“The time is out of joint.” —Hamlet, 1.5

These days, any American with a functioning moral compass knows exactly how Hamlet felt when he said that. It’s a bit of a cliché that Shakespeare has something to say about virtually everything. So it’s hardly any wonder that we turn to Shakespeare’s eloquence and stories for insights concerning the catastrophe we now undergo.

But which play to choose, the selection being so rich?

Julius Caesar, the story of a tyrant brought low by his own ambition, has been a popular choice lately. Last year in New York, a production by the Public Theatre controversially (and unsubtly) portrayed the assassination of “a petulant, blondish Caesar in a blue suit, complete with gold bathtub and a pouty Slavic wife.” Richard III, with its Machiavellian antihero rising to power by nefarious means, is also much in vogue. And Professor Eliot A. Cohen recently likened Donald Trump to Macbeth, whose nearest allies turn against him as his criminal reign collapses.

Nobody ought to push any of these analogies too far. Donald Trump does not have the makings or the stature of a Shakespearean tragic hero. He has none of Julius Caesar’s nobility, Richard III’s articulate wit, or Macbeth’s anguished inner torment.

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A watercolor of King Lear and the Fool in the storm from Act III, Scene ii.

Nor does our president much resemble King Lear, who learns humility and decency in the depths of suffering and madness. Even so, it seems to me that King Lear speaks more about the crisis of Trumpism than any other Shakespeare play. And that, I think, is because King Lear has less to say about Donald Trump himself than it does about the world that is crumbling around him—and around us.

The story is familiar and deceptively simple, almost like a fairy tale. An old king foolishly decides to abdicate his authority and divide his kingdom among his three daughters. To decide which daughter will receive the greatest share of his kingdom, he puts them to a famous test …

“Which of you shall we say doth love us most …”

Lear rewards two daughters, Goneril and Regan, for their elaborate flattery, but he furiously disowns and banishes his favorite daughter Cordelia for her honesty and bluntness. Chaos ensues as Goneril and Regan subdue their father into beggarly destitution; he spends much of the play wandering through his forfeited kingdom in a state of madness—a madness which sometimes graces him with paradoxical wisdom. For example, in a moment of crazed lucidity, Lear captures the very essence of Trumpism …

LEAR. Thou hast seen a farmer’s dog bark at a beggar?
GLOUCESTER. Ay, sir.
LEAR. And the creature run from the cur—there thou mightst behold the great image of authority: a dog’s obeyed in office.

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King Lear mourns Cordelia’s death, James Barry, 1786–1788

Lear’s abdication of authority creates a moral vacuum much like the one we inhabit right now—a vacuum in which norms of decency are threatened and largely destroyed. Catastrophe after catastrophe unfolds, tearing the kingdom to pieces and leading inexorably toward the play’s ultimate horrifying tableau—King Lear carrying his dead daughter Cordelia onto the stage, literally howling with animal grief before his own heart breaks forever.

During that last scene, the surviving characters are stricken with such despair that they wonder whether the world itself can endure …

KENT. Is this the promised end?
EDGAR. Or the image of that horror?

We might well wonder the same, for our situation is similarly dire. A manifestly egotistical and unstable man now has the power to unleash nuclear war. And faced with the possibility that the planet may soon become uninhabitable to humanity, Trump brazenly enacts policies that will hasten climate change.

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Scene from Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 film adaptation of King Lear.

Is there any hope at the end of Lear? Is there any hope for us now? Shakespeare’s nihilistic vision offers no easy reassurance. But there’s a strange idea lurking inside this savage play that merits parsing.

Three men are left standing at the end of King Lear—all of them capable of moral decency. King Lear’s exiled ally, the Earl of Kent, has spent the whole play loyally serving his master in disguise. The young Edgar, having survived his bastard brother’s machinations against him, has escorted his brutally blinded father to a peaceful death. Even Goneril’s husband, the long-vacillating Duke of Albany, has at long last learned to follow the dictates of his conscience.

The task of rebuilding on the ruins of civilization finally falls to them.

Meanwhile—and I think this is terribly important—the evils that triggered and fueled the story’s chaos have been exhausted and destroyed. The Trump-like villains, duplicitous and opportunistic as they’ve been, have failed to stave off their own destruction. Obedient to their own vicious natures, they have inevitably turned their treachery against each other. Before they could quite destroy the frail, surviving goodness in the world, they have destroyed themselves.

The evil of Trumpism is already playing itself out in such a manner. Trump’s once-trusted allies—Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, David Pecker, and Paul Manafort among them—are turning against him one by one. How could they do otherwise, given that their illusory loyalty was always founded upon self-interest, never on honor or decency?

So perhaps the grim denouement of Trumpism is already underway. Meanwhile, we who have witnessed this terrible spectacle with morally undeluded eyes must look to the future; it will be up to us to build upon the ruins.

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King Lear, by an unknown artist.

Lear, in the depths of his suffering, may have a lesson to offer in this effort. Shorn of power, authority, possessions, and dignity, thrust out onto a storm-blasted heath to make his way like a beggar, Lear at last learns to empathize with those who suffer in oblivion …

Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp;
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them,
And show the heavens more just.

