Tragedies for Our Times

Joel Bellman

After laying my mother to rest last month, my wife Hope and I were eager for a much-needed break on a long-planned trip to the East Coast. Her work had carried us there, but we also built in a little time for R&R, particularly the current theatrical highlights.

We managed to miss a recent blizzard, but Manhattan in winter is still a far cry from sunny California. So each day after breakfast, we bundled up and made our way to the TKTS box office in Times Square to see what was on offer. The blockbuster musicals drew the longest ticket lines, which was perfectly fine because, for us, “the play’s the thing.”

By coincidence, or by some cosmic design, the three shows for which we scored tickets were all crushing tragedies. I would have been happy to lighten it up a little, but each in its way had something important to say about our current cultural and political moment. All had their moments of levity. And all were richly rewarding.

Just opened in previews is a sensational modern-dress, gender-bending version of Shakespeare’s King Lear, featuring Glenda Jackson in the title role she introduced in London in 2016. Lear is among the most demanding and sought-after roles in Shakespeare’s canon, with roughly a thousand lines of dialogue over the course of more than three hours. It would be a daunting feat for conventional male leads in their prime. But for the 82-year-old Jackson, who has been acting professionally since 1957—with a 23-year pause to serve as a Labor MP in the House of Commons—it was nothing short of astounding.

It may seem a stretch to draw too close a parallel between the mad Lear—whose arrogance, vanity, and poor judgment of character brings tragedy to his family and ruin to his kingdom—and the current presidential administration. But when the Earl of Gloucester, whose loyalty to the realm has cost him his eyesight when he is brutally maimed on stage by the king’s treacherous son-in-law, the Duke of Cornwall, laments that, “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind”—well, the groans and knowing sighs of the audience spoke clearly that the point had not been lost on them.

While Lear is playing at the Cort Theatre, an elegant Broadway venue in the neoclassical Louis XVI style that originally opened in 1912, I’m Not a Comedian…I’m Lenny Bruce, offers a radical change of pace at The Box, a tiny performance space in what looks like a converted garage in a seedy corner of the Bowery. It’s a solo tour-de-force by writer-actor Ronnie Marmo, set in what looks like a strip joint (and preceded by a burlesque routine). It’s just the kind of dump where Bruce began his stand-up career in the 1950s, and where he crashed and burned a decade later before dying, as a broken-down addict, of a morphine overdose at age 40.

The play assays the rise and fall of the cutting-edge satirist, social commentator, and martyr for free speech, who once was far ahead of his own time, but now, sadly, seems far behind our own. As a friend of mine likes to say, “He was very ‘now,’ then, but he’s very ‘then’ now.”

Still, Bruce’s influence has been so profound that while succeeding generations of comics are still copping his licks, most of the “obscenities” that once shut down his act and sent him to jail would barely raise an eyebrow on your average prime-time network show.

One of the hottest Broadway tickets right now is The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth’s riveting tale of a multi-generational rural Irish family whose fate is tragically bound up in “The Troubles,” the long-running conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, and between British occupation and Irish home rule. Set in 1981, it’s part memory play, part history, and part political commentary, with a dash of the mystical and the supernatural. We see how ancient hatreds, simmering resentments, and suppressed desires converge into a shattering climax. It’s been a long time since a final scene caused me to burst into tears.

I noted earlier that this triad of tragedy shared a pertinent, if elliptical, commentary on today’s dark political moment. But these plays also share something else: a flicker of implicit hope and optimism.

In Lear, the surviving characters, and the audience, have at least learned a hard and bitter lesson about the  destructive folly of the vain and foolish king.

In Lenny Bruce, the robust freedom of expression that he championed is today so widely accepted that conservatives he might once have derided are among its biggest defenders—while liberals who might once have relished his irreverence raise strident voices for a new repressiveness.

In Ferryman, that once-inescapable cycle of violence gave way in 1998 to a Good Friday Agreement that despite some unresolved issues—and now, additional Brexit-related complications—has generally maintained the peace and banished the terrorism that once plagued both England and Northern Ireland.

Uplift and salvation, in other words, can be found even in the most unlikely places. I’m holding fast to that thought as we proceed further into the 2020 presidential campaign season.


Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman worked in journalism and local government in Los Angeles for 35 years. He now teaches and writes on politics and pop culture. He can be contacted at

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