I can smile and murder while I smile.”
III, Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics
a corridor at the Democratic Convention are three witches, huddled
together, exchanging pleasantries. Representing marginalized
agitators—a student demonstrator, a black American, and an old
communist—the threesome are as if invisible to others. But very
real, the three agree to met again—with Mac Bird in toll.
a hotel room at the convention, are the Ken O’ Duncs—John,
Robert, and Teddy. John commences to share his vision of a Ken O’
Dunc dynasty. And although it’s time to select a VP, he assure
Robert that he will always be second in power.
is thinking of asking Mac Bird to join the ticket.
not pleased, points out that the “fat” and “hungry”
look about Mac Bird makes him “dangerous.” But John is
unwavering: Mac Bird it will be! “There’s much that must
be seen and done and/heard/Let’s first bestow the title on Mac
Ken O’ Duncs exit and the witches take the stage. (Yes, it’s
in from the streets of America were unrest is beginning to unsettle
the established order, we learn from the witches that things are
brewing outside of the action on stage. There’s a train of
troops headed for “Viet Land,” for one. The first witch
explains how he tried to sound the alarm by throwing leaflets,
warning the men to “turn back.” They will fight and die
in vain, otherwise.
no one listens.
LA, reports the second witch, economically poor and forgotten black
Americans are protesting in the streets while the third witch reminds
the other two to stick to our principles. Remember why we struggle.
We must remember “lasting lessons.” While he proceeds to
recount these lessons, they hear footsteps and are forced to retreat
behind furniture that really doesn’t quite conceal them.
rise and face Mac Bird.
it’s a nigra and a filthy beatnik,” say Mac Bird to which
his Crony responds, “And there’s a bum done up in
hail Mac Bird! All hail the Senate’s leader!”
hail Mac Bird, Vice-President thou art!”
hail Mac Bird, that shall be President!”
delivered their prophesy, the witches leave Mac Bird and his Crony to
consider the implications of their words. But not for long are the
two left to contemplate before Robert arrives to inform Mac Bird that
he’s been chosen for the role of VP. He’s been chosen for
the mere “honorary position”--it’s the one closes
to the seat of power.
Mac Bird, in an aside, see that power: It’s himself! His image
as president that he sees!
John. “I do accept with deep humility.”
the rest is history.
a play, written in 1965 by Barbara Garson. It began with a slip of
the tongue. At an anti-war rally in Berkeley, California, she
accidentally referred to Lady Bird as Lady Mac Bird Johnson.
week, a friend in Philadelphia sent this slim volume she stumbled
upon it while cleaning her bookshelves. I was reading Stephen
Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics, the chapters of
Richard III. The stay-at-home order during this Coronavirus
(COVID-19) pandemic has many of us thinking back to missed
opportunities. What could have been prevented if only…
we are here.
missed this gem of a play, back in the day. I never heard of it
before reading it. I would have been twelve at the time it’s
written. But I remember the Kennedys.
day of JFK’s assassination, I was sitting in a grammar school
classroom and the crackling of the intercom made everyone look up at
the dark brown box on the wall at the front of the classroom.
teacher sat down. I don’t think that a word was uttered as we
waited for Mother Superior to return to the intercom and give us
further word on the condition of the president.
remember the following days, a series of events, each more surreal
than the previous event that weekend. First the president shot dead
in broad daylight. With witnesses and cameras looking on and one
special piece of film that becomes the definitive film, capturing the
very moment JFK is fatally wounded. Then the supposed single gunman,
with single rifle, is shot dead—on television. With witnesses
and cameras looking on as one special photo shows the moment Oswald
is no longer eligible to testify anywhere.
Air Force One, Lyndon Baines Johnson is sworn in as president while
Jacqueline Kennedy, still in blood-stained dress, looks on. Personal
grief and national sorrow is on display and magnificently staged.
I’ll never forget the single restless horse carrying the single
soldier’s boot and the mournful bagpipes. At the top of the
steps, there’s the widow and the two children, little John
John, saluting the coffin.
yesterday! Searing images you never forget.
1972, I was old enough to be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War,
just as my uncle was drafted for the Korean War. I was certainly
black enough to serve in combat—had I been born a male. But I
grew up hearing the chanting of young Americans saying, “Hey,
hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?”
followed the war on television as CBS, NBC, and ABC had war
correspondents interviewing soldiers and generals on the battlefield.
