In honor of Washington’s Birthday (Feb. 22) and the federal holiday we have come to celebrate as President’s Day, check out a few of our recent presidential pieces:
Vice President-elect Mike Pence went to see the musical Hamilton last evening and was lustily booed by the audience. The cast also took to the stage at the end of the show to deliver a statement, which was read by actor Brandon Victor Dixon:
Vice President-elect Pence, we welcome you and we truly thank you for joining us here at Hamilton: An American Musical, we really do. We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us — our planet, our children, our parents — or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and to work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for sharing this show. This wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colors, creeds, and orientations.
According to the New York Times, Pence heard the speech and left the theater smiling, though Donald Trump reacted with less equanimity.
The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 20, 2016
The Theater must always be a safe and special place.The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 19, 2016
I think reasonable people would agree that the hopeful and inclusive message offered by the cast of Hamilton was hardly rude, even if the behavior of the audience could be construed as such. Whatever the case, Trump’s tweet is notable for its evident naiveté. The notion that “proper” theater should be apolitical and/or simply comforting entertainment is a shibboleth. Given the broad acclaim that it has generated, there seems to be little doubt that Hamilton has been offering audiences a “safe and special” experience. Indeed, that the show is able to offer a progressive message and be wildly enjoyable belies the notion that politics and entertainment do not mix.
Beyond this, the President-elect might also look to history. Pence is hardly the first politician to be booed at a theater. One historical precedent that springs immediately to mind is an unfortunate evening that President-elect John Quincy Adams experienced at the Washington Theatre in 1825. The election of 1824 was a bruising four-way battle of candidates from across the ideological spectrum with strong bases of regional support. IN the end, no candidate received enough electoral votes to win outright, although Andrew Jackson (99 electoral votes and 40% popular vote) led John Quincy Adams (84 electoral votes and 30% popular vote) by a not insignificant margin. This meant that the House of Representatives would decide the election, and when it convened in early February 1825, Adams won on the first ballot with the support of the Speaker of the House Henry Clay. Jackson denounced the result as a “corrupt bargain,” and Adams was hounded by his supporters wherever he appeared. When President-elect Adams and his family went to the Washington Theatre to see the ballad opera Love in a Village, both the actors and the audience hectored him. Louis McClane, a Representative from Delaware, was also in attendance and wrote to his wife the next day describing the scene:
Last night it was announced that the P. elect would attend the theatre. I went, he was there & his family. In one or two of the comic songs some allusion was made to the election of the 9th which was rec’d with death like silence. After some time, a song called the “Hunters of Kentucky” was sung, alluding to the conduct of Jackson at New Orleans–at this a universal shout carried all around by repeated cheering for some minutes & I really feared it would have been difficult to quell it. It was an awful knell for the Pres elect-& he felt it. What will he feel when he hears this shout penetrating every part of the Union? Well may he say, he would not take the office if he could avoid it (Louis McClane to Catherine McClane, February 12, 1825)
For those wondering about the significance of the song, “The Hunters of Old Kentucky” was written by Samuel Woodworth in 1821 to celebrate the American victory over the British at the Battle of New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson was the leader of the American forces and the song became an anthem of his political campaigns.
This 1841 broadside is one of many versions and editions of the song, but highlights the populist rhetoric and veneration of Jackson that it promulgated. After disrupting the performance and going through several verses while Adams sat “with death like silence,”the audience eventually relented. Adams would not visit the theatre again for years, so all in all he certainly seemed to have had a rougher time of it than Pence did the other night.
Today’s election will bring to a close a rather melodramatic presidential campaign. There is of course much that could be said about stagecraft and performance in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan, most notably, was a professional actor before becoming a politician. But our concern here is with theatergoing rather than the performative aspects of the American presidency. For those interested in the latter, we can recommend Jodi Kanter’s new book Presidential Libraries as Performance, which is everything a politically-inclined performing arts librarian could ask for.
In the fall of 1774, the articles of association put forth by the Continental Congress formalized the idea of an independent American government. It also included a clause that the Congress would “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” Although theater was clearly seen as a distraction by the political arm of the American Revolution, its military leadership felt rather differently. George Washington, for one, was an avid theatergoer, and famously countenanced performances during the long winter in Valley Forge to keep up his army’s declining morale. While remonstrances from the Continental Congress led Washington to become more circumspect, his love for theater never faded. It is also of course with Washington that the proper history of presidential theatergoing begins.
