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A Political Coriolanus

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Last month, we opened a new exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Revolutionary Voices, which is part of a festival on Performing Arts and Revolution in Central and Eastern Europe. It celebrates the role of theater and popular music, especially, in fermenting and publicizing anti-Soviet fervor before the Velvet Revolution.

The exhibition and the public events that went with it reminded me of LPA’s vast holdings on the performing arts and revolution in the US in the 1920s and 1930s. Most were considered pro-Soviet (or “prematurely anti-Fascist”), but many of the performance techniques were the same. They included street theater, underground performance, messages spread through graphics and graffiti, and revisionist versions of standard texts.

There is a new film out called Me and Orson Welles, which was researched at LPA that concerns Welles’ production of Julius Caesar, set in a modern Fascist state. Shakespeare’s Roman plays were frequently given Federal Theatre Project productions which focused on politics and compared Roman history with present-day America. The play’s heroes and anti-heroes, and the importance of crowd scenes, allowed the directors and designers to alert the audience to the dangers of dictatorship. Studies of Coriolanus (1608) often focus on Shakespeare’s focus on autocracy (or dictatorship) vs. democracy and whether it disguised his concerns about English court politics. The Federal Theatre Project developed at least two productions of that play, as well as Welles’ Julius Caesar, in 1937-1938. The design here, by Charles Hawkins, is for a Roman soldier in the Experimental Unit’s version, re-named Coriolanus – Autocracy vs. Democracy.

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