Ancient Leadership in the Era of Donald Trump

Shelter from the Storm

Ancient Drama as a Refuge for the Weary and Woke

Does art--music, painting, sculpture, movies, plays--lead you? Does it cause you to make different choices, value different things, vote differently, speak out differently, see yourself differently? Do you view artists as leaders?

Like it or not, art in the Era of Donald Trump has become politicized in virtually every way imaginable, whether it is the many artists who refused to perform at Inaugural Balls, or the cast of Hamilton appealing to Vice President Mike Pence, or an invitation to the White House for Kid Rock and Ted Nugent, or a debate about whether mentioning the word "symphony" in a speech is racist. The study of ancient leadership became embroiled in this stew when a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (written 1599) brought sudden attention to the relationship between art (particularly state-sponsored or public art) and the presidency. New York City’s Public Theater staged the play as their annual Shakespeare in the Park production, portraying Julius Caesar as Donald Trump. Controversy erupted before the play officially opened. Delta Airlines and Bank of America withdrew sponsorship of the Public Theater and other sponsors distanced themselves or issued statements disavowing the production. Protesters interrupted two productions of the play.

Meet the module creators, Amy Pistone and Rebecca Kennedy!

Required: How Outrage Built Over A Shakespearean Depiction of Trump
Optional Reading: Et Tu, Delta? Shakespeare in the Park Sponsors Withdraw From Trump-Like ‘Julius Caesar’

In the aftermath, pundits weighed in with opinions that ranged from political support to condemnation. Several argued that Julius Caesar isn’t a play that encourages political violence, though it does depict a great deal of it, and that much of the outrage stemmed from a misunderstanding of the play. Others leveled aesthetic praise and criticism at the production, arguing that the political message was either too heavy-handed to be interesting.

Required: In Defense of the Trumpian “Julius Caesar”
Optional Reading/Listening: A Trumpian Caesar? Shakespeare Would Approve
‘Julius Caesar’ controversy isn’t a tempest in a teapot

Why ‘Julius Caesar’ Speaks to Politics Today. With or Without Trump.

The Unkindest Cut: Theater, President Trump And The Politics Of Performing Arts
(NPR 1A podcast)
Why outrage over Shakespeare in the Park’s Trump-like Julius Caesar is so misplaced

It is worth noting that this controversy has had broader consequences, and Shakespeare companies have been targeted (companies with no connection to the Public Theater). The question about the appropriate relationship between art and politics is, as the second article below suggests, “likely to rage on,” though what this means for political theater (and political art more broadly) is unclear.

Optional Reading/Listening:
Shakespeare Companies Suffer Backlash After 'Julius Caesar' Controversy
Julius Caesar Production Closes, But Debate Over Art And Politics Likely to Rage On

Listening for Leadership One

Based on the readings you chose, how do you feel about this performance? Write a short paragraph of your initial impressions, and keep that reflection nearby -- we will return to it at the end of the module.
Now consider this question from the perspective of leadership: how do you imagine a leader in each of the following roles would feel about this performance:
  1. a president of the United States who had been likened to Julius Caesar
  2. the CEO of a company that had sponsored the play
  3. the director of the play
  4. a contemporary playwright

Brief intro to Greek drama

The questions that this controversy raised are, in many ways, questions that have endured since the emergence of drama in Ancient Greece. This module looks at the relationship between politics and theater in 5th century Athens, focusing on plays that engage with the idea of immigration and asylum—Aeschylus’ Suppliants, Euripides’ Suppliants, Euripides’ Children of Heracles, and (optional, but recommended) Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Using ancient tragedy, we will explore the ways that art interacts with contemporary politics and revisit this Shakespearean controversy with the perspective that these ancient plays can provide.

