The Power of Art

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Many years ago, I was riding a subway in Mexico City when a young man boarded and began declaiming in a loud voice – not shouting but projecting. My Spanish wasn’t good enough to make out everything he was saying but I knew love was involved and the Spanish was very formal. Other passengers looked bemused – especially when he got down on one knee to several young ladies in succession. There was some blushing and a lot of laughter. As it turns out he was an actor performing in a Cervantes festival and he was quoting some love speeches from the play. The power of art to surprise, engage and excite people never ceases to amaze me.

A year or two later I remembered this event as we were preparing for “Freedom to Read” week in Calgary. I suggested that we go about the city and read from banned books in public. No warning would be given – these were to be guerilla readings. The committee agreed and a number of intrepid – and usually nervous – readers were dispatched to C-train stations, public squares and shopping malls. Most of the audience was – like the subway riders – bemused but were polite and mostly engaged by the event.

And that brings us to Julius Caesar and Donald Trump. The Shakespeare in the Park company in NYC has been preforming the Shakespeare classic with Caesar being portrayed remarkably like Donald Trump. It is meant to be satire and as such works quite well. Caesar was a man who claimed to be of the people (though in fact he came from a rich and powerful family) and was riding a popular wave toward the monarchy. Others – those committed to the Republic and democracy (you see where this is going) – did everything they could to thwart his ambitions and his attempts to buy the people with their own money. In the end, they fail in the greatest way possible – by assassinating Caesar, which act lead directly to the end of the Republic and the rise of the Emperors.

The point is, of course, that democracy ultimately fails when the only option people can see is political violence. This is not an incitement to assassinate the President but rather a harsh lesson in what extremism can do to damage society. The central message: never give up on the law.

However, Trump’s followers don’t see that point. Their man is being unjustly portrayed and they are bound to stop it. Several of them have stormed the stage and ranted loudly (and largely unintelligibly as they were yelling not projecting) and were then escorted to jail. In the wake of this, attendance fell – no wait, it rose to its highest levels in years. Good job!

Meanwhile, theatres that produce Shakespeare all across America – none of which have anything to do with this production of Julius Caesar – have been getting death and bomb threats, though no actual violence has occurred. I am almost speechless at the thought of this. It’s as if they think a play is like a movie and appears simultaneously all over the country. Or maybe they just want to teach that Shakespeare guy a lesson. “If we see him, we’ll thrash him.”

Apparently art still has the power to bemuse and engage – but also enrage in an incoherent and ineffectual way.

Do your bit – go to a play this month. And that’s ten minutes.

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One thought on “The Power of Art

  1. I thought the actor spoke extremely well, intelligently & eloquently. I felt he was very insightful with this: “The real victims would be smaller theaters throughout the country, who would think twice about producing works that could be a lightning rod for outrage, real or invented.”

    Liked by 1 person

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