Here’s a question for John Strand, author of THE ORIGINALIST.
Have you been fair to Justice Antonin Scalia?
Strand states in his “Playwright’s Notes” that he has not written “a bio play or a docudrama” of the Supreme Court mainstay (1986 through 2016). He does add, however, that “excerpts from some of the justice’s dissents and opinions are included.”
Audiences who come to 59E59 Theatre would undoubtedly love to know what the man said and what he didn’t. Some attendees, however, will under any circumstances be thrilled to spend 110 minutes with this right-wing, larger-than-life legend; others will be utterly appalled at the hard-headed hard-ass that Strand has put on stage.
Strand is smart enough to start his play by humanizing the man. Scalia enters and is about to address a college audience while a recording of a LA TRAVIATA aria plays over the sound system. He hums along in a reverie, air-conducting what he hears. So far, so nice.
Scalia tells the crowd he once appeared in an opera and still wonders if he should have been a tenor, before he definitely decides “No. Where would the country be without me?”
Such a perception is supposed to be funny, and many in the opening night crowd awarded it a hearty laugh. This ego-centric statement, though, turns out to be the tip of the iceberg. Such a protrusion is, you’ll recall, only 10 percent of the entire mass. And for the next 110 or so intermissionless minutes, we’ll see what Strand has imagined was Scalia thought underneath.
Scalia explains the play’s title by saying an originalist must “interpret the Constitution as it is written and as it was understood when its authors created the original document.”
He grouses that “the other side” insists that the Constitution must “change with the times” — a position he judges as “nonsense.” Time and time again, he’ll mention The Founding Fathers and their wisdom, which means their Constitution must now and forever be the be-all and end-all.
Well, if everything’s so hunky-dory perfect with the original Constitution, why have there been 27 amendments to it?
In the musical 1776, bookwriter Peter Stone had Benjamin Franklin say of The Founding Fathers that “We’re not demi-Gods.” But even if Kim Kardashian had said it, that’s the truth that Strand’s Scalia should have remembered. To lionize our Founding Fathers as 100% unerring is too simplistic. Besides, whether today’s right-wing conservatives like it or not, by virtue of our Founding Fathers starting a revolution, they were by definition quite liberal.
Only seconds pass before Cat, a young black woman in the audience, stands unannounced. She challenges Scalia on his negative feelings towards affirmative action.
Scalia counters with “It posits that my father, who was white, bears some share of guilt for the crimes committed during slavery and after, and that I and my children and grandchildren share it.”
Religious texts including the Bible say that we’re still responsible and paying for the sins of Adam and Eve? There have been billions of people throughout history who have believed and accepted that – including, we can assume, fervent Catholic Scalia. Such pious people might well argue that the authors of the Bible have it all over The Founding Fathers.
We’re only minutes into the script and already Scalia is making pronouncements that he believes to be inarguable. He often responds to Cat with a laugh that doesn’t mean he’s genuinely amused by her; it’s instead a condescending one meant to let her know that he thinks her naive and/or stupid. And yet her hires her as his new clerk because, he says, he occasionally likes “to have a liberal around” because “it reminds me of how right I am.” Cat later refers to him as a bully, one of Strand’s most accurate labels.
His feelings on Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s liberal opinions have more than a whiff of condescension about them: “To forgive is divine.” Scalia supports the second amendment for the same reason you always hear mountain climbers give when they’re asked why they need to get to the top of the rock: “Because it’s there.”
When he asks Cat if she’s ever fired a gun and she says no, he calls her “pathetic.” So he takes her to a shooting range where he blithely shoots at targets and hits every one. Whattaman! Many in the opening night crowd gasped in horror when Scalia oh-so-casually mentioned that an automatic weapon can fire 20 rounds of ammunition in two (yes, two) seconds.
By the way, if the gun had jammed, would Scalia have sought an instruction manual on how to fix a blunderbuss made in 1787 — the year The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution?
Note that Scalia takes out a cigarette despite the fact that the building does not allow smoking. But, hey, he’s a big shot and the rules don’t apply to him. Scalia is only interested in having the rest of us follow them.
Although Scalia acknowledges Cat’s “awards and prizes,” he grouses that “I guess they have to give them out to somebody.” Scalia also believes that “every liberal’s fate in the afterlife” will be “eternal hellfire” for each will receive “God’s punishment for stubbornly refusing to see things as they are.”
And while we’re talking about God, don’t miss Scalia’s rebuttal that separation of church and state is “a common misreading of the Constitution.” He promises to “systematically destroy” her “untenable leftist arguments” on his subject and others.
But here’s the biggie. When Cat challenges him with a belief that undermines his previous statement, he waves her off with “There are exceptions to every rule.”
Whoa! If you believe that, Justice Scalia, why don’t you assume that there must also be exceptions to the Constitution’s “rules”?
Edward Gero is an excellent Scalia. He rather resembles Mayor LaGuardia in face and height but without the charm. Call him a Fascist Fiorello, relishing such pronouncements as “Being a monster is half the fun” … “You haven’t earned the right to be sarcastic. I have” … “Life begins at conception. End of discussion!” And what makes him most upset about his lost chance in 2005 to become Chief Justice? “It was the best chance in a generation to correct the mistakes.”
As for his mistakes? He says that his last one was 50 years ago.
Just when you might assume that this will be a two-hander, Scalia announces that he’s hiring the young man whom Cat bested for her current job. Brad is conservative too and brands “objectivity” as “overrated” and a “synonym for wishy-washy” – not to be confused with his phrase “too liberal-squishy,” which is his opinion of “objectivity.”
Cat actually is a moderate in that she wants to put an end to “this stupid, childish left-right shit” and meet in the “middle” that’s been “deserted.” Brett Mack’s Brad is staunch when telling her that she could be “a star” if she’d become a “young female conservative of color.” Excellent performer Tracy Ifeachor makes us wonder what decision she’ll make by play’s end.
Everyone must take THE ORIGINALIST not just with a grain of salt but with a shaker full. Who can say for sure if Scalia ever said these things? If he had, he’d be awfully easy to trap; if he didn’t, we shouldn’t be given lines that make him seem dense in not applying them to the Constitution.
If you find any of this somewhere between funny and valid, THE ORIGINALIST is the event of the season – perhaps even the show of the century. Those who find such pronouncements as insufferable will suffer.
Only those who were well acquainted with Justice Antonin Scalia can say if he were totally, somewhat or nothing like the character Strand has put on stage. Let’s see, too, if you cheer or boo him after Cat mentions LES MIZ and he says “I hated that musical.”