The age of Trump, as explained by Shakespeare
Why Coriolanus is the darkly cynical play you need to see this election season
"He was not for an age, but for all time" — that's what Ben Jonson said about his colleague, friend and rival, William Shakespeare. But sometimes, the right production makes the case that Shakespeare isn't just for all time, but for this time specifically.
An exceptional production of Coriolanus that just opened Sunday night at New York's Barrow Street Theater makes just such a case, showing how that darkly cynical play is the one we most need to see this election season — perhaps because for all the play's focus on its title character, the real tragedy is ours, the people's. (Full disclosure: Coriolanus is being mounted by Red Bull Theater, a classical company on whose board I serve.)
As Shakespeare wrote it, the action of Coriolanus takes place 2,500 years ago, in the early years of the Roman republic, and describes the banishment from Rome of its greatest military hero, who in exile allies with his greatest enemy to wreak vengeance on the city that spurned him. But as conceived by director Michael Sexton, it could have been written this year.
We, the people, take center stage in the play's first scene, as an angry urban mob — part Occupy Wall Street, part Black Lives Matter — threaten riot. Food is scarce, but the patricians, they are convinced, have ample stores of grain.
They are calmed by the arrival of the genial patrician Menenius, played by Patrick Page as an old school Southern senator in the mold of Lyndon Johnson or Fred Thompson (and it's incredible how well Shakespeare's own language suits that tone and cadence), the kind of fellow who has an old saw for every occasion. He tells the crowd a folksy parable of the time the body's limbs and organs mutinied against the apparently idle belly, not realizing that the belly was responsible for the provision of nutriment to all the body's members. (We barely need the explication he provides, as the parable is still operative today, used by Wall Street's defenders to describe banking's necessary function in allocating capital.)
The mob has begun to soften from Menenius' gentle jibes, when Coriolanus enters, sneering. A soldier's soldier and an aristocrat's aristocrat, he oozes contempt for the common people — and even more for the Senate for having given in to their demands. The people will be given grain gratis during the famine, and furthermore shall be allowed to elect tribunes to balance the power of the consul, who is chosen by the Senate. If he had his way, the Senate would have let him cut the rioting people down as he did any of Rome's enemies. The rhetoric is not so very different from our own, where one year Mitt Romney reviles the "takers" who are parasites on "wealth-creators," and another year Donald Trump eagerly supports vigilantism to deal with "thugs" and restore order.
Sexton's production is careful to make its critical correspondences between then and now promiscuously bipartisan. The two tribunes chosen by the people — Brutus (a condescending Merritt Jansen) and Sicinius (an oleaginous Stephen Spinella) — are corrupt, manipulative figures, resentful of Coriolanus' contempt and eager to rile the people up for their own cynical purposes. Not coincidentally, they bear some resemblance to political figures from our world, Brutus appearing like a cross between Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Sicinius like a combination of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But the people behind Coriolanus come off as in many ways no less cynical. Political leaders like Menenius and military leaders like the outgoing consul, Cominius (a very winning Aaron Krohn), conspire to hide from the people the true nature both of the man they would elevate to leader and to the program he would enact.
The comprehensive cynicism of the play — the fickleness of the mob, the corruption of the people's tribunes, the self-serving and self-congratulatory behavior of the patricians — is part of Shakespeare's strategy for bringing us into sympathy with Coriolanus. His arrogance and contempt should make us hate him in return — much as the people of Rome do. But we see by their actions that everything Coriolanus holds in contempt is, on some level, contemptible.
And we see as well that Coriolanus is no hypocrite, but truly lives by the fierce and uncompromising code that he holds others to. He earns his very name — Coriolanus — for his extraordinary action in a battle for Corioles, but after makes light of what he did and refuses a choice 10th share of captured treasure. Far from boasting of his prowess, he cannot bear to hear others boast of his accomplishments. And far from being covetous of power, he would rather continue to do what he does best — lead battles against avowed enemies — than have to engage in the everyday compromises, flatteries, and deceptions that he knows politics requires. Indeed, he only seeks office at all because he is urged to it by his fierce but honor-crazed mother (Lisa Harrow plays her rather as I imagine Barbara Bush seemed like to young George).
Coriolanus is not the villain of the piece, neither of Shakespeare's play nor of Sexton's production. Rather, he is a tragic hero in the Sophoclean mold, someone who, as the Volscian commander Aufidius (played as a tensely coiled serpent by Matthew Amendt) says of him, has a nature "not to be other than one thing."
Sexton is helped enormously in bringing the audience on this journey along with Coriolanus by having an actor of such emotional openness and sincerity as the Canadian Dion Johnstone. We never forget that this Coriolanus is a human being, and that this carapace of furious masculinity was built consciously to protect the boy inside who has been at war since he was 16.
And by transposing the action to the present, that journey becomes a kind of lesson in the formation — and deformation — of the reactionary mind that we recognize all to well.
Though at one point he dons a familiar red cap, this Coriolanus is not Donald Trump. Trump's braggadocious and vulgar manner could not be further from the Roman's. But he is a highly convincing representation of a certain kind of Trump voter. Coriolanus gives us the mental self-image of someone who longs to make America great again, and sees his own greatness as going woefully unrecognized by people whom he holds in contempt — yet who somehow have become more powerful than he is. Is it any surprise he's in a state of perpetual rage? How many of our soldiers and marines feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated by a society they hold increasingly to be shallow and unworthy of defense?
The representation of Aufidius is the final way in which Sexton's production brings the contemporary setting chillingly home. Heavily tattooed, hair cut more like a Hun than a Volsci, in white jeans and combat boots, this Aufidius feels like a kind of "alt-right" figure built of punk gestures and outsider anger. These Volscians are not a foreign people, but a kind of martial spirit freed of the restrictions of discipline or the bonds of natural allegiance — a spirit of pure destruction.
Coriolanus spent his life subduing men like Aufidius in the name of empire and order, and he was repaid for his labors with exile. So he dons the death's-head moth tattoos himself, to make war on that same order, that same empire.
We are now 15 years into our War on Terror, another war to subdue by force the spirit of pure destruction. The battlefield continually expands while the very definition of victory remains elusive. And now we are treated to headlines about enlistment bonuses being clawed back, while Hillary Clinton, still our most likely next president, seeks to step up the scope and pace of war rather than even talk of peace.
Trump is already the overwhelming favorite among our soldiers and marines. What happens if our own defenders begin to sport Aufidius' tattoos as well?