The texts we will be looking at in this module are all Greek tragedies that were originally performed in Athens in the 5th century BCE at the main tragic festival in Ancient Greece, the City Dionysia in Athens. This was an annual festival in honor of Dionysus which took place in late March. Each tragedian would present 3 tragedies along with something called a satyr play--a bit of comic relief after the intensity of the tragedies. A play could have up to 3 speaking actors, so the actors would need to play multiple characters throughout the course of the play. This was not as confusing as it might sound to a modern audience because actors would wear masks (which, among other things, would signal to the audience that they had taken on a different role).

All three types of Greek drama (tragedy, comedy, and satyr play) featured a chorus comprising 12 to 15 members. Every individual--whether a trained professional for the main roles, or the chorus of non-professionals--was male and an Athenian citizen. Choruses would sing and dance during accompanied by an aulos, an oboe-like instrument, in between the dialogue between actors, and their leader could also speak on behalf of the chorus as a character and interact with other characters in the rest of the play. Modern readers often dismiss or gloss over the chorus, in large part because their language can be more abstract and because we do not have a particularly close modern analogue in modern theatrical or literary conventions. However, the chorus is a central element of ancient theater and because so many chorus members were required each year (over 1,100, between theater and other choral productions), participation in a chorus was a common and familiar element of Athenian civic life. And in some plays, like Aeschylus’ Suppliants, they were main characters themselves.

Because theatrical productions were part of a major civic festival, plays were put on at the public expense. Only three tragedians could compete in the City Dionysia each year, and a city official (the archon) would select which tragedians would be allowed to compete each year. The actors would be paid by the city, and the choruses would be funded by taxes on the wealthy called liturgies, a practice in which rich Athenian citizens would be asked to fund public works for the city. Choregia, or supplying and training a chorus, was one of these public services, and the man chosen to undertake this task was called a choregos (plural: choregoi). In modern terms, we might think of this as a sort of philanthropy, though there was no social expectation that a choregos would be humble in his “charitable” duty, and choregoi would often publicize and brag about their lavish generosity on behalf of the city.

The festivals at which the plays were performed also involve processions, singing competitions, and sacrifices to the city gods. All public courts and government offices were closed, the citizens often dined together in public, and the city funded those who could not afford it to attend the performances. This was not like a night on Broadway, but a publicly funded and supported exercise in citizenship for the Athenians.

What is a suppliant?

The plays we examine with this module all deal, in some capacity, with suppliants. A suppliant (and the act of supplication) was a very important concept in ancient religious thought. Supplication was a ritualized act of making a request from another person. Often, supplication involved a distinctive gesture of grabbing the person’s knees and reaching for their chin (seen below, as Thetis supplicates Zeus), but it could also involve bringing branches (often in a temple or at an altar) or be a purely verbal act. The central element of supplication that matters for us is that supplication represents (literally or metaphorically) throwing one’s self at the mercy of another and making a desperate request of that person. The request can be for an object (often, it will involve a family member asking for the body of a dead loved one, so that they can perform a proper burial) or for a merciful act, such as the granting of protection or refuge. In the case of each of the plays, the suppliants are immigrants to the city seeking asylum from dangers elsewhere.

Aeschylus’ Suppliants

We do not know the precise details of the original performance of Aeschylus’ Suppliants, but it’s generally thought that this was one of Aeschylus’ later tragedies, performed sometime after 470 BCE, likely around 462 BCE, as the first part of a tetralogy of plays about the Danaids. The Danaids were the 50 daughters of Danaus, and his brother, Aegyptus, had 50 sons. The daughters of Danaus were supposed to marry the sons of Aegyptus, but instead they (and their father) fled to Argos and sought asylum to avoid these marriages.The sons of Aegyptus pursue them to Argos, at which point the mythological accounts diverge. In some versions of this story, the Danaids do marry their cousins and all but one of them kills their husband on their wedding night (at their father’s behest), and the Danaids are punished for eternity in Tartarus. In other versions of the myth, the people of Argos protect the Danaids from the sons of Aegyptus.

