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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Et tu, Steve? The Satanic Shakespearean Caesarean misbegetting of Bannon’s Baby, Donald Trump

The following news tidbit caught my eye the other day:  “Speaking to Vanity Fair’s Krista Smith, [George] Clooney called Bannon ‘a schmuck who literally tried everything he could to sell scripts in Hollywood.’ Bannon famously wrote a screenplay for a rap musical update of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, titled The Thing I Am. ‘It’s like a rap Shakespearean thing about the LA riots. It’s the worst script you’ve ever read,’ Clooney said of Bannon’s creation. ‘But he was trying to get it made in Hollywood. And had he, he would still be in Hollywood making movies and kissing my ass to make one of his films. That’s who he is.’ “

That prompted me to revisit the rough draft of a post I had started, but then put aside, a few months ago, after seeing, for a second time, the excellent 2017 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of Julius Caesar   While watching the exchange in the first act among the conspirators Cassius, Casca, and Brutus, about Caesar’s seizure after  refusing Mark Antony’s offer of an emperor’s crown, the scene suddenly took on a startlingly modern, ominous new meaning for me. Before explaining myself, I’ll try to assist you in hearing and seeing it yourselves first, by directing your special attention to the verbiage I’ve put in ALL CAPS):

CASCA I can as well be hanged as tell the manner of it: it was mere foolery; I did not mark it. I saw Mark Antony offer him a crown;--yet 'twas not a crown neither, 'twas one of these coronets;--and, as I told you, he put it by once: but, for all that, to my thinking, he would fain have had it. Then he offered it to him again; then he put it by again: but, to my thinking, he was very loath to lay his fingers off it. And then he offered it the third time; he put it the third time by: and still as he refused it,  THE RABBLEMENT HOOTED AND CLAPPED THEIR CHAPPED HANDS AND THREW UP THEIR SWEATY NIGHT-CAPS AND UTTERED SUCH A DEAL OF STINKING BREATH because Caesar refused the crown that it had almost choked Caesar; for he swounded and fell down at it: and for mine own part, I durst not laugh, for fear of opening my lips and receiving the bad air.

CASSIUS   But, soft, I pray you: what, did Caesar swound?


BRUTUS   'Tis very like: he hath the failing sickness.


CASCA  I know not what you mean by that; but, I am sure, Caesar fell down. If the tag-rag people did not clap him and hiss him, according as he pleased and displeased them, as they use to do the players in
the theatre, I am no true man.

BRUTUS   What said he when he came unto himself?

Remind you of anything? Do you now hear the same chilling new meaning that I first heard in July? It’s not just that Casca’s cynical observation (“If Caesar had stabbed their mothers”, the Roman mob would “forgive him with all their hearts”) is eerily echoed by Trump’s notorious boast at the start of his campaign (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”)

That would be chilling enough. But it’s also that Casca’s sneering description of Caesar’s epileptic seizure is horribly echoed by Trump’s equally notorious, cruel pantomime of a disabled reporter’s awkward “infirmity”. And finally, it’s also that Casca’s elitist description of the Roman mob with such revolting (so to speak) disgust, constitutes an uncannily apt description of the deplorable, bloodthirsty audiences we all saw repeatedly at the Trump rallies, where he delivered those awful lines, and all too many more.

In July in Ashland, as I listened to Casca’s speeches in that scene, the nauseating, appalling thought first occurred to me, that what Trump’s political rivals (first the other Republican candidates, then Hillary Clinton), the media, as well as sane decent people in America and around the world all thought – and, I believe, still think to this day – heard and saw as the spontaneous, uncontrollable outbursts of a demented, cruel, powerful, toxic narcissist, were actually lines delivered by an actor playing the role that he would seem to have been born and raised to play --- lines “written” as it were, by a “playwright”, Steve Bannon, who apparently took to heart Shakespeare’s revelation that “all the world’s a stage” -- especially a 21st century world in which news about the governing of the greatest empire of our world is heard not by a handful of plebeians in a Roman mob, but by an entire globe, in a world where news travels instantly to the eyes and ears of billions.

The only question I cannot answer with confidence is whether:

ONE: Trump was a conscious actor who, like the pros in the OSF troupe members who have trained all their lives to simulate authenticity in expression of emotion and thought,  knew exactly what he was doing, and for what dark purpose; or,
TWO Steve Bannon was the one and only Svengali in possession of the Shakespearean “script” for manipulation of a national mob; and Bannon, by Iago-like insinuation and flattery, fed Trump these horrible lines, while concealing from Trump that Trump was actually a puppet on Bannon’s Shakespearean string, dancing to his white supremacist tune.
And frankly, I can’t decide which would be worse.

So, as I read George Clooney’s sharp, dismissive sarcasm of Steven Bannon, the humor I might ordinarily have enjoyed in his derision took on a very sour taste indeed. Instead of mortification, I suspect that Bannon got a great kick out of Clooney’s comments when (not if) he read them. After all, or rather, after November 8, 2016, Bannon must know that it is he who has had the last laugh. Not only did his “show” go on, it is one we all will be forced to watch for what could be another three-plus years---a very long run in a kind of house-of-horrors “Playhouse California”: one which we can try to walk out of, but, as the usher (Sarah Huckabee Sanders?) would inform us, we can never leave.

