Jeffrey Eric Jenkins*

Wall Street owns the country. It is no longer a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, but a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street. The great common people of this country are slaves, and monopoly is the master.[1]

Mary E. Lease (1890)

Theatre of the Extreme

The charismatic American populist Mary Elizabeth Lease knew well the power of rhetoric and its ability to inflame the populace: accusations of greed aimed at a tiny elite that are purported to run the country, or run the world. In the summer and fall of 1890, Lease delivered 160 speeches laced with fiery images that inspired farmers in Kansas to challenge the two-party system and turn toward populism. The themes of populism in Lease’s telling pit those with little against those with plenty. She related graphic images of “accumulated wealth” in contradistinction to “90,000 working people living out of garbage cans in Chicago.” In the same speech, when she lambasted Wall Street as owner of the country, she also said:

This is a nation of inconsistencies. The Puritans fleeing from oppression became in turn oppressors. We fought England for our liberty and put chains on four millions [sic] of blacks.[2]

Lease was correct, of course. Cycles of populist rebellion fueled by income inequality and potential dispossession helped to create tensions that led not only to the Revolution, but also to American rebellions, open warfare between “natives” and “immigrants,” the Civil War, labor strife, economic calamity, and other upheavals that have occurred in nearly every generation. The populist movement of which Lease was a key figure thrived for a short period of time before being absorbed by the Democratic Party, but some lessons about the human cost of poverty and disenfranchisement were eventually assimilated by the Republicans, led by Theodore Roosevelt after the assassination of President William McKinley. The reforms enacted by Roosevelt gave hope to those who had little that there might be, as the young president promised, a “square deal.”

In James Truslow Adams’s best-selling 1931 history, The Epic of America, while pondering the meaning of the “American Dream,” the author interrogates the notion that industrialist Henry Ford’s fortune was “one of the ‘honestly’ obtained ones”:

He pretends to despise money, and boasts of the high wages he pays and the cheapness of his cars, yet, either because his wages are still too low or the cars too high: he has accumulated $1,000,000,000 for himself from his plant. This would seem to be a high price for society to pay even him for his services to it, while the economic lives of some hundreds of thousands of men and women are made dependent on his whim and word.[3]

What Adams does not mention is that Ford was also in the business of inflaming antipathy in his deployment of language that described what Ford called “the International Jew,” which may have been why he was hailed by Adolf Hitler as an “inspiration” whose photo enjoyed a prominent place at Nazi headquarters in Munich long before Hitler’s ascent to the chancellorship. In 1938, Ford was awarded the Grand Cross of the German Eagle at a ceremony with German officials in Dearborn, Michigan.[4]

Incendiary speech that taps into undercurrents of anger and resentment experienced by members of the working class—the white working class—has been part of every political campaign in the history of the United States. Over the course of the past decade, however, the language has grown more strident and the anger provoked, more virulent. Some might argue that the reawakening of populist fervor around issues of income inequality was driven by the Wall Street meltdown of 2008, which nearly destroyed the entire global economy—and certainly did grievous harm to millions upon millions of ordinary people. It could be just as correct, however, to assert that the revivified feelings were aimed at the first African American president, whose first assignment was to untangle an economic mess left by his predecessor.

The virulence of the 2016 populist rhetoric, and its racist undercurrents, which identify “others” to blame for low wages and lack of opportunity, helped propel Donald Trump’s successful presidential run. Indeed, Trump and his surrogates damaged Hillary Clinton’s candidacy due to her ties to Wall Street, in the same way that Mary Lease had roused Kansas farmers in 1890 and Henry Ford slandered “Jewish bankers” in 1915 for “causing” the First World War.[5]

Mad as Hell: Donald Trump at a rally in Las Vegas, 2016. Photo: Reuters/David Becker/Files

Even during the primary campaign, Trump leveled similar charges of corruption at a key rival. These candidates were no more in the pocket of Wall Street than Trump himself, which he proved within two months of taking office by hiring five members of one Wall Street banking house, Goldman Sachs, to help run his administration. And he did nοt stop there: his cabinet was stocked with billionaires and ultra-millionaires.[6]

In September 2016, I spoke to a group of critics and theatre makers in Belgrade regarding a political movement in the United States that I call “Theatre of the Extreme.” In that 2016 American political season, no Republican claim was too wild, no lie too bold, and we have now discovered that “American” social media was used by Russian “actors” to influence opinion. Every utterance was given credibility through mass media coverage, and the idea of objective, verifiable “facts” was debated vociferously in the public square. Indeed, after the election a new term was created by the new administration: “alternative facts,” which, of course, is doublespeak for non-facts.