In all the known versions of this myth, though, the Danaids end up marrying local Argive men and becoming the mythological ancestors of the Argive (Greek) people. It is also worth noting that the mythological ancestor of the Danaids is Io, a mortal lover of Zeus who was originally a priestess in Argos before she was turned into a cow and chased out of Greece by a vengeful Hera. Io eventually lived in Egypt, which is how the Danaids come to be foreigners even though they claim an ancestral relationship to the people of Argos, as comes up at many points throughout the play.

This play begins at the end of the war. The Chorus consists of the 50 Danaids who have fled Egypt with their father. They are seeking protection from Pelasgus, the king of Argos.  

Characters you need to know about:

Listening for Leadership Two

Imagine yourself in the position of Danaus and the Chorus (his daughters). If you were trying to persuade Pelasgus to protect you, what arguments would you make? Why should he protect you when there are 50 armed men (supported by an Egyptian army) in pursuit?

Do you yourself have any experience with leadership and supplication, either as someone making an appeal or a leader receiving the appeal? What constitutes "good leadership" in these situations?

The passage we will be looking at in detail are available below. The full play is available online here.

Listening for Leadership Three

Euripides’ Suppliants

Euripides’ Suppliants was first performed in 423 BCE. This play takes place in the aftermath of the Seven Against Thebes, a war which pitted the two sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, against each other. The traditional story tells us that Polyneices and Eteocles had to share kingship of Thebes, and in order to avoid further conflict in a family that had already seen its share of problems, the two brothers agree to take turns ruling Thebes. Eteocles is king for the first year, but when it’s time for Polyneices to take over, Eteocles refuses to step down, and Polyneices gathers an army of Argives (famously led by seven great heroes, who are known as the Seven Against Thebes) and attacks the city of Thebes. Nearly everyone dies, including both brothers, and in the aftermath of the war (a war which is often depicted as a sort of civil war, since it pits brother against brother), the new king of Thebes, Creon, declares that men who fought for Thebes can receive a proper burial but men who fought against Thebes (Polyneices and all the Argives) cannot.

This play begins at the end of the war. The Chorus consists of Argive mothers who want to secure a proper burial for their sons and who have appealed to Theseus, the king of nearby Athens, to help them.

Characters you need to know about:

Listening for Leadership Four

Now that you’ve seen an example of a suppliant play, consider what arguments the mothers of the dead Argives might make. How does their situation differ from the Danaids? What risks does Theseus face if he helps them? Why should he help them?

The passage we will be looking at in detail are available below. The full play is available online here.

Listening for Leadership Five

Euripides’ Children of Heracles

We don’t know a definite date when Euripides’ Children of Heracles (also called the Heracleidae) was first performed, but people tend to date it to c. 427 BCE. Heracles was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Alcmene. Hera (we might here remember her anger at Io, the ancestor of the Argives and another of Zeus’ mortal lovers) was not pleased with Zeus’ affair and managed to deprive Heracles of the kingship that would otherwise have been his, and he instead spent his life completing a series of heroic labors (some stories say 12 labors, but there are a lot of different versions) for king Eurystheus. When our play starts, Demophon (the son of Theseus) is now king of Athens and Heracles (who was good friends with Theseus) has died and/or become a god. Eurystheus, worried that the sons of Heracles might want revenge for all the labors that he had forced their father to complete, wants to kill all of the children of Heracles. The children of Heracles (accompanied by Iolaus, friend of Heracles and guardian of the children) ask Demophon and the Athenians to take them in and offer them protection from Eurystheus.

Later in the play, as Demophon is preparing to fight a war to defend the children of Heracles, if necessary, he is told of an oracle that foretells that Athens will only be successful in the war against Eurystheus and Mycenae if a noble maiden is sacrificed to Persephone. Demophon is faced with a dilemma, since he is unwilling to sacrifice his own daughter but he does not want to fail the suppliant children of Heracles, whom he has promised to protect.

In mytho-historical terms, the sons of Heracles eventually rule most of the Peloponnesus and were claimed as ancestors (in particular) by the kings of Sparta and Corinth. This play was performed during the Peloponnesian War, when Corinth and Sparta were at war with Athens, so there are a lot of mythical depictions of real-world conflicts that would not be lost on the audience in Athens.

