Shakespeare And Politics
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
If I had to pinpoint exactly when I became a political animal, I’d probably say it was many years ago during a walk across Central Park, when I came across a long line of people waiting to get free tickets to the latest production of Shakespeare in the Park. I remember thinking that these plays at the Delacorte Theatre were a great example of the many cultural perks available to all New Yorkers.
Then it hit me that I could never enjoy such literary extravaganzas: I was too poor and had to work for a living.
Most of the people waiting in line were about my age. The men were long-haired and the women wore either minis or maxis, depending on how far they had submerged into the hippie culture. Peace signs were etched on their backpacks and while military jackets were much in evidence, they were not being worn by the military. Even though it was still morning and the tickets weren’t to be distributed until that afternoon, the line was very long. I was on my way to work and wished I could have afforded to waste hours in the sunshine, like these thespian lovers of sorts.
Still, I was under the impression that the Shakespeare plays were a good thing. Then I realized that my tax dollars were paying not only for something I’d never enjoy, but for productions that were less about Shakespeare than about politics. Public theater, public television, public radio: They are totally ensconced in the “liberal” realm that offers little fare for conservatives. Amusingly, my thesaurus still renders synonyms for the word “liberal” that have become anachronistic, such as open-minded, tolerant, moderate. NPR? I don’t think so.
It was 1969, the war was raging, and it was obvious from their markings that this mostly white crowd was anti-war. I had already had a few run-ins with young “peaceniks” at my job who called police officers “pigs” and our servicemen “murderers,” but I’d always found these discourses refreshing because they were evidence that the American system allowed dissent.
But as I regarded that crowd awaiting their freebie entertainment, I became more aware of the chasm between our positions, an abyss that exists even today. I realized then that my debate opponents were either living in an imaginary world where evil did not exist, or they were just a bunch of cowardly hypocrites for whom nothing is worth dying for.
They would all tout the left wing mantra of concern for the “little man,” yet many were college students living off their parents’ wallets or sponging off a program from a government they despised. My neighbors in the barrio, meanwhile, would be sending their children to Vietnam because college simply was not affordable. My best friend’s brother, Harry Colon, who lived on 110th Street, died that June in Tay Ninh. He was 20, and remembering his smiling photo atop his flag-draped coffin may have triggered my epiphany that day.
“Mother Courage,” by Bertolt Brecht, is the latest offering of the Public Theatre. It stars Meryl Streep. I expect the same anti-war crowd will wend their way to the Delacorte to cheer lines they hear as relevant to the current war in Iraq. Mainstream reviews tout Brecht’s play as an anti-war masterpiece, so one is sure to hear cheers when they hear: “To go by what the big shots say, they’re waging war for almighty God and in the name of everything good and lovely. But look closer, they ain’t so silly, they’re waging it for what they can get.”
War for oil, get it? Nudge, nudge.
A writer who flew with Ms. Streep on a private jet from Los Angeles whispered to me at a charity function, “She’s very liberal, you know.”
“Yes, she probably is,” I told her, “but I haven’t put her on my dumb actor list yet because so far she’s been discreet about how much she hates Bush.” But it’s no wonder she was attracted to this part.
There is an interesting correlation between the anti-war crowd then and now and the playwright Brecht. In a recent American Spectator article, Yale Kramer wrote about him, “He scorned the company of the working classes, never worked a day of his life as a laborer and was never poor.”
He was also a diehard communist who lived a very comfortable existence yet wrote plays about human deprivation. That’s similar to what struck me that day in the park. I wondered if any of those well-fed, well-shod young people had ever known poverty or the pangs of hunger except as depicted on stage or on the screen.
If not, why weren’t they supremely grateful?