Is Thom Nickels STILL an Idiot?
You may remember Thom Nickels from a couple years ago, when I called him an idiot because of an article he wrote, where without evidence or even a semi-solid logical foundation he asserted that Vatican II caused priests to abuse minors. It was stupid! I was right to call him an idiot then, and I maintain that I’m right to call him an idiot now.
Because NOW he’s got an article in Philly Mag about the problem with Theater These Days, and how it’s (see if you can guess no really try to guess) too left-wing. I assume this kind of thing gets published because online outlets like to 1) rile up the liberals for pageviews and 2) seem like they’re being “fair” and “unbiased” by publishing both good criticism and the sputtering ravings of an unreconstructed doofus. Good job on both accounts, I guess; here’s where you can click through to read his article.
If you’d prefer not to read it, I’ll give you the short version: there are two kinds of theater: “mainstream” theater which is for old people and plebes, and then the theater of “ideas and politics” which used to be good because occasionally a black person was cast as Hamlet, but now is bad because too many black people are cast as Hamlet. Similarly, Thom Nickels (who I strongly suspect is Catholic) believes that trans people are bad, and resents any theater that suggest that they’re good.
It was refreshing to see a black woman play Hamlet, or an androgynous actress play a page boy, or to see love stories with interracial couples. It was fun to see rigid orthodoxies being smashed. In some ways it was the theater equivalent of Pope John XXIII calling for a Second Vatican Council to bring fresh air into the Catholic Church.
(Again, please recall the time I made fun of Thom Nickels for writing an article blaming the Vatican II for all sex abuse scandals.)
This is the long and short of it, and if you’re reading this (and you’re not Thom Nickels — if you are Thom Nickels, hi! I think you’re a goon!) you probably already have strong ideas about the kinds of things theater ought to be doing: it ought to be telling the stories least heard in our culture, giving voice to the voiceless, providing a diversity of experiences with which we can empathize. This is, in fact, the essential difference between the social projects of Right and Left: the social project of the Right is to define a correct way of being and to encourage people to adopt it, while the social project of the Left is to discourage the notion of a correct way of being.
When you put it like that it’s hard to square Leftist theater as catechizing — well, not hard for Thom Nickels, evidently.
The Drake’s Azuka Theater states that they “tell stories of outcasts and underdogs,” but what happens when every theater follows suit? Or when theater audiences everywhere accept so-called outcasts as the new normal? Does this mean that the new radical might be a conventional play at the Walnut?
(A brief aside — while it’s true that the Walnut Street Theater mostly does a lot of hokey popular garbage, at least on their mainstage, Nickels earlier in his piece describes the regular dumb hordes of Philadelphia watching a revival of Cabaret at the Kimmel Center. Cabaret! Imagine! Imagine deciding to write an article comparing the old-fashioned, non-confrontational chestnuts of the traditional theater to the Social Justice Horror of the American Left, and using of every god-damn thing Cab-a-fucking-ret as an example of the former!)
Thom Nickels thinks that, when all of the theaters are doing plays about underdogs, that means that actually the Right are underdogs because there are no plays about good Catholic old people who sit on their chairs and resent the blacks, but of course this is nonsense.
Firstly, theater exists of a piece with all of the culture in which it’s situated; a play is not a foreign planet that you take a spaceship to at 7:30 and then leave behind at the curtain. The boundary between the play and the world we live in is permeable in many tens of thousands of ways, and the world we live in is most certainly not a world that is friendly to trans people or gay people or black people or whatever other voices Thom Nickels thinks he’s hearing too much of.
Second of all, obviously “what happens when theater audiences everywhere accept the outcasts as the new normal?” Well then we can all fucking retire. I am looking forward to it. Nickels thinks he’s describing some kind of moral apocalypse, I suppose, where any kind of sexual or gender identity is just accepted by everyone, where non-white people get to define themselves and their own stories without interference from the rest of us, where all the couples are interracial and all the minor male roles in Shakespeare are played by disabled lesbians, where there’s nothing left to do but queue up a little of the old Oscar Wilde for a laugh because all the hard work is done, and I don’t know what he thinks is supposed to be scary about it?