My 2016 topic in Belgrade juxtaposed a successful Broadway musical, Hamilton, which reframes narratives of American freedom and the founding of the nation through the lens of the immigrant experience, with the rage-filled rhetoric—and thunderous response—of Trump and his followers. A few weeks after my family and I returned home from Serbia, the unthinkable came to pass and a country built on Enlightenment ideals of freedom—and on the slavish toil of people of color and immigrants—became a place that felt unwelcoming, and unsafe, to millions of women and men who were not of my pale complexion or were not native to the United States. This quite literally hit home given my Iranian wife, my American Iranian daughter, and our extended global family who love the United States but feel unwelcome—even threatened.

This is not an unfocused cultural anxiety or mass hysteria. On the relatively liberal campus of my university, young Muslim women who wear the hijab were harassed, people who did not look “white” or “American” were urged to leave by louts yelling from passing vehicles, and bigoted messages written in chalk appeared on sidewalks around campus. The local daily newspaper reported that these messages included profane slogans that were “directed at former President Barack Obama and his legacy, . . . [including things such as] ‘Deport,’ ‘Build that wall’ and ‘Stop supporting, start deporting.’” Accompanying the news article was a picture of one such message: “SHARIAH FREE ZONE,” referring to Islamic Sharia law.[7]

Ghost Writers: “Chalking” on the University of Illinois campus. Photo: Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

The phenomenon was not completely new, “chalking” has long been an acceptable form of free speech at Illinois, but the tone of these and other examples were ominous. There had been similarly threatening incidents during the election campaign, when there were vile messages left outside the Latino/Latina Cultural Center and near the entrance to the Foreign Languages Building. This is not simply Islamophobia, racism, or anti-Semitism; this tactic is a reminder to anyone whose skin is a bit darker, whose visage is different: don’t get too comfortable, don’t breathe our air too deeply. Once these perspectives are spoken, let alone shouted from the bully pulpit, they gain credence and it becomes very difficult to eliminate them from public discourse. These open challenges to civic discourse caused my department to consider how we might respond.

Everyman a King?: U.S. Senator Huey P. Long. The Library of Congress (circa 1934)
Identity Populist: Donald J. Trump at a 2015 fundraising event in Michigan. Photo: The Associated Press

We picked a season theme of “Resistance, Revolution, Resurgence,” and that season began just a few days before this talk with a production of All the King’s Men, an allegorical exploration of the life and career of the Depression-era, populist politician Huey P. Long. A local Southern politician, Long became the Governor of Louisiana and, later, a United States Senator with clear White House aspirations, who fomented class resentment and celebrated the “little guy” with his slogan “Every Man a King.” He was assassinated in 1935, a month after he declared his candidacy for president, reputedly by a man whose family had been destroyed by Long’s political machinations. In considering this play, director Tom Mitchell, cast only women, which created an interesting tension with women fighting the desperate, underhanded battles we often associate with backroom politics. As the director said in one interview:

Looking at the story through this gender change puts the relationships of fathers and sons into high relief. . . . Likewise, the men’s treatment of wives, mothers, girlfriends, and lovers gets a new perspective when the cast is all female. Finally, if we are ever to arrive at a time when women have equal access to [high] elective office, we need to have practice imagining them in roles of leadership. This production of All the King’s Men offers such a model in which ambitious women pull the levers of power.[8]

Identity Politics? Or Identity Populism?

In fact, Mitchell’s production caused me to rethink what I am writing here. Staged on wooden platforms, with audience members sitting at tables, as if at a campaign rally, the actors often moved among the crowd, exhorting us to agree with one political perspective or another. In the early moments of the play, when the central character begins to make wild, populist accusations about a political operative, the character being attacked attempts to silence his critic, saying, “Play, play! Play the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’” The band does not play as Willie Stark, the Huey Long character, brandishes a mysterious document. Willie has not read the document in his hand but, nevertheless, uses it as a figurative bludgeon to stir supporters into a frenzy and to vanquish his opponent.

