Shakespeare and Washington, DC
MICHAEL KAHN: One of the perks for me of running this kind of a classical theater in this city is that nothing we do escapes the notice of either our audience, which is composed of a lot of political people, or the newspaper. So you know, we do a production of Coriolanus and the Washington Post will say, "Gee, it's too bad that Coriolanus didn't have Ed Rollins," or I'll do a production of Don Carlos by Schiller, in which the Grand Inquisitor comes out at the end, I'm not thinking about this next thing, I'm just dealing with that, and the Washington Post will say it's my answer to John Ashcroft.
I'm a product of my time, my actors are products of my time, I know what's going on. I am interested in what's going on, so there is no way for people not to bring that same interest to the plays. You know, people say to me, "Gee, it's always surprising that your plays seem so topical." Well, yes, no. Do I do Richard II usually during a primary season, or Richard III? Yeah, it's interesting to take a look at that while something is going on here. Did I do Measure for Measure during the NEA controversy? Sure I did. Did I set it in Washington in modern dress? No, I set it in Vienna in 1910. Did everybody sort of understand something in relation to the world that we were living in? Of course. I was fortunate to be able to do the Trojan Women when we went to war in Bosnia. Did I slant the plays toward that? Or did I do the play that Euripides wrote or Shakespeare wrote? I think I did. Did it mean something hugely in the beginning of the twenty-first century to the audiences? Yeah. So I think it's maybe, I think it's both ways.
You know, I don't fool myself that—you know, who comes to my plays, congressmen, presidents, Supreme Court—do I think that a play is going to change them? Or do I think maybe it'll make them think a little bit? Yes, my favorite story was when I did Timon of Athens, about this kind of issue, I did Timon of Athens. Now Timon of Athens is a play written by Shakespeare which is really talking about the growth of capitalism in, you know, Jacobean England. But he set it in Periclean Athens. His audience didn't know anything about Periclean Athens, but he set it in Periclean Athens, which was a good idea. Well, so he transposed the period to talk about things that were happening in his own time, about boom and bust, and well, I thought, you know, I'll do what Shakespeare did. We don't care about Jacobean economics, so why don't I set it in the 80s, I did it in 2000. I set it in the 80s, because seemed to me, oh, I did it in the 90s, actually. It seemed to me that it was important to remember that there had been a boom and there was a bust. We were back in another boom. I thought this would be an interesting play to remind us of the problem. Well, we did it. It was very successful, which is nice for a play that's considered sort of "runt of the litter," but I got a letter back from an audience member with all their tickets for the season torn up, and saying "I'm sending this back to you, I'm very angry. You're trying to change the results, you're trying to influence the presidential election."
I was really just trying to talk about a boom time and I was so thrilled by that letter to think that a 450-year-old play could make somebody so angry that I was addressing this election. The fact that Shakespeare could—I wasn't even planning to influence the election, but the fact that somebody could feel this about a classical play was thrilling. I wrote back to her and I said I was terribly, terribly sorry that she was that upset, and it was the best letter I every got from an audience member, because it made getting up in the morning worth it. And that, of course is a combination of my understanding the world I lived in and someone bringing their own political philosophy to a play and it connecting in some way in the event. So, that's of course when some play becomes that relevant to someone. Now whether it's about their father in King Lear and their family who went after his money when he died, or it's about somebody who thought I was, you know, going after Ronald Reagan's economic policy, or whether it's something else, the status of women—these plays allow that to happen.