2010-04-29 / Sam Bari

Born at the wrong time

You can’t beat a system you can’t understand
By Sam Bari

If we could bring William Shakespeare, Amadeus Mozart and Giuseppe Verdi back from the dead, I wonder if they would take advantage of the liberties enjoyed by present-day playwrights and composers.

They are famous for involving political statements and agendas in their plays and operas. However, they had to be careful. Freedom of speech had yet to be an accepted concept when they were alive.

When we think about the fodder for political satire available today, I am sure that Shakespeare would have a field day.

I can see him looking at the Clinton administration and possibly producing “Bubba,” starring Meatloaf and some unknown actress as Monica.

Then he could go back to the Nixon years and write “Richard the Stain” as a sequel to his “Richard III” of long ago.

The comedian Sinbad could play Marion Barry, the former crack-addicted mayor of Washington, D.C. When the police arrested him for drunken driving, they let him go – unpunished. Shakespeare could name the mini drama “Oh Fellow,” as a tribute to “Othello.” It would be kind of an “Othello” light.

I am sure Mozart would have fun with the George W. Bush administration. He could call his modern opera, “Bush League.” The subtitle could be, “The Wasted Years,” a testament to Bush’s checkered past, as well as his time in the White House.

In modern times, using music and song to make political statements is common practice. The days of penning grand operas and plays to inspire political change are long past.

The authors and composers who were bold enough to write about their political convictions during the Renaissance (1300- 1500) to the Baroque period (1600-1750) and beyond were careful not to offend royalty. The penalties for even mild mockery of the throne could have been severe.

Mozart was the first to boldly venture into the forbidden territory of making fun of the nobility when he wrote his 1787 opera, “Don Giovanni.”

The story was about an amorous nobleman who pursued a woman who was betrothed. He ended up murdering her father and escaped with impunity.

Even then, Mozart was careful to create a work of fiction to emphasize the broad liberties afforded the aristocracy.

All of the great tragedies and dramas like Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” and “King Lear,” as well as “Othello,” were fictional.

“Rigoletto,” one of Giuseppe Verdi’s later masterpieces about treachery within the nobility, undoubtedly tested the patience of the royal class. That opera was first performed in 1851. When it received universal acclaim, Verdi wrote his 1867 work, “Don Carlos,” one of his greatest efforts.

Verdi used the Dutch fight for freedom within the “Don Carlos” libretto to inspire Italian nationalism, a courageous political statement at the time.

Although the liberty to directly criticize the highest officials of the free world is available to all, not many modern works have realized success. I suppose “Hair,” and perhaps “X,” the musical and movie about Malcolm X, enjoyed popularity. “Hair” was not so much of a political statement as it was a societal awakening.

“Evita,” the musical about Eva Peron, realized a modicum of success outside of Argentina, the country where Peron ruled. However, Argentineans found the play highly offensive.

The classics like “Macbeth,” “Don Giovanni” and “Othello” have survived for centuries. I doubt that “X,” “Hair” or “Evita” will be performed 200 years from now.

In Shakespeare’s day, even though Macbeth was a work of fiction and bore no relation to actual Scottish history, some felt the play was cursed and would not speak its name. Apparently, Macbeth was the name of a real Scottish monarch who was admired and revered as an able ruler, and Shakespeare chanced portraying him in a poor light.

Those who feared the curse referred to the work as “The Scottish Play.”

Many of the playwrights, composers and librettists used mythological characters in their works to remove any doubt that they were not insulting a royal family.

Although the characters were mythological, many were more believable than the real-life world leaders of today.

The treachery of the Nixon administration and the personal vendetta allegedly tied to the Bush terms in office certainly hold their own against the fictional plots of bygone eras.

Perhaps the day-to-day drama in today’s political arena is more interesting as real life than it would be in a stage play. Politics are hugely responsible for why we live in a system we can’t understand.

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