In For a Penny: You Won’t be Namin’ no Buildings after Me

Charles Lewis casts his vote from the front row.

US presidents don't have the best history with theatre.

US presidents don’t have the best history with theatre.

“To live means to finesse the processes to which one is subjugated.”
– Bertolt Brecht, On Politics and Society (1941)

I needed a distraction.

It wasn’t just my incessant hunt for a “real people” job, it wasn’t just my putting serious attention towards my Olympians script, it wasn’t just my anger over Alton Sterling and Philando Castile winding up the latest casualties of racist White cops when their only “crime” was being Black in public. It wasn’t just any of those things, it was all of that and more.

I needed something to clear my head yesterday, so my attempt to escape politics lead me to the Playbill site. Incidentally, my eye was caught by a quick mention of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton attending her second performance of the now-Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning musical Hamilton. I’ve still neither seen nor heard the musical and glancing over piece just made me shrug and think “That’s a nice way to earn ‘cool’ points, but her constituency can’t even afford to see the goddamn show.”

Then I started thinking about the history of presidents attending theatre and what it did or didn’t say about them. As is often the case, so much preferential attention is placed on a politician’s film choices (Woodrow Wilson watching Birth of a Nation, Reagan laughing through Back to the Future, Bill Clinton hosting a screening of Three Kings) that their theatre selections often risk being lost to history. The only US presidential theatre trip everyone knows is the one where President Lincoln didn’t come back. (That, and fact that he was killed by an actor, of all things.)

Still, my mind had something on which to focus and began researching.

Unable to procure a copy of Thomas Bogar’s American Presidents Attend Theatre on such short notice (plus the police activity yesterday made travelling into The City next-to-impossible), I still perused the preview pages on Amazon. It was interesting to see that George Washington had a life-changing moment after watching George Lillo’s The London Merchant and then drew great inspiration from Joseph Addison’s Cato about a man who stands up against the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Neither the playwrights, actors, or fellow audience members knew they were inspiring one of the most powerful political revolutions of all time, but every artist dreams of having such a lasting impact.

Just as I’ve never experienced Hamilton – other than knowing of its ubiquitous popularity – so too have I never experienced a play once just as popular: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. At the risk of turning in my lifetime membership to Theatre Geeks United, my only knowledge of the TS Eliot-based musical is just that people hate it. I’ve never even heard “Memory” past the lyrics “…all alone in the moonlight,” so I couldn’t tell you if it’s worthy of Jack Black and Kevin Smith’s scorn (the latter of whom called the musical “the second-worst thing to ever happen to New York”) or if it’s actually a moving piece of musical theatre that’s remained just in my periphery. I know that Cats’ smashing success is attributed to pandering to the populace without actually challenging them intellectually.

I don’t know if that’s true, but I do know that Cats was also the favorite musical of George W. Bush, also known for pandering rather than raising the intellectual bar. (His favorite film was said to be Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Make of that what you will.)

Every choice paints an interesting – if only partial – portrait of who each politician is as a person. Although the Kennedy Center galas get live press coverage, there’s something about the artistic choices a president makes out of pure leisure that gives us just a glimpse into the gears that move in their minds. Neither of the aforementioned theatrical excursions will be remembered as much as Lincoln’s infamous trip to Ford’s or Marilyn Monroe singing to JFK in Madison Square Garden, but they give enough of a glimpse to create a picture of how each will be perceived in the years to come. In other words: they give artists something to work with.

Pondering this got me thinkin’ about the guy currently sitting in the Oval Office.

He's the one on the right.

He’s the one on the right.

Before the Clintons saw Hamilton, President Barack Obama and his family caught the show during previews in July of 2015. He then famously hosted the entire cast at the White House earlier this year. The first bi-racial President of the United States hosted the multi-racial cast of a play dramatizing the Founding Fathers. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d ever write.

I can only wonder what said Founders would have thought of the musical, had they seen it. With all the advances in technology and evolution in musical tastes, I dare say the fact that it’s a theatrical production is probably the one element to which they’d directly relate.

So it begs the question as to what sort of plays we’ll see about Barack Obama one day? There’s been at least one major attempt in Germany, but no such high-profile productions in the US. As I began pondering what I expected to see in a play about Barack Obama, I suddenly remember that I’m a playwright and started wondering how I’d write a play about Barack Obama.

It would most likely be about how everyone considers him “not quite” or “not at all”. He’s the first Black man to take office, but his father wasn’t descended from the slaves who spawned the rest of us. Despite conspiracy theories, he was born in the United States, but he’s the first to not be born on the mainland. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize soon after he took office, but also oversaw some of the bloodiest US attacks on foreign citizens. He’s Commander-in-Chief of all US armed forces and law enforcement, but he’s also the first president who could speak first-hand about being the victim of racial profiling and police harassment. Electing him was one of the most progressive acts ever carried out by a first-world nation, yet racial tensions in the US are as high as they’ve been in decades. He passed bold legislative changes despite facing a level of opposition not shown to a sitting president in most of our lifetimes.

Barack: You Can’t Please… well, Anyone, a play by Charles Lewis III. Coming as soon as I finish my Terence adaptations (that part’s actually true).

As I settled my mind down from running in several opposite directions, I thought less about how our presidents are perceived in plays and more about how they feel giving their citizens access to those plays. Obama’s hosting of the cast of Hamilton was to emphasize the importance of arts in America; the paradox being – as my Thursday column predecessor frequently pointed out – that funding for those arts is harder and harder to come by. The way a nation treats the arts is often a reflection of what they think of their citizens: if arts are funded well, it suggests the people have a voice and are encouraged to use it; if the arts are underfunded, it suggests the people are merely cogs in the machine.

That’s what I’d like to see more than anything. No matter what’s eventually about a president in book, film, or even a play, I’d like to know they worked their hardest to ensure future artists had the means and the venues with which to perfect their craft. I’d like to see fewer politicians and dignitaries attending shows they know the public can’t afford and more of them attempting to venture out into the mysterious land of black boxes (we’ll make room for the Secret Service, we promise). I’d like to see them go beyond mere campaign promises and actually prove that art matters.

The catch is that art, like politics, can just as easily split people down the middle as it can bring them together. But hey, “I’d rather be divisive than indecisive,” right?

That’s from a musical, isn’t it?

Charles Lewis III thinks that if you care about art and politics, you should donate to this year’s SF Olympians Fest IndieGoGo. Why? ‘Cause the Greeks invented democracy, Olympians is one of the best theatre fests in Northern Cali, and the plays frequently inspire heated debate.

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One comment on “In For a Penny: You Won’t be Namin’ no Buildings after Me

  1. Reblogged this on The Thinking Man's Idiot and commented:
    In why I try to take a break from recent politics to ponder the relationship between US presidents and theatre.

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