After several years of performing Via Dolorosa and taking part in the post-show “peace café” discussions, I have tried to listen to and absorb as many opinions and beliefs as are voiced, because even when some may initially seem intolerant or misguided, they usually enable one to reach a deeper understanding of the situation. The idea of boycotts seems to me anathema to the idea of expanding such understanding.
However, this email exchange has led me to think about the broader question of whether boycotts are ever appropriate. And what, indeed, is the purpose of the boycott? Who is it aimed at? If it is directed at the government of a country, it is unlikely that it will have much direct impact (and may indeed be welcomed), since many governmental officials are already in favor of restricting public access to “art” not only from without, but from within. (I agree with Mr. Brustein’s points, but I would add that while the United States did not ban Brecht, there were several government officials who were opposed to him and what they saw as the implications of his work, leading eventually to his being called before HUAC, whose existence led to the semi-official boycott of many people in the theatre and film industry, as well as others. (And after Brecht departed the U.S. (the day after he testified), he wasn’t permitted to enter American-controlled parts of Germany).) Sixty years later, the man who wrote “Peace Train” had a very hard time getting into the U.S. We have enough government-imposed boycotts arround the world already.
If the boycott is directed at the people of a country, then what reaction will it provoke? Some may say, “I wish my government would change its policies so I can get to see this play or hear that orchestra,” but I suspect that more will say “if they’re going to punish me for my government’s policies, a pox on ’em.” (How would those of us who live in the U.S. feel if some foreign cultural entity said it was boycotting this country because of the Iraq invasion or the nonadoption of the Kyoto treaty or (name your pet outrage here); indeed, if we feel strongly about a particular U.S. government policy, do we consequently refuse to work here? (Physician, boycott thyself.)
The recent visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea led to denunciations from some who saw it as sending “the wrong message” to that nation’s government, at the same time as praise from others who claimed that even the limited scope of the venture was a step in the direction of breaking through the cultural isolation that has been imposed by the North Korean government itself. And while one may not be able to do so while actually there, there’s (usually) nothing to stop one from later denouncing the policies of a country’s government that one finds reprehensible (although you may not be invited back, but that’s their boycott, not yours).
Furthermore, as Mr. Bikel points out, one can always make a personal choice not to perform somewhere (although that does raise the question: at what point does the cumulative effect of several publicized individual decisions not to perform somewhere become an actual “boycott”?).
One of the audience members at a post-Via Dolorosa “peace café” just last week expressed outrage at the anti-Semitism he had experienced personally and which he saw being spread by organizations like Hamas, but he also suggested that the best way to begin to try to improve things is to put your arms around your perceived enemy and hug them. This may seem naïve, but it actually takes great courage, since your perceived enemy might stab you while you hug, but on the other hand it might just instead lead them to stop and think and open up their heart and mind, if only a little.
And isn’t that what theatre is for? So if we refuse to perform for someone, who’s losing the most?
In light of all this, I’m inclined to disfavor the idea of boycotts. I daily feel outrage at the conduct of the governments of many countries, and if I were given the opportunity to perform in one of them I might at first feel reluctant to do so for ideological reasons (perhaps it would depend in part upon who was doing the inviting). But I hope I would be able to keep an open mind. (And that I could avail myself of the wisdom of others for guidance; thanks be to the internet.)
-David Bryan Jackson