‘Hamilton’ saga: should the theater be a ‘safe’ place?

Is there such a thing as the “sanctity of a performance”? A discussion on the role of the theater in expressing yourself outside the confines of the production.

George Washington played by actor Christopher Jackson. Hamilton Production | Joan Marcus

A lively discussion on the For Her Facebook page about whether the cast of “Hamilton” picked the wrong time and place to address Vice President-elect Mike Pence last weekend has taken the controversy to an even deeper question beyond politics: Should theater goers be treated as “guests” when they buy a ticket to a show, play or concert? Okay … all Abe Lincoln jokes aside (and there have been many … in sort of bad taste, we might add), should anyone (Mike Pence included) who buys a ticket be entitled to just sit in the audience and enjoy the show with their family, just like you would if you were invited to dinner in someone’s home, or is a public venue like a performance something entirely different?

“I’ve been involved with theater for many years; we usually refer to the audience as ‘guests,’ and treat them respectfully,” said Dawn Almes Wright, a commenter. “The actor used a literal captive audience to express a political opinion. Although theater often is (and should be) a form of political expression, criticizing a public official in a place he should feel welcome, somewhat safe, and somewhat anonymous violates the sanctity of a performance. Had Sen. Clinton been publicly criticized in a theater, my sentiments would be exactly the same.”

Hamilton cast at Richard Rodgers Theatre. Hamilton Production | Joan Marcus

Amy Joyce, a reader, believes: “What the cast did was calm, collected, and got attention. It wasn’t rude, it wasn’t violent, and they asked for mutual respect. So. Not like they walked into his office and started flipping tables or anything …”

Mike Rowe, TV host and motivational speaker, agrees with her … and disagrees to a point. “The theater should not be a ‘safe place for everyone,’ Rowe wrote on his Facebook page. “If you want a safe place, go to Yale. Or Rutgers. Or Brown. Whatever else our universities are becoming, our theaters should continue to be a place that challenges us. A place that makes us think. A place that makes us occasionally uncomfortable. That’s what a good play can do. Assuming of course, the actors can stick to the script, and let the play speak for itself.”

I do know how satisfying it is to share my feelings with millions of people. Unfortunately, I also know that my feelings, in and of themselves, are profoundly unpersuasive things.

However, Rowe also argues that the “Hamilton” cast did make a mistake, by allowing their personal feelings overshadow the even more powerful message of their art, which he calls a “love letter to diversity,” “a very persuasive homage to inclusiveness, individuality, and many other things that make America a place worth immigrating to.” He praised the message of the show and the power of letting the art speak for itself.

“I do know how satisfying it is to share my feelings with millions of people. Unfortunately, I also know that my feelings, in and of themselves, are profoundly unpersuasive things,” Rowe said. “The cast, speaking out as they did, failed to make the play more persuasive; they simply made it more personal. More partisan. Smaller,” he added, as opposed to what Shakespeare accomplished in his play within a play, “Hamlet.”

Interesting viewpoints! Do you agree or disagree that theater-goers should feel ‘safe’ if you buy a ticket to a performance?


Cynthia Dermody
Cynthia Dermody
Editor-in-Chief Cynthia Dermody has been a writer and editor for newspapers, magazines and websites for 20 years. She lives in New York with her husband and two children.

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