Like Lear, we have long “ta’en too little care of this,” leaving a moral vacuum in which Trumpism has arisen to run its ruthless course. To fill that vacuum, we must build a just and compassionate society.

It’s time to get started.

 

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“The Triumph of Despotism …”

When I wrote my award-winning play The Shackles of Liberty, Donald Trump had not yet risen to power. Even so, I can’t help thinking my play has some relevance to our situation today. What does it mean that America’s cherished ideals of democracy and liberty are under threat by people who profess those very ideals?

Liberty_Tree

Colonists gathered around the Liberty Tree in Boston, Massachusetts.

Thomas Jefferson famously wrote of a “tree of liberty” that “must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants.” In The Shackles of Liberty, my fictional Jefferson elaborates on this image …

But the branches—how like a multi-headed monster, a vicious hydra with all of its faces at war, one against the other, the terrible faces of Liberty.

These words may sound incongruous coming from the lips of America’s most eloquent advocate of liberty. But my Jefferson is reflecting on the central contradiction of his own life—that his own liberty was built upon the enslavement of others. He’s also contemplating a lurking contradiction in the very idea of freedom …

“Freedom for the pike is death for the minnows.”

Isaiah Berlin (Rob C. Croes).

Isaiah Berlin (Rob C. Croes).

This old saying was a favorite of the late philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In his 1958 essay Two Concepts of Liberty,” Berlin explores the distinction between negative and positive liberty. Negative liberty is essentially liberty from, the freedom to live one’s life without interference. Positive liberty is liberty to, the freedom of self-determination. As Berlin puts it …

The “positive” sense of the word “liberty” derives from the wish on the part of the individual to be his own master.

When Jefferson wrote of our “inalienable” right to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” it seems to me that he was arguing for liberty in the positive sense. So was Patrick Henry when he demanded in 1775, “give me liberty or give me death!” I think that positive liberty lies at the very core of American aspiration and purpose. It has been a key to progress in America’s great moral struggles, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and LGBTQ rights.

But like all noble ideals, positive liberty can be dangerous. In a society based on the assumption “that all men are created equal,” every individual expects to share an equal right to “the pursuit of Happiness,” and an equal participatory role in the political process that guarantees this right. And as Queen Elizabeth tells William Shakespeare in my short play The Throne and the Mirror

The tyranny of the one is not worth fearing; the tyranny of the many, of the allnow that’s a tyranny to terrify any sane soul.

Philip_Dawe_(attributed),_The_Bostonians_Paying_the_Excise-man,_or_Tarring_and_Feathering_(1774)_-_02

A customs commissioner is tarred and feathered by the Sons of Liberty under the Liberty Tree in Boston. Tea is being poured into his mouth; the Boston Tea Party is seen taking place in the background.

Our founders, including James Madison, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton warned against this very danger—“the tyranny of the majority.” Majority rule is hardly a guarantee against injustice, especially when the majority chooses to serve its own pettiest interests and fails to consider what is just for all. American slavery and European fascism were both consequences of majority will turned to evil.

Such a perversion of democracy has given us Donald Trump, a manifestly narcissistic and incompetent would-be dictator. The majority of Americans are still not sufficiently horrified by the threat he poses to our republic to remove him from office by constitutional means. We are in a true crisis of democracy, in the grip of a doctrine that Trump and his followers regard as heroic and unassailable.

This doctrine holds that traditions surrounding the American flag and the national anthem should be enforced as mandatory expressions of patriotism; that most immigrants come to this country with malicious purpose; that the news media is a purveyor of “fake news,” an “enemy of the people” that ought to be muzzled; and many other specious and ugly ideas, all of them touted in the names of America’s highest ideals, including democracy and liberty.

Trump_Rally_in_Cincinnati

Trump rally in Cincinnati, Ohio; October 2016 (Bill Huber).

Tragically, Trump’s followers fail to perceive the ruin this doctrine is bringing upon themselves. As Berlin puts it …

The triumph of despotism is to force the slaves to declare themselves free. It may need no force; the slaves may proclaim their freedom quite sincerely: but they are none the less slaves.

But what can be done to defeat Trumpism? The upcoming midterm elections are, of course, vitally important; but the problem won’t be solved even if Trump’s congressional sycophants are thrown out of office, or if Trump himself is deposed in 2020 or even before. The spirit of Trumpism will endure, at least for a time, impervious to truth, the rule of law, and the tears of frightened children locked in cages.

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Henry David Thoreau, 1856.

Indeed, Henry David Thoreau argues in “Civil Disobedience” that voting is but a feeble weapon against injustice …

I cast my vote, perchance, as I think right; but I am not vitally concerned that that right should prevail. I am willing to leave it to the majority. Its obligation, therefore, never exceeds that of expediency. Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority.

So what is to be done? I wish I knew. But I’m fairly sure that the abusers of positive liberty now in power can only be defeated by conscientious and decent people exercising their own positive liberty—and doing so with the fullest possible energy and goodwill.

In my play, Thomas Jefferson asks about those “terrible faces of liberty” …

Why can’t they see that the sky is filled with sunlight, that there is Freedom in infinite abundance, and Happiness bountiful enough for every creature that lives or ever shall—not merely to share but to give, one unto another, until the sun exhausts its perpetual light?

