The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the theater has taught me about Washington

Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn at a rehearsal in 2006. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Michael Kahn is the artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but indeed there are. I came to Washington 33 years ago thinking I would stay for two. But over time, I fell in love with the city. It started with the audiences — whip-smart, excellent listeners and not afraid to challenge anyone on their ideas. Conservative in their tastes, yes, but that was D.C., at least for a time.

Over the years, however, I’ve seen this city change its character dramatically. A city that hosted fewer than 10 theaters in the early 1980s now has more than 90 professional companies, alongside opera, ballet, musical acts of all kinds and a thriving food scene. Aspiring actors and writers used to leave D.C. looking for work; now they move to the District to make careers. They study here, and they stay here. Theaters pay a living wage and do an enormous diversity of work, raising the level of artistry to one of the highest in the nation.

The audiences are changing, too — they’re still the smartest people in the room, but their tastes are evolving, as evidenced by their embrace of visiting companies such as Britain’s Headlong and the theatrical experimentation of D.C. troupes such as Synetic Theater, Pointless Theatre Company and Mosaic Theater Company. I am so grateful to have had a chance to play a part in the city’s artistic growth — and grateful to have grown myself alongside it.

I have always looked for the plays that promised unreasonable challenges. Ideally, the most difficult plays in world literature: a Christopher Marlowe repertory. A six-hour Eugene O’Neill. Shakespeare’s lesser histories. The impossible dramas offer the greatest payoff. Aeschylus’ “The Oresteia” is one of them. It’s one of the great pillars of Western literature, a cornerstone of modern theater. Its action is nothing less than the dawn of a new era, beginning with the fall of Troy in the mythic age and ending with the birth of democracy and the origins of our modern conception of justice — and yet it’s rarely produced. I chose it as my final project at Shakespeare Theatre Company, knowing it needed a fresh voice to bring this story closer to all the fears and wounds of the present moment, while maintaining the sense of the epic.

I have been at times a fervent disciple of the play’s text, and at others a ruthless editor. This is a freely adapted version of “The Oresteia,” incorporating elements from Euripides and Sophocles as well as Aeschylus, rendered in sparse but evocative language by playwright Ellen McLaughlin. The bones are the same: Agamemnon returns triumphant from the Trojan War, where his wife, Clytemnestra, exacts vengeance on him for sacrificing their favorite daughter to the gods. Clytemnestra’s son later avenges his father and is tortured by both the Furies and his own guilt. The Chorus of citizens is forced to confront what justice means in this situation: Can he be forgiven? Or will the cycle of revenge continue forever?

Two thousand years later, “The Oresteia” asks questions still at the very core of our humanity: How do we cope with the darkest parts of our souls? Is justice possible without retribution? At the same time, “The Oresteia” is intimate, a story of father and daughter, mother and son, the hurt we can cause each other and the healing we can offer.

The viciousness of humankind has not been overcome. Despite our best intentions, eye for an eye is our inborn creed, whether we execute it physically where violence is commonplace or verbally in abuses across the national conversation. Our discourse can’t rightly be called discourse any longer — it is a boxing match of outrages and the outraged. The opposition has become something less than human. We are no longer a community, and it often feels as though there is no redress, no olive branch, that can heal the breach.

But the burden of the past and the demands of the present weigh in balance against our responsibility to the future. We need what this play teaches us: listening. Acknowledging. Understanding. Forgiving, or at least letting go — for the greater good.

The Greeks knew when they were building their fledgling democracy that it would not survive selfish vendettas. It is necessary to make the difficult decisions, to choose the community over the individual, the truth over the easy answer, patience instead of anger.

Aeschylus knew, as Fitzgerald knew, that we carry the past with us, and we all must decide how to write the next scene. I have been fortunate to have a second act, and a third, here in Washington with the Shakespeare Theatre Company. It has been an honor.

Read more:

The Post’s View: Machines can’t quite crack Shakespeare. That’s a relief.

Letters to the Editor: The timeless beauty in Shakespeare’s language