Column by: Thomas M. Becker
The layers of art and politics are profound this week at Chautauqua. Chautauqua Theater Company’s production of Henry V has its opening Saturday, the second performance of Marty Merkley’s production of Carmina Burana is also staged Saturday in the Amphitheater, and the lectures during our morning and afternoon theme week will draw attention to Pakistan, Egypt, Iraq, Israel and Iran.
The St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Act 4 of Henry V is often described as Shakespeare’s most thrilling and famous. The speech is given just prior to the Battle of Agincourt, to an English army that is vastly outnumbered by the French enemy. The speech soars in heroic rhetoric and describes the valiant English troops as a “band of brothers” whose deeds on this day of battle will be the thing of lore for generations:
“… This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us on Crispin’s day.”
Saturday’s music from Carmina has been used in films and, at the time of its creation, in Nazi propaganda as passionate backdrop to the exercise of military might.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that, having secured victory in the Battle of Agincourt, Henry had the 200 prisoners captured in the conflict executed. The day did not gentle his condition. Indeed, while the exercise of military power may at times be necessary, there is little about its exercise that in any way gentles the human condition. And this is why we believe this coming week of lectures and discussions is so important. The exercise of soft power, diplomacy, is slow and circuitous. It is easy to criticize and nearly impossible to exercise in total transparency.
Increasingly, our political rhetoric, with its insistence on certitude and national pride, holds little respect for the give and take of diplomacy.
I hope that you find in the course of these next several days a deeper understanding of the complexities and nuances of these very critical global hotspots. I also hope you engage with our presenting guests in a way that not only challenges points of view — yours and theirs — but also seeks that deeper understanding.
There may not be driving beat to the rhythm of diplomacy, but it does offer more toward a gentled condition.