It’s an impossible ideal, of course—and Isaiah Berlin warns against the potential evil of impossible ideals. But if we keep striving toward greater and greater heights of acceptance, generosity, equality, and love, I can’t help thinking our current evils will recede; our wounded republic may even begin its long healing.

The text of The Shackles of Liberty is available on the New Play Exchange or by contacting Wim personally.

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Women’s march in Washington, the day after Trump’s inauguration (Mobilis in Mobili).

 

Send No More Angels

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Giotto—The Angel Gabriel Sent by God 

Father god we pray to you

please send us no more angels.

Lend us neither son nor daughter.

We turn the words

of every avatar

into cause for murder.

For now our only holy path

is to suffer life without you

so we never speak your name again

to justify atrocity.

But please check back in a thousand years or so

to see if we’re ready

to learn to love.

Amen … amen … amen.

—Pat Perrin

The Cleansing — a short play

Characters:

Mary and Martha
Jesus
Judah Ben-Hur

The scene is the Mount of Olives; Jesus sits on a stone bench staring forward; Mary enters, followed by Martha.

MARY (to MARTHA).
I’ve found him.

MARTHA.
Where?

MARY.
Sitting right here like nothing happened.

MARTHA (to JESUS).
What do you think you’re doing?

JESUS.
Watching.

MARY.
For what?

Jerus-n4i

Temple of Herod, Holyland Model of Jerusalem.

JESUS (pointing).
The Temple is about to fall; soon
not one stone will be left upon another.
Watch here and see for yourself.

MARTHA.
Nonsense.

MARY.
Let’s run.
Your disciples have fled already.

JESUS.
Why run? What’s the danger?

MARY.
After what you did just now?

MARTHA.
You’re joking!

MARY.
The Temple guards—
they’ll find you here and take you!

JESUS.
No. Not today. My betrayal is still
four days away—I’m safe till then.
Do you know how my Father makes figs?

MARY.
No parables, please!

MARTHA.
Not right now!
Let’s hurry home to Bethany
where we will all be safe
and you can tell your stories
and I can make you dinner
while she sits at your feet
doing nothing as usual.

Jacopo_Tintoretto_008-2

Tintoretto: Jesus at the Home of Martha and Mary.

JESUS.
Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you.
My Father sinks his mighty hand
into a soft shaft of sunlight
as if it were riverbank clay—
like this, you see? And he seizes
a warm, pliant fistful of it
and squeezes it tight—like this.
See how the yellow light
oozes out between my fingers?
He holds the sunlight fast
a little while—just like this—
then slowly loosens his grip
to reveal a ripe and luscious fig
that tastes just like the sun.

(JESUS opens his hand to reveal a coin)

MARTHA.
But I don’t see a fig.

MARY.
I see a coin with Caesar’s face on it.

(JUDAH BEN-HUR enters.)

Denarius_of_Tiberius_(YORYM_2000_1953)_obverse

Denarius of Tiberius, known as the tribute penny.

MARY (to JUDAH).
Go away!

MARTHA.
He’s innocent!

MARY (to JUDAH).
You’ve got the wrong man!

JUDAH.
Foolish women—what do I look like?
A priest, a Temple guard, a stooge
of Herod or Pilate, either one?

MARTHA.
Who are you, then?

JESUS.
I’ll tell you.
His name is Judah, a son of Hur—
an angry soul, filled with hate.
The friend he most loved in his youth
betrayed him into Roman slavery;
he was chained for three years
to a galley’s oar; but he won freedom
and became a Roman citizen;
yet still he remains a Jew—
the most bitter Jew in Israel.

MARY.
You’re bitter yourself today.

Miracleofthefig

Byzantine icon of Jesus cursing the fig tree.

JESUS.
So I am. I wish I knew why.
(to JUDAH)
I killed a tree this morning
an innocent fig tree just outside
the city gates. A strange thing to do.

MARY.
It bore no figs.

MARTHA.
It’s not the season.

JUDAH.
You’re a carpenter, and a carpenter’s son;
that wasn’t the first tree you’ve killed.
Learn to kill men, my Lord.
It’s the one thing I have to teach you.

JESUS.
Can you teach me to kill men without rage,
the way a carpenter kills a tree?

JUDAH.
What you did just now at the Temple—

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El Greco: Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple.

JESUS (interrupting).
A mistake. The Temple now
belongs to Caesar, not my Father.
I had no business there at all.
Its time is over—in moments now
a breath of icy love will send it
crashing under its own weight,
the weight of this world’s greed.

JUDAH.
The Temple won’t fall—not till
you bring it down yourself.
The moment is now—you mustn’t wait!
The money changers’ backs are stinging
from the whippings you gave them,
and they scuttle about like scorpions,
grubbing up the coins you spilt
when you overturned their tables—
denarii, drachmas, darics, shekels,
the currencies of all the world
jumbled in gibbering heaps,
worth nothing until they’re sorted
and weighed anew. All commerce
is suspended—and all authority,
the power of priests and Rome alike.
The time is here—this very moment—
to cast off the yoke of Rome,
to lift up the poor and crush the rich,
and make of Israel the Kingdom
that you yourself have promised.

