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the theaters and the banks

June 29, 2011

I asked some friends for suggestions of what to write about today and got only one: banks. I know absolutely nothing about banks. At least that was my first response. But then I remembered my American theater history and realized that I actually do know one thing about banks. And then I also remembered that my friend is on a bit of a Ron Paul jag and that he might actually find the one thing I know pretty interesting.

American theaters were closed by the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War. Playgoing, along with “all horse racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock fighting, and other expensive diversions and entertainments,” were considered extravagances and a distraction from the cause. After the war, the people who wanted to reopen the theaters were the same people who wanted to create a national bank, and the argument for and against both was the same. The pro-theater/pro-bank folks saw the elite (themselves) as the best caretakers of the country’s interests and their organizations as working for the common good. Those opposed to reopening the theaters and to creating a central bank argued that these institutions actually bridged the public and the private and that the shareholders’ personal allegiances would be dangerously inseparable from artistic/economic policy. But both the theaters and the bank won the day.

Luckily for theater, Democratic-Republicans quickly got over their underlying disapproval of the arts and launched theaters of their own to rival the Federalists’ “elite-stamp-of-approval” institutions. And so early American theater became a theater in dialogue with itself, with theaters, playwrights, and plays answering other theaters’, playwrights’, and plays’ ideological assertions and audiences literally rioting over depictions of partisan issues on stage. Obviously that didn’t last, and today mainstream theater has become as homogenized as if it were dictated by policy.

Though local and state banks sprang to life as quickly as alternative theaters, history doesn’t give any indication that those opposed to the Fed are going to succeed in shutting it down any more than I could bring about the overthrow of the American regional theater system, as dysfunctional as they both might be. The central bank’s charter expired at least twice, and both times it was eventually renewed. The second time, Andrew Jackson’s initial refusal to renew prompted an economic panic and a 5-year depression. (Look at that, turns out I knew two things about banks.)

I wish that the theater world today maintained as vigorous a debate about the role of arts in our culture as the economic and political worlds do about banks. But it seems that with both, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. At least for now.

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