Some years ago, I was cast in a production of Macbeth which wound up doing a short tour of Germany. A few days before performing in one of the venues, a replica of the Globe Theater located next to a racetrack in Neuss (Germany’s a bit…different), a few members of the company and I went to see the preceding show at the venue, to get a sense of what the space was like. The show wound up being a production from Great Britain – a Shakespearean burlesque which offered up a low-budget staging of the classic 60s heist film The Italian Job with all of its dialogue replaced with lines of Shakespeare (and called, imaginatively enough, Bill Shakespeare’s The Italian Job). I was mildly amused; my friends were outraged. They couldn’t understand why anybody would go to the trouble of mounting a Shakespearean production of any sort only to inflict that sort of mockery upon the Bard, and by extension, England’s cultural heritage as a whole. I wasn’t quite so surprised; I’d spent my semester abroad in London, and had been exposed to a number of similar burlesques of England’s cultural heritage. It’s a subgenre unto itself; here in the States, we’re only ever aware of acknowledged masterworks like Holy Grail or Blackadder, so we don’t realize how large the subgenre is, how crappy it can get, or the audience it serves. In speaking to Londoners, back in the 90s, I’d been struck by how many of them straight-up resented that cultural heritage with which I was so enamoured, feeling that they lived in a museum and that the approval and adoration of the world was a hollow prize, when they’d rather just chuck it all and do whatever the bloody hell they wanted.
In other news, Brexit passed this week.
The full consequences of Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union won’t truly be known for some time. We don’t yet know its full ramifications for the global economy, for the future of Europe as a whole, for the social issues underlying its vote. However, it’s becoming clear what the consequences are going to be for the arts in Great Britain, which has been one of its defining glories for decades (if not centuries). And as this summary demonstrates, it’s not good at all. Basically, the arts now face a direct loss of funding through lost access to European programs, and indirect loss of funding due to economic fallout from the vote. In addition, the ability of artists to travel to and from Britain with the same ease which they may do so through the rest of the EU is now in jeopardy. This threatens not only the ability of artists to work, but to train and to learn – to become artists in the first place.
The arts aren’t simply a pillar of the British economy. They’re also an essential component of the British identity, the through-line of cultural heritage stemming from Chaucer through Shakespeare all the way down to Sarah Kane and Monty Python (betcha never thought you’d hear them in the same sentence). And whatever their motives, the majority of the English people looked at the sociopolitical structures which maintain that cultural heritage today, the institutions that allow those artistic ideals, and the broader humanistic ideals underlying them, the ideals which our own society is ultimately based on – they looked at all of that and said, “No. Not worth the effort.”
Better, perhaps, to chuck it all.
And it’s this which I fear about the news out of Great Britain these days, more than the specifics of how withdrawal will play out over the next few years, or how it might impact elections over here. I fear that impulse I encountered in jaded Londoners years ago; fear it, and understand it, because I’ve been surrounded by it my whole life (or at least whenever I used to ride the Long Island Rail Road.) The sense that arts, culture, the true essence of our “heritage,” is a luxury, to be abandoned when times are tough or scary, to be viewed with suspicion. It’s not – and I’m not just saying that because it provides my meager income. It’s what’s best in us. It’s our dreams and values given form, given life with which to make their way through the world. And it’s dependent on people turning outside to embrace and engage with the world, not withdrawing from it in fear and disgust, not attempting to vote it out of our lives.
Withdrawal is a terrible, terrible idea.
We’ve emulated Great Britain in a great many ways over the years. When it comes to building the arts community, and public engagement with the arts, which Great Britain used to have, I hope we do so again. But in this instance, that would be about as sound an idea as a Shakespearean pastiche of The Fast and The Furious. (On second thought, I probably shouldn't give anybody ideas…)