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[whitespace] 'Coriolanus'
He Has a Point: John Preston and Aldo Billingslea in 'Coriolanus.'

The Merchant Of Menace

Gore Vidal puts a chilling bin Laden spin on the modern-day significance of 'Coriolanus'

By Sarah Phelan

IN HIS PROVOCATIVE series of essays Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, intellectual octopus Gore Vidal challenges the idea that Sept. 11 and the bombing of the Oklahoma federal building were simply the acts of "the bad guys." Instead, he posits the disquieting notion that our rulers provoked these abominations, and that the greatest victims of the attacks will be American civil liberties.

To prove his point, Vidal delves into the personal history and psychology of Sept. 11 strategist Osama bin Laden, who he likens to Shakespeare's tragic soldier, Coriolanus.

As Vidal points out, both were warriors who ended up being banished, by Saudi Arabia and Rome, respectively. Writes Vidal, "In 1994, when the Saudis withdrew his citizenship, Osama was already a legendary figure in the Islamic world, and so, like Shakespeare's Coriolanus, he could tell the royal Saudis, 'I banish thee, there is a world elsewhere.' Unfortunately, that world is us."

Noting that the rarely performed Coriolanus is part of this year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz Festival, Metro Santa Cruz called SSC artistic director Risa Brainin and SSC's Coriolanus director Kent Gash to see whether their choice of the tragedy had anything to do with Sept. 11.

Said Brianin, who had not read Vidal's essay, "I chose Coriolanus because it had never been done before by SSC, and because it felt so now, and because I had the perfect director. The play is timely in light of what makes a good leader at a time when our leaders are so scrutinized, starting with Nixon, continuing on through Clinton, and now with Bush."

Meanwhile Gash, who is associate artistic director of the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, said the play most certainly will not be set in Saudi Arabia.

As for Vidal's bin Laden analogy, a dreadlocked Gash said, "I don't think there's a parallel, just Gore Vidal trying to be provocative. Coriolanus is unique on a journey specific to him. And we try to avoid making it a case of name-your-complicated-world-leader, because we want to expand, not narrow, the journey. Coriolanus may be one of Shakespeare's least performed plays, but it's endlessly fascinating, compelling and complex, and alarmingly contemporary."

No kidding. Written almost 400 years ago and probably inspired by England's 17th-century peasants' riots, Coriolanus' insights into plebeian revolt made it relevant to proletarian revolution and fascism in the 1930s and 1940s, and even found the prol-friendly Bertolt Brecht writing his own version when he died in 1956.


Coriolanus plays in the indoor Main Stage at UCSC from July 20 to Aug. 31, (831.459.2159)

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From the July 10-17, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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