The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights is widely considered to be the cornerstone of American democracy, guaranteeing basic freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. Nevertheless, the extent to which citizens may exercise these freedoms is the subject of continuing debate.
Some believe that individual expression should be entirely unrestricted, while others are uncomfortable with laws that allow pornography, nudity, flag-burning, hard-core lyrics, or hate speech. Motives for limiting free expression vary widely—from shielding the powerful from criticism to defending moral principles from degradation. History is full of instances where political leaders—in the name of preserving social order—have curtailed free speech as a tactic to weaken opposition and manipulate public opinion. When the rights of free speech are suppressed, it is more difficult to disseminate alternative perspectives and critical responses—things the public needs to make informed decisions in a democracy. Under such circumstances, fear starts to take its toll on public debate. “Different-ness” becomes a liability, and even the court of public opinion turns against individuality and complex social thought. Like lobsters slowly cooking in a pot, it is easy to remain unaware that the water is getting hotter and hotter until it is too late to act.
Both in the U.S. and abroad, artists have historically played a leadership role in preserving free thought and expression, especially during times of civil unrest, reactionary social policy, and fear. The theater—perhaps the world’s oldest arena of free speech—remains a particularly vital forum for expressing, amplifying and re-conceiving ideas, questioning prevailing values, and illuminating the human condition.
The very controversy that arises when a play is produced—or even proposed for production—tests the limits of free expression in our society. In January 2007, a Missouri high school cancelled its production of The Crucible in the wake of pressure by local Christian fundamentalists who claimed that it showed Christianity in an unfavorable light (54 years after its Tony award-winning Broadway triumph!). When Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi was produced at Manhattan Theatre Club in October 1998, dramatizing Jesus and the Apostles as gay men living in Texas, angry protesters planted themselves in front of the theater, bomb threats were received, metal detectors installed, and the theater company considered canceling the production. Religious objectors decried the play as blasphemous and some critics questioned its artistic merit. But the issue that predominated was whether the author had a right to express his ideas or the theater had a right to present a play that distributed those ideas. Another recent play, My Name is Rachel Corrie, drawn from the diary of an American woman killed by Israeli soldiers in Palestine, provoked a firestorm when its New York City not-for- profit producers cancelled its 2006 opening—an action many believed was motivated by fear of economic reprisals from donors averse to the expression of pro-Palestinian views. Each of these events is a sobering reminder to artists and citizens that the right of free expression is a constant struggle.
In recent years, the theater has also played a critical role in challenging despotic regimes and supporting freedoms in emerging democracies. In communist Romania, dissident voices found a strategy for discussing the political situation through theater that was based on reinterpretations of the classics. Romanian theater artists filled their work with pointed clues (which they called “lizards”) to guide audiences in interpreting classic texts as metaphors for current social affairs and to keep alive a kind of subtle resistance through a collective understanding of the madness that surrounded them.
In one pre-revolution production of Twelfth Night at the National Theater in Bucharest, the actor playing Touchstone earned a huge laugh from the audience when, looking for eavesdroppers, he ran his fingertips along the underside of a table searching for a hidden microphone. At about the same time, Ion Caramitru (current artistic director of the Romanian National Theater) played Hamlet in a famous production that skillfully compared the “rotten” state of Denmark to Ceausescu’s despotic regime. When communism fell, Caramitru was the first person to announce the people’s victory over the airwaves. The public knew Caramitru intimately—he had kept their hopes alive through his work in the theater.
Recent history holds many such examples of theater serving as catalyst for positive social change and the orderly transition to democracy. Vaclav Havel, elected president of the new Czech Republic in 1993, is a leading intellectual and moral force in Eastern Europe whose social and political philosophy was formed through his work as a dramatist, poet and essayist. Havel’s plays explore the absurd relationship between social conditions and the indirect language used to describe those conditions. His courage to speak out landed him in jail frequently, but spawned new ideas and encouraged dissent, paving the way for an entire movement that eventually prevailed against communism. His essays support a tradition of democratic and liberal thought, though to Havel, the form of government mattered less than the moral injunction for individuals to speak freely and according to their conscience:
“It has been our absolutely basic historical experience that, in the long run, the only thing that can be truly successful and meaningful politically must first and foremost—that is, before it has taken any political form at all—be a proper and adequate response to the fundamental moral dilemmas of the time, or an expression of respect for the imperatives of the moral order bequeathed to us by our culture. It is a very clear understanding that the only kind of politics that truly makes sense is one that is guided by conscience.”
— Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the
Central European University in 1999, trans. by Paul Wilson
Latin America , too, presents many examples of artists graduating to political power and fostering freedom. This extensive list of names includes Homero Aridjis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Octavio Paz, all of whom have served their communities as artists, journalists, and public servants. Such dissident voices are often in a position to bring about positive change once they have attained positions of power. Aridjis is one of Mexico’s foremost poets and novelists, an environmental activist, an ambassador and a former president of PEN. Paz is a Mexican author, diplomat and political conservative who stands fast for the role of literature in fostering free expression. He described writers as the “guardians of language” and poetry as the “secret religion of the modern age.” In a 1976 poem, Paz conveyed his idea about the power of language to express the unique perspective of the individual:
Between what I see and what I say
Between what I say and what I keep silent
Between what I keep silent and what I dream
Between what I dream and what I forget:
More and more, we are struggling to resist censorship and challenges to free expression. Our local and national forums for honest dialogue and debate are easily corrupted by economic influences, complacency, and the politics of fear. But there are many ways to create an inclusive society through grassroots arts activism, especially using the theater as a stage for the public sharing of ideas. We can enrich and diversify the pool of practicing artists in our country by reaching into Diaspora, international, and other minority communities to include their voices in mainstream society. We can encourage theater artists to explore new and untold stories that trigger vibrant discussions about individual liberties and foster unifying conversations.
The cultural majesty of the globe is served when we work mindfully to value and protect the freedoms that support individual expression. It is a commitment to discourse that leads to understanding and appreciation for the differences as well as the commonalities of varying cultures and traditions. In a moment of such potential for global sharing, it seems critical to build a culture of shared values that celebrate the traditions of many places and perspectives. The community of nations can come together peacefully and productively, and with a clear and proud sense of self, through genuine communication. And with support, the theater—an art form in which this kind of cross-cultural communication has historically taken place—can continue to grow.
John Clinton Eisner