Populist Palaver: Marlene Slaughter as Willie Starks in All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, directed by Tom Mitchell for Illinois Theatre. Photo: Darrell Hoemann/Illinois Theatre

In the play and the novel on which All the King’s Men is based, the scene between Willie and Duffy is a key moment when a powerful politician is undermined by a rising populist demagogue. Particularly striking in this production of the play, however, was the irony of a politician under attack trying to silence his opponent with a symbol of democratic freedoms: the national anthem. For some in the audience, there was added irony given ongoing controversy over the iconic anthem, which has provoked African American athletes to kneel during its performance in order to call attention to racial injustice and our country’s failure to fulfill our promise of freedom and equality. While virtually everyone in this play is corrupt or ethically compromised in some way, its exploration of the social cost that arises from populist demagoguery brightly highlights tensions now at play in American culture.

Fragmenting American Identity

Throughout American history, the idea of “American” and “American-ness” often has been a contested notion. In times of war, with the notable exception of the Civil War, and during cataclysmic events, such as the Great Depression or the terrorist attacks of September 2001, political leaders have successfully exhorted the citizenry to rally around themes of the homeland and family. During moments of national unity, political and cultural differences briefly may be set aside as the country seeks to resolve whatever crisis faces it. But when the crisis passes, as when African American soldiers came home from the World Wars, old tensions rear their heads. Why should veterans, who have fought for democracy, not enjoy its benefits at home? Why should women, who staffed the workforce that helped win World War II, be forced to quit their jobs so “the boys” can have their jobs back?

In the 1890s, a cultural binary arose that set the poor against the rich—Gilded Age “robber barons” who benefited from the toil and troubles of poor farmers, miners and other workers. By 1920, the urban population would outnumber the rural, but, at the end of the nineteenth century, farmers and other working poor suffered from an economic model that privileged rich monopolists—the oligarchs of their time.

While these populist tensions led to a dramatic presidential election in 1896—though not to a populist president—by 1920, the American theatre, through playwrights we now consider among our finest, began almost unconsciously to question the unified nature of “American-ness.” As playwright Arthur Miller noted in a 1953 interview for Theatre Arts magazine, “Since 1920 American drama has been a steady, year-by-year documentation of the frustration of man.”[9] Indeed, Miller might as easily have referenced frustrations with the idea of America and the American Dream.

As the twentieth century unfolded and liberation ideologies held greater sway, the rights of people of color, the disenfranchised, religious minorities, women, men and others with non-heteronormative love lives were under the microscope in American culture, and this examination was reflected onstage. By the late 1960s, enough time had passed since the Depression and the World Wars—we were then enmeshed in the divisive Vietnam War—focus on identity rose to the top of cultural consciousness. And why not? We were—and are, whatever white supremacists might have us believe—a culturally pluralistic country. There is no “typical” American; and this assertion becomes truer every day as demographics shift in our country and populists continue to cry “close the borders!” I have argued elsewhere that we have no “national theatre” because of this cultural pluralism. How could we coalesce around a single, unifying aesthetic?

“Cry ‘Havoc!’”

In the theatre, we rely on community to collaborate, to create our vision of human existence. We form creative communities, make a work, analyze it, comment upon it, and then we move on to construct our next community. We join, we disband, we support, we criticize. We should never forget what Peter Brook wrote in his groundbreaking book, The Empty Space:

I see nothing but good in a critic plunging into our lives, meeting actors, talking, discussing, watching, intervening. I would welcome his putting his hands on the medium and attempting to work it himself. Certainly, there is a tiny social problem—how does a critic talk to someone whom he has just damned in print? . . . The criticism that theater people make of one another is usually of devastating severity—but absolutely precise.[10]

This past June, however, after nearly six months of daily invective from the tweet-storm that is Trump, populist rhetoric intersected with the American theatre in ways that were surprisingly divisive and bitter. In the span of just three days, the New York Shakespeare Festival elicited protests over a modern-dress Julius Caesar with orange hair and a long red tie, a critic from a major Chicago daily paper was accused of being a bigot for her review of a play, and two underrepresented playwrights bitterly complained of a lack of support from the critical community, which, from their perspective, was anti-woman.

