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Exit, Stage Left

by James Lileks

The chairman of the NEA recently said we might have too much theater in this country. Rocco Landesman was quoted by the New York Times thus: “You can either increase demand or decrease supply. Demand is not going to increase, so it is time to think about decreasing supply.” This is heresy on every possible level. To speak such words in Washington is practically begging the city to physically expel you like a splinter worked out by the body’s protective powers. 

Among the enlightened, it’s a given that more people should attend the theater. It’s beyond debate that more money — preferably yours — should be spent on theaters of all kinds, especially those that include the phrase “challenging our assumptions” somewhere in the mission statement. It’s a vital part of the urbanists’ vision of Perfect City Life: You take the light rail to the theater, watch a clever reimagining of the Scottish play with Sarah Palin as Macbeth and the cast of The View as the three witches, enjoy a glass of fair-trade Chardonnay at intermission, then take the light rail back to the sustainably dense townhouse. It’s like going to church without all the judgmentalism. 

You couldn’t get Congress to subsidize Hollywood films unless all the big robots in the Transformers movies agreed to use ethanol. But theater is somehow different. To expect it to survive without federal handouts is, for some, the moral equivalent of wanting tea partiers to crash the Folger Library and use the manuscripts for bathroom tissue. 

Obligatory disclaimer: Our family supports local theaters with something called “money,” which we use to buy “tickets,” which are then exchanged for a temporary lease on a “seat.” These theaters thrive because they’re good, and present plays people are interested in seeing. Remarkable idea, really. Not to say we’re not challenged by local offerings: Many years ago a theater of some repute hosted an event in which the playwright’s blood was soaked into paper towels and winched over the heads of the audience. Oh: He had AIDS. It was transgressive as heck, but one could only think of the stagehands at the end of the night arguing whether seniority rules meant the newest hire had to burn the props. 

You could make an argument that such a production didn’t need federal money — surely people jammed in every night! Oddly, no. That’s why we need government money! Without Uncle Sam writing the checks for blood-soaked towels hoisted high over the heads of the duly shocked bourgeoisie, we’d be swimming in a sea of middlebrow banality, with nothing but Our Town alternating with Glengarry Glen Ross, the no-profanity version. (Running time: six minutes.)

Look, if you want to sit under a passing Bounty towel infused with someone’s personal fluids, go ahead. But in the current fiscal situation we probably shouldn’t borrow money from China to reduce the ticket cost. That’s all. If some art does not get staged because no one wants to pay for it, well, alas poor Yorick. But when you look back to the arid days of American culture before the federal teat was presented to artists previously unsuckled by the stony mother of capitalism, art was created. Art happened. And it was somehow the art that connected with audiences, too. We’re supposed to think it was all commercial tripe that set limits on our imaginations and forced people to see the world through the standard social constructs — you know, patriotism, family, religion, music with melodies instead of shrieking atonal cacophonies, archaic binary notions of gender, all the usual suspects. But even the people who profess a need for transgressive art and difficult, challenging theater will probably admit they’d rather watch Meet Me in St. Louis for the 15th time than sit through The Vagina Monologues performed with semaphore lamps by pre-op transsexuals. There’s something to be said for leaving the theater whistling the tunes or quoting the lines. There’s something to be said for enjoying yourself. 

So art’s to be held to a pure crass commercial formula, then? No. Carmen was a flop; Bizet died without knowing his work would be immortal. Art needs angels, and if that comes in the form of local governments that want to chip in to keep the stage lights on, fine. But the idea that federal dollars are essential to art is like the peculiar notion that magic federal dollars will invent new forms of energy, or raise student performance. 

What’s the difference between local and federal funding, one might ask. Simple: You have a better chance of persuading local governments not to fund a play that sticks tiresome topical references into a play where they don’t belong. Over at the Wall Street Journal’s website, James Taranto noted the case of a Missoula opera company that included a reference to decapitating Sarah Palin in a production of The Mikado. The director might have said it was justified, given Palin’s statement that she could see Japan from her house, but it’s the sort of thing that gives an evening a brackish taste if you’re not inclined to regard her as the enemy of humankind. If your locally funded theater does such a thing, letters in the paper tend to get more attention than e-mails to the NEA do.

Support of the arts should be left to us — but if it has to be a government effort, so be it. A 30 percent surtax on the salaries of creative people, then — and a cap on ticket prices so they can’t pass the costs along. If we then passed laws requiring people to buy theater tickets, the problem would be solved.

It would be worth it, if only to hear the artistic community invoke the Commerce Clause. 

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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