JESUS.
And you’ve raised three legions
to bring me victory. Right now
they mingle like cutpurses among
these millions who have come
to Jerusalem to celebrate
the Passover.

JUDAH.
How did you know?

ramon novarro-1

Ramon Novarro as Ben-Hur, 1925.

JESUS.
Three years you followed me
with thousands of men with knives
in their belts. I wasn’t supposed
to notice? While I sought farmers
and fishermen and tax collectors
and mothers, wives, and harlots,
you gathered soldiers. You trained them
in the lava beds—to guard and strike
with their fists, to cut and thrust
with javelins and swords,
an army of Galileans styled
like Romans to destroy the Romans.

JUDAH.
Your army—the Kingdom’s army.

JESUS.
Are you sure they are enough?
Do they have spears that hurl themselves
from tunnels forged from iron
and tear men’s bodies to pieces?
Do they ride winged chariots
that drop fire from the sky,
consuming cities faster than thought?
Can you make the winds themselves
breathe writhing and devouring death
into your enemies’ bones?
Can you unleash the power of the sun?
Do you have an arm like God?

JUDAH.
Rabbi, why all these riddles?
Why do you brood and wait?
Rome’s power is puny beside yours.
Rise up now, work miracles
to liberate Israel—the kind
I’ve seen you work a hundred times.

JESUS.
Miracles? What miracles? Tell me.

JUDAH.
You’ve healed the sick and lame,
the palsied and the paralyzed,
cast out devils, made blind men see;
you cured and cleansed my own
dear mother and sister of leprosy;
and Lazarus, these women’s brother—
he died, you gave him life again;
and when a multitude was hungry
you fed them, all of them.

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Bernardo Strozzi: Feeding the Multitudes.

JESUS.
Wait—I fed a multitude, you say?

MARY.
Of course you did.

MARTHA.
You know you did.

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Were you there?

JUDAH.
Right near you, yes.

JESUS.
So tell me—how did I do it?

JUDAH.
My Lord, everyone knows—

JESUS.
No—not what you’ve heard,
but what you saw and felt and did.
I want to hear it.

JUDAH.
Five thousand gathered by the sea
to hear you speak—but where
was food enough for them to eat?
Two hundred denarii would not buy
enough bread for that multitude.

JESUS.
And you—did you lack food as well?

JUDAH.
No. I’d brought bread of my own,
and so had others, but not most;
thousands more were waiting, hungry.
Then Andrew found a boy who’d brought
five loaves of barley and two fishes.
You told the multitude to sit
and gave thanks to your Father;
you broke the bread and gave it to some,
and you gave away the fishes,
and then … Oh, Lord, I am ashamed.

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I’d had no wine, and yet
I became drunk—drunk and hungry.
I tore my own bread, stuffed my mouth,
and then …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
The old man next to me—
his hunger became mine,
his wrinkled lips, his aching belly,
I felt his craving as my own.
And on my other side, a mother
unfed, her baby at her breast—
I became her too, I felt the grip
of her baby’s gums pulling her dug,
felt the dryness inside her.
And then … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
I rose stark mad to my feet, reeling
with bounty and munificence,
and tore my bread and crammed
some in the old man’s hand, then
in the mother’s too, and staggered
giving amid the multitude
while others, as drunk with love as I,
reeled all around me, giving
and receiving much, much more
than all their fill. And then—
and then when it was all done …

MARY.
Twelve baskets were left brimming
with bread and fishes …

MARTHA.
… the leavings after
the five thousand were sated.

JUDAH.
But I … Oh, Lord …

JESUS.
Tell me.

JUDAH.
Such horror of great brightness!
I was sick to my soul, lost to myself—
lost, all lost, the son of Hur,
his lonely desire, the solitary
warrior thirsty for vengeance,
all gone, my precious life was gone.
I ran down to the Galilean shore
and retched up all I’d eaten until
I was alone in my own skin
and not filled with a multitude
made drunk with lovingkindness.

(JUDAH is weeping.)

JESUS.
Leave me now, Judah—go.
You have chosen another way.

JUDAH.
How can you be so indifferent?

JESUS.
What do you think I am?

JUDAH.
You are my King, Israel’s King,
much mightier than Caesar,
more splendid even than Solomon—
a king to rule the world forever.

JESUS.
I am a door. A door is indifferent;
it makes way to everyone.

(MARY and MARTHA begin to reel about, as if drunken.)

MARY.
What’s this?

MARTHA.
What’s happening?

MARY.
The ground—it rolls and shakes.

MARTHA.
I can’t stay on my feet.

MARY.
I can’t either.

(JESUS and JUDAH seem undisturbed by the forces felt by MARY and MARTHA.)

JESUS.
Dance, then.

MARTHA.
Yes!

MARY.
If we can’t stand, we’ll dance!

(MARTHA and MARY dance wildly to silent music.)

Wallace_Ben-Hur_cover

Original edition of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace

JESUS (to JUDAH).
All love is cold and open.
I am the open door of love;
to pass through, open yourself,
go naked through the cold,
or else consign yourself forever
to the Kingdom of Caesar.

