I am by nature a conservative person—in the literal, not the partisan-political, sense of the word. I believe in retaining things of artistic value, and I believe in what we call cultural memory. If we live without a sense of what preceded us, then we are living in a kind of bubble, coming from nowhere and proceeding to nowhere. A failure to acknowledge the past goes hand in hand with a heedlessness toward the future.
But acknowledging the past is a complicated business. If we base our understanding of it on fact, the past turns out to be a minefield, rife with contentiousness. It supplies us with as much to hate, regret, and apologize for as to celebrate. The past is war, genocide, slavery, institutionalized racism, subjugation of women, and every other kind of injustice toward individuals and groups. Looked at today, the art in which that past embodied itself now suddenly seems to reflect the horrors out of which it was partly molded. The best artists can rise above their times, but no artist is ever wholly free. That a work of art may contain countless good, even great, qualities will never quite outweigh the blots on our historical copybook which it memorializes. Far from rejoicing in the art of the past, these days we tend to see the shame it records, and to slough off its great achievements and the great ideas it contains—the very things that, we used to be told, should help us forgive the terrible villainies of those times.
The young, these days, take a stringent view of our cultural past. For them, history’s dark side condemns the mixed blessings of its artistic creations. A set designer friend who teaches basic design principles to directing students in a conservatory tells me he has a desperately hard time finding plays from the past to use as teaching tools: His students consider them either hopelessly dated or offensively full of racism, misogyny, and what have you. A few years back, when I included Dion Boucicault’s 1850s antislavery melodrama, The Octoroon, on the syllabus for a theater history course, I found my students actively resentful of its stereotypes; several of them felt that it should never be played or read.
Even the most familiar works of what’s commonly called our musical theater’s golden age, when revived on Broadway, nowadays seem to demand aggressive rethinking. Annie Get Your Gun used to contain a number describing Colonel Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, but today’s audiences are left to guess what sort of performance all those cowboys and Indians are putting on. The recent revival of Carousel failed at least partly because it conveyed such discomfort with the collision of its subject matter and its colorblind casting: A swaggering black man who hits his white wife was apparently not the hero anyone involved wanted to put onstage, and so the gifted Joshua Henry came off as the most abashed Billy Bigelow imaginable. And My Fair Lady, a work whose solidity one might have thought impregnable, has been given, in its current Lincoln Center production, a strange silent ending, in which Eliza, having come back to Higgins, drifts up through the audience into some unexplained realm of metaphysical liberation. (Restoring Shaw’s intended ending, in which Eliza marries Freddy, might have made more sense. But that would have violated both the musical’s copyright and the audience’s desire for a romantic ending.) And the new Oklahoma! at St. Ann’s Warehouse renders its happy ending dubious by having Curly shoot down Jud.
Manifestly, our theater has reached a pivotal point, dragged along willy-nilly, as the theater inevitably is, by the larger society. America is carrying on, confrontationally, a basic rethinking of male-female relations, probably long overdue. It runs parallel to the other ongoing confrontations, which have intensified acrimoniously in recent years, over large social concerns such as the distribution of wealth, health care, industrial pollution, immigration, diversity, and that perpetual ache in our history, race relations. Most urgently of all, climate change has forced us to rethink our fundamental relationship to the planet we live on.
The theater deals with these issues not only onstage but also in its offstage life—sometimes successfully, as when a theater replaces paper programs with the online variety, and sometimes clumsily, as when a theater sparks protests by casting a white actor as the King of Siam. The divisiveness within our politics has pulled such high-visibility issues into our plays, a healthy change for a theater that has been politically anodyne for too much of its recent life. Only a few years ago, it would have been a surprise to find, on a list of current productions, a title like What the Constitution Means to Me. I find this change all for the better. If such a title has the ominous ring of middle-school civics classes, maybe theatergoers need a good brushup on their elementary civics. And even if such plays don’t solve the problem of how to infuse audiences with social or political awareness, the effort is what counts. Keep making the effort, and some artist will find a way to make it strike home.
The civics lesson might be necessary because we don’t seem, as a nation, to be doing very well at remembering either our history or our basic constitutional principles. This is perhaps the most worrisome part of our lapsing cultural memory. Brought up, as I was in the 1950s, on such knowledge, I have often puzzled recently over what happened to the generations after mine: It seems as if our national life became some kind of amusement-park ride on which the floor suddenly dropped out and everyone was forced to cling to the walls to stay upright. How, after having been a nation of immigrants for two and a half centuries, did we suddenly spawn a generation of ultranationalists and white supremacists? And how, 22 decades after John Adams signed the Treaty of Tripoli, have certain sects of Christians suddenly begun deciding that they have the right to rule the behavior of those who believe differently?
The answers to these and similar questions are, of course, complex, but I would hazard that the central explanation is two-fold. First, beginning in the 1980s, we had what might be called a huge microcultural expansion. First through cable TV and then via the internet, Americans were offered a staggering array of cultural and informational choices. This was a fundamental change from earlier eras, when one could read only one book or see one movie at a time; radio and early television offered a limited number of channels.
With this new electronic multiplicity of options came a sudden deracinating of our time sense. Except when very well educated, the youngest generation has no clue to how our cultural patterns evolved. When everything is on offer simultaneously, one loses one’s sense of history. You can veer back and forth among a contemporary TV series, a 1920s silent movie, and an episode of I Love Lucy without needing to place your mind in the context of the relevant era. With the increased breadth of this infinite accessibility comes an inevitable shallowness. As W.S. Gilbert put it in The Gondoliers, “When everyone is somebodee/ Then no one’s anybody.” Hence it occurs that, as I hear people my age increasingly complain, the young have never heard of anyone or anything. Why should they when they can look everything up on Wikipedia? Theirs is a postmodern consciousness in which the principle of selectivity no longer applies.
But what we’ve come to instead is a random culture, in some pocket of which anything may be found, but mass popularity, on a vast worldwide scale, tends to outweigh everything else. The corporations reaping gigantic profits from the internet suddenly have billions instead of mere millions to play with. And the 1 percent who own them direct the world’s attention without care or cause; they will promote anything that will gain attention. Profit is their only principle. (Or as the now-disgraced Leslie Moonves said of Donald Trump’s candidacy, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”)
Our internet-polarized politics have brought us to a new and troubling realm. Quiet debates, such as the one the theater has been having with male-female relations in classic musicals, make no more than a mild impression on the culture as a whole. And even the mildest debate requires that both sides think through their positions carefully; the internet has bred massive followings, particularly on the right, for people who aggressively decline to do any thinking at all, but cling to absolutist positions, often lying about their validity in the face of overwhelming proof of their falsity. A world in which the Senate majority leader can declare that Social Security and Medicare are the source of the ballooning federal deficit that his own legislation has caused is not a world in which the small hard kernels of truth voiced by the theater can reach very far. It may require a major depression, and/or a war, before America wakes up.
And yet, being conservative by nature but open to new ideas, I still hope. I hope for the persistence of what is good and valid in our past, and for the advent of innovations that equal it in validity. I am not so foolish as to hope that old extremist prejudices of the kind the right espouses will ever die, but I retain the hope that America’s good sense will laugh their idiocy back into the quiescence in which they once festered. The example of Hamilton makes me hope that the theater can still have some effect on the wider culture, and I have hope that there are other immigrants inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda who can, as Hamilton says, “get the job done.” My father would have relished that line; he came over on the boat from Lithuania at age 11. He used to joke that he had learned English from the Tin Pan Alley songs with which he sang me to sleep as a child. I collect their sheet music now—because, as I said, I am conservative by nature, and believe in preserving old things of value.