(I mean, I do know — he’s afraid that the new Black Gay Transocracy is going to treat him the way he implicitly thinks other marginalized people ought to be treated. He thinks that “anti-racist” means “anti-white”, but there’s actually only one reason why you’d think those terms mean the same thing, so I’m not real worried.)
Anyway, this whole thing is mostly just a constipated knee-jerk “grr argh isn’t the theater is a little TOO progressive?” that you get from the sort of guys who like to think of themselves as cultured (and therefore think of themselves as the sort of people who ought to like the theater) but actually they’ve only got one, very specific culture that they like, and they get the willies every time they have to see another one. He writes it because he thinks that out there, there’s a whole bunch of other people who think just like he does and they’re afraid to say it because they think we’re all going to yell at them, so he thinks he’s being brave and bold by decrying plays that sensitively consider what it’s like to be anyone other than Thom Nickels.
Of course he’s not; our society has for many decades wasted its time and treasure on exactly the sort of people who’ll decry a play for not being the sort of thing that Thom Nickels likes. You might even say our society was founded on it.
A couple dumb quotes at random:
Open-minded, sophisticated Philly audiences are being catechized about immigration, racism, and trans issues as if the Philly theater world had been taken over by Amy Schumer and the women on The View.
I guarantee you Thom Nickels does not know who Amy Schumer is, and I like to think we’re much, much better on the subject of race.
While it’s true that theater has always had a kind of leftward sway (think of George Bernard Shaw)
Shaw’s politics were weird and complicated, but he was more like an authoritarian libertarian than anything else. Also, there’s literally TEN THOUSAND playwrights who are better examples of “leftward sway” (like for example literally any American writing between 1920 and 1940, where almost all the theater was unabashedly socialist when it wasn’t straight up anarchist).
[on Lantern Theater’s production of The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens & Count Leo Tolstoy] when Jefferson is castigated for his having had slaves while simultaneously writing about human equality. History, however, tells us that in Jefferson’s time, slaves were considered subhuman. As awful as this might sound, it should not be a license for obsessive preachy condemnations of the philosophies of famous men based on contemporary standards.
I mean, there’s probably a whole article in this just by itself, but a couple quick reminders about history and how history and theater actually works:
- history doesn’t tell us anything, historians tell us things, and historians are not inherently unbiased.
- There were many people who did not consider slaves subhuman and campaigned vigorously for their freedom. In fact, anti-slavery edicts of one kind or another had been issued in Europe since at least the 14th century, when it was banned in France. Thomas Jefferson could hardly have failed to notice that after the Revolutionary War, which he championed, most northern states banned slavery, starting with Vermont in 1777 and Pennsylvania in 1780.
- Thomas Jefferson’s friend, Tadeusz Kościuszko — of whom there’s a statue in our own Philadelphia on Pine Street — once gave Jefferson enough money to set all of his slaves free on the grounds that slavery had no place in an Enlightenment society. Jefferson refused.
- Thomas Jefferson had children with his slave, who was his dead wife’s half-sister.
- “As awful as it may sound, it should not be license…” my friend this is America, no one needs a license to say whatever they want, about whoever they want, whenever they want. No sense of propriety protects Thomas Jefferson from, e.g., point 4, above — I’d go on to say that the basic hypocrisy of Thomas Jefferson is probably the most important thing about him, and if we have to read his history, that’s probably a lot more important than the fact that he designed Monticello.
- But if we’re GOING to talk about how he designed Monticello, maybe mention the fact that it was kept running by a veritable army of slaves, and designed specifically to make their labor invisible because Thomas Jefferson didn’t want to make his guests feel bad.
Sorry, I guess I’m being preachy about this, like a new catechism and much worse than the regular catechism that Thom Nickels would prefer I teach, where we’re only permitted to remember the best things that Great Men in history have done, and pretend the worst things are annoying trivialities. Anyway, one last one:
Does every Hamlet or traditionally white Shakespearean character have to be black to prove a point about racism? Does every heterosexual couple presented on stage have to be interracial, even when it seems to work against the editorial soul of a play? Does every single young boy in an Elizabethan play have to be played by a girl, as if to “instruct” the public on some esoteric point about trans issues?
Yes, yes, and yes. By law, now all Hamlets are black, all couples are interracial (preferably with three or more races), all young boys onstage are trans. I’m sorry, that’s just the way it is.