As Shakespeare says, ‘They are all — all — honorable men’

| January 28, 2021 | 0 Comments

For Valentine’s Day last year (O tempora, o mores!), the inestimable Mrs. F asked me what I would like to do. Rather than dining at one of our favorite restaurants (Petit Greek, Marino, Vernetti), I took the busman’s holiday option of going to the theater. I had read the “New York” reviews for Heidi Schreck’s “What the Constitution Means to Me” and wanted to see it. Mrs. F lovingly obliged.

I knew we were in trouble the minute we stepped into the Taper. “How many Republicans do you think are in the audience?” I whispered. As the play slid from clever conceit to cliché to contrivance, my mind drifted regrettably to the lost possibilities of seafood pasta.

The play’s success was predicated on preaching to a choir of like-minded theatergoers. The proof of the pudding (not to harp on my lost dinner) was in the blue pamphlet copy of the Constitution distributed to the audience: it came from the ACLU. Imagine if the writer and producers had reached across the aisle, politically and theatrically, and gotten their copies from the Heritage Society, and had to convince (rather than assume) the listener of the righteousness of their cause? Better theater and better politics would have ensued.

I was reminded of all this while reading James Shapiro’s “Shakespeare in a Divided America,” which the sainted Mrs. F had given me for Christmas. Professor Shapiro is a noted author and Shakespeare scholar, but — in my reading at least — suffers from the same mindset as Ms. Schreck and her producers: a mindset best illustrated by the 1976 Saul Steinberg“New Yorker” cover of Manhattan with the Hudson River as its cultural and intellectual moat.

Professor Shapiro worked on the Public Theater’s 2017 Central Park production of “Julius Caesar.” This was the production that portrayed Caesar as “Trump” and outraged MAGA-land by seeming to condone violence against the 45th President.

The problem with this reading of the play is that “Trump” (played by Gregg Henry) should have been cast not as Caesar, but as Marc Antony, the womanizing playboy who incites a mob to riot, brings down the Republic for his personal gain, and, after letting slip the dogs of war, spends his dotage in Alexandria, grabbing Cleopatra’s… (this is a family paper, after all). The shared failure of both “Caesar” and “Constitution” is that they stage their assumptions rather than interrogate them.

Shakespeare teaches us to see what Peter Brook called “the shifting point.” We may find ourselves cheering Edmund’s opening speech in “King Lear” (“Now, gods, stand up for bastards!”), but by the time Edmund has betrayed his father and brother, seduced two married women, and plotted Lear and Cordelia’s murder in act five, we are forced to ask ourselves, what were we thinking? Why did we fall for him — or Richard III or Antony? Good theater forces us to question our values, not simply revalidate them.

The Elizabethans looked nervously to Rome to see how easily empires collapse. “How long, O Cataline, will you try the patience of the Senate?” is not from Shakespeare, but Cicero. It might have been written last month. The cynical, perfidious Tribunes in “Coriolanus,” who manipulate the Roman mob at will, could have been played by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley. “Let Rome in Tiber melt,” is Antony’s selfish denial of the havoc he has wrought, proclaimed from his own Mar-a-Lago.

On January 6, after people died at the U.S. Capitol, 147 members of Congress voted, according to the “New York Times” (1/7/21), to “overturn [the] election results.” These included California Representatives Calvert, Garcia (Mike), Issa, LaMalfa, Nunes, Obernolte, and, of course, McCarthy. They chose to play the Shakespearean part of deluded conspirators. Of course, as Shakespeare wrote, they are all — all — honorable men.

But I would be happy to give them each a copy of the Constitution and “Julius Caesar” to read.


Category: Entertainment

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