American Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence went to the theatre to enjoy a performance of ‘Hamilton’, when this happened:
President-Elect Donald Trump apparently was not particularly happy with this and felt compelled to put his own trademark (a.k.a. low-fact, boastful) spin on the event, when he posted the following tweets:
Not exactly new complaints.
Some 2,050 years ago (give a few, take a few), the Roman statesman, orator, and philosopher Cicero wrote in a letter to Atticus (Cic. Att. 2.19, transl. E. Shuckburgh):
Your populares have now taught even usually quiet men to hiss. Bibulus is praised to the skies: I don’t know why, but he has the same sort of applause as his
Who by delays restored alone our State.
Pompey – the man I loved – has, to my infinite sorrow, ruined his own reputation They hold no one by affection, and I fear they will be forced to use terror. I, however, refrain from hostility to their cause owing to my friendship for him, and yet I cannot approve, lest I should stultify my own past. The feeling of the people was shown as clearly as possible in the theatre and at the shows. For at the gladiators both master and supporters were overwhelmed with hisses. At the games of Apollo the actor Diphilus made a pert allusion to Pompey, in the words:
By our misfortunes thou art—Great.
He was encored countless times. When he delivered the line,
The time will come when thou wilt deeply mourn
That self-same valour,
the whole theatre broke out into applause, and so on with the rest. For the verses do seem exactly as though they were written by some enemy of Pompey’s to hit the time. “If neither laws nor customs can control,” etc., caused great sensation and loud shouts. Caesar having entered as the applause died away, he was followed by the younger Curio. The latter received an ovation such as used to be given to Pompey when the constitution was still intact. Caesar was much annoyed.
As far as American politics and theatres go, the Mike Pence incident was, of course, thankfully very harmless:
What really puzzled me, however, was how America’s soon-to-be commander-in-chief arrived at his view that the theatre ‘must always be a safe and special place’.
Clearly a theatre is a special place – and that was no different in the case at hand, either (otherwise Trump and the press would not have paid much attention to the incident).
But when was theatre ever a safe space?
Clearly it was not in Cicero’s times!
The whole discussion is not a new one, of course. In fact, it is a discussion as old as western theatre.
The Romans, for example, now known for the magnificent theatre buildings that they left behind across the Roman Empire, long resisted the temptation to have a permanent theatre structure within the city of Rome herself.
In fact, it was not until the mid-first century B. C. that Rome’s great general Pompey the Great finally gave Rome its first permanent stone theatre.
There were a number of reasons for the late arrival of permanent theatre structures at Rome herself, even though theatrical performances had been known for centuries.
The reasons that were cited first and foremost, are summarised by the Roman imperial historian Tacitus as follows (Tacitus, Annals 14.20, transl. M. Grant):
In the following year, when Nero (for the fourth time) and Cossus Cornelius Lentulus (II) were consuls, a five-yearly stage-competition was founded at Rome on the Greek model. Like most innovations, its reception was mixed. Some recalled with approval the criticism of Pompey, among his elders, for constructing a permanent theatre, whereas previously performances had been held with improvised stage and auditorium, or (to go back to the remoter past) spectators had stood – since seats, it was feared, would keep them idle for days on end. ‘As for the shows,’ said objectors, ‘let them continue in the old Roman way, whenever it falls to the praetors to celebrate them, and provided no citizen is obliged to compete. Traditional morals, already gradually deteriorating, have been utterly ruined by this imported laxity! It makes everything potentially corrupting and corruptible flow into the capital – foreign influences demoralize our young men into shirkers, gymnasts, and perverts.
People idling in a comfortable space, challenging existing views, traditions, and morals – this potentially spells disaster to a self-selected elite: unlike one might intuitively expect, in theatrical spaces not only the show itself is on display – the audience, too, especially when seated in preferential spaces, is very much in everyone’s focus.
A remarkable incident in that regard is reported by Plutarch in his Life of Cicero (ch. 13, transl. B. Perrin):
Marcus Otho was the first to separate in point of honour the knights from the rest of the citizens, which he did when he was praetor, and gave them a particular place of their own at the spectacles, which they still retain. The people took this as a mark of dishonour to themselves, and when Otho appeared in the theatre they hissed him insultingly, while the knights received him with loud applause. The people renewed and increased their hisses, and then the knights their applause. After this they turned upon one another with reviling words, and disorder reigned in the theatre.
Among the most interesting concepts, to my mind, is that of the so-called fourth wall – an imaginary division between the stage and its business on the one hand and the audience on the other.
Of course, there is no such wall (it would just block the view) – the only real question is to what extent theatrical troupes choose to draw attention to the (absence of such an) imagined, artificial divide. (But then, considering Donald Trump’s promises, we might soon see actual fourth walls being built, with the costs being charged to the respective theatre owners…!)
The very beginnings of Rome’s theatre business, as the Rome’s famous lyric poet Horace imagined them, did not a whole lot to enforce such an artificial division (Epistles 2.1.139 ff., transl. H. R. Fairclough):
The farmers of old, a sturdy folk with simple wealth, when, after harvesting the grain, they sought relief at holiday time for the body, as well as for the soul, which bore its toils in hope of the end, together with slaves and faithful wife, partners of their labours, used to propitiate Earth with swine, Silvanus with milk, and with flowers and wine the Genius who is ever mindful of the shortness of life. Through this custom came into use the Fescennine licence, which in alternate verse poured forth rustic taunts; and the freedom, welcomed each returning year, was innocently gay, till jest, now growing cruel, turned to open frenzy, and stalked amid the homes of honest folk, fearless in its threatening. Stung to the quick were they who were bitten by a tooth that drew blood; even those untouched felt concern for the common cause, and at last a law was carried with a penalty, forbidding the portrayal of any in abusive strain. Men changed their tune, and terror of the cudgel led them back to goodly and gracious forms of speech.
Horace’s perception draws a line between theatrical, satirical performances on the one hand and the high and mighty on the other, and he imagines some form of self-regulation of performances that eventually spiralled out of control, feeling empowered by the stage itself as well as the bond they had created with their audience over time.
Theatres are no safe spaces, and they are most definitely not safe spaces for any ruling class anywhere.
It is quite absurd to demand that they ought to be or to imply that they ever could be.
Theatres embody direct democracy – and direct democracy is never a safe option.
Once in a theatre, one is caught in the logic, the dynamic, and the power structures of this place, forced to see and to listen – or to flee in disgrace.
Trump and Pence styled themselves as true plebeians, as the people’s spokespersons, and as fearless fighters against the corrupt elites, with little own inhibitions to dish it out, ostentatiously politically incorrect.
To be forced, for once, to listen to the same vox populi that they themselves so conveniently played during their campaign, delivered by the cast of the play and endorsed by the audience’s response, without a face-saving exit strategy, may well have been a harrowing experience.
The power that comes with this special place, its focal points and its essentially egalitarian composition of the audience, however, as the example of ancient Rome teaches us, means great responsibility for those who operate in those places, lest they risk their accustomed freedom of speech being curtailed or taken away from them.
Use it wisely. Use it effectively. Don’t apologise for exercising your legal rights. But, most of all, in doing so, don’t expect your public actions, delivered from centre stage and in a room from which the addressee cannot withdraw without shame, to be without consequence or judgement.