So, as vile as Steve Bannon is (and anyone who watched any portion of Charlie Rose’s recent interview of Bannon can see how vile he really is), I feel compelled to give Satan his due, and credit Bannon with having fooled us all, bigtime. Of course, I don’t do this out of admiration, but because I believe one saving grace that can be salvaged from understanding the above, is that perhaps we will never again underestimate Bannon’s power and insight, as George Clooney did. 

Let us beware of thinking that now that Bannon is physically out of the White House, we can take comfort that he will not exert any more influence over Trump. Let us not kid ourselves, there is no way Trump is going to ever fire this guy. Bannon’s Manchurian candidate, whether witting or unwitting, is always within electronic reach of those puppetry strings. Bannon has shown himself to be no apprentice playwright, but one who not only understood Shakespeare, he upped the ante and produced his own modern-day Julius Caesar, using the US presidential campaign as his stage!

It has long since become customary to acknowledge the profound insight into human nature and universality of Shakespeare’s plays; and yet I suspect it is a custom honored more in unreflective praise than in actual belief. Great genius that he was, I’d imagine that most people would be surprised if one of the plays Shakespeare wrote more than four centuries ago actually turned out to be startlingly relevant to our most pressing national concerns today. And yet, now we have the nightmare I’ve outlined above, which constitutes dramatic (in both senses) proof that Shakespeare was not trafficking in fantasy when he had Casca speak those words. A demagogue’s power to energize and organize a mob behind a diabolical agenda has not changed in kind in two millennia, only in scale.

I’m sure this post of mine has also brought to mind for some of you reading it the sharp controversy raised by the recent Shakespeare in the Central Park Julius Caesar (although you might be surprised to learn that a frankly anti-fascist production of Julius Caesar was staged in the Thirties), in which Caesar bore a strong physical resemblance to Trump himself. But now I hope you see that behind that controversy about the propriety of suggesting the assassination of a modern demagogue is the deeper controversy that never happened, about how a great government was hijacked using a Shakespearean strategy. Let’s start paying attention.

Before I close, I want to get back to George Clooney’s reference to Bannon’s failed Coriolanus spinoff. Clooney being as wonky as he is hunky, I wonder whether he read the following two articles, as I did in July, about that Central Park Julius Caesar (and now I feel yet another chill, as I think about how Central Park is also identified with Trump, in his unrelenting unrepentant campaign against the innocent young men of color whom Trump demonized): 

“ 'Trump-like' 'Julius Caesar' stirs debate”  by Chris Moody  06/10/17

Moody started thusly: “The audience gathered in New York's Delacorte Theater in Central Park for a new rendition of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar gasped in delight when the title character first strode across the stage, not in a toga, but adorned in a business suit and tie that fell unfashionably below his belt and sporting a presidential yellow coif of hair atop his head. Their reaction to the Trump-like character subsided as the audience assumedly skipped ahead to the scene when they would witness (spoiler alert!) the gory assassination of this blonde, boisterous, Trumpian emperor.”

"Behold, Steve Bannon’s Hip-Hop Shakespeare Rewrite: Coriolanus" by Daniel Pollack-Pelzner

Pollack-Pelzner (which I strongly recommend you read in full) discusses that very same Bannon Coriolanus script that Clooney derided (here are some highlights):

“Soon after Bannon was appointed chief strategist for President elect Donald J. Trump, profiles noted that he was a co author of a rap musical based on Shakepeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus…Mr. Bannon’s Coriolanus set in LA during the 1992 riots, is deadly serious….his adaptation of Shakespeare offers an unexpected clue….[it] draws its title from one of Coriolanus’s lines, “The Thing I Am”. It suggests the chilling conflict that Mr. Bannon would like to play out on a national stage…His Coriolanus script, written in the late 1990s with Julia Jones, a screenwriter, offers a vision of his Shakespeare-fueled fantasy: a violent macho conflict to purge corrupt leaders and pave the way for a new strongman to emerge.…Mr. Bannon’s thrill at masculine violence still resonates…In Shakespeare’s play, a Roman patrician rebukes the mob as ‘mutinous members’ of the body politic, insulting their leader as ‘the great toe of this assembly.’ In Mr. Bannon’s rewrite, the patrician called Mack-Daddy of South Central, walks over to the people’s chief, GRABS THE MAN’S CROTCH and updates the insult by replacing ‘toe’ with a vulgar word for genitals. CROTCH GRABBING isn’t just locker-room talk here; it’s the currency of power…As chief strategist to Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon could see his vision of racial aggression, driven by a hammer-headed hero who doesn’t have to pander to the craven media, gain an audience far beyond SS’s globe.”

Is it possible that Trump was under Bannon’s influence even as early as 2005 when the Access Hollywood video was shot? Might Steve Bannon have leaked the tape himself? The mind reels at the prospect of such a daredevil political highwire act, but the fact remains, Donald Trump is the one sitting in the Oval Office today, so I don’t rule out even such a preposterous possibility.

To conclude, if my above claim that Bannon deliberately generated modern political theater from the lines of Julius Caesar was in doubt for you, I hope that the above analysis by Moody makes clear to you that Bannon knew Shakespeare’s Roman plays really, really well, and recognized their modern relevance and usefulness. So, dear friends, Americans, and countrypeeps, the fault will not be in the stars in the sky, but in our naïve acceptance of the “stars” on our screens, if we fail to recognize what is real in Donald Trump’s “act”, and what is fake (i.e., scripted by Steve Bannon).

Cheers, ARNIE

@JaneAustenCode on Twitter 

1 comment:

Sprocket said...

Thank you for the link to the VF article. I had no idea Bannon's big dream was to be a big success in Hollywood.