Family Business: Tina Benko as Calpurnia and Gregg Henry as Julius Caesar in a controversial production of the Shakespeare play in New York’s Central Park. Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

As word spread about a Trump-themed Julius Caesar in Central Park, complete with an Eastern Europe-inflected Calpurnia, protesters began to interrupt performances, accusing the theatre of “normalizing assassination.” The challenge for ordinary audience members was that members of the production’s ensemble also sat among the audience as part of Shakespeare’s mob. As a result of the protests, Delta Airlines and the Bank of America, which had underwritten the production, pulled their funding in what could only be described as acts of corporate cowardice.[11]

Cry, Havoc: The assassination of an Obama-like Caesar (Bjorn DuPaty) in the Guthrie Theater’s 2012 production.
Photo: Heidi Bohnenkamp

It bears noting that the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, a flagship of the resident American theatre, did a production of this same play with a Barack Obama doppelgänger in 2012, which was also sponsored by Delta Airlines. Where was the outrage? I think, by now, we know the answer.

When Hedy Weiss of the Chicago Sun-Times reviewed a new play last June, this is how it began:

The essential premise of Antoinette Nwandu’s play, Pass Over, now in a brilliantly acted world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre, is unquestionably inspired.[12]

Still Waiting: Julian Parker and Jon Michael Hill in Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Danya Taymor for Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Photo: Michael Brosilow

One would think that this is the kind of review most young artists would love to see in a major daily. But along the way, Weiss’s tone changes as she examines Nwandu’s take on the African American experience, in a play that parallels Waiting for Godot. Weiss takes exception to the portrayal of a white police officer:

To be sure, no one can argue with the fact that this city (and many others throughout the country) has a problem with the use of deadly police force against African Americans. But, for all the many and varied causes we know so well, much of the lion’s share of the violence is perpetrated within the community itself. Nwandu’s simplistic, wholly generic characterization of a racist white cop (clearly meant to indict all white cops) is wrong-headed and self-defeating.[13]

Critic Crisis: Performing arts critic Hedy Weiss, formerly of the Chicago Sun-Times. Photo: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Within days of the review, the Steppenwolf company, one of the most important in the United States, created a nationwide discussion aimed at excoriating Weiss as a bigot who does not understand racism in America. A petition collected 3,500 signatures and demanded that she be barred from reviewing and that she no longer receive free tickets to review. Her newspaper backed her fully on its editorial page—and so did editorialists at the competing daily, the Chicago Tribune. And never mind that most of her review was largely consonant with others in Chicago who found Pass Over powerful and its ending somewhat heavy-handed.[14]

I cannot comment because I did not get to see it, but I can say that the controversy has had a chilling effect on writers who will not say so on the record, but have confided privately about what this may mean for free expression in criticism. Is Weiss, perhaps, more conservative than other critics? Yes, and so are many of her readers. Must all critics be cut from the same political cloth? This is the path to totalitarianism, is it not? Have we learned nothing from the past century—or even the past eighteen months?

Embedded in the controversy was a call for more diverse critical voices—an important goal that must be acted upon, even as criticism continues to shrink and media outlets do not replace those who retire or move on. But there is an ageist and nearly Orwellian underpinning to some of this controversy: If you don’t think like “us,” which tends to mean young, hip and ironic, then you are too old, and too white, to get it.[15] About a month after this contretemps, New York magazine, a major cultural influence, replaced its departed male theatre critic—he went to the New York Times—with a 31-year-old woman who recently graduated with a theatre directing degree and little experience as a critic. In the process, a dozen or so excellent, experienced New York critics—including several women in their 40s and 50s—were not even interviewed for the position.[16]

The day after Steppenwolf accused Hedy Weiss of “deep-seated bigotry,” Paula Vogel and Lynn Nottage, successful playwrights who had their first Broadway productions this past season, tweeted angry responses to closing notices posted by their producers.[17] Their ire was not directed at the producers but at white, male critics at the New York Times.

