December 2016


Misusing Art for Political (and Financial) Ends

by Michelle Marder Kamhi

As a longtime champion and supporter of New York's Pearl Theatre Company (see "Hidden Treasure: A Theatrical Pearl" and subsequent items), I was dismayed to receive the following year-end fund-raising message from Hal Brooks, the company's Artistic Director:

There is an excitement stampeding through town.
People are seeing rhinoceros! People are becoming rhinoceros!
It's become perfectly normal.

The election results have made our play selection for next Spring not only relevant, but prescient.

This weekend, The New York Times Magazine published "A Time for Refusal" by Teju Cole about Ionesco's Rhinoceros--drawing a direct parallel to the presidential campaign and this timeless absurdist play about a town afflicted by an epidemic of rhinoceritis.

I urge you to read it.

My hope is that our [forthcoming] production of Rhinoceros will hold a mirror up to our society, and will strive to illuminate the dangers of simply accepting and normalizing things that are not normal. Through art, we can question and resist.

My hackles went up, on more than one count. But I read Cole's piece, and then responded to Brooks as follows:

To equate all of Trump's supporters with the rhinoceroses of Ionesco's play, as Cole does, is inexcusable. It is the self-congratulatory reductio ad absurdum of a smug liberal incapable of seeing the big picture. For a more balanced perspective on the election, I urge you to read [liberal columnist] Maureeen Dowd's "Absorbing the Impossible."

As Dowd's op-ed acknowledges, Trump's opponent was also deeply flawed. His victory does not signal approval of his flaws. He won in spite of them because a lot of Americans thought that Hillary's election, with its likely continuation of the Obama administration's policies, would be disastrous. We don't know yet how Trump's alternatives will work out. We owe it to ourselves to wait and see. . . .

Most important from the apolitical perspective of Aristos, I concluded:

So I'd urge you to refrain from embroiling The Pearl in current politics. Stick to what it does best---offering timeless insights into human character and the human condition.

Finally, I'm painfully aware that in our overwhelmingly Democratic city, few Pearl subscribers are likely to share my view. All the more reason for me to state it. Perhaps in that respect, Ionesco's Bérenger and I are kindred spirits.

Thus far, I've received no response to that message.

Still more disturbing, The Pearl's Facebook page endorsed "The Rhinoceros Project"--which aims "to raise awareness of the dangers of capitulating to a force like Donald Trump and his followers" by encouraging theatre companies and others "to band together on Monday, January 23, 2017 (the first Monday after the Inauguration) to perform staged readings of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros."

That post prompted me to add this further comment on The Pearl's page:

Stoking the flames of division in the country with material such as Cole's simplistically biased op-ed and the self-righteously inflammatory Rhinoceros Project is not helpful. And it surely goes beyond the Pearl's proper mission. "Lead[ing] a dynamic conversation about the past, present, and future of great plays" does not mean imposing its own dubious interpretation.

See also my comments (and replies) on The Rhinoceros Project's Facebook page. In them, I argued that theater groups should leave it to audience members to decide for themselves what the play means. Ionesco was reacting against totalitarian tendencies in general. To read his play in terms of the Trump phenomenon, in particular, is to imply that he would have viewed it the same way.

The good news is that the representatives of Ionesco's estate apparently share my distaste for the project's exploitation of his work to advance its own particular political agenda. The following post appeared on the project's Facebook page on December 9th:

Unfortunately, we have received word from the Estate of Eugène Ionesco on December 8, 2016, that it has denied permission for The Rhinoceros Project to move forward with the readings scheduled for 2017.

The Estate's lawyers have determined that "The Estate of Ionesco does not wish to have the name of Eugene Ionesco or his works used as the standard of a political movement."

Will the folks at the Pearl Theatre grasp the wider import of that determination? I hope so, but I'm not holding my breath.