Mountainish Inhumanity

A few weeks ago, at the end of January, I took a week off from my day job to attend the Shakespeare Theatre Association conference in Baltimore. STA — pronounced acronymically as “stah” by everyone — is a large, international meeting of directors and theatre company managers who get together annually to discuss the future of Shakespearean theatre.

I don’t want to discuss the conference in detail because the task would be to monstrous; there were too many things to discuss, too much to learn. I came away with such complicated and overwhelming feelings that if I tried to write about my experience as a whole, I would get so discouraged by the enormity of the task that I would never begin.

I will try to write a few shorter posts over the coming weeks talking about individual points and moments from the conference that stuck with me, in the hopes that it will be more digestible.

There was a shadow hanging over STA — as there was over the entire country — at the end of January. Donald Trump had just been inaugurated and immediately began issuing statements, signing executive orders, and announcing cabinet picks that had the sane portion of the country very, very nervous. The conference, therefore, took on a much more politicized atmosphere than you would normally expect.

There was a lot of talk about the practical concerns of doing Shakespeare in Trump’s America; how do we fund our theatres if Trump eliminates the NEA? But there was also a lot of talk about the artistic concerns of doing Shakespeare in Trump’s America. How do we use our art to welcome people of all kinds, both into our audience and into our organizations? What plays should we be staging to highlight the aberrant and frightening nature of this administration’s rise to power? Richard III, by the way. What can Shakespeare offer to a world suffering through the delusional monomania of the ugliest, pettiest, and stupidest man to ever be president of the United States?

We were all at STA when we heard the news that Trump had issued his travel ban on people from seven Muslim majority countries and halted the flow of refugees into the US. As a group of artists, progressive and idealistic people trying to learn how to be more welcoming, we were watching as the leader of our country was using rash, authoritarian tactics to keep people away. To say that the discussions were emotional would be an understatement.

As it usually happens when I begin trying to put my thoughts into words, I found that Shakespeare had already said everything I could but he had said it much better.

There is a play about the life of Thomas More, famous Catholic zealot, wherein he speaks to a crowd of people in London who are rioting to try and expel immigrants and refugees from England. The rabble as depicted in the play are Trump-supporter types: uneducated, xenophobic, frightened, and poor. They are calling for the “strangers” to be driven away, and Thomas More attempts a bit of rhetorical crowd control, appealing to the people’s humanity and empathy.

The speech that More gives to the riotous crowd is remarkable for a few reasons. As any high school student knows, Shakespeare didn’t write a play about Thomas More. But Shakespeare was a prodigious collaborator, and he wrote the speech that More gives to the London crowd but none of the rest of the play. It is the only bit of manuscript that we have in Shakespeare’s handwriting, other than signatures on various legal documents.

Shakespeare seemed to have a compassion for the downtrodden and discriminated against, as well as a healthy distrust of mobs, so the speech fits very nicely into the portrait I have of Shakespeare in my head.

The speech from Thomas More is one of my favourite speeches in Shakespeare and it is a shame that the play was too controversial to be performed in his lifetime. On Sunday after I had left the conference, I was eating lunch with some friends in DC on the way home to Richmond and I started talking about the conference and how much of it was spent discussing Trump and his new policies. I talked about how no matter how far away we get from Shakespeare’s lifetime, he always has something important to say about current events. Technology changes, people don’t. The racist ignorance that drives away strangers today is the same racist ignorance that drove away strangers in the 16th century.

Not having the speech memorized, I looked it up on my phone to read a bit of it to my friends. Overwhelmed by lingering emotion from the conference, frightened for the future, exhausted from lack of sleep, I started stuttering out the words of the speech and broke down crying in the restaurant.

Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise Hath chid down all the majesty of England; Imagine that you see the wretched strangers, Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage, Plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation, And that you sit as kings in your desires, Authority quite silent by your brawl, And you in ruff of your opinions clothed; What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught How insolence and strong hand should prevail, How order should be quelled; and by this pattern Not one of you should live an aged man, For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought, With self same hand, self reasons, and self right, Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes Would feed on one another.You’ll put down strangers, Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses, And lead the majesty of law in line To slip him like a hound. Alas, alas! Say now the king Should so much come too short of your great trespass As but to banish you, whether would you go? What country, by the nature of your error, Should give you harbour? go you to France or Flanders, To any German province, to Spain or Portugal, Nay, any where that not adheres to England, Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased To find a nation of such barbarous temper, That, breaking out in hideous violence, Would not afford you an abode on earth, Whet their detested knives against your throats, Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God Owed not nor made not you, nor that the elements Were not all appropriate to your comforts, But chartered unto them, what would you think To be thus used? this is the strangers case; And this your mountainish inhumanity.

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