JUDAH.
Forever?

JESUS.
Each moment is forever;
the Temple is always standing;
the Temple is always falling.

MARY (pointing).
Look!

MARTHA (pointing).
Look there!

MARY.
The Temple!

MARTHA.
It’s dancing too!

MARY.
No, it’s falling!

MARTHA.
Its white stone frowning faces,
its porticoes, pinnacles, ramparts …

MARY.
… all breaking, breaking
like twigs in children’s hands!

MARTHA.
The sacred veil tears clean in two …

MARY.
… the Holy of Holies now
stands revealed …

MARTHA.
… now disappears
into the vaults below …

MARY.
… and dust clouds billow skyward!

MARTHA.
The air rings with falling stone …

MARY.
… the thunder and music of love!

MARY.
Let’s go there—before the dust settles!

MARTHA.
Yes, we’ll dance among the clouds!

(MARY and MARTHA hurry away.)

JESUS (to JUDAH).
Hatred is soft and sweet;
love is hard and bitter.
My time in this place is done.
The friend I love most of all
will soon betray me out of love—
cold and indifferent love,
strong and unyielding love,
the biting kiss of love.

(JESUS leaves; JUDAH stands alone, facing forward.)

JUDAH.
But the Temple—it still stands!

END OF PLAY.

 

Q&A — about Wim’s new play “The Shackles of Liberty”

18300908_1593515600660928_3404351905728072049_nQ: What is The Shackles of Liberty about?
Set during the Thomas Jefferson’s last day in Paris, the play portrays the beginning of his lifelong relationship with Sally Hemings. It also deals with his involvement with the nascent French Revolution, his liaison with the brilliant portrait painter Maria Cosway, and an irony-charged confrontation with his rebellious teenaged daughter, Patsy.

Q: Why does this story matter? Why now?
In the wake of the tragic events in Charlottesville in August 2017, the Jefferson scholar Annette Gordon-Reed wrote a piece for The New York Review of Books entitled “Charlottesville: Why Jefferson Matters.” In it she wrote …

“Perhaps coming fully to grips with the paradoxes that Jefferson’s life presents is what being an American is about.”

I think that’s true. And I think that those paradoxes come most vividly into focus in the story of Thomas and Sally. It’s the story of an “apostle of liberty” who owned slaves, and of an oppressed young woman who dictated to him the terms of her own destiny. I think this pairing somehow captures what we are as a nation and a people. We need to understand them in order to understand the America that we inherited—an America of tragic failures as well as noble ideals, achievements, and aspirations. We need to understand Thomas and Sally in order to better understand ourselves.

Q: What are some of your aesthetic influences and techniques?
To borrow a phrase from Bertolt Brecht, my goal is to “make the familiar strange”—to portray iconic figures of American history in a way that provokes the audience to fresh thought, insight, and evaluation. Tactics used to achieve this include having Thomas Jefferson portrayed by a woman, non-realistic staging that splits Jefferson into his “public” and “private” personae, and a range of songs and music that metaphorically enlarges a single setting to suggest the three continents from which the play’s issues arise: Europe, Africa, and America.

Q: What kind of impact—artistic, intellectual, communal, civic, social, etc.—do you hope the play will have?
The Shackles of Liberty is rich in ideas about race, feminism, family, religion, politics, power, and historical change. In the same spirit as Broadway’s Hamilton, it delivers a healing message about the meaning of America. To me, the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings is a kind of American creation myth. By delving into the heart of their story, I hope to encourage American audiences of all backgrounds to think of themselves as their descendants. Perhaps, by “making the familiar strange,” I can also make the strange familiar—to help release us from the otherizing that now rends American culture and society.

Q: What is the history of this play?
I have been working on this project off and on since 1978, when I first read Fawn Brodie’s groundbreaking biography Jefferson: An Intimate History. During these 40 years, I have honed my skills as a storyteller, educator, and historian by writing plays, poems, novels, and nonfiction books—many of them dealing with American history, including the writing of the Declaration of Independence. All the while I have been following developments in Jeffersonian scholarship, especially the work of Annette Gordon-Reed. The Shackles of Liberty is the culmination of an adult lifetime of thought, study, and creative effort.

Q: What awards and honors has the play received so far?
The Shackles of Liberty was performed by the University of Jacksonville Department of Drama in May, 2017. This workshop production and a $1,000 prize were awards for winning the Southern Playwrights Competition, which was open to writers in thirteen states. The play was also a semifinalist for the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s 2017 New Playwrights Conference; one of two finalists of 2015 Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition; a semifinalist for the 2016 Ashland New Plays Festival; a semifinalist for Road Theatre’s Summer Playwrights Festival 8, 2017; reached the second round for The Phoenix Theatre Festival of New American Theatre, 2017; and was one of the top 10 finalists for the Centre Stage Theatre’s 2018 New Play Festival.

The text of The Shackles of Liberty is available on the New Play Exchange or by contacting Wim personally.

 

Operation Ares — a short play

Characters:

Adolf Hitler
Wernher von Braun

The scene is Adolf Hitler’s vast office in the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin, December 1944. Downstage, an imaginary window in the “fourth wall” looks out into the night. Hitler is seated at his desk. Wearing an SS uniform, Wernher von Braun enters and salutes.

Peenemünde, Start einer V2

V-2 launch in 1943.

VON BRAUN. Sieg Heil, Mein Führer!

(HITLER rises from his chair and begins stalking around VON BRAUN, who stands at attention.)

HITLER. Where are my rockets?

VON BRAUN. Sir?

HITLER. My Vengeance Weapons. Where are they?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer, I don’t understand.

HITLER. It is a simple question, Major von Braun.

VON BRAUN. You have your V-2 rockets, Mein Führer. Several thousands of them.

HITLER. Several thousands.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer. They’re being launched daily from mobile sites in western Holland.

HITLER. Several thousands.

1024px-Damage_Caused_by_V2_Rocket_Attacks_in_Britain,_1945_HU88803

Damage caused by a V-2 rocket attack in Whitechapel, London.

VON BRAUN. Raining death upon London, sir.

HITLER. Why have you disobeyed my orders?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer?

HITLER. Some three years ago, when you showed me plans for the V-2, I ordered the production of hundreds of thousands. Enough to turn all of London into a lake of flame, fire and fury like the world has never seen. You promised exactly that. Raining death, you say? Your rain is but a puny drizzle. Where are my rockets?

VON BRAUN. Sir, we couldn’t reckon on …

HITLER. On what?

VON BRAUN. Sir, the laborers can’t —

HITLER. You have all the forced labor you could possibly need from Mittelbau-Dora.

Hitler_portrait_cropVON BRAUN. Yes, but slave laborers have an unfortunate way of …

HITLER. Of what?

VON BRAUN. Dying.

HITLER. How?

VON BRAUN. Overwork. Starvation. Disease. What have you. Sir.

HITLER. So I hear. More laborers die making the rockets than Londoners die from their warheads! Take more slaves from Mittelbau-Dora. Empty the camp if need be. Then take more from Buchenwald. The supply will be endless, I promise you. You’ll have millions to choose from.

VON BRAUN. Yes, sir. But there is also the matter of raw materials, sir.

HITLER. Materials! Always materials! Are you telling me that hundreds of thousands of rockets are an impossible task?

VON BRAUN. So it would seem, sir.

HITLER. Why did you not reckon this three years ago?

VON BRAUN. A terrible miscalculation, sir.

(Pause)

HITLER. You may relax, Major von Braun.

(VON BRAUN stands at ease, but anything but relaxed; there is no place for him to sit.)

HITLER. You were jailed in Stettin last March, were you not?

VON BRAUN. Regretfully, yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER. Do you know why?

VON BRAUN. I was never entirely clear about that, Mein Führer.

HITLER. You were suspected of sabotaging your own rocket program. You were also suspected of planning an escape from the Reich. A truly astonishing escape. Not to England, or America, or Russia—but to the planet Mars!

VON BRAUN. Sir, I assure you that I never planned any such —

HITLER. Do know why I’ve summoned you?

VON BRAUN. I received your memo, Mein Führer.

HITLER. And what did you glean from my memo?

VON BRAUN. You want to speak to me about Operation Ares.

HITLER. And what are your thoughts on Operation Ares?

VON BRAUN. Regretfully, I have no thoughts on Operation Ares.

HITLER. And why not?

VON BRAUN. Because, Mein Führer, I have never heard of Operation Ares.

(Pause)

HITLER. You’ve also been overheard making defeatist remarks about the war.

VON BRAUN. If so, my words have been terribly misunderstood.

HITLER. No? You haven’t been repeating vicious lies? That the Reich is crumbling? That the war effort is failing? That the Allies have taken back France? That the Russians are advancing upon us from the east?

VON BRAUN. I’ve said no such things, Mein Führer.

HITLER. But you’ve heard such lies?

VON BRAUN. I give them no credence, Mein Führer.

HITLER. Before you leave this office, I demand a list of every voice you’ve heard spreading such lies.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER. The Allies in France are marching into a trap. I am about to spring that trap in the forest of the Ardennes, crushing their armies to death. The Russians, too, will live to regret their encroachment upon our realms. The Reich has never been so close to victory, believe me.

VON BRAUN. I have complete faith in the destiny of Reich, Mein Führer.

(Pause)

marsproject_0000-570x865HITLER. Do you deny that you want to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. I never intended to escape —

HITLER. Do you want to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. Yes, sir, I do. Very much, sir.

HITLER. Is it possible to go to Mars?

VON BRAUN. I believe it is entirely possible, sir.

HITLER. Explain.

VON BRAUN. I have in mind a fleet of ten spaceships carrying a total of seventy men. The voyage, if optimally timed, should take thirteen months and six days.

HITLER. Why aren’t we building such spaceships right now?

VON BRAUN. We will if you command it, Mein Führer.

HITLER. And how do you suppose we shall be greeted by the Martians?

VON BRAUN. Sir?

HITLER. The natives. The inhabitants. Will they greet us as friends, liberators, enemies?

VON BRAUN. Mein Führer, it is by no means certain that there is any life at all —

HITLER. There is intelligent life on Mars. My people tell me so.

VON BRAUN. There might be, sir, but —

HITLER. It is a certainty. I have it on good authority.

(HITLER goes to his desk and unrolls a large map.)

800px-Mars_Atlas_by_Giovanni_Schiaparelli_1888

1888 map of Mars by Giovanni Schiaparelli.

HITLER. I have here a detailed map of Mars and its canals—a vast and sophisticated network, a miracle of engineering that could only have been built by an extremely advanced civilization.

VON BRAUN. Sir, I am familiar with that theory, and I must regretfully say —

HITLER. That all this is impossible?

VON BRAUN. Not impossible at all, but —

HITLER. Surely you will not tell me that this map is in any way false or inaccurate.

VON BRAUN. It is a very old notion, sir, and more recent observations —

HITLER. I received it from the Reich’s most brilliant astronomers.

VON BRAUN. Very well, sir.

HITLER. So let me ask again—how will we be greeted by the Martians?

VON BRAUN. I haven’t the slightest idea, Mein Führer.

(HITLER rolls up the map.)

HITLER. Major von Braun, I can’t say I’m at all pleased by what I’m hearing. Surely the world’s other great powers have advanced space programs, while the Reich seems to have none at all. What about the Americans?

VON BRAUN. They’ve scarcely given it any thought, sir.

HITLER. The British?

VON BRAUN. Even less, sir.

HITLER. The Russians?

VON BRAUN. The Soviets have far-reaching hopes for space travel.

HITLER. How so?

VON BRAUN. It isn’t easy to … articulate, Mein Führer.

HITLER. What is its guiding spirit?

VON BRAUN. Sir?

HITLER. The fundamental principle, the single thought, the solitary word that sums up the aspirations and the philosophy of the Soviet space program. What is it, Major von Braun?

VON BRAUN. I cannot say.

HITLER. Cannot or will not? Come, come, Major. I’m not squeamish. I’m prepared to hear any notion, however vile or repugnant or obscene, any sort of sick and depraved Judeo-Bolshevist perversion —

VON BRAUN (interrupting). It’s love, Mein Führer.

(Pause)

HITLER. Love?

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer. Love and …

HITLER. Well?

VON BRAUN. Altruism.

HITLER. Explain.

VON BRAUN. The Russians’ greatest rocket engineer was also a philosopher.

HITLER. His name?

Tsiolkovsky

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

VON BRAUN. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

HITLER. His beliefs?

VON BRAUN. That Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in the cradle forever. That the Cosmos is perfect, and its cause and purpose is nothing else but love. That the universe is inhabited by untold billions of perfect races, and it is the destiny of humankind to join in their perfection; to resurrect the dead and grant them happiness and immortality; to selflessly spread love among the stars, throughout the infinite and the eternal.

HITLER. A loving Cosmos.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

HITLER (shuddering). Yes, I have sensed this truth myself.

VON BRAUN. Sir?

(HITLER holds out his hand to VON BRAUN.)

HITLER. Come. Let us look into the night together. Let us talk of Operation Ares.

(VON BRAUN takes his hand; they go downstage and gaze through the imaginary “fourth wall” window into the night.)

HITLER. With every passing night, I believe I see fewer and fewer stars. Some grow dim, some disappear altogether. (pointing) Look, right now, at that one, flickering with its last gasp of light. Last night it was large and blazing. Tomorrow I’ll look for it and it will be gone, just an empty pocket in the sable velvet void. The universe is dying, trudging in the funereal footsteps of its lame and senile God of Love, doomed to share in his wretched extinction. It’s pitiable! The sin of pity creeps up inside of me. But what need has the universe of my pity? It needs rather my fist, my rage, my volcanic cruelty. It begs for conquest, whimpers for a master to teach it strife and destruction, to breathe a fresh conflagration of hatred into its waning orbs. For struggle, not love, is the father of all things—and the more brutal the struggle and the more fierce the hatred, the greater life becomes, and the brighter the heavens. (clenching his fist) I’ll soon crush Russia with the Reich’s great hatred, and Britain, and America. I’ll teach hatred even to my enemies, those who most profess their love. I’ll make our planet great again. And then … Major von Braun, together we must conquer Mars.

VON BRAUN. Yes, Mein Führer.

(HITLER goes to his desk and spreads the map again; VON BRAUN joins him.)

HITLER. Let us prepare for Operation Ares.

END OF PLAY.

800px-Walt_Disney_and_Dr._Wernher_von_Braun_-_GPN-2000-000060

Walt Disney and Wernher von Braun, 1954.

As Independence Approached …

Way back in 1997, I compiled, edited, and introduced a small collection of source materials about the Declaration of Independence. Earlier I posted the epilogue. Here’s the introduction:

Washington Irving’s immortal character Rip Van Winkle slept right through the arrival of American Independence. As generations of school children have learned, Rip fell into a deep, twenty-year sleep in the wilds of the Catskills after drinking from a mysterious flagon. When he returned to his village, he found that everything had changed—including the political situation, as the following selection shows:

Joseph_Jefferson_as_Ripvanwinkle_by_Napoleon_SArony_(1821-1896)

Actor Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle (1896)

The appearance of Rip, with his long grizzled beard, his rusty fowling-piece, his uncouth dress, and an army of women and children at his heels, soon attracted the attention of the tavern politicians. They crowded round him, eyeing him from head to foot with great curiosity. The orator bustled up to him, and, drawing him partly aside, inquired “on which side he voted?” Rip stared in vacant stupidity. Another short but busy little fellow pulled him by the arm, and, rising on tiptoe, inquired in his ear, “Whether he was Federal or Democrat?” Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question; when a knowing, self-important old gentleman, in a sharp cocked hat, made his way through the crowd, putting them to the right and left with his elbows as he passed, and planting himself before Van Winkle, with one arm akimbo, the other resting on his cane, his keen eyes and sharp hat penetrating, as it were, into his very soul, demanded in an austere tone, “what brought him to the election with a gun on his shoulder, and a mob at his heels, and whether he meant to breed a riot in the village?”—“Alas! gentlemen,” cried Rip, somewhat dismayed, “I am a poor quiet man, a native of the place, and a loyal subject of the king, God bless him!”

Here a general shout burst from the by-standers—“A tory! a tory! a spy! a refugee! hustle him! away with him!”

Perhaps we find it too easy to laugh at the confusion of a simple underachiever like Rip Van Winkle. Would any of his more accomplished contemporaries have been less confused in his situation? What about the men who voted for the adoption of the Declaration of Independence? What if any of them had fallen asleep before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, not to awaken for twenty years?

Many of them would have been just as perplexed upon awakening as Rip himself—and many would have uttered a similar plea of loyalty to the king. But in July of 1776, the British colonies declared themselves a new, sovereign nation. What happened to change the course of American history so abruptly and so fatefully?

Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America, was founded in 1607, and for about a century and a half after that, British Americans considered themselves loyal subjects of the mother country. By various charters and agreements, thirteen British colonies were founded along the Atlantic seaboard. In theory, the British could exploit these colonies much as they pleased. But in practice, the British essentially left the colonies alone. True, they imposed a few modest taxes to regulate trade. But these were easily evaded by the colonists, for whom the practice of smuggling was considered an honorable profession, praised by as distinguished a citizen as John Adams of Massachusetts. Great Britain was an indulgent parent; she and her North American colonies coexisted in mutual affection and respect.

Arguably, the high point in this relationship was the French and Indian War (1754-1763). When France tried to take control of North America, Britons and colonists fought side by side against a common foe. Unfortunately, after the British-Colonial victory, Great Britain found herself deeply in debt. To pay off this debt, the British at last saw fit to exploit the colonies in earnest. And the colonists were not happy about it.

They had, after all, become used to self-rule, which they considered their right as British subjects. The colonies elected their own assemblies, passed their own laws, issued their own money, and collected their own taxes. Not surprisingly, they resented it when Britain decided to maintain a standing army in America. Moreover, the British demanded that the colonies contribute to this army’s support; colonists were even forced to quarter soldiers in their own homes. Colonial resentment grew when Britain forbade settlement anywhere west of the Allegheny Mountains. The British also denied colonial assembles the right to issue their own money and imposed tougher import duties on such goods as molasses. A greater shock came when the British imposed the Stamp Act upon the colonies in 1765.

This act was intended to impose a tax on such items as newspapers, playing cards, dice, and legal documents. The colonists would have none of it. They convened the Stamp Act Congress, which established an effective boycott against the act, causing it to be repealed in 1766. But the bitterness created by this measure never really disappeared, and Great Britain continued trying to impose her will upon the colonists. The Townshend Acts created further import duties, and the New York Assembly was suspended for its refusal to agree to the quartering of troops. Toward the end of the 1760s, the British began to send more and more troops to America in hopes of bringing her unruly colonists back into line.

800px-Boston_Massacre_high-res

Engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere

Boston, Massachusetts, became a hotbed of resistance against the British. In 1770, five colonists were shot and killed by British soldiers when a mob attacked the Boston Customs House; this became known as the Boston Massacre.

In 1773, the British tried to coerce the colonists into purchasing tea from the British East India Company and paying a stiff duty for it. On December 16 of that year, a mysterious gang of Bostonians disguised themselves as Indians and committed one of the most ambitious and destructive acts of vandalism in history, dumping tons of unsold British tea into the Boston Harbor. This became known as the Boston Tea Party.

The British responded to the Boston Tea Party by blockading Boston. This stringent punishment aroused the sympathy of the American colonies, who convened the Continental Congress in 1774. Congress organized an effective boycott and sent petitions to Great Britain. Its members were determined to restore what they believed to be their natural rights as British subjects; they had no intention of declaring independence from the mother country. The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774, with plans to reconvene on May 10, 1775.

Then, early in 1775, King George III and the British Parliament decided to use military force to subdue the colonists. Troops were sent to Concord, Massachusetts, to destroy military supplies there. On April 19, those troops were met in Lexington by a band of armed colonists. Shots were fired and lives were list, first in Lexington and then at Concord.

The Revolutionary War had begun. While Rip Van Winkle lay asleep in the Catskills, his America was changing forever. A little less than a year after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the unimaginable would happen. Independence from Britain would become a reality. And Congress’s Declaration of Independence would justify that decision in memorable and powerful language which resounds to the present day.