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Mike Pence, 'Hamilton,' And The Theater's Long History Of Dissent

Playhouses have never been exempt from the political currents that swirl outside their walls, writes Jeffrey S. Ravel. 
Pictured: In this image made from a video provided by Hamilton LLC, actor Brandon Victor Dixon who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, in "Hamilton," speaks from the stage after the curtain call in New York, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is the latest celebrity to attend the Broadway hit "Hamilton," but the first to get a sharp message from a cast member from the stage. (Hamilton LLC via AP)
Playhouses have never been exempt from the political currents that swirl outside their walls, writes Jeffrey S. Ravel. Pictured: In this image made from a video provided by Hamilton LLC, actor Brandon Victor Dixon who plays Aaron Burr, the nation’s third vice president, in "Hamilton," speaks from the stage after the curtain call in New York, Friday, Nov. 18, 2016. Vice President-elect Mike Pence is the latest celebrity to attend the Broadway hit "Hamilton," but the first to get a sharp message from a cast member from the stage. (Hamilton LLC via AP)
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COMMENTARY

Last Friday, Vice President-elect Mike Pence attended a performance of the hit Broadway musical "Hamilton." Some booed his arrival while others reportedly cheered.

According to those sitting around him, Pence appeared to enjoy the show, smiling and clapping at various points. After the actors took their curtain call, one of them, Brandon Victor Dixon, stepped forward to address the vice president-elect, who was on his way out of the playhouse. On behalf of the cast members, Dixon read a prepared statement:

“We, sir 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, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us.”

What struck me, as a historian of the stage, was another of Trump’s tweets, in which he wrote, in part, 'The Theater must always be a safe and special place.'

Although Pence was exiting the theater as Dixon spoke, he reportedly stopped to hear the message before leaving the building. The audience broke out in applause.


The next morning, President-elect Donald Trump took to Twitter to chastise the cast of the musical. "Very rude and insulting of Hamilton cast member to treat our great future V.P. Mike Pence to a theater lecture. Couldn't even memorize the lines!" Trump's since-deleted tweet read. 

Much has been made on both sides of the political spectrum of these events. What struck me, as a historian of the stage, was another of Trump’s tweets, in which he wrote, in part, "The Theater must always be a safe and special place."


Setting aside the president-elect’s curious appropriation of the contemporary concept of a “safe space,” those who have studied the stage know that playhouses have never been exempt from the political currents that swirl outside their walls. In Alexander Hamilton’s time at the end of the 18th century, commercial playhouses in London and Paris, the two great Western capitals of the day, were raucous, chaotic spaces.

In London, spectators in crowded theaters were often injured in the crush to enter the pit, or floor space, of the auditorium. Theatergoers threw oranges and other objects at each other and the actors onstage and frequently interrupted performances to voice their complaints and opinions. In 1809, playgoers at Covent Garden, one of two royal theaters, rioted for almost three months to protest a hike in ticket prices.

In Paris before the Revolution, the king’s government had taken to posting dozens of armed soldiers inside and outside the royal theater in a vain attempt to keep order among the spectators. The actors were required to have a second play prepared for performance in case the audience jeered the announced work off the stage. Once the Revolution began in 1789, Parisian theater troupes adopted Republican or Royalist sentiments, and actors suspected of allying with the wrong side were forced to recite political statements or sing popular anthems before they could perform.

Interactions between performers and spectators have quieted somewhat in the interim, of course, due mostly to the theatrical convention requiring both performers and spectators to pretend that the audience is not present during the play. The conceit is that audience silence heightens the realism of the performance, but as we all know, spectators still laugh and cry out during plays and applaud the actors at the end of the show.

Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if [Pence] had re-entered the auditorium, climbed up on stage, and shaken hands with the cast?

Neither the audience response to Pence’s arrival nor Dixon’s remarks after the performance were outside the norms of theatergoing today.

After musing about the connections between events at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Friday night and the colorful past of audience-performer relations, I found myself wondering what might have happened if our vice-president-elect had acknowledged Dixon’s remarks. Pence said on a Sunday morning talk show that he was not offended by them. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if he had re-entered the auditorium, climbed up on stage, and shaken hands with the cast? Such a gesture might have turned jeers into cheers.

But in the new regime that awaits us, will anyone dare to upstage Donald Trump?

Related:

Jeffrey S. Ravel Cognoscenti contributor
Jeffrey S. Ravel is professor and head of the MIT History Faculty.

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