This play begins with Iolaus and the sons of Heracles taking refuge at an altar of Zeus. The Chorus consists of elderly Athenian men.

Characters you need to know about:

The passage we will be looking at in detail are available below. The full play is available online here.

Listening for Leadership Six

The suppliants here are all male--does that change anything about how you (as a modern reader) think about their requests? Does the text give you any indication that there is anything different about these suppliants, as compared to those in the previous two plays?

The introduction of the oracle complicates Demophon’s decision--is there any acceptable choice that he can make, when he is first told of the oracle? Why do you think Euripides chooses to resolve this dilemma by having a woman (who has no name and whose identity here is essentially limited to “daughter of Heracles”) solve the problem that the king was unable to solve?

Athens (who traces their lineage back to Theseus) was at war with Sparta and Corinth (both of whom trace their lineage back to Heracles). Read through that lense, how do you think this story’s plot might have been interpreted by the audience? Is there some sort of political “message” or “moral” that could be taken from this play?

Unlike in Aeschylus’ Suppliants, the suppliants here are unambiguously foreign and cannot claim to be distant relatives of the Athenians. Based on what you’ve seen of the Chorus in this play, how would you describe the attitude toward foreigners that this play presents?

EXTRA CREDIT suppliant play, Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus

Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus before he died (in 406 BCE) but the play was performed posthumously, in 401 BCE. Though this play is often presented as part of a “Theban Trilogy” (consisting of the three plays by Sophocles which depict Oedipus and his family--Oedipus Tyrannus, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone), the three plays were not performed together and there are plot inconsistencies between the three. Though the plays form a loose chronological series, they should be thought of more as three distinct vignettes rather than three parts of a continuous story.

Oedipus at Colonus depicts an old man who is reaching the end of his life after a long life spent wandering in exile with his daughters, Antigone and Ismene. Oedipus grew up in Corinth (unbeknownst to him, he was adopted by the king and queen there) and as a young man, fleeing a prophecy that foretold that he would kill his father and sleep with his mother, he left Corinth. At a crossroads, he got into a violent altercation with a stranger and killed the man, and then went on to Thebes. There, he proceeded to save the city of Thebes from the Sphinx, who was terrorizing it, and became king of Thebes. In the process, he married the widow Jocasta, and it is only many years later that Oedipus realized that he had unknowingly killed his real father, Laius, at the crossroads, and had been married to his biological mother. Antigone and Ismene are (in Sophocles’ version, though not in all versions of this myth) the offspring of incest, as are Polyneices and Eteocles (whose eventual war for kingship of Thebes, the Seven Against Thebes, set the stage for the events of Aeschylus’ Suppliants).

Oedipus arrives at a grove outside of Colonus (located near Athens and within their sphere of influence, so to speak) that is sacred to the Furies, where Apollo prophesied that Oedipus would die. The citizens, however, are concerned that Oedipus’ crimes of patricide and incest will pollute the sacred grove. Oedipus asks to see the king of Athens, Theseus, to ask for his permission to die in that place. There is a second prophecy, however, which says that Oedipus will protect whichever city controls his grave, so Thebes wants his body to be buried near their city, so Thebes will have his protection--they too are worried about religious pollution, though, so they refuse to bury him in Thebes. Oedipus asks Theseus to give him burial rites, which Theseus agrees to (notably, without knowing the protective power that Oedipus’ grave will have), which means that Athens will need to protect Oedipus and his daughters from the Theban men.

This play begins Oedipus entering the grove of the Furies. The Chorus consists of elderly men from Colonus.

Characters you need to know about:

The passage we will be looking at in detail are available below. The full play is available online here.

Listening for Leadership Seven (EXTRA CREDIT)

Extra Deep Cut (=goes to 11!): Read these additional passages and think about how the interactions between Polyneices and Oedipus change your impression of Oedipus. Is Oedipus a sympathetic character here? He initially refuses to even listen to Polyneices, who comes as a supplicant, and then he rejects Polyneices’ request, whereas all of our other instances of suppliant requests result in the suppliant being granted asylum or protection. What does this failed supplication do to change how we think about these characters? How does Theseus’ behavior in this passage reflect on his character?

