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An Open Letter to James Nicola, Artistic Director of New York Theatre Workshop

By Robert Simpson McLean

Dear Mr. Nicola:

This is a painful letter for me to write since I have had a long association with New York Theatre Workshop. I have been in constant attendance at your productions, urging people to attend, and writing a laudatory review of More Stately Mansions for The Eugene O'Neill Review for which I am Drama Review Editor. For this event I was asked by the Dutch Embassy to invite celebrated theater people living in New York to attend a collation where they could meet Ivo von Hove and afterwards attend the performance as his guests. Since I have such respect for the NYTW I never enjoyed such a labor of love as that one. I have worked for your theater for years as a volunteer usher since I feel your theater is on the cutting edge of artistic quality in New York, and is an institution we all can be proud of. Consequently, when I learned of the cancellation of the acclaimed London performance of My Name is Rachel Corrie I became deeply disappointed and even depressed.

First, your action seems to nullify what we expect and hope from theater, a hope and expectation that is as old as Sophocles. The theater has always held a mirror up to nature and shown us what we are really like. The last five years of the current Washington administration have been difficult to bear if you are sensitive to all the issues that make a civilized society. In every issue progressive people are disappointed by the nature and tenor of our government which seems to abridge our liberties each passing day. Many playwrights, directors, and actors have risen to the challenge and opposed the militaristic and freedom-curbing climate of Washington by satire and many other dramatic means. It is comforting to know that civic organizations, religious groups like the National Council of Churches, and many others have together tried to oppose our current oppressive political atmosphere.

Second, you have set a bad example for other theaters in not standing up for the artistic independence, truthfulness, and sincerity of a free theater. You are not the first one who has been threatened by some misguided groups who seek to censor any medium which expresses a point of view with which they disapprove. My own daughter in Boston who works as a publicity agent for various businesses was told that she must not take out advertisements for a Kosher catering service on Boston Public Radio because Boston Public Radio allowed Palestinian representatives to present their views on their station. If the firm she represented refused to exclude the advertisements, then some of the irate Jewish organizations would not hire the Kosher catering firm. Some sensible neutral Jews urged my daughter to ignore the threats and proceed as she had been doing, but the owner of the firm told her that he could not afford any criticism, even from crazies, and that she must boycott Boston Public Radio.

And so it is everywhere. The first ten amendments of the Bill of Rights enjoy deep and broad support among a vast segment of our country's population, so long as these rights are reserved for their own views. People are less generous to minorities whose views conflict with their own. Last summer at my home in the Adirondacks, the opera singer Patrice Munsel told me that after appearing in an anti-war rally during the Vietnam war, she was never again invited to sing on commercial television programs. I hope to help her get this story into print because I do not believe it is generally known, and the bad record of democracy's misdeeds should be meticulously documented, hopefully, for our edification.

But what can the New York Theatre Workshop do to redeem itself after canceling the widely anticipated story of a heroic and unique young woman who can enlighten us and inspire us to exert our humanity to make a better world? Certainly, the NYTW could learn from her courageous example and redeem itself by reversing its stand, and enthusiastically inviting the London company to its theater at the earliest time. We desperately need a voice like Rachel Corrie's to help us see more clearly during these times corrupt with political menace and greed. We will all forgive your action, and move Heaven and Earth to help you and stand by your theater to defend you against whatever onslaughts you fear. When an Irish patriot in Sean O'Casey's A Red Rose for Me desires to walk in a prohibited protest march, a menacing British officer warns him that the military is against him and their swords will be out. He bravely replies: "Yes, but the saints will be with us!"

There is nothing more that I can say to help change your decision, but I do hope that you will see that you have made a mistake and undo it. A man who can admit a lapse of judgment and reverse it is a great example of human growth and possibility. Please do not disappoint us but uphold the great traditions of humanistic theater, listen to the great voices of the stage, the voices of Ibsen, Shaw, and O'Casey, and, most important of all, let us all try to walk with the saints.

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Robert Simpson McLean


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