In those days, Walter Cronkite guided Americans through the footage
showing villages engulfed in flames as a result of napalm released
from US aircraft. We witnessed, at home, miles away, burning bodies
of children and their parents and grandparents. We saw the bombs fall
and send up plumes of fire. We were angry when little children were
left to cry alongside the dead bodies of their mothers.
the old men and women combatants?
could smell the napalm in the morning, long before an actor in a
Hollywood film alerted us to his peculiar love for the smell of
didn’t know JFK got the ball rolling, taking over the job from
the defeated French, and Ho Che Min had to remind the Americans, too,
that they had time. Patience. But Vietnam will not roll over and play
dead for the US capitalists, either.
it was the Southerner with the twang and arrogance and cockiness who
exchanged a victory against poverty for a defeat in war. Ensuing at
home, is a war to kill black activism, social justice, equality.
appears that a US president can smile and murder while at it!
the poverty, LBJ!
honorable intentions in Vietnam,” King said to America.
ain’t got no quarrel with those Vietcong,” Muhammad Ali
said to America.
total, 58, 200 Americans were killed, some 1, 690 were MIA, while
another 303,630 sustained injuries, many of them lifelong.
Vietnam, over 40,000 civilians were killed by the North Vietnamese
army while over 250,000 lives were lost in combat.
took the heat.
years later, I viewed the video of a tired and seemingly old Johnson
on those phone calls with Robert McNamara, Johnson anguishing over
the war, I could hear all the arrogance and cockiness of the chant,
“Hey, hey, LBJ, How many kids did you kill today?” Not
enough! Humans still died, and Americans went back to business as
Garson’s Mac Bird, Johnson and his wife are the Macbeths. Not
complimentary but then you had to have been there when it all seemed
to be falling apart. No foreseeable future in sight. Just death in
Vietnam, on that ballroom floor in New York, on that balcony in
Memphis, in a corridor at that Democratic Convention.
Mac Bird and Mac Bird are two of a kind. Once he’s told he will
be president, King, he precedes to that end. Nothing else matters.
Oh, but do the witches not bring out the worst instincts in Mac Bird?
They seem to concede power to him. Don’t they? Look at them,
dregs from the lower rungs of American society, Mac Bird thinks.
means removing the sitting King, ending the potential dynasty from
forming a session of Ken O’ Duncs!
the way to becoming a king, Mac Bird becomes a murderer. And so it
was with the Duke of Gloucester.
Greenblatt argues, insisted that the “tyrant” was as
human as the gentlest of souls among us. We create tyrants. And the
tolerance of tyrants is our doing. We can’t seem to step aside
from a system that makes us create and bow to tyrants.
writes Greenblatt, “is quite unprepared to unite and run a
whole country.” He has his enablers, men who figure he’s
their best bet for staying close to power if not achieving power,
each for themselves. So for a time, these enablers, the only segment
of the country Richard recognizes because, in turn, these are the men
who he knows will help him ascend to the throne, all perceive in
Richard and themselves a kind of kinship.
reminded when Malcolm X talked about how blacks, unprepared you could
say, to be human and free in mind and spirit from that of the master,
referred to themselves and the master as “we.” As in,
“what are we doing today, Master?” Or, “How do we
feel today, Master?” The enablers see little to distinguish
themselves from the Master, or in this case, Richard, except that he
is first in line for the throne, and any one of them, Hastings,
Catesby, or Buckingham, could be King after Richard.
enablers “are people forced to choose among flawed
alternatives.” Richard is okay, no better or no worse than
anyone of them. They are certainly not competing with each other to
become the next monk to enter a monastery. They are as human as is
Richard. So all thoughts turn to the tower where Richard brother
Clarence will be betrayed, that is, killed, as will the sons of
Richard’s brother, the current King. Once King Edward dies, his
sons will be next in the execution’s queue.
for the people, elections matter, says Greenblatt. At a rally,
Buckingham stirs the crowd: “Long live King Richard, England’s
worthy King!” Who doesn’t want King Richard, candidate
for King! Richard! (In Mac Bird, the ideas offered by resisting
tyranny are squashed, marginalized. Silenced). In Richard III, the
people will vote. “‘If you’ll have me...’”
so, few of those valued by Richard are surprised by these murders,
except for the men themselves. That is, Hastings, the first to go
among them, is shocked that his head would be on the chopping block.
He doesn’t even bother to try and escape the realm of King
Richard, when it’s clear nothing will stop Richard from
is killed. The others still follow Richard, obediently. Only
Buckingham escapes when ordered by Richard to kill the children. Of
course, he’s tracked and executed. No one of those valued
members of King Richard’s country ascends to the throne in the
himself is killed on the battlefield by the Earl of Richmond—the
one who leads the “invasion force that will cast the tyrant
down from the summit he should never have been permitted to climb.”
Shakespeare shows, are a pitiful lot. Shakespeare has Richard express
his love and self-loathing, a “psychological conflict,”
that forces the tyrant to recognize his “painful emptiness.”
Finally, writes Greenblatt, “it is as if we look inside the
tyrant and find that there is virtually nothing there, merely a few
shrunken traces of a self that had never been allowed to grow or to
was Richard III if not a human without a heart?
