In 424 B.C. Aristophanes decided that he himself, behind a mask would act the role of Cleon in his new antiwar play, "The Knights." Cleon was the leader of the current Peloponnesian War party, the play attacked him, his friends were outraged but this most political, least comical of his works won Aristophanes that year's first prize.
A few years ago Art Buchwald wrote a satire about our involvement in Vietnam, "Sheep on the Runway." One of the characters was an aristocratic, aloof political columnist who sounded not unlike columnist Joseph Alsop, but wily Buchwald called him Joe Mayflower. it won no prizes and ran not quite 100 performances in New York.
These scatteredincidents reflect two aspects of theater the uncertain outcome of protest and the device of altering names to avoid protest, legal or personal.
How such matters eventually resolve depends on that master of theater, the audience. For whatever a play is, half of it is the audience and "the dramma's laws, the drama's patrons give."
Thus, yesterday's steamy press conference by those attacking John Phillip Dean's "Paul Robeson," is hardly new.
When there are descendants around the keepers of the flame, caution can be the safer policy. Howard Sackler didn't use the real name of the heavyweight champion in "The Great White Hope," which Jones created at Arena Stage. In writing of the Scopes trial, Lawrence and Lee's "Inherit Wind" used other names for William Jennings Bryan, H. L. Mencken and Clarence Darrow.
There are Darrow descendants and when David Rintels was writing his one-man play, "Clarence Darro," he needed some light anecdotes. He bought four, at $100 each, from the lawyer for the Darrow heirs, who liked the show.
As in the Scopes trial, religion and morality can stir the strongest emotions.
The film "Mohammed" kindled the smoldering fires of the Hanafi feud which brought this city the deaths and terrors in the District Building and at B'nai B'rith last March. An orthodox interpretation of the Koran strictly prohibits any pictorial representation of Mohammad, or even his shadow.
Irish plays about religion also kick up storms - in Dublin, but even wilder onew among the Irish of New York. Doughty actress Cathleen Nesbitt says she still can hear the 1912 galleries screaming on the opening night of "The Playboy of the Western World." She has, however, a sense of humor about it all.
A sense of humor is what Louis XIV of France also had when it came to protests about the theater. The Queen Mother had so located Moliere's "Tartuffe" that she demanded it not be repeated. After she died, Louis allowed its resumption - to the distress of his courtiers, who hated Molier's mockery of them. But the best mockery of them all came in how Moliere resolved the scattered strands of his comedy. An actor dressed as the Sun King, Louis himself, enters to put every strand in place. Critics still protest the trick but audiences love it.
About recent history some presidential families car protective: others appear not to care. When it came to casting Jonh F. Kennedy as a Navy officer in World War II for "PT-109," the White House was wary of some of the names being suggested to play young Jack. Was it John Wayne or George Hamilton who had them riled? A few people familiar with movie names were queried; Cliff Robertson was highly recommended. President Kennedy and press aide Pierre Salinger met Robertson, like him and he got the part.
Jacqueline Onassis, generally disdraining conflict, recently resigned from her publishing job because it associated her with one of the house's forthcoming novels, which concerned an assassination attempt on a younger Kennedy.
The Roosevelts have taken a different tack. Elliot Roosevelt has written at least two biographies about his father, books pour out on all of FDR's relationships and the children either nod their heads or write their own versions. None seems to have seen the recent "FDR," which Dore Schary could have written from memory or the researches he did for "Sunrise at Campobello," which Eleanor Rossevelt and all the children had every right to admire.
Swiss playwright Rolf Hochhuth has been a protestor in top echelons. His "The Deputy" protested that during World Was II Pope Pius XII had allowed the sacrifice of Jes. The Vatican protested. His "The Representative" stated that Churchill had order a free Polish general's death. Whitehall protested.
Undoubtedly the most protested play of this country was "Uncle Tom's Cabin." In 1853 The New York Herald Tribune roared: "We would advise all concerned to drop the play at once and forever." Despite The Trib and other protestors, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" affected the climate of the pre-Civil War years and the war itself prpbably the most protested and most influential of all American plays.