History: Place, Events, Ideas, People. We study these as individual threads of understanding. We weave them back together in a sequence to see the patterns that emerge. But, in so doing, we are looking to the past. Possibly, the images that we view give us guidance for today. Theatre is full of history. Greek tragedies and epics cautioned the viewers about the excesses of ambition and the suffering of perseverance. Shakespeare, Johnson, and Marlow cast royalty and rift-raft into lineages of succession while battling for the crown. Contemporary plays fit Martin Luther King, Jr, and Paul Robeson into the pantheon of historic figures. Is is possible to write a history play when history is being made?
John Strand selected Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia as the lightening rod of controversy for his play, The Originalist, now playing at Arena Stage’s experimental stage, The Kogod Theatre. If lightening could strike twice, Strand’s choices would be right on target both times.
Arena Stage, as the flagship of American Theatre with LIBERAL, in all capitals, is hardly the place I would expect a CONSERVATIVE justice, in all capitals, to get a fare shake. Strand has avoided a one sided presentation in The Originalist.
The two primary cast members, Scalia (Edward Gero) and Cat (Kerry Warren), his law clerk, spar over every point of debate. Their intent is not to demean other position, but to strengthen each argument through thoughtful deliberation of the position’s premises, legal precedent and rigor.
Justice Scalia’s positions on Constitutional interpretations are well known over the past 30 years that he has been on the Court. Cat, a recently graduated lawyer, challenges him publicly at a lecture which he gives to a law class. She then applies for a clerkship in his office.
From the first, they spar, gloves on, about history, cases and statutes, religious beliefs, and cards. The affect of their banter is to reveal Scalia’s positions, his debate style, and the person behind the public presentation. In parallel, we learn about the admiration and ambivalence of his clerk, Cat. This brings in themes of mentor-apprentice relationship, the need for an opponent, and accepting a well played hand regardless of the outcome of the cards.
Too often in our society, we critique public officials by our impression of their public actions, leaving “private life” as off-limits or irrelevant. Strand uses personal preferences for both characters to illuminate their public positions. Musical interludes frame each scene with grand opera arias. Scalia compares his debate and decision making style to his love for opera. For all his intellectual acumen, his passion is for music. When Cat’s father dies, he follows her to the hospital and invites her to accompany him to a performance of Mozart’s Mass in C minor. There is a time when words and debates with an opponent are less relevant than offering a comforting hand.
Strand does not leave Scalia’s Catholic faith off the stage. Throughout the play Scalia and Cat draw upon their religious heritage in an attempt to understand how this has informed their personalities and opinions, and to delineate the the boundaries between each. This ranges from historical precedents to the mysteries found in the scriptures and one’s experience.
In leaving the theatre, I did not walk out with my positions validated or overturned. I did walk out with a better appreciation for the humanity that goes into developing, debating, and defending one’s position. And, I carried a copy of a biography, American Original, by Joan Biskupic, that I found for sale in the lobby. Good to follow up with some research.