As Shakespeare wrote it, the action of Coriolanus takes place 2,500 years ago, in the early years of the Roman republic, and describes the banishment from Rome of its greatest military hero, who in exile allies with his greatest enemy to wreak vengeance on the city that spurned him. But as conceived by director Michael Sexton, it could have been written this year.
We, the people, take center stage in the play’s first scene, as an angry urban mob — part Occupy Wall Street, part Black Lives Matter — threaten riot. Food is scarce, but the patricians, they are convinced, have ample stores of grain.
They are calmed by the arrival of the genial patrician Menenius, played by Patrick Page as an old school Southern senator in the mold of Lyndon Johnson or Fred Thompson (and it’s incredible how well Shakespeare’s own language suits that tone and cadence), the kind of fellow who has an old saw for every occasion. He tells the crowd a folksy parable of the time the body’s limbs and organs mutinied against the apparently idle belly, not realizing that the belly was responsible for the provision of nutriment to all the body’s members. (We barely need the explication he provides, as the parable is still operative today, used by Wall Street’s defenders to describe banking’s necessary function in allocating capital.)
The mob has begun to soften from Menenius’ gentle jibes, when Coriolanus enters, sneering. A soldier’s soldier and an aristocrat’s aristocrat, he oozes contempt for the common people — and even more for the Senate for having given in to their demands. The people will be given grain gratis during the famine, and furthermore shall be allowed to elect tribunes to balance the power of the consul, who is chosen by the Senate. If he had his way, the Senate would have let him cut the rioting people down as he did any of Rome’s enemies. The rhetoric is not so very different from our own, where one year Mitt Romney reviles the “takers” who are parasites on “wealth-creators,” and another year Donald Trump eagerly supports vigilantism to deal with “thugs” and restore order.
Sexton’s production is careful to make its critical correspondences between then and now promiscuously bipartisan. The two tribunes chosen by the people — Brutus (a condescending Merritt Jansen) and Sicinius (an oleaginous Stephen Spinella) — are corrupt, manipulative figures, resentful of Coriolanus’ contempt and eager to rile the people up for their own cynical purposes. Not coincidentally, they bear some resemblance to political figures from our world, Brutus appearing like a cross between Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, Sicinius like a combination of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But the people behind Coriolanus come off as in many ways no less cynical. Political leaders like Menenius and military leaders like the outgoing consul, Cominius (a very winning Aaron Krohn), conspire to hide from the people the true nature both of the man they would elevate to leader and to the program he would enact.
The comprehensive cynicism of the play — the fickleness of the mob, the corruption of the people’s tribunes, the self-serving and self-congratulatory behavior of the patricians — is part of Shakespeare’s strategy for bringing us into sympathy with Coriolanus. His arrogance and contempt should make us hate him in return — much as the people of Rome do. But we see by their actions that everything Coriolanus holds in contempt is, on some level, contemptible.
Though at one point he dons a familiar red cap, this Coriolanus is not Donald Trump. Trump’s braggadocious and vulgar manner could not be further from the Roman’s. But he is a highly convincing representation of a certain kind of Trump voter. Coriolanus gives us the mental self-image of someone who longs to make America great again, and sees his own greatness as going woefully unrecognized by people whom he holds in contempt — yet who somehow have become more powerful than he is. Is it any surprise he’s in a state of perpetual rage? How many of our soldiers and marines feel similarly misunderstood and unappreciated by a society they hold increasingly to be shallow and unworthy of defense?
The representation of Aufidius is the final way in which Sexton’s production brings the contemporary setting chillingly home. Heavily tattooed, hair cut more like a Hun than a Volsci, in white jeans and combat boots, this Aufidius feels like a kind of “alt-right” figure built of punk gestures and outsider anger. These Volscians are not a foreign people, but a kind of martial spirit freed of the restrictions of discipline or the bonds of natural allegiance — a spirit of pure destruction.
Coriolanus spent his life subduing men like Aufidius in the name of empire and order, and he was repaid for his labors with exile. So he dons the death’s-head moth tattoos himself, to make war on that same order, that same empire.
We are now 15 years into our War on Terror, another war to subdue by force the spirit of pure destruction. The battlefield continually expands while the very definition of victory remains elusive. And now we are treated to headlines about enlistment bonuses being clawed back, while Hillary Clinton, still our most likely next president, seeks to step up the scope and pace of war rather than even talk of peace.
Trump is already the overwhelming favorite among our soldiers and marines. What happens if our own defenders begin to sport Aufidius’ tattoos as well?
Please go there and read the whole thing. But more important: if you are in New York, go see the production. I’m biased, I freely admit — I’m on the board of Red Bull Theater, the company mounting the play. But trust me: this one is not for an age but for our time.
Coriolanus runs at the Barrow Street Theater through November 20th.