As I sat down to watch the Oracle Theater’s performance of Gore Vidal’s Romulus I was giddy with anticipation. After all, Romulus, directed by Kasey Foster, is the closing act in a season of daring political theater that has demonstrated the excellence of Oracle, a black box theater company with the mission of providing “free art for all.” As the communist son of a working class single mother, I was moved to tears by Oracle’s adaptation of Brecht’s The Mother. The President, a comedy about the conversion of a young red into an aristocratic capitalist over the course of a single day, followed The Mother and what it lacked in political insight it made up for with wit and enthusiasm. When my partner and I failed to reserve seats for the adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, a production hailed by Red Wedge editor Alexander Billet as “a stunningly effective piece of agit-prop theater,” we were devastated. So, sitting in a pit converted to look like the inside of a decaying swimming pool, I was ready to once again be awed. Ninety minutes later, I left the theater feeling quite conflicted.
Romulus is a “historical play with no historical basis” that tells the story of the western Roman Empire’s final emperor. The titular Romulus spends his days raising chickens and reluctantly holding court beside an empty and peeling swimming pool. He stubbornly sits idle while his courtiers panic over the collapse of the empire and the advancing Gothic army headed by King Ottaker. It quickly becomes apparent that Romulus is a sort of absentee accelerationist, disgusted by Rome’s decadence and willing to do anything (i.e. nothing) to ensure its collapse. Whether he succeeds, after expending a great deal of non-effort, is left for the audience to decide.
On the level of sheer craft, one would have to call Romulus an obvious success. The tiny theater is transformed into the poolside patio of Emperor Romulus, with the audience sitting in neat rows inside the empty pool. Though not as confrontationally immersive as the staggered wooden tables interwoven with audience members that accompaniedThe Mother, the set of Romulus is another testament to Oracle’s sparse yet inventive set design. The actors all turn in strong performances, strutting or fretting across the stage in frayed togas while flakes of gray paint fall from their skin as if they were decaying statues. The stand-out performances come from Kevin Cox (Romulus) and Colin Morgan (Aemilian), the saboteur emperor and the only sane patriot left in Rome respectively. The earnest tension their conflict generates is a much needed emotional kernel in a play that is otherwise characterized by physical comedy and Romulus’s bumbling but dry exasperation with his finicky court. If there is a sour note in the performance, it is the rather dated pun of dressing Romulus’s poetry-reciting daughter in dark colors and black nail polish, a ‘goth’ daughter worrying over the advancing gothic horde. Even so, the father-daughter relationship provides another short moment of genuine connection amidst the frenetic satire.
So, if Romulus succeeds as a piece of theater, why did I leave the theater feeling conflicted? The answer lies in the general theme of the script, imperial decay, and the wider implications of staging such a play in a left wing theater in the current moment.
Vidal’s adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play is clearly intended to satirize the American empire and its ruling class. Between bouts of bickering over the sale price for their antique busts, Romulus and his wife Julia bow down and implore the power of positive thinking to save them. An effete capitalist, Otto Rupf, struts across stage promising to save Rