Thursday, December 1, 2016

Learning Political Dialogue from Theater

Can it be fewer than four weeks since the Election? Has the transformation of our national reality occurred so quickly, and are we already used to it? The answer to this question, as to so many questions (especially when Shakespeare is bound to make an appearance), is, yes and no. Over the past few weeks the expressions of shock and horror on my Facebook page (yours may be different) have abated in number, but not in intensity. I'm trying to stay off Facebook, and am reluctant to add to the stew of editorial responses to what happened on November 8th. However, I am committed to a blog post every month, and now, in the wake of so many ruinous Thanksgiving conversations and fracturings of families and friendships, I am moved to consider what Shakespeare might have had to say about our present political situation.

Shakespeare’s political plays are full of power conflict. But the arguments mainly concern which individual person should be in charge of the country. Democracy? No.
In his English history plays, all those but the rabble tacitly accept the monarchical principle. Further, there are few policy differences among serious contenders for “office.” The word "politics" didn’t exist during Shakespeare's time, and "politician" meant a sneaky person manipulating others to gain personal power. (Okay, that definition hasn't changed much.) Shakespeare's kings and queens differ greatly in personality and even in the strategies they used to gain the affections of the people, but they are essentially of two kinds: tyrant (Macbeth) and benevolent authoritarian (Duke Theseus).  As for republicanism, Shakespeare, shrewd bastard that he was, only dealt with it in his plays of Ancient Rome, and there it doesn’t get treated very sympathetically. And in his one English play that dramatizes a popular revolt (Henry VI with its Jack Cade rebellion), the mob, like its leader, is ignorant and destructive. Shakespeare was no populist.

But Shakespeare did believe in collective responsibility for a country's condition. Seeing a naked, suffering man, an emblem of the poor and miserable, King Lear laments, "I have taken too little care of this." The line marks the start of his moral transformation. In Richard III even a common citizen notes that if things go well for England under the reign of King Richard, it is “more than we deserve.” In Shakespeare, maturity is the willingness to blame oneself when things go wrong. Proud Prospero realizes this, at the end of The Tempest. His comment regarding Caliban -- "This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine" -- means many things, but one of them is, "I acknowledge my own guilt." Shakespeare didn't learn the lesson of blaming yourself first from the Greeks, not even from Aeschylus' Eumenides, with its breathtaking argument for communal forgiveness. He learned it the same place his audience did, from Christ's admonition to take the beam out of your own eye before complaining about the mote in your neighbor's. However rarely followed, it was a familiar injunction.

It's not a popular way of looking at things among most of the writers I'm encountering on Facebook. The self-righteousness in the wake of Trump's victory, and the finger-pointing at the evil electorate, is at a fever pitch. Sometimes the protests are framed as plaintive pleas that those who voted for Trump explain themselves. The only problem is, the terms they are given with which to explain themselves are little more than hurled stones, foreclosing all possibility of discussion, and nobody's mind is changed. Here, for example, is a passage from an editorial by John Pavlovitz, a North Carolina pastor, who stated his fervent desire to understand Trump-voters' choice because:

      It came after hearing the horrible, degrading, vile things he said about women. It came after he advocated for Muslims to be expelled and profiled. It came after he made fun of a man with a physical disability. It came after he framed the BlackLivesMatter movement as criminal and subversive. . . . It came after he personally criticized the appearance and sexual activity of women opponents. It came after he chose a Vice President who believes gay people can pray away their gayness. It came after the KKK and the neo-Nazis endorsed him.

This list lumps into one category voters who are not, in fact, in one category. If you hate misogyny, racism, and abuse of the disabled, and you also oppose abortion (the reference to which is, I believe, subsumed in the phrase "sexual activity of women") -- well, then you belong with the neo-Nazis. If you are pro-choice and reject Islamophobia and homophobia and all such social phobias, including racism, and you fear that the BlackLivesMatter movement has led to the demonization of police, well, you belong with the neo-Nazis. If you are horrified by violence and discrimination against Muslim-Americans, and by Trump's casual misogyny, and by police violence against African-Americans, and at the same time you believe, erroneously but not viciously, that gayness is a moral choice -- sorry. You, too, belong with the neo-Nazis, and also with the KKK. In short, if you are not 100% on board with every single item in a standard list of correct social positions, you are a racist misogynist homophobic Islamophobe. Thus reasons Pavlovitz, and then pleads, "Talk to me!"

Is there anyone left in this country who knows how to persuade?

