Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel, whose play Indecent will begin previews on Broadway April 4, has penned a letter in response to the proposed cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts recently outlined by the Trump administration.
The announcement came March 16 as the administration released a budget outline, titled "America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again," containing several cuts to domestic and non-defense programs. The proposal now goes to Congress, and once resolved, would go into effect in the new fiscal year beginning October 1.
Read Vogel’s entire statement, shared exclusively with Playbill, below:
(Editor’s Note: Bolded passages added for emphasis)
Like so many of us who have spent our lives in the arts and as educators, I am alarmed at the prospect of the NEA, NEH, and Public broadcasting being eliminated, as well as the retreat from public education.
In 1988, I started a theatre program for women in Maximum at the Adults Correction Institute in Rhode Island. My brother had just died, and unable to express my grief directly, I thought I might learn a thing or two about endurance and empathy in the prison.
The warden at the time expressed himself quite directly: “These women are in here to be punished. Hell, I’d like to take a playwriting workshop myself.” When I asked him why there were no books in the women’s library, he said: “We send the books and programs to the men. Men will kill each other in prison. Women just get depressed.” He gave me permission to do a book drive; as I delivered carts of books to maximum, he laughed: “Those women are never gonna read them.”
The second week of my workshop, I was stopped in the hall by a 17-year-old inmate who was doing time for prostitution. She grabbed my sleeve and said: “Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt.” Hamlet subsequently became a well-thumbed book in the library.
Those inmates did teach me a thing or two about survival and redoubled my faith in empathy. Flash forward: I am asked to speak on the arts to the Plebe class at the Naval Academy. A third of the class presses closely to listen; in the back are a third of the class who are obviously hostile to wasting time listening to me speak.
Finally, a plebe in the back raises his hand: “Why should we spend our time in theatre?”
I was waiting for this question. Here I was, perhaps to his mind a bluestocking elitist. How was he to know that I had, thanks to the arts, escaped living under the poverty level and domestic violence? And so I replied:
“You are being trained, in essence to kill. How do you turn off your training when you are home, bending over your child’s cradle? With your spouse? With your parents?”
The Greeks, who gave us democracy, the Olympics, and military strategy, also gave us theatre. In a Greek democracy, every man was a citizen-warrior-art participant. All senators were required to attend the theatre; the rich citizens took turns in producing the festival of Dionysus. Theatre was free for all citizens, women and slaves. And so the senators, who had to vote to send their own sons to war, were required to watch plays about the impact of their vote on women and children (The Trojan Women) and to watch the result of xenophobia in treatment of immigrants (Medea).
A nascent democracy required constant military preparation for all citizens. But as importantly, a national sense of community required empathy. The Greeks knew the critical importance of the arts accessible by all.
I am not a historian. But over centuries, a fragile Greek democracy became a Roman Empire: theatre was replaced by the circus. Arts were relegated to the ruling class. Gladiators became the celebrity apprentices for the masses. The myth of Nero fiddling (the cithara) while Rome burned is a terrible allegory of the arts as a toy to the empathy-challenged emperor.
We have seen a dangerous drift away from the arts in America: arts budgets in schools are slashed, while sports budgets are sacred. The visibility of the arts has disappeared in print and in media while sports coverage is fetishized. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy an occasional game of football, but I can’t say it furthers my empathy. Instead, it exercises my instinct for competition and division.
One last example that I beg our politicians to heed: during the occupation in Poland, the theatres in Lodz were closed: the Nazis reasoned that nothing would demoralize the Jewish people more.
Dear Republicans, dear Mr. Trump: if you encircle our country with the tallest walls of steel while abolishing the NEA, the NEH, and PBS, you are not making America great again. We will be imprisoned in a vast cultural wasteland.