Listening for Ancient Leadership Eight

Taken together, these plays represent the category of “suppliant plays,” a loose sub-genre of tragedy. Before we return to modern controversies about Shakespeare, reflect on the following questions:

Extra Credit Assignment

Choose a contemporary political context in which vulnerable or displaced populations are asking for refugee status (as a few example, consider Syrian refugees and refugees from gang/drug violence in Latin America). Select one of these plays (or draw on several, if you prefer) and reimagine it in the context of your chosen political context. Who would make up the Chorus? Who would be the suppliants and who would be supplicated?  What would the driving conflict be--what would be the risks to the society or mythic/historic/political figure being supplicated and what arguments would the refugees make to persuade that society to take them?

Write a brief outline of your proposed plot and a cast of characters. You are welcome to develop your plot further than that, if you wish!

Ancient and Modern Leadership

These two articles address the applicability of Aeschylus’ Suppliants to the European refugee crisis. With your own proposed adaptation in mind, please read these articles and think about how you do and do not agree with these interpretations.

Does this play have something to offer us, as we think about modern refugee crises? These both mention a recent (loose) adaptation of the Suppliants called Big Love. If you were a philanthropist with enough money to fund a theater production from start to finish and an interest in the refugee crisis, which of the following would you be most interested in funding?

  1. A fairly literal performance of Aeschylus’ Suppliants -- the audience can make whatever contemporary political connections they want, but art shouldn’t beat people over the head with a message.
  2. A loose, freeform adaptation that draws on the Greek original but which updates the story and makes it more applicable to the modern crisis -- we’ve done lots of traditional Greek tragedies and art should make a bolder political statement.
  3. Commission a new play by a new playwright -- Greek texts have been performed and reperformed, and they’re plays by old, dead white men. I want to hear a new story by a new voice, ideally someone from the culture whose story is being told (for example, a Syrian playwright).
  4. You can also generate your own answer here, with your own rationale!
Does your answer change at all if you are no longer a wealthy private donor, but the head of a taxpayer-funded organization such as the National Endowment for the Arts? Why or why not?

Political Theater in the Age of Trump

In conclusion, let’s return to the controversy over Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Have your opinions about this performance changed at all? Do you think this was an artistically or politically useful production? Please take a moment to argue against the opposing side (i.e., if you think the play was a good thing, however you define that, argue against those who criticized the performance. If you think the play was offensive or otherwise bad, argue against those in favor of it). You might think back to the excerpted debates we read from Greek plays, which pit one argument against another, and model your counter-argument on that format.

Final Reflections

What do you think a theatrical production (or any sort of literary or visual art) should accomplish? Does the answer to this question change at all if the art is publicly or privately funded?

Optional: Aristophanes (a Greek comic playwright) wrote a scene in his comedy, the Frogs, in which Euripides and Aeschylus argue about what made for a good poet. You can read the scene below. Are your opinions on this question any different than the arguments that we see in Aristophanes?

Ancient Athens, like modern America, talked a great deal about freedom of speech. This is a topic that came up in the context of the Julius Caesar performance as well, and in many discussions of controversial art of all sorts. What, to your mind should be the criteria for whether art has redeeming value? Should there be limits on the freedom of speech and artistic expression? Can you articulate the difference between what you think should be legally protected speech and what is worthwhile speech (that is to say, where do you think the boundary should be between what you can say and what you should be given a public platform to say)?

What is the use in reperforming canonical works of literature, whether they’re plays by Shakespeare or Greek tragedies? Why do people use these texts so often? Do you think these texts should be reperformed regularly (particularly if it means that another play will not receive funding)?

Optional: For another example of a recent use of a Greek tragedy -- Manhattan’s District Attorney vs. Aeschylus

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