‘Vexed I am of late with passions’

Experience art – see a play, for instance – and you can see why someone who sits uneasy on the throne would like to see the National Endowment for the Arts go away. The audience might hear a line in the play and think how it applies to that someone.

“Th’ abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power.”


“Alas, my lord, your wisdom is consumed in confidence.”

Jordan Barbour, a forceful Marc Anthony. (Photo from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival website)

And in case anyone misses the connection, the play’s director can write something in the program that might further discomfort that someone:

“A democracy in the midst of a controversial leadership transition that puts at risk society as we know it. Warring egos, where the difference between a desire to lead and a desire for power has become indistinguishable. A political divide that feels so cavernous and beyond healing that the conversation turns to violence. The world of Julius Caesar or America today? For so many of us, Brutus’ struggle about how best to protect and unite his own divided republic hits all too close to home”

Shana Cooper, the director of William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then points out the inevitable outcome of the choice Brutus makes:

“Tragically, even Brutus, a man with integrity and a deep conscience, allows his civic love to be contorted by the conclusion that the only way to oppose a world of tyranny is with the world’s weapons. And his choice to continue the cycle of violence makes inevitable the destructive outcome of the story: a brutal civil war.“

It may be 500 years old, but this is revolutionary stuff being presented here in Ashland, Oregon, before a Tuesday afternoon theater filled mostly with high-school students on field trips. And it’s helped along by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency that funds and promotes the arts across America.

Trump’s budget would eliminate the NEA.

For the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), that would mean losing from $100,000 to $125,000 a year, according to an email from Bill Rauch and Cynthia Rider, artistic director and executive director respectively. They say the money is used to make “our Shakespeare productions accessible for hundreds of Oregon middle and high school students.” Students receive discounted or free tickets to the plays.

“For the majority of the students, this is their first encounter with Shakespeare on stage,” Rauch and Rider write, “and the time spent at OSF is often the spark for creating a lifelong passion for theatre or even the drive to become a theatre artist.”

For the students at the Tuesday afternoon “Julius Caesar,” they saw a bold staging of Shakespeare’s drama from ancient Rome. Rodney Gardiner in a sleeveless, black T-shirt was a muscled “lean and hungry” Cassius, conniving a sports-coated Danforth Comins as Brutus to join the plot against Caesar.

Cooper stages the “brutal civil war” as a haka of knife stabbings, slashes and parries with all combatants on the stage at once, facing the audience as they pound out a seemingly never-ending, inevitable cycle of violence.

For Cooper, this depiction is not a promotion of violent civic disruption but a reminder of a better way forward.

“In Brutus, I see a reflection of our own psychological war, waged daily between the ancestral call to violence for the protection of our country and ideals, and the voice of our souls, which quietly remind us that there could be a different, more peaceful solution.”

A more peaceful solution would be more comforting for both that certain someone and for all of us. Drama demonstrates the choices – good and bad — individuals and society face. Despite the discomfort they may raise, the arts can inform those choices. Art – and the NEA — are worth keeping alive.







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