Ancient Grecian Obama

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While so much of what’s happening in DC has been focused on Lincoln. There is a new play that opens tonight at the Shakespeare Theater called Ion, by Euripidis. I went to see a preview of it Saturday as a friend is directing it and I was particularly struck by the parallels with current day Washington – though obviously we are not ruled by rapist Gods or royal families. The play was cast with a political eye months before Barack Obama won the White House with the lead going to an Obama lookalike, Keith Eric Chappelle. He plays, Ion, the son of Apollo and Creusa, the Queen of Athens. Creusa abandons Ion as a baby and he grows up a servant of Apollo at the Temple at Delphi. The queen, childless, returns some 20 years later with her foreigner husband who has assumed the throne of Athens to pray for fertility and to covertly look for her son. Here is a passage that is striking, keeping in mind that Athens is the cradle of democracy (Note: Ion gets his signals mixed and at one point believes Creusa’s husband to be his father instead of her his mother):

ION. I’ve often overheard people from Athens sitting about in the sun in this courtyard gossip about their great city. I gather there’s much to admire. Will I feel that when I get there? Don’t think I’m ungrateful to have found you, father. All the same, some problems occur to me. One. Athenians emerged from the land they live on. My father’s a foreigner. My mother? A mystery. You say no one will hold that against me. Can that be true? No, listen. Let’s say I sweat and study and force myself forward. In politics I reach the front rank. What then? I’ll be condemned by the fools who’ve failed. By the able, the upright, the honest, I’ll be mocked for struggling so hard to succeed in a town where slander and graft drag decency down. By those with power I’ll be pilloried, I know I will. And outsider’s always an outcast. Two. In the past I’m sure it’s been your wife’s way to share with you her great sorrow. That’ll go. You’re cheerful, your child is found. She’s still childless. How can she help hating me? No, she will. Give me a smile, she’ll howl the house down. Smile at her, maybe I’ll howl too. Together we’ll make your home hell. Then, who knows? like so many wives in that situation she’ll reach for rat poison or sharpen her shears… No, the point is, I pity her. To grow old unfulfilled, unloved…Unbearable. Three. Some say power’s pure pleasure. But a life filled with fear of assassins, where’s the fun in it? Look at the life I lead here. I have leisure which all the world longs for. Who attacks or insults me? Am I shoved to one side in the street by scum? My work is to pray, give advice to the godfearing who’re glad to receive it. There’re always fresh faces, new friends. It’s like this: by nature and training I’m fit for the work it’s my duty to do. The life I live now’s all I ask of you.

The parallels to Obama’s stump speech are striking, especially since this play was written nearly 2,500 years ago in 414 BC. Apparently there was an Inside the Beltway – even in those times. I was often struck during the General Election of the classic feel of the struggle – Obama, like Pericles, the great Orator and McCain, like Alciabides, the great warrior. As Thucydides teaches us, any great democracy must have both. Before Saturday’s performance, a friend reminded me that Pericles’ first act upon taking office was to stage a production of the famous play, The Persians by Aeschylus. In that tradition, The Shakespeare Theater presents a thought provoking twist on the president and democracy through the ages. For those of you inside the Beltway, I recommend it.

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