Lynn Nottage and Paula Vogel. Photo: Tawni Bannister for The New York Times

When Vogel’s Indecent and Nottage’s Sweat appeared off Broadway, Times critic Charles Isherwood was enthusiastic in his praise. Isherwood was fired by the Times in February for reasons unrelated to these productions. The other white, male critics at the Times were decidedly less enthusiastic about the two plays when they moved to Broadway, despite the fact that Nottage had received her second Pulitzer Prize for Sweat, the first woman to receive the highly prestigious honor twice. Nottage’s play on the challenges facing middle America during a time of corporate off-shoring was viewed as a “social case study” and “human interest news feature” by the Broadway reviewer, Ben Brantley, who somewhat dismissively found Vogel’s play “decent” and “deflatingly earnest.”[18]

In a follow-up to her tweet about Brantley and Green, Vogel lauded her erstwhile competitors for Tony Awards—JT Rogers had ultimately won for Oslo, a complex drama about a Middle East summit engineered by Norwegian diplomats. After her tweets, Vogel’s play received a reprieve from her producer, Daryl Roth, a woman, who extended the run until the first week of August.

It is a fantasy and truly an old-fashioned perspective to think that any publication can make or break theatre success. The New York Times can certainly help, but the changed media landscape, which includes the way information and opinion is engaged, has vitiated the Times’s once-omnipotent grasp. According to a report from the American Theatre Critics Association, The Broadway League, a trade association of commercial theatre producers, has issued a new report citing data that shows a five-year decline in the influence of theatre critics and reporters when it comes to ticket-buying decisions. The report also cites a marked increase in social media’s influence, which may indicate that critics’ opinions and reporters’ stories are unconsciously factored into these decisions through news feeds. Among survey respondents, fewer than 12 percent reported critics as influential in their ticket buying, which is down from nearly 26 percent five years ago. Total theatre journalism influence, which includes features, interviews, and reviews, dropped from 47 percent to under 27 percent for the same time period.[19]

Plays, as opposed to musicals, are always a difficult sale in the Broadway universe. Producers of plays on Broadway should be lauded, but they are swimming upstream against a cultural current that thinks of Broadway as the home of musicals attended by tourists from around the world. Sweat fully deserved the Pulitzer Prize, especially due to its powerful message about the nature of the current American economy and how we got here. But it was surprising that it moved to Broadway, given elements of its documentary-style theatre, its darkly powerful themes, and the economics of Broadway. Indecent was a moving, tender production, whose director—given credit as co-writer—undoubtedly had a great impact on what was seen. Finally, while these women are members of underrepresented groups on Broadway—both are women, one is African American and the other is a Jewish lesbian—neither of them has been ignored by critics and their work has often been celebrated. Neither of the two men nominated for the Tony Award in the Best Play category has received a Pulitzer Prize and these two women have three between them.[20]

End(s) of Freedom?

The title of this talk, “The End(s) of Freedom,” hopes to provoke consideration of various meanings implied by “ends” as both terminus and objective. It links to a larger project of study, which aims to examine the cost of freedom, what we hope to gain from our liberties, and whether they are sustainable as autocracies proliferate globally. In the theatre, endings and beginnings are the oxygen that replenish the form. We create community for the purpose of examining the nature of the human experience and when that exploration meets its end we create anew. At its best, it is a utopian pursuit pressing against dystopian reality as we go deeper into the 21st century. In 1931, when James Truslow Adams popularized the term “American dream,” he assumed much about the possibility of its attainment, even though he knew that its goals would be a struggle:

We have a long and arduous road to travel if we are to realize our American dream in the life of our nation, but if we fail, there is nothing left but the old eternal round. The alternative is the failure of self-government, the failure of the common man to rise to full stature, the failure of all that the American dream has held of hope and promise for mankind.[21]

Clearly, however, Adams believed in the hope of a meritocracy, even if that term does not come into general usage until the late 1950s. Even Tocqueville saw the possibility of rising beyond one’s birthright, famously employing a nearly theatrical phrase—”improvisations of fortune”—when describing what he called “democracy in its most extreme form.”[22] Both Adams and Tocqueville, however, were outlining dreams and improvisations available only to white citizens, essentially white men.

