Sunday, November 20, 2016

The 'Hamilton' Fantasy

Given my background in the Theatre this "Hamilton" Thing is kind of fun. Hah hah hah. Gotcha!

I came up during a period when it was a rule -- at least in the kind of theater I was working in -- that one didn't break the fourth wall or violate the sacred space of the stage. One did not make speeches from the stage, in other words. That was a 'sacred space' and woe betide you if you violated its sacredness to make a "statement." That's what the play was for. Or not as the case may be.

Producer, directors, actors and others could and did directly address the audience -- but not from the stage. That was the place for the Performance of the Play. which was itself a sacred act  -- but which might or might not have an important or life changing message for the audience. If something needed to be said to the audience beyond the work of the playwright and company, then it could be said from just off the stage -- either in front of it or on the side. The message would be just as strong and it wouldn't interfere with the suspension of disbelief that was a fundamental aspect of the Theatre.

Well, that concept of theatral sacredness and not violating the fourth wall or the performance space was never universally observed, and these days it seems totally forgotten. There are many plays which depend on violating the fourth wall (which is something different than speechifying to the audience apart from the play), but what happened with the cast of "Hamilton" delivering their message to Pence and the Trump and their cohort was something quite different.

Not having seen "Hamilton" I can't say how it did or didn't fit in with the play itself, but as the speech was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of the play and its former lead actor, I can fairly confidently assume he intended it as an outgrowth of his vision for the play.

As I've been told is the case with the play, the speech given by the actor who played Aaron Burr (Brandon Victor Dixon) was generous in spirit and inclusive. It was not a condemnation or "lecture" as it has been characterized by Trump apologists and loyalists. It was an open-hearted request to be heard and listened to and to use the power of government on behalf of all Americans, not just the favored few. That's all. Message: "We're all in this together." More or less.

The Twitterverse exploded when Himself, Mr. Trump, condemned the cast for "harrassing" Mr. Pence and he ordered them to "apologize." Blah, blah, blah. Who cares what he thinks, he'll change his mind tomorrow. Or the next day.

This isn't just an example of his notoriously thin skin, it's an example of his disinterest in those he deems "disloyal" to his person. It doesn't matter to him what they say or do, what matters is that he deems them "disloyal" and therefore they have no rights which he is bound to respect, and they can say nothing he cares to listen to.

Someone posted the other day that this is a form of classic abuser behavior (not referring to the "Hamilton" flap, but referring to the body of Mr. Trump's public behavior). The abuser believes that the abused brings on their own punishment through "disloyalty" toward the abuser, and once the cycle gets going, there's no way to stop it. Literally everything the abused says or does is more proof that they deserve their punishment. The only way off the treadmill of abuse is to get off. Get away from the abuser as fully and completely as possible.

I doubt that Mr. Pence, awful in his own way as he may be, was offended by the Speech From the Stage the night he attended "Hamilton." He's been in politics a long time, and he's been pilloried and skewered by his opponents in far harsher ways. If anything, I imagine he got bored rather quickly -- assuming he listened at all -- because the speech wasn't harsh or insulting or in any way "harrassing." It was a simple and heartfelt plea, that's all.

Mr. Trump's offense-taking on Twitter over it is pure bullshit, but there you are. That's the man, and that's his style. Be warned.

On another front re: Hamilton, Tony Wikrent over at Ian's Place has written a long, scholarly piece arguing that Hamilton designed the Constitution and the early independent economy of the United States to favor labor, and apparently concludes that this can be and should be a basis for governmental reform. Uhh... I beg to disagree.

Whatever the supposed intent of the Founders, including Hamilton, the nation they founded was a slave republic dependent on the labor of black chattel who had no rights whatever, and so called "free" labor who had few rights employers were bound to respect.

They did not found a republic to favor labor in any way; they founded a republic to favor ownership and exploitation of labor by a few quasi-aristocrats -- like Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, et al, come to think of it. Whatever gains labor has been able to make over the centuries has come at a tremendous price in blood and sacrifice, and every step of the way has been bitterly fought and resisted by those who were advantaged to begin with and by their descendant and co-conspirators. They are still fighting against labor's advance. And they are winning.