Mac Bird, Mac Bird doesn’t wait; he’s in a hurry to
possess power. The prophesy of the three witches guarantees his right
to hold the throne.
and Lady Mac Bird invite John Ken O’ Dunc to their range in
Texas. There will be a parade, folks there will love the new King.
They do—love him. Ken O’ Dunc agrees to come and is
charmed by the milieu. The parade route is all planned out.
the scene. A voice in the crowd shouts, the car is coming! “Heads
turn left and follow the path of an imagined vehicle across the
all voices chime in: “He’s coming… he’s
coming… he’s going… he’s going…”
shot rings out.”
Bird is president!
do we do based on what we suspect—because he had to be behind
it! It had to be him! Robert is convinced! Evidence: Look at how he
abuses power. No criticism “from within” is permitted.
“He draws the line and all are forced to toe./ You’re
with him or against him, get that/ straight.” Everyone’s
“safety” demands the “overthrow of Mac Bird!
Richard III fashion, Mac Bird resorts to organizing a series of
incidents to eliminate the remaining Ken O’ Dunc brothers. In
anticipation of Ted’s demise in a mysterious plane crash,
Robert receives a wreath. But Ted survives.
conversing with one of his enablers, notes that Mac Bird is bold. The
enabler points Robert’s attention to all the President’s
men: They are terrified of Mac Bird! They “fear his one-man
rule, his arrogance;/His secret slaughters stink upon his hands.”
The country is calling for Bobby. Bobby, Bobby, Bobby!
is our savior! Bobby must win the Democratic nomination! Bobby is our
man! Bobby, says one aide, “is the man who can unite/The
tyrant’s foes, though they be left or right.” An open
coup! Bobby can take out Mac Bird, bloodlessly!
the end, Mac Bird, so overly confident in his victory, see it in full
reign, already happening; and as such, he insist that nothing can
stop him now—not the “peace paraders,” “Beatniks,”
“Negroes,” “Latin rebels,” “Asian
peasants” or complaining congressmen. Not even Robert Ken O’
matter how many monks set themselves ablaze—now “I fear
no foe with human heart.” Even though the “liberal power”
has thrown their might behind Robert. “The lords of Eastern
Industry and Banks” are willing to be led by him. And joining
the industry and the banks are the unions in the middle and Negro
troops, “bringing up the rear.”
the tyrant! What about the tyrant!
Mac Bird and Robert Ken O’ Dunc met. Mac Bird repeats to
Robert’s face what he’s been telling his own enablers.
Victory isn’t for you, Robert Ken O’ Dunc! “I have
a charmed career./ Now be it known/No man with beating heart or human
blood/Can ever harm Mac Bird or touch his throne.”
of narrative! Or so thinks Mac Bird. Robert is forced to make a
reveal: Listen up, Mac Bird, the Ken O’ Duncs are without
hearts! “Prepare to hear the/worst.”
the birth of each son, our great patriarch, my father, “envisaged
greatness” for each of us, his sons. To take over our roles
among “world authority,” “our pulpy human hearts
were cut away”! Don’t be alarmed! What, Mac Bird, seeker
of power, did you expect? Without hearts, we powerful are destined to
“rule” over other humans. It’s what the heartless
do, Mac Bird.
could anyone think otherwise?
is the marker. You are not up to it, are you? Robert Ken O’
Dunc to Mac Bird: “Your heartless, bloodless foe now lifts his
heart, my heart!” And Mac Bird falls, not before declaring his
Ken O’ Dunc lifts “a fallen Mac Bird banner,” and
off he goes, leading the way, “in a grand procession
Tyrants and would-be-tyrants flutter on and off the world’s
Washington DC, on Earth Day 2020, a senate report, the result of an
investigation ordered by Roy Cohn’s ghost, currently inhabiting
the body of William Barr, is released. The tyrant-want-to-be has been
uncovered as a liar. Again. The loyalty from his die-hard enablers
seems to be faltering.
senate investigation, led by Republicans, “effectively undercut
those allegations” that, according to Trump, the “deep
state” and those Democrats tried to undermine his victory (New
York Times). Waving Confederate flags and toting rifles and guns,
Trump’s supporters are not deterred. Critical thinking is
challenging. So they cry, Listen to the King! And the media, without
fail, listens, each and everyday when he proclaimed himself the King
of New York! The King of Real Estate! The King among Men who knows
how women, blacks, Latinx, migrant workers, and the homeless are to
be disempowered and silenced.
change is happening. The witches are stirring, things are brewing
outside the seats of power. Even in our own homes and apartments.
Underfoot, the people are thinking critically and wisely about the
immediate future of this planet, about capitalism’s fostering
of heartlessness of racism and fascism. The stamping out of life by
the heartless is destroyed, once and for all, on the battlefield.
next narrative will be that of the voices of opposition to tyranny in
all its disguises. The people are preparing to return to the world’s
and enablers beware: your kind will be history!