Peter Burian: The Role of Theater in Free Expression

Peter Burian on classical theater and modern politics

As a student of ancient Greek theater, I was amused by Donald Trump’s tweet-storm this weekend over what he called “harassment” of Mike Pence.

The cause of the supposed outrage was a brief speech addressed to the vice president-elect following a performance last Friday of the hit musical Hamilton. As the cast stood on stage for their curtain call, one of the lead actors, Brandon Victor Dixon, politely but clearly expressed the cast’s shared apprehension: “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.”

Pence listened to Dixon from the lobby, and on Fox News Sunday allowed that he was not offended by what he heard. But Trump, not surprisingly, was. He seems incapable of letting any slight, however slight, pass untweeted. It’s as if he’s actively courting the “demagogue” label hurled at him during the campaign.

Greek comedy provides an ironic perch from which to examine Trump’s reaction. We need only consider an early work (5th century BCE) by Athens’ great comic playwright Aristophanes, a politically-themed musical comedy like Hamilton called The Knights. In it, Aristophanes attacks a successful populist politician named Cleon who became for the Athenians the paradigm of the demagogue. 

Like our president-elect, Cleon was a wealthy scion of the commercial class, a man with a penchant for litigation (he apparently sued Aristophanes) and a somewhat uncouth but charismatic manner. For his supporters, he was a breath of fresh air because he did not belong to the traditional political class and promised to steer Athens to success in its war with Sparta. To his opponents, his bravado, apparent lack of scruples and blatant appeal to the crowd seemed to place the very institution of democracy in jeopardy.

If Trump wants to know what theatrical harassment look like, he need only read The Knights, which is unsparing in its satire and exults in verbal abuse. By such standards, the polite address to Pence at the end of Hamilton was a model of deference and decorum.

On further reflection, I was upset by the suggestion that even the mildest criticism could now be regarded as off limits. Trump apparently believes the theater is (of all things) a “safe space.” According to his second tweet, “The theatre 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!”

The theater as an institution is certainly a special place, but only sometimes a safe one. The rich history of theatrical censorship would be enough to establish that point. For me, however, the most telling point is that the tradition -- which it set underway more than 2,500 years ago -- was shaped by the ideas and practices of democratic speech.

Whatever the flaws of the Athenian democracy, and there were many, it deserves credit for having at its heart the citizen’s right to speak freely in the public square, in the assembly where laws were debated and enacted, and in the theater. Democracy was then and is still the form of governance that leaves everything open for discussion, including democracy itself.

Drama, intrinsically dialogic, draws the breath of life from characters in conflict, opposing points of view, the clash of ideas. In ancient Athens, the theater was in many ways the school of democracy, where hearing characters confront each other’s perspectives helped citizens listen to, make sense of, and participate in democratic debate. The experience was never meant to be “safe” and in the case of tragedy was often (as it still can be) deeply disturbing.

Today, when the virtual worlds of the Internet and so-called social media have largely supplanted civil conversation on matters of public concern, live theater is one of the last remaining spaces where people can come together in shared engagement with important ideas and emotions. But how often does this happen as directly as it did last Friday evening?

Trump’s objection to even so mild a form of dissent implies that the role of the theater is to offer entertainment to an audience that doesn’t care to be confronted with gratuitous opinions from those it hired to entertain them. If that is so, what public space is left for face-to-face expression of critical, contentious or contrarian views? What school of democracy will we have?