“The play’s the thing,” quoth Hamlet, “wherein to catch the conscience of the king!”
Looks like our own leader Prime Minister Stephen Harper”s conscience has been caught taking a kick at the arts again.
As my colleague David Akin notes, the play has raised the ire of the Prime Minister’s office because it allegedly features a “sympathetic portrayal” of a character modeled on convicted terrorist Shareef Abdelhaleem, a member of the infamous Toronto 18 . Worse, in the PMO’s view, 35k in federal money is being used to mount the festival.
“We are extremely disappointed that public money is being used to fund plays that glorify terrorism. Had the plot hatched by the Toronto 18 succeeded, thousands of innocent Canadians would have died,” said Andrew MacDougall, a spokesman for Harper.
Literature lesson: “sympathetic portrayal” of a character does not amount to glorification of terrorism, or indeed, of that character, fictional or otherwise. In fact, “sympathetic portrayal” is pretty much the only way you can gain an understanding of a character, however loathsome he may be, either in fiction or in the factual story on which a given work may be based.
In serious art, no character can be credible without sympathetic portrayal. We need to understand the mindset and motivations even of villains to believe in them within a given work. And by understanding the motivations of a character in a story, we may begin to have an understanding of real people in similar circumstances who commit actions we cannot otherwise fathom.
This kind of understanding is critical if we are to have a clear view of our own society. That’s what the arts DO: they “hold a mirror up to life,” as Shakespeare suggested. And while that’s important on its own merits, what Mr. Harper needs to understand is that it’s also essential for the prevention of future scenarios like the Toronto 18 near-catastrophe.
Plays like “Homegrown” (which I have not seen) and festivals like Summerworks (which I’ve never attended) are, in the abstract at least, exactly where our arts monies should be spent: on relevant, timely, controversial, challenging work.
That the Department of Canadian Heritage, the Toronto Arts Council , the Ontario Arts Council, and numerous corporate sponsors support this work is commendable. In fact, I called them all up to tell them so.
I was particularly impressed with the response I got from Steam Whistle Brewery’s rep, Sybil Taylor, whom Akin had quoted in his article. You can hear our conversation here:
That Mr. Harper’s office has chosen to distance him from the creation of this work is regrettable.
We didn’t accuse Prime Minister Harper of glorifying drugs and when he sang “I get high with a little help from my friends.”
“All is not well;” quoth Hamlet again, “I doubt some foul play.“