Shakespeare in the Park was on my bucket list, so I was determined to check it out while visiting NYC early this month.
On the plane, I reread Julius Caesar and scoured the internet for the best way to get tickets. I didn’t read any reviews, because I was going to go regardless and wanted to be surprised. Well, I was.
The night of the show was cold and a misting rain angled in through the bright stage lights of the outdoor Delacorte Theater. In the near background stood Central Park’s illuminated medieval castle topped by an American flag whipping in the wind. Before the play started, I remember thinking “This beautiful setting is perfect for a Shakespearean tragedy, and I’m lucky to be here.” I’m pretty sure I was the only one in the audience who didn’t know what was coming next.
When Caesar made his entrance, it was instantly apparent that he was cast and costumed to look just like Donald Trump. The blustery manner, crazy hair, and too-long tie were dead giveaways. Still, my mind wouldn’t accept the fact that an American icon like the Public Theater would stoop to such a tasteless and, frankly, embarrassingly sophomoric ploy. But, when Caesar’s knockout wife spoke with a thick Slovenian accent, the jig was up. How, I wondered, would they handle the assassination scene with an actor simulating the sitting President of the United States?
Well, they handled it just like Shakespeare wrote it. Several of Rome’s greatest citizens surrounded and savagely stabbed him 33 times. They then knelt around his bleeding corpse and washed their arms in his crimson blood up to their elbows: that’s entertainment.
I stayed to see if they’d alter the ending to suit their political purposes, but they didn’t; the play ended as the tragedy it was meant to be.
During the assassination scene, I surveyed my fellow theatregoers to gauge their reactions, and was surprised to find them impassively taking it all in. I left thinking that only provincial rubes, like me, were jarred by it. So, it was actually heartening when a week or so later it became a national scandal.
I get that Republicans and Democrats hate each other now and both think the other side is crazy and probably evil. I get that the national media, cultural institutions like the Public Theater, and every flop-sweating, late-night comic are doing their best to whip up national division. But, Americans still have in common that this is the country, whose ideals, institutions, and founding documents we love and respect. Most all our families have at one time or another, in one way or another, sacrificed to protect it.
As Lincoln said in his First Inaugural Address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
How do we reconnect with the better angels of our nature? By reasoning together.
The lifeblood of American democracy is our tradition of robust debate, which tests diverse opinions and ultimately arrives at a consensus we can all live with. Maybe the Supreme Court has decided too many hot button issues for us, maybe the internet insulates us from divergent opinions, or maybe we’re no longer taught the importance of debate, but, whatever the cause, our ability and desire to reason with each other — both in Congress and on the street— has degenerated.
And as diverse as we are, if we won’t reason together, we can’t live together.
For what it’s worth, it might help if instead of the puerile pap they dish out every night, one of the networks broadcast an occasional series of free and open debates on controversial national issues. That might reintroduce Americans to the process of respectfully considering opposing arguments, honestly assessing weaknesses in their own, and working toward common ground. And, it just might help us find our way back to those better angels.


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