The Election of 493 B.C.: Make Rome Great Again

Culture Watch
tags: theater review, Coriolanus

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

It is 493 B.C. in Rome, Italy, and everybody wants to make Caius Martius, the general who just defeated yet another enemy army to save Rome, its Consul, or national leader. He is a ‘different’ candidate. He is an “outsider.” He is “not a politician.” He has simple solutions to complex problems. He has a temper. He criticizes everyone. In different words, he tells the people that it is time to “drain the swamp.” Oh my God, is this Donald Trumps’ great-great-great-great grandfather? Honestly, this character created in 1610 seems just like Trump, except for the orange hair, the television show and the three wives.

The problem with William Shakespeare’s Caius Martius in this powerful, moving and forceful staging of his play Coriolanus, one of the very best Shakespeare productions I have ever seen, that just opened at the Barrow Street Theater in New York, is that he is as bad a politician as he was a good general. He fumes, he rages and does not listen to good advice from sage political figures. He disowns all people of importance and the common people, too. He stomps on the floor and absolutely insists on getting his way every minute of the day.

Everybody in Rome turns against him and he is banished, even though he was a real life superhero. He travels to Volscia, the city/stare that he had just defeated on the battlefield and there is made the leader of its army and prepares to attack Rome to seek revenge and take over.

Director Michael Sexton set the play in today’s Rome, but this could be America and the election of 2016. General Martius looks great in his modern combat fatigues and army boots and like a fish out of water in expensive suits. He is good at giving orders but bad at taking advice. At the very end of the election campaign, when his handlers have smoothed things over and set him up to deliver an apologetic speech to all, he rants and storms off stage yet again. The guy cannot help himself from saying the most offensive things you can imagine (does this sound familiar?)

The play is staged on a large, barren platform and the audience surrounds it on three sides. Director Sexton, who did a marvelous job with this highly political play, brilliantly has his actors moving on and off the platform and into the audience aisles, where they yell, demand and cheer. He has surrounded the audience with “polling place” broadsides, election placards and even a ballot box. A dozen or so audience members are even given red and black ballot cards to cast. You really do believe that you in the middle of a heated election campaign in old Rome, except that you do not get any of the obnoxious robocalls on your phone.

Shakespeare’s play is a very accurate historical account of what happened in ancient Rome in the 493 B.C. era, although recent historians have raised doubts that there ever was a Caius Martius but that a figure somewhat like him might have existed, but not have been that successful. Rome had, as Shakespeare wrote, been under attack from a number of armies prior to the rise of Martius. They had a grain shortage and the rich, middle class and poor were all at each other’s throats. The national legislature was deeply divided and everybody feared the Roman military.

The playwright got the idea for the story from a similar grain shortage, and political firestorm over it, in England in the early 1600s following new laws that permitted the rich to buy up huge plots of land and control grain from them. Shakespeare, the champion of the poor in so many of his plays, sided with the rich on that one, protecting his own financial interests.

Basically, Coriolanus is the story of a very old problem in democracies – can wildly successful and popular men and woman in other fields make good politicians and national leaders? Sometimes they can do it and sometimes they cannot, and with disastrous results.

There have been numerous productions of Coriolanus throughout the U.S. this year, and a movie, because of its election campaign theme. What makes this one in New York so successful is superb acting by all, deft direction and an overwhelming feeling that “you are there” (remember that old television show?) in the streets of old Rome on your way to cast your vote.

The star of the show, and he steals it every minute he is on stage, is the marvelously gifted Dion Johnstone as Coriolanus. Somebody should make his Coriolanus the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. He is sheer thunder and lightning. Other fine performances, and I mean really fine, are from Lisa Harrow as Coriolanus’ mother, Patrick Page as Menenius, a slippery political leader, Stephen Spinella and Merritt Janson as Roman Tribunes, Matthew Amendt as Tullus Aufidius, as a tough guy opposing General, and Rebecca S’Manga Frank, Coriolanus’ s wife.

If you like Shakespeare, see this play. If you like politics, see this play. If you enjoy history, see this play. If you want colossal entertainment, see this play.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by the Red Bull Theater. Set and Lighting Design: Brett J. Banakis, Costume Design: Asta Bennie Hostetter, Sound: Brandon Wolcott, Fight Director: Thomas Schall. The play is directed by Michael Sexton. It runs through November 20.

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