War heroes make bad politicians

Four centuries ago, William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus fared well as a warrior but so poorly as a politician that he was banished from Rome and killed.

“Coriolanus,” one of Shakespeare’s most political and least known plays, is timely as ever. Watching the play brings to mind the faults of both former Vice President Gore and Sen. John Kerry. Each did their bit in Vietnam, but, as with Coriolanus, their intellect and patrician air alienated the electorate when they ran for president.

Moreover, the play brings to light the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the days before Sept. 11, 2001, when death in battle had been something that baby boomers rebelled against or extolled.

Karin Coonrod’s new production of ‘’Coriolanus’’ for Theater for a New Audience is the second in a series of four plays about the intersection of war and politics. The Brooklyn-based theater company has produced “Svejk,” a Czech version of the novel Catch-22; “Souls of Naples,” a story about post-World War II Italy; and “Democracy,” a play about former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Coonrod’s production of “Coriolanus,” at John Jay College in Manhattan, takes place on a sparse, metallic, urban stage. Graffiti covers the concrete walls, and the only props are aluminum tables and chairs. The costumes are a cross between Robin Hood and World War I battle fatigues. Even the music has a tinny echo.

While the story itself is engrossing, the action is slow, in part because the play is more about the mechanics of politics than human folly.

Coriolanus lacks the psychological thrill of Hamlet and Macbeth. For example, Volumnia, his mother, is overbearing, pushy and manipulative. She raised Coriolanus to become a soldier and pushed him into politics. But she is not the psychological terrorist that Lady Macbeth or Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, are.

The story is slow, too, but it is Coriolanus’s journey from war hero to failed politician. After Coriolanus returns from the last of his three wars, with 29 wounds, Menenius, a father figure and campaign manager, coaches him to be humble to Rome’s masses, who began the story embittered over the price of bread. Menenius persuades Coriolanus to wear a special cloak to display his wounds when asking for their support.

But Coriolanus quickly blunders as a campaigner, showing contempt for the “rank scented many” and trying to explain that it is his “nature to be one thing.”

The plebeians of Rome initially overlook his arrogance and give him their blessing. Later, Coriolanus is hauled before a tribunal where he succumbs again to his worst instincts. He cannot speak “mildly,” adding, “Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.”

He is saved from death, but banished from Rome to Antium, the site of his last battle (imagine Democrats sending Kerry back to Vietnam). There, Coriolanus teams up with his former archenemy to seek his revenge against Rome.

He leads an army to Rome and offers peace but is accused of treason. Defending himself, he boasts of his battlefield prowess. Enraged by his bragging, the Volscians, his current ally and former enemy, kill him.

In talking about Coriolanus’s political skills, Menenius best describes this production of Coriolanus, “All’s well … and could have been much better.”

Nevertheless, the play’s themes are timely, especially because it has become hard to remember what times were like Sept. 10, 2001, when war was not so common.

“Why then we shall have a stirring world again. … Let me have war, say I, it exceeds peace as far as day does night, it’s spritely, waking, audible, full of vent,” says a servant in Antium. “Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war’s a destroyer of men.”