The Personal and the Political

From Woman in the Dunes (Photo: Cinescope)

We are living through one of those eras when the political spills profusely into the personal. Up to our hips in toxic Trump floodwaters, the landscape of daily life has been transformed. I keep thinking of Hiroshi Teshigahara‘s 1964 iconic film, Woman in the Dunes, and its interminable battle with the sand that relentlessly invades. Our battle is with an onslaught of absurdities and lies, a fight that also feels interminable.

The events of the last few months have left me feeling like my skin has been rubbed raw. I am even more sensitive and vigilant about watching for—and responding to—what is going on in the political realm as well as the personal.

At the Whitney Biennial (Photo: Scott W. H. Young)

Take the case of artist Dana Schutz‘s painting Open Casket, chosen for inclusion in the current Whitney Biennial by two young curators, Mia Locks and Christopher Y. Lew. Schutz is a contemporary portraitist who painted the mutilated face of Emmett Till, the African American teenager brutally murdered by a lynch mob in 1955.

The painting has drawn rage and condemnation from many different groups. Schutz, a white artist, has not built her art practice on social justice or African American history. The painting has been accused of exploiting a pivotal moment in African American history.

And that is a history does not belong to Schutz, wrote British-born black artist Hannah Black in a letter signed by a group of artists of color sent to the Biennial’s curators. “The painting should not be acceptable to anyone who cares or pretends to care about black people, because it is not acceptable for a white person to transmute black suffering into profit and fun, though the practice has been normalized for a long time.”

I am not a believer in artistic censorship. Schutz can paint whatever she goddamn wants. But I see this as a curatorial error. The Whitney has defended its inclusion and refused to remove the painting. It’s complicated, I get it. But this rankles me.

Jacob Fishel in Our American Hamlet (Photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

This skin-rubbed-raw state is a vulnerability that can also increase receptivity in a good way. Given my interest in art that explores the liminality between the political and the personal, I was engaged by a new play, Our American Hamlet, written by Jake Broder and presented by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, best known for their productions of Free Shakespeare on the Common. (CSC is now the theater of residence at Babson, performing at the Sorenson Center for the Arts.)

Set in the 19th century, the play is an intricate blend of two primary story lines. One concerns the family of John Wilkes Booth. Replete with theatrical talent, the Booth family had a complex and destructive dynamic. This narrative provides a context for what will be John’s tragic demise. It is also a story that interlaces with the themes of father/son, action/inaction, revenge and death in Hamlet. Shakespeare’s material, ever porous and timeless, is a perfect partner for this family tragedy.

Broder—who also performs in the play as a narrator—wrote this playwright’s note:

I wrote this play because I believe that John Wilkes Booth was one of our first celebrity murderers. There are a few folks now who remember his brother, Edwin, and his father, Junius, but on the whole they are forgotten. Yet they were the greatest actors of their day, as famous as an A list movie star. We don’t remember them, but every school child is taught about John Wilkes Booth. We have a disease in this country. The symptoms of this disease are school shootings, the celebration of killers in the media, and a shortcut to fame through nefarious acts. The symptoms of this disease are a lack of belief in craft, in the slow, disciplined, lonely march towards mastery. We want it fast, we want it now, and if we can’t, we find a way around. But the shortcut has consequences.

Perhaps John Wilkes Booth was patient zero of this American phenomenon.

These concepts—a tendency towards shortcutting, a disregard for expertise that is hard won, the mindless seduction of celebritism, the rampant “be famous for 10 minutes” disorder—are all issues in contemporary culture that create complex challenges, ones that disrupt the social fabric and problem solving. Broder’s play gives those “symptoms” a particularly American historical perspective.

That perspective also brings to mind a quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in 1750:

An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness, “ressentiment,” as it lingers and deepens, poisons civil society and undermines political liberty, and is presently making for a global turn to authoritarianism and toxic forms of chauvinism.

Those words could have been written this morning to describe the U.S., not 250 years ago about France.

The production is simple but strong. The direction by CSC’s founding artistic director Steve Maler is confident, with masterful performances by Jacob Fishel (Edwin), Will Lyman (Junius) and Joe Fria (John.)

Our American Hamlet runs through April 2.

*I am a long time fan of Steve Maler and CSC. For more posts about his past productions on the Boston Common, click here.

One Reply to “The Personal and the Political”

  1. Edwin Booth founded The Player’s Club at Gramercy Park and lived there until his death. You can (by appointment) have a tour. I was very moved that he kept a portrait of John at his bedside. Edwin’s loss was both intimate (the loss of a brother) and national (the loss of the president by the hand of that brother) and, from time to time, I wonder what he might have thought and felt while looking at it.

    As to the Whitney reaction, I say ‘welcome to equality’ — having lived through the furor when Joe Papp cast people of various heritage in Shakespeare’s plays. I doubt very much that painting Till was anything like fun and — good lord — if we can’t look pain in the face, take that fully into ourselves, and experience and express empathy with one another in our deepest pain, rage, and betrayal what hope is there? Perhaps what the artist was expressing was not white guilt but common humanity.


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