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When Sympathy Turns To Empathy


In February of 2015 I was sitting in a theater in Budapest watching Bela Pinter’s Our Secrets play out in the immediate aftermath of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s speech declaring that “multicultural society has been a failure” and reaffirming Vladimir Putin’s call for an “illiberal democracy”. Putin, come to think of it, was just leaving Hungary on the day we arrived, having come to celebrate Orban.

At the time, I was struck by the despair coming off my Hungarian colleagues in waves. I sat with them in concern for their plight, but my perspective emanated from a place of confidence in our own democracy. This would never happen in the US. I was sorry it had happened to them.

I could sympathize. I could not empathize.

Their dilemma seemed “other,” felt foreign. Their despair, and the hard edges of the nationalism that hammered at them, seemed to be part of the long and still unraveling history of their place. They were part of the general exoticism of traveling. Like visiting the famous Budapest central market or crossing the blue Danube to the famous hot springs. Or goulash. I felt terrible for them, for their struggles against hopelessness, for their stunned faces staring into an abyss that I would never, as an American, experience.

Our Secrets is a story about the capacity of government to crush and corrupt the individual, with its main cudgel being its all-access pass to our deepest, darkest secrets. Sure, I thought for a moment of Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. And the NSA’s overreach with respect to cellphone data. And the Patriot Act. But I am a dramaturg, habitually looking for connections between art and the world. It was an intellectual exercise, engaged from the safe distance of my own sense of American exceptionalism. These characters were facing things that would never happen in America.

Putin didn’t even enter the equation for me personally— he was certainly a problem for Hungary and these artists, but why would I ever even wonder how would he might impact my life? And what secrets could bring down my life, let alone my government? How would a despot or demagogue ever make it through the electoral process of our system? There would be no Orban in America.

On Inauguration Day, 2017 we will be presenting Our Secrets in Boston. Pinter’s company is coming to the US, but now they won’t be coming as bards of a far off land. They will be coming to our aide as our teachers, our elders. I cannot fathom this, even as I write this.

They have lived in the time of a nationalistic fever. They have seen their country torn apart, neighbor turning on neighbor, turning inside out and upside down, and now turned toward the fantasy of a “pure” and “true” illiberal identity of Hungary.

It is only days after The Election here. It’s too early to say what sort of President the man we just elected will make or what will follow from his inauguration. But it is abundantly clear that he will be taking the reins of a country divided against itself, one where the democratic process has led to a decision to retreat from the vision of a multicultural society, to reassert the white patriarchy of our founding, and to reject the premise of a global citizenship. We chose demagoguery. Whether we got it or not remains to be seen. We elected nationalism, we affirmed chauvinism, we chose to close our borders, we chose nostalgia for fabled “better days”— before the Civil Rights movement, before Roe v. Wade, before Marriage Equality, before the Dream Act, before open acceptance of gender diversity. We chose to put millions of Americans back in a closet and lock any opposition in jail. Whether our President-elect carries out this mandate, we must make no mistake: this is the authority we, The People, gave him and his on November 8th. Our Hungarian visiting artists know this moment. They’ve lived it.

Our Secrets is a masterwork of a major artist of the world theater. It’s a gripping story, powerfully told, and it’s full of music and virtuosic performances and is utterly unlike the work most American ensembles are making at the moment. It’s a perfect example of the urgent imperative at ArtsEmerson to “put the world on stage”. But this time, rather than being a sort of “cautionary tale” told from the safe, smug distance I experienced in 2015, it illuminates our own darkness. There are many shadows. And we don’t yet know what’s lurking there. But our guests can help us see ourselves at the very moment we take the plunge.

Our Secrets presented by ArtsEmerson will run on the Orchard Stage in the Paramount Center from January 19-22.

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