As the notion of American identity has continued to fragment and populist anger gets hotter, communities are pulling into themselves and a new kind of populism may be upon us. Lines of communication are gradually opening between (and among) allied communities. Within this burgeoning construct, allies from dominant and underrepresented communities may build bridges leading to partnerships, which lead to new communities of creation. Demographers say that, in thirty years, the idea of a dominant community will be a thing of the past. But the new populism may sweep aside notions of dominant communities. We cannot retreat, we cannot allow ourselves to be afraid. We must listen, we must hear, we must engage. Only then, might we be able to build a safe and humane future—and the theatre must lead the way: politicians cannot and will not. That is my American dream.


[1] Mary E. Lease, qtd. in Ida Tarbell, The Nationalizing of Business: 1878–1898, Vol. IX, A History of American Life, ed. Arthur M. Schlesinger (New York: Macmillan, 1936), p. 141.

[2] Lease, qtd. in William E. Connelley, A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans, Vol. II, (Chicago: Lewis Publishing, 1918) pp. 1149–51.

[3] James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America, (Boston: Little, Brown, 1931) p. 408.

[4] Neil Baldwin, Henry Ford and the Jews: The Mass Production of Hate, (New York: Public Affairs, 2001) pp. 172–73, 284; Henry Ford, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, four volumes, (Dearborn, MI: Dearborn Publishing, 1920–22).

[5] Baldwin, pp. 48–52.

[6] Matt Egan, “Trump Hires Yet Another Goldman Sachs Banker,” CNN Money, March 16, 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2017/03/15/investing/goldman-sachs-jim-donovan-trump-treasury-deputy-secretary/index.html

[7] Julie Wurth, “UI chancellor responds to ‘deport’ messages on Quad, Israeli flag defacing, ‘Unofficial’ T-shirts,” News-Gazette, February 23, 2017. http://www.news-gazette.com/news/local/2017-02-23/ui-chancellor-responds-deport-messages-quad-israeli-flag-defacing-unofficial-t.

[8] Melissa Merli, “All the King’s Men all women,” News-Gazette, September 28, 2017. http://www.news-gazette.com/arts-entertainment/local/2017-09-28/all-the-kings-men-all-women.html

[9] Arthur Miller, “Arthur Miller Discusses The Crucible,” Theatre Arts, October 1953, 34.

[10] Peter Brook, The Empty Space, (New York: Atheneum, 1980), pp. 32–33.

[11] As this piece is prepared for publication, Delta Airlines has severed ties with the National Rifle Association in the wake of eighteen school shootings in the first six weeks of 2018. As a result of its action, the Georgia legislature refused to grant the company a proposed tax break. Richard Fausset, “Delta Took a Stand on the N.R.A.; Georgia Lawmakers Want to Make It Pay,” The New York Times, March 2, 2018, p. A12.

[12] Hedy Weiss, “Pass Over Envisions a Godot-like Endgame for Young Black Men,” Chicago Sun-Times, June 13, 2017. https://chicago.suntimes.com/entertainment/pass-over-envisions-a-godot-like-endgame-for-young-black-men/

[13] Ibid.

[14] Following a change of ownership, the newspaper cut ties with Weiss in recent weeks after a 33-year run and more than 13,000 reviews published. Chris Jones, “Theatre Critic Hedy Weiss Is Out at the Sun-Times,” Chicago Tribune, February 2, 2018. http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/theater/ct-ent-hedy-weiss-sun-times-0203-story.html.

[15] The day after this talk was delivered in Tbilisi, Georgia, The New York Times published its exposé of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misconduct and unleashed a new crusade dedicated to unmasking sexual predators, which created the #MeToo movement. Many powerful men who had abused their power and privilege with women and men were toppled from prestigious positions in the fallout. The Times report and the cascading related scandals that followed are beyond the scope of this talk, though issues of sexual misconduct also have affected powerful leaders in the theatre. There is no question in my mind that the uprising of justified anger unleashed around this topic feeds and is fed by the turbulence now upon the land. As my study progresses, I hope to incorporate discussion of the #MeToo movement into this work as it has a profound impact on feelings of cultural oppression and a need experienced by half of the populace to be freed from it.

