Controversy Through the Ages

By: Ariela Greengart  |  December 1, 2016
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Hamilton fans have been in an uproar ever since Mike Pence decided to attend the revolutionary themed Broadway musical. The second he entered the room, he was met with more boos than the cheers that he was expecting. At curtain call, as Pence was trying to slip out, the cast addressed a politely-worded letter beseeching Pence to hear out their concerns about the new president and vice president elect. Brandon Victor Dixon, who portrays Vice President Aaron Burr, addressed Vice President Pence and spoke, “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, sir. But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values, and work on behalf of all of us.”

Hamilton consists of a largely ethnically diverse cast. The title role is portrayed by Javier Munoz, a HIV-positive openly-gay man, causing concerns for the future of LGBTQ rights to hit close to home for the cast. A popular quote “immigrants—we get the job done” emphasizes the message the show itself send about immigrants to this country, a direct contrast to the rhetoric President-Elect Trump has often used to refer to those not of native birth. The current fear of Trump’s plan of blocking immigrants out of America is another social issue the show is closely tied to.

“How dare Mike Pence attend a musical [in which] the whole premise is…written by, written about, written for the people whom he actively tries to take rights away from and physically harm,” said Jordyn Kaufman, President of the Stern College Dramatics Society, asserting her frustration and disgust. Kaufman is not the only one infuriated by Pence’s lack of sensitivity. Fans all over the internet were took to Twitter and Facebook to share their offense.

Imagine Better, a non-profit organization that has spearheaded many effective projects, such as The Harry Potter Alliance and The Rebel Alliance, created a new project called The Hamilton Alliance, intended to fight against and spreading awareness about political corruption. The Facebook page amassed 2,000 members in less than 48 hours. 

The event gained even more traction when Donald Trump demanded the Hamilton cast apologize to Pence, tweeting, “Our wonderful future VP Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!” The president-elect continued to say, “The Theater 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!” Many people angrily tweeted him in response, outraged by his demand for an ‘apology.’ George Takei tweeted, “AMERICA must always be a safe and special place. The Trump administration has been very cruel to many good people. Apologize!” Christopher Jackson, who portrayed George Washington in Hamilton, tweeted, “The Theater IS a “Safe and Special Place.” And we stand on that stage rapping HONOR and TOLERANCE and RESPECT, and above all else, LOVE.”

Jackson is absolutely correct. Theater is a safe and special place—for those who need a safe haven and, historically, had not found peace in the government and public society. Trump’s definition of a ‘safe and special place’ isn’t a safe haven—it’s a suppression of expression that does not coincide with the societal norm. Trump and his political administration is planning to set an agenda and path for this country through repressing and reversing all societal advancements, undoing everything the underdog has lately accomplished.

Theater, in its purest state, is an art-form in which playwrights can express their frustration or their appreciation of the world around them. Plays are not there to simply provide entertainment; they are there to talk about big things, issues that matter. “The whole point of theater is to strike some kind of emotional nerve, and I think that if a play is not doing that, then it is not successful,” Kaufman, an aspiring playwright herself, stated.

In order to strike a nerve on a universal scale, plays often choose to be political. Lin Snider, Theater Professor in Yeshiva College and director of the Yeshiva College Dramatics Society, said, “I think plays are always political if intended to be or not—and should be! Plays present a unique opportunity to delve into the culture that surrounds any personal situation and to show how that underlying cultural/political climate informs every aspect of our lives.”

This isn’t a new concept—these were the themes the theater world was built on. In order to prove that, I’ve mapped out a list of politically controversial plays, stretching back to the early Greeks up until contemporary times.

411 B.C.—Lysistrata, Aristophanes: Talk about ahead of his time: Aristophanes centered his play around women who withhold sex from their husbands in order to force the men to negotiate a peace-treaty between the sexes. This play is ancient, but to this day, angry protests still arise whenever and wherever it is performed. “Characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner.” 

1664—Tartuffe, Moliere: Through comedic satire, Moliere criticized the hypocrisy of monarchy and religion. His satirical approach clearly wasn’t subtle enough, since the minute the play came out, it was censored by Louis XIV. The Archbishop of Paris threatened excommunication for anyone who attended a performance, or even read the script. “Good God! Do you expect me to submit to the tyranny of that carping hypocrite? Must we forgo all joys and satisfaction because that bigot censures all our actions?”

1879—A Doll’s House, Ghosts, and An Enemy of the People, Henrick Ibsen: Ibsen just couldn’t stop himself from criticizing the 19th-century society in which he lived. He recognized the immorality and hypocrisy around him and refused to be silent, which resulted in scathing commentary and many bans of his works. “The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority.”