Just days after he was inaugurated in New York City as the first president under the newly ratified Constitution, Washington attended a performance of The School for Scandal at the John Street Theatre on May 11, 1789. The appearance of the phrase “by particular desire” in the theatre’s advertisement has been taken by some as an indication that Washington himself chose the bill for the evening. Sheridan’s celebrated satire was supplemented with the musical comedy The Poor Soldier, which centered on Irish troops returning home after the Revolutionary War. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington took advantage of that city’s comparatively greater range of entertainment options. His patronage of equestrian shows performed by John Bill Ricketts in the spring of 1793 helped establish the circus as a legitimate form of entertainment in the United States.
While Washington was undoubtedly the biggest booster of American theater amongst the early presidents, the religiously-minded James K. Polk was just as clearly its greatest detractor. Indeed, the only time that Polk set foot in a theater during his presidency (and perhaps ever) was on March 19, 1849. That evening a crowd of well-wishers in Mobile, Alabama, somehow convinced the ascetic President to visit the local theater, where a touring French ballet company led by Hippolyte Monplaisir was performing. According to Polk’s diary, he “remained but a half hour” at the crowded theater before retiring.
Although he was only introduced to theater late in life, Abraham Lincoln became an enthusiastic patron of the stage during his time in Washington. Many biographers have suggested that his frequent theatergoing gave relief from the burdens and sorrows attendant on the ongoing war. On the fateful day of April 14, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln decided that she would rather attend Laura Keene’s benefit performance of Our American Cousin than a pantomime at Grover’s Theatre to which they already had tickets. John Wilkes Booth happened to be at Ford’s Theatre picking up his mail when the news that the president would attend filtered through. A new playbill announcing Lincoln’s presence was duly printed. That evening as actor Howard Hawk delivered a laughable line describing a departed gadfly as a “sockdologizing old man-trap,” Booth shot the President at point-blank range.
The shock of the assassination and its setting reinforced lingering prejudices about the supposed perils of popular entertainment. It was not until the 1880s that first Chester Arthur and then Grover Cleveland (who arrived at the White House a bachelor, but patronized the theatre at the behest of his young wife) that regular nights out were again part and parcel of the office. As the range of entertainments available expanded in the twentieth century, so did the presidential palate. Woodrow Wilson, for one, was a fan of vaudevillle and spent many Saturdays at B. F. Keith’s Theatre. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Wilson sardonically remarked that while a bad vaudeville act was unfortunate, it was also soon over, “but from a bad play there was no escape.”
Although it was not necessarily a bad play, president-elect John F. Kennedy spent a somewhat uncomfortable evening in December 1960 at a performance of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (find drafts of that work here). The play was an only somewhat veiled and at times unflattering portrait of the politicking involved in that year’s election, with a philandering and amoral candidate named Joseph Cantwell as the villain. The character ostensibly draws on both Kennedy and Nixon, although it was a subject that Vidal was demure about. Whatever JFK’s thoughts on the performance, it did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the arts that suffused the White House during the next few years, though much of this might more properly attributed to Jackie Kennedy. Whatever the case, the Kennedy years represented something of a high-water mark for presidential patronage and regard for American theater, which JFK at least also saw as an asset to the United States in the “cultural Cold War.”
Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, a combination demands and security concerns have undoubtedly hampered the president’s ability to attend the theater regularly in person, whatever their individual inclinations. And although George W. Bush was no great theatergoer, it must be said that he did rather charmingly attend several local community theater productions in which his sister-in-law Margaret performed. The Obamas brought a renewed enthusiasm for the arts with them to Washington, although Michelle, Malia, and Sasha have been much more active than the President in actually attending outside performances. One of the signatures of the Obama administration has been the hosting a series of star-studded literary, musical and theatrical evenings at the White House.
In retrospect, perhaps the most culturally significant of these was a 2009 performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda of the song that would eventually lead off the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton. And it seems appropriate to end the Obama era with a song from the musical that reflects King George’s limited understanding of American democracy (“I Know Him“):
They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away.
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?
If so, who’s next?
There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large…