Just so you know: I am shocked and horrified that Donald Trump was elected president. Had he been running against Paradise Lost's Satan, I would have voted for Satan. I chose Clinton, and I'm deeply disappointed in the people I know who chose Trump. But I know I can't influence their thinking by linking what I presume to have been their motives with the racist agenda of neo-Nazis and members of the KKK. As disappointed as I am that any decent person would vote for Trump, even with nose held, I'm also disappointed that the anti-Trump-voter rhetoric is so divisive, exclusionary, and impractical. Though its authors claim to serve tolerance and all good things, they are in fact keeping conversation shut down. They say, "Speak, but if you're not pro-choice, shut up." "Speak, but if you're not down with BlackLivesMatter" -- that is, not "If you don't think black lives matter," but "If you're not down with BlackLivesMatter" -- "then shut up." Rather than to Pastor Pavlovitz, let's listen to Frank Bruni, who wrote on November 13 in The New York Times, “A 64-year-old woman not onboard with marriage equality finds herself characterized as a hateful boob. Never mind that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton weren’t themselves onboard just five short years ago.” Bruni derides the assumptions of “moral purity” among opponents to Republicans as “a handmaiden to smugness and sanctimony.” He concludes, “I plan to use more care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am." It's a good idea to talk to everybody that way.

Here also is a useful passage from the writer Ariel Dorfman's memoir about the Chilean Revolution and subsequent military coup, from his memoir, Heading South, Looking North. In the wake of the failed socialist revolution, Dorfman writes,

    It was difficult, it would take years to understand that what was so exhilarating to us was menacing to those who felt excluded from our vision of paradise. We evaporated them from meaning . . . . we offered them no alternative but to join us in our pilgrimage or disappear forever, and that vision fueled . . . the primal fear of the men and women who opposed us. I barely gave a thought to what they felt, people we called "momios," mummies, because they were so conservative, prehistoric, bygone, passe, that they were, as far as we were concerned, already dead. We ended up including in that definition millions of Chileans who were on our side, who should have been with us on our journey into the new land and who, instead, came to fear for their safety and their future . . . . I came to understand the dread our opponents must have lived through as they saw their world collapse. But at the time I was fanatical, deaf to their affliction . . . . I didn't really care if they were scared. The truth is that we came to enjoy their fear, the thrill that power over them and over destiny gave us. We ended up savoring the fact that for once they were on the receiving end of the shit of history instead of doling it out. We did not realize how that fear would grow until we were bloated into monsters in their minds, monsters who had to be destroyed.

Dorfman, who held a post in Salvador Allende's administration, understood too late that discounting as "mummies" those who didn't think as he did, contributed to eventual political catastrophe: the U.S.-backed toppling of Allende's government in 1973 and the imposition of a horrific military dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet. And yet, despite all the personal and national suffering that ensued, Dorfman "came to understand" his opponents. He was able to make the tremendous imaginative leap required to see things from their point of view --  to notice that though he and his party viewed themselves as Chile's redeemers, to many others, they were the monsters. How was Dorfman able to do that?

I think I know. He did it by becoming a playwright.

Which leads us back to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare wrote no editorials. He didn't stand on a soapbox. He used the theater, which was a tremendous forum and sounding board for people who thought all kinds of things. The Globe was the antithesis of the echo chambers Facebook and our modern news feeds have become. Its stage was a place for Shakespeare's multitudes. He gave them all eloquence -- Gloucester and Edmund, Shylock and Antonio, Richard III and his destroyer, Henry Richmond. Othello. Iago. Petruchio the wife-tamer and Emilia the abused wife. Brutus the republican, and Mark Antony, Caesar's defender. Shakespeare shut no one down. He engaged his characters in dialogue with each other and with the audience. He set them in play and let them blast through everyone's echo chamber. This -- along with the fact that members of all social classes went to the plays -- is why the Shakespeare scholar Alfred Harbage once called the Elizabethan theater "a democratic institution in an undemocratic age."

Some may think -- indeed, some have written -- that the power of theater was unleashed by the post-play address made by actor Brandon Victor Dixon to vice president elect Mike Pence as Pence left  a performance of the hit musical Hamilton last month. In a short and respectful speech, Dixon urged Pence to "protect" American minority-members who felt, understandably, threatened in the wake of Trump's victory. But Dixon's remarks were not theater. They were just more editorializing (albeit polite editorializing), and I can hardly blame Pence for not wanting to sit still for them. I fault Pence for several things, but not for leaving a theater when a play was over. He'd seen what he came to see, and what he came to see was something exponentially greater than that evening's pious footnote. The power of theater lies in the drama itself. The play's the thing. (I'm still waiting for someone to compare Mike Pence to Claudius charging out of The Mousetrap.) A play -- or a musical -- works its transformations not by singling out bad guys and lecturing them, but by those mysterious means Shakespeare knew: by appealing to imagination rather than reason, by giving to airy nothing a local habitation and a name, by avoiding direct accusation, by emotional suggestion. Shakespeare's rival Ben Jonson used the theater satirically, to attack his enemies through caricature, but even these wicked barbs were enabled by the very imaginative structure of the plays they helped compose. The barbs were funny; they were dramatic, they were part of a story. A play is not a lecture. It's something much more powerful.

Since, like Shakespeare, I believe in the power of theater to change hearts and minds, I don't think it matters whether Mike Pence paid attention to what was said to him after the performance. He'd heard all that before. I'm just glad he saw the play. Hamilton seduced him into listening to all kinds of interesting moral and political viewpoints; to let down his guard and hear things said in an unusual way. That kind of listening is as good as it is rare and difficult. We should all practice it.

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