1893—A Woman of No Importance, Oscar Wilde: While this play did deal with topics of hypocrisy and double standards of the Victorian upper classes, Wilde’s controversial claim to fame erupted from his personal life. Wilde was imprisoned for his crimes of ‘sodomy’ and spent the last three years of his early life in exile. Despite this, Wilde was outspoken about the cruelty of the European government and is remembered for his bravery throughout his unfair trial. “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress had been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”

1902—Mrs. Warren’s Profession, George Bernard Shaw: The title refers to the subject matter of prostitution. Shaw criticized the negative light that was shone on prostitutes. He also criticized the limited employment opportunities for women in Victorian Britain, which led many women to become the prostitutes so hated by society. Because of its open display of prostitution, the play was banned the first time it opened, and the original cast and crew had to perform in private, like a speakeasy for theater. An attempt at a public performance in New York in 1905 was put to an end by the police, who arrested the cast and crew. They were violating a law that suppressed immoral and obscene pieces of art from publication. “Do you think I was brought up like you? Able to pick and choose my own way of life? Do you think I did what I did because I liked it, or thought it right, or wouldn’t rather have gone to college and been a lady if I’d had the chance?”

1906—Spring Awakening, Frank Wedekind: Later adapted into a well-known musical, the original play offended many by its scandalously open depictions of teenage sex, rape, homosexuality, abortion and suicide. This play has been banned and censored countless times throughout history, and still offends many today. “Search fearlessly for every sin, for out of sin comes joy.”

1953—Waiting For Godot, Samuel Beckett: To this day, Waiting For Godot is known as one of the most mindfully challenging plays of all time. The play completely strips down to the bare minimum of setting, leaving the audience open to interpret the plot and meaning of the philosophical story. This ambiguity led to all sorts of ideas: that the play was an allegory for the Cold War, a representation of Freudian concepts, an understanding of existential and ethical concepts, or an expression of homoeroticism. The play was so controversial that the English composer Sir Malcolm Sargent threatened to resign if Godot won the Evening Standard Drama Awards’ Best New Play. In order to appease Sargent, Godot instead won The Most Controversial Play of the Year prize, which was an award created for the play alone, and never given again. “Let us not then speak ill of our generation, it is not any unhappier than its predecessors. Let us not speak well of it either. It is true the population has increased.” 

1957—West Side Story, book by Arthur Laurents, music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Steven Sondheim: As classic as this musical now is, West Side Story dealt with unpopular issues of race, immigration, and violence among gangs, and it was met with much controversy when it first opened. The knife-fights, intermingled with saucy and sensuous choreography portrayed the immigrant society perfectly, but it was all too much for the audience to handle. Critics characterized the choreography as scandalous, catastrophic and even savage. “All of you! You all killed him! My brother, and Riff. Not with bullets, or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill too, because now I have hate!”

1962—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Edward Albee: Much like Hamilton, Virginia Woolf enjoyed a very successful run, even winning the Tony Award for Best Play in 1963. However, due to its provocative subject matter on the complexities of marriage, the Pulitzer Prize of 1963 that was originally meant to be awarded to the play was stripped away from it, and nobody won the Pulitzer Prize that year. This play is a prime example of the fact that, though a play might be  a smash, it doesn’t mean people won’t get offended. “Remember one thing about democracy. We can have anything we want and at the same time, we always end up with exactly what we deserve.”

1968—Hair, book and lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt Macdermot: This play, known as the first concept musical, mirrored the enraged, politically-active, hippie youth of the 1960s. The characters deal with all the societal issues of the period: the controversial fight against the Vietnam War, sex and drugs, and in the last scene, the entire cast lets their hair down and appears on stage in the nude. Many of the theaters showing the play were forced to shut down, churches and religious protesters assembled in huge numbers, and there were even legal challenges sent to the Supreme Court. In April 1971, a bomb was thrown at the theater and a fire was set in the hotel where thirty-three members of the show’s cast and crew were staying, killing the families of cast member Jonathan Johnson and stage manager Rusty Carlson. “The draft is white people sending black people to make war on the yellow people to defend land they stole from the red people!” 

1991—Angels in America, Tony Kushner: Perhaps the play that really paved the way for homosexual topics to be discussed in theater today, Angels in America examined the harsh reality of the AIDS epidemic and the oppressed homosexual community of the 1980s. Though it won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1993 and the Tony Award for Best Play in 1994, Angels in America engendered many furious threats and protests, especially since it criticized the society during the Reagan presidency, whose term had only ended two years prior. “Don’t be afraid; people are so afraid; don’t be afraid to live in the raw wind, naked, alone…Learn at least this: What you are capable of. Let nothing stand in your way.”

1993—RENT, Jonathan Larson: RENT is a story involving many controversial topics, all piled into one masterpiece. Larson portrays AIDS, homosexuals, transsexuals, bohemian hipsters, biracial characters, and financial struggles of the lower class and homeless. At a time when AIDS sufferers and survivors were still being viewed in a negative light, Larson attacked the society around him by envisioning a beautiful world of love that could be gained by rising above the grief and pain of society and life. “The opposite of war is not peace, it’s creation.”

These are only a handful of many plays that have been politically and societally controversial throughout history.

“The whole point of theater is to be emotionally invested and to leave a changed person,” Kaufman says. Perhaps Mike Pence didn’t leave changed, but there are thousands of people who have and will. For that is the beauty and importance of theater.

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