aggressively and radically opposed to immigrants, gay people, and the reproductive rights of women. Those are the very people that Hamilton is designed to legitimize and enfranchise.

By respectfully and politely requesting that Pence remember that he is governing all of us — including, as Hamilton actor Brandon Victor Dixon put it, “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents” — the Hamilton cast was doing nothing more than making the political protest of their play explicit. And they were doing it during the time in which, traditionally, Broadway casts make their messages explicit.

But this issue goes beyond the question of whether or not the Hamilton cast violated anyone’s norms of civility.

Trump is laying the groundwork for a repressive administration

When President-elect Trump looks at the Hamilton protest, he doesn’t see a legitimate statement of political protest coming from an art form designed to do that very work. He sees people talking back to him and his proxies. He sees insults. He takes personal offense. And that’s an attitude that has dangerous implications.

Here are some things that we know to be true about Trump:

  1. He has stated that, as president, he plans to “open up the libel laws.”
  2. As a private citizen, he made a habit of slapping anyone who offended him with a libel suit.
  3. Based on his response to the Hamilton protest, he considers any critique of his stated policy — or the stated policy of his associates — to be a personal insult.

Given all this, it is not difficult to imagine a world in which Trump sues any politically subversive work of art for libel. He’s litigious, he’s thin-skinned, and he’s primed to harness the power of the state for his own personal gains. And now we know that he draws no distinction between critiques of his proxies’ policy and critiques of his own person, and that he does not consider political protest to be part of the function of art.

That’s not a combination that bodes well for artistic freedom.

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