[16] Rob Weinert-Kendt, “Meet Sara Holdren, Theatre Critic and Theatremaker,” American Theatre, July 17, 2017, http://www.americantheatre.org/2017/07/17/meet-sara-holdren-theatre-critic-and-theatremaker/. To Holdren’s credit, she received the George Jean Nathan Award in Dramatic Criticism, a few months after her appointment, based on a review for a website. It is an impressive accomplishment.

[17] Deanna Isaacs, “Steppenwolf Releases ‘Official Statement’ on Hedy Weiss Review Uproar,” Chicago Reader, June 23, 2017, https://www.chicagoreader.com/Bleader/archives/2017/06/23/steppenwolf-releases-official-statement-on-weiss-review-uproar. When Steppenwolf released its official statement, it was less angry in tone and more focused on community engagement.

[18] John Bonazzo, “Pulitzer Prize Winners Tweet: Bad Reviews from the NY Times Doom Female-Written Plays,” Observer, June 14, 2017. http://observer.com/2017/06/new-york-times-paula-vogel-lynn-nottage-twitter/

[19] Since this talk was given last fall, I have modified my position slightly to suggest that if the Times fully commits to supporting a theatre work—as it did with 87 separate pieces on the musical Hamilton after its Broadway opening and before the 2016 Tony Awards—it may have a great impact. A Lexis-Nexis search, following the Tony Awards, which were given on June 12, 2016, showed 328 new articles in the three months since the awards were given. These results exclude nearly 200 articles reporting on the Tony Awards ceremony itself. (c.f. http://www.critical-stages.org/14/old-is-new-new-is-old-hamilton-in-the-age-of-trump/#_ftn7) Brad Hathaway, “How Did Drama Critics and Theater Journalists Fare in This Year’s Broadway Audience Survey?,” membership email to American Theatre Critics Association, February 15, 2018.

[20] It is worth noting that Vogel, a charismatic and engaging personality, has criticized The New York Times in the past, notably during a 2004 Working in the Theatre panel on playwriting for CUNY-TV with Edward Albee, Harvey Fierstein, John Weidman, and myself. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V942rLs-GY

[21] Adams, p. 416.

[22] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J.P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), p. 55.


*Jeffrey Eric Jenkins is Professor of Theatre at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Prior to his current appointment, Jenkins served as Head of the Department of Theatre from 2012 to 2017, where he oversaw a restructuring of administration and helped set the department on a course that resulted in greatly enhanced engagement with online education, financial stability, and improved national rankings. With his creative partner, Broadway director and Swanlund Professor Daniel Sullivan, Jenkins created The Sullivan Project, which has provided new plays with fully realized productions, including works by David Auburn (2014) and Donald Margulies (2016). He was a key collaborator on the Spotlight on Broadway documentary series, a forty-part series on Broadway theatres commissioned by the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York. Before his appointment at Illinois Theatre, Jenkins served as Director of Theatre Studies at New York University, where he taught dramatic literature, theatre history, and criticism for fourteen years. He also taught directing at the University of Washington, graduate dramaturgy at SUNY-Stony Brook, and served as a curricular consultant to Primary Stages. Jenkins has directed more than two dozen productions in theatres across the United States, and was a member of the management team for Peter Brook’s acclaimed productions of The Mahabharata and The Cherry Orchard at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Jenkins took degrees in research and studio concentrations from the University of East Anglia (UK), Carnegie Mellon University, and San Francisco State University. His books include Under the Copper Beech: Conversations With American Theater Critics, eight volumes of The Best Plays Theater Yearbook series, and chapters in recent titles such as Interrogating America Through Theatre and Performance; Angels in American Theatre: Patrons, Patronage, and Philanthropy; Shakespearean Criticism; and Intertextuality in American Drama. Jenkins served four consecutive terms on the board of trustees of the American Theatre Wing and has chaired the Henry Hewes Design Awards since 2002. His service to the profession includes a dozen years on the executive committee for the Theatre Hall of Fame and as a continuing dramaturgical consultant to productions in development.

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The End(s) of Freedom: Populism, Theatre, Identity