Theater as Politics — Or What the Bard Has to Say About Jerry Brown

With all eyes seemingly on the Olympics last week, it felt like a good time to sneak out of town – and away from politics – for a few days.

Fat chance.

Forget about the fact that Mitt Romney’s V.P. choice messed with my bucolic interlude at Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  Nearly every one of the 7 plays we saw (not all by the Bard) had politics pulsing through them.

Some even spoke to California's political reality.

“Medea/Macbeth/Cinderella” is a mash-up of Greek tragedy, Shakespearian drama, and musical comedy. Remixing two tragedies and a fairy tale, the work reminds me of the world of politics—full of tragedy, comedy, drama ... and fairy tales.

The burlesque that defines the wacko Marx Brothers comedy, “Animal Crackers,” bears a striking resemblance to the California legislative process.

In “The Very, Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa” Shakespeare’s philandering, conniving Falstaff is morphed into philandering, conniving Senator John Falstaff, who comes home, after losing the Iowa caucuses and dropping out of Presidential race, and attempts to seduce rich, married women. (No comment on who the model for the Senator might be.)

Listen to what the failed pol has to say at the end of the modern version:

It’s an easy thing to say that candidates are crooked, that change will never help, the system’s rigged. And no one sees the reasons to be cynical more than those of us who spend our time cajoling well-heeled donors out of their cash and an ill-informed electorate out of their votes… [but] there are still moments when the good rises, the battle is worth it, the world is one short increment better.

For me, that’s an apt distillation of the pluses and minuses inherent in our political system.

The Bard’s “Troilus and Cressida,” was transported from ancient Troy to Iraq, in the days after the American invasion of Bagdad. Greek warriors became American G.I.s and the Trojans Iraqi soldiers. It showed that the questions of war and peace, and the fallout from clashing cultures and ideologies—all staples of political conflict, remain dominant throughout history.

Of particular relevance to the politics of California were two new plays, “Party People” and “All the Way,” along with Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”

“Party People,” about the Black Panthers and Young Lords, is a flashback to the militant activism of the 1960s and 70s. It considers the politics of racial division, inequality and poverty, which still define political debate.

Interestingly, it also reminds us of the milieu in which many of today’s political leaders—including California Governor Jerry Brown--learned their trade.

Even more relevant to an insight into California’s Governor are two plays about leadership.

Shakespeare’s “Henry V” recounts the evolution of a flighty young prince—and one with “father issues”—into a strong, pragmatic leader, out of Dad’s shadow. Henry’s zenith was his astonishing defeat of France at the battle of Agincourt.

Will Proposition 30, the Governor’s tax reform initiative, be Brown’s Agincourt?

“All the Way” chronicles the first 11 months of Lyndon Johnson’s Presidency and accurately portrays the ever-present interaction  between politics and policy. It documents LBJ’s effective use of hardscrabble, practical politics to move high minded public policy.

That’s something that Brown is trying to do. His pushing Prop. 30 to the top of the ballot is something that would make LBJ proud!

And now, for me, it’s back to “realpolitik”--reminded by Shakespeare and others that “All the World’s a Stage.”

And a political arena.

There is, indeed, a thin line between politics and theater.

Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is a Senior Fellow at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the political analyst for NBC4.

Send us your thoughts via Twitter @PropZero or add your comment to our Facebook page.

Contact Us