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The Guard at the Door

Theatre in Dangerous Times

Back in December I went to the Lyceum Theatre on West 45th Street to see the Young Vic’s startling production of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. 2015 was the centennial of Miller’s birth, and the New York theatre is saluting him this season with at least three productions: A View from the Bridge; Incident at Vichy, directed by Michael Wilson, which had a limited run last fall at the Signature Theatre; and The Crucible, which begins previews at the Walter Kerr in February. The audacious Belgian director Ivo Van Hove staged both View From the Bridge and The Crucible.

I arrived at the Lyceum early and I was the first ticket-holder in line. A line for a security person to look into backpacks, pocketbooks, briefcases—anything large enough, presumably, to hold a weapon that might be lobbed at the stage or turned on the hundreds of people who dashed from work and scarfed down a sandwich in order to spend an evening at the theatre.

The Lyceum is operated by the Shubert Organization, which has had security measures in place at its theatres for several years now. But last fall’s slaughter of concert-goers in Paris and party-goers in San Bernadino, CA has raised the ante, introducing uncertainty into our usually fearless New York way of life. The Shubert houses are not alone. Other venues around town have also adopted this approach to theatregoing, either on their own or at the behest of a show’s producers.

A theatre should be a place for stimulating our minds and rousing emotions. For gathering to laugh, cry, and think freely. A theatre is not supposed to be a place where we worry if our lives are in danger.

I understand producers’ concerns, as well as patrons’—and actors’—anxiety. But there is something terribly sad about protecting a theatre from a potentially fatal intrusion. It’s just not how we should think of this wonderful, live, and lively art form now more than 2,000 years old.

A theatre should be a place for stimulating our minds and rousing emotions. For gathering to laugh, cry, and think freely. A theatre is not supposed to be a place where we worry if our lives are in danger.

Miller would be saddened by this turn of events. He would know that the anxiety that posts guards at a theatre’s door seems benign at first, but is really the tip of a larger fear—the fear that causes each of us to wonder if our neighbor is who he or she looks to be. Fear of the other, fear of an enemy within.

Miller would be saddened, but not particularly surprised. After all, he lived through the 1940s and 1950s when “the Red Scare”—the suspicion that Communists lurked in government and academia and the arts—swept through the country like a virus. He had seen the appalling ease of how fear becomes a political tool. He witnessed how people put aside moral responsibility to point fingers at their neighbors.

cast on stage with one actor giving a speech
Cast of A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

The Crucible, which he wrote in 1953, two years before A View from the Bridge, dramatizes the Salem witch trials that took place in colonial Massachusetts in 1692 and ’93. But Miller intended Salem to be a stand-in for the United States, and for the witch trials to be an allegory of McCarthyism and government blacklisting that impugned anyone who might have a red tinge. In A View from the Bridge, longshoreman Eddie Carbone rats out two well-intentioned illegal immigrants whom he and his family have been sheltering—Miller’s dramatization, and condemnation of naming names.

Miller himself was asked to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1957. He answered questions about his participation in political meetings, but he would not name names and for a time was blacklisted.

The connection between a guard checking a backpack—fearful that a lunatic might wreak deadly havoc in a theatre—and politically orchestrated fear might initially feel like a stretch. But fear is an unruly thing. Like a fire, it can start small, spread, and roar out of control. As we have seen in the past months, fear of terrorists bringing physical harm all too quickly has become an excuse for demonizing peaceful Muslim Americans.

Unlike the film and broadcast industries of the 1950s, the New York theatre had no formal blacklist. A number of producers on Broadway and off went out of their way to use actors, writers, directors, and musicians deprived of their livelihood because of political beliefs. The real challenge, as Miller knew, is to get past our fear so that even if there is a guard at the door, and even if reckless and dangerous political rhetoric crowds out reasonable democratic speech, the theatre remains a place where we can speak, hear, and applaud truth without being afraid.


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