Richard III, 9/11 and the relentless drive for political power

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Last Sunday in Stratford I saw Seana McKenna play Shakespeare's Richard III in a stunning version of that amazing play. It was also deeply relevant to us politically. Much of that has to do with casting an actress as a king.

It's not a performance in drag, though promotional photos of McKenna looking glam and ambisexual might mislead you. She plays an ugly, brutal man, balding and hunchbacked. If you didn't know he was a she, you might never guess it hadn't been a man. Yet it's hard to imagine a man giving so relentless an interpretation of the single-minded, stupefied, male drive for power no matter what deceit and damage are required. They do it because winning is all that matters, and they do it cheerily. A male actor playing that might feel a bit traitorous to his gender, and try to nuance it with some guilt and self-doubt.

Then on Tuesday, I watched U.S. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney say: "The only thing that's stopping us is government and we're gonna say let's stop government and get going again." He's not brilliant but he's had some real life experience and must know how fatuous that is. No modern economy can operate without a huge government role. Still, it's what you gotta say to win in his party, so he cheerily did. Women can do it too but it comes easier to men like Romney, who've been allowed to get away with embarrassing behaviour all their lives due to a combination of their gender and their privilege.

There's no hint of eroticism in McKenna's Richard, especially in the scene where he seduces the widow of a man he murdered, over the corpse of her dad, whom he also killed. This may have bothered some theatregoers. Generations of male audiences have felt reassured, through that scene, that no matter how unappealing you are, some gorgeous woman will fall for you. It happens here but solely due to the power and protection Richard offers. It's not much different from buying sex on the street. Henry Kissinger called power an aphrodisiac but this is more like: power gets you women. Any intrinsic potential between people becomes irrelevant when sheer power gets inserted into the equation.

This is where, at least this weekend, I find myself thinking of 9/11. There were many possibilities 10 years ago after the attacks. Americans might have learned enough from the slaughter of their own innocents in the name of abstract causes to empathize with people elsewhere who've also experienced such carnage, either through powerful nations like the U.S. or Soviet Union, or by their own tyrants. Other peoples could have used the event to acquire a more sympathetic view of Americans. The terrorists could have been marginalized and hunted down instead of being inflated into symbols in a clash of civilizations requiring massive invasions and "regime change."

But U.S. leaders, supported by the mass media echo chamber, used the event to impose old policies, already decided on. Vice-president Cheney, defence secretary Rumsfeld and others in the Bush government, belonged in the 1990s to a group call the Project for a New American Century which felt "a new Pearl Harbor" might "catalyze" the ability to rebuild U.S. strength and global "leadership." 9/11 handed them that kind of pretext, for goals like overthrowing Saddam Hussein, building up the national security apparatus and strengthening their hold on the oil-rich Mideast. National security adviser Condoleezza Rice told her staff to think about how to "capitalize on these opportunities." It was sheer exercise of power: you know what you want, you use anything to get it. The results have been disastrous: a crack-up of the U.S. and global economies, spread of torture, hatred of U.S. invaders, internal and external immigrations...

The cast really was Shakespearean, or rather Richardian: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Bush (a buffoonish figure) and Osama bin Laden too, who also knew what he wanted but, unlike the rest, seemed to get most of it, including martyrdom. It wasn't about human nature, as much of Shakespeare is. It was, like Richard III, about sheer political power that ultimately undermines itself. For those connections, we can thank McKenna along with her collaborators.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

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