So I dispute the premise.

It's belied by the facts on the ground.

But it's well written, nicely argued, very detailed and it's backed up with scholarly and original sources. Trouble is, it's wrong. It's wrong because it's a fantasy of what might have been but never was. Fantasies seem to be more important than ever these days.

It would be far stronger -- though still somewhat fantastical, maybe like the play -- if Tony acknowledged that what he believes Hamilton set out to do never happened. That would be a breakthrough, I think, because there hasn't been a lot of public acknowledgement that the nation founded in 1787 started off on the wrong foot -- as a slave and genocidal republic -- and has never quite got it right.

Instead, he seems to argue that it did happen as Hamilton intended, and it only went off the rails when the false neoliberal economic ideology became dominant in government in the latter 20th century. I say "seems" because by the end of his piece, it's not really clear what he's arguing.

The play "Hamilton" is strictly speaking a musical fantasy, and from what I've read and heard about it, it's a very effective "message" play about what the country should have been and what it might still become -- because many of the right impulses were there at the beginning, along with a lot of wrong ones. That's the kind of thing the Theater can present which doesn't necessarily work on a completely rational, academic plane. The play is wildly popular, and it's been said that its concept and execution is so vital and unique that it's changed the way Broadway producers see the future of their industry. We'll see. We've heard that many times, and as much as "change" has entered their vision, backsliding is a constant.

Some observers claim that Trump used his "Hamilton" flap to distract from the $25 million settlement he made in the Trump University fraud complaint. Maybe he did. Well, so? If one is so dependent on media -- especially the simulacrum of media on Twitter -- one is too easily manipulated, it seems to me. If one has to have media validation to know what to think, one is largely lost in fantasy but then what else is new?

Media is a tool, it isn't or shouldn't be a determinant.

That's in part why I tend to stay away from  the Twitterverse, Facebook, and websites that focus on what the media or factions of it say about this or that rather than focusing on critical thinking (not so much critical "theory" -- another of those post-modern academic masturbatory efforts that run in circles of WTF), about living in the material world, truth, and everything.

It remains to be seen whether this "Hamilton" Thing will have more than a momentary impact, but it's interesting to me because of my background.

We'll get through this somehow....

[Note regarding theatral "sacred space" : The way I learned about all this was both from academic study and direct practice. Briefly, we learned that what became Drama in Theatre started as Pageants of the Gods in Ancient Egypt, in which masked and costumed actors impersonated the gods and enacted the stories and myths by which the Divine could be understood by the masses.

These pageants were witnessed by Cretan merchants and other visitors who took the idea back to Crete where these pageants were adapted into something like variety shows that included sporting events, dance, and performances that may have been intended to honor the dead as well as the gods. It's hard to know because very little of this ephemeral art has survived in Crete. What is still there are the "theatral spaces" -- generally large rectangular plazas in the so-called Palaces where stepped seating is still visible. It is assumed that many of the activities depicted in Cretan frescos -- bull leaping, dance, wrestling, etc. and possible impersonation of the Divine -- were performed in these plazas.

Mycenaean Greeks witnessed these performance/pageants and adapted them in Athens and elsewhere, and presented them as part of the celebrations of a Levantine god, Dionysus. The early Greek theatral space was the same sort of rectangular plaza as in Crete with temporary bleacher seating on two sides. Initially there was one actor and a chorus, and the performances focused on the stories of the gods and their effects on puny humans. There may have been other elements in these early theatrical performances in Greece -- dance, sport, etc -- but in time, the performances were codified, and some of the scripts from this latter period still survive and are performed to this day. The point is that all these early performances were considered sacred acts, and the spaces where they were performed were sacred spaces. When Drama in Theater spread further from Greece, the sacred nature of the performances and the spaces where they were performed went with it  though highly attenuated. Actors, directors, designers, etc. knew and know of the sacred nature of what they are doing and the sacred spaces in which it is done. All sorts of rituals and superstitions, some of which may go back to the origins of Drama in Theatre, are still part of the process of creating the play. So there is a nearly straight line between the origins of the art form and today's productions and performances, whether or not the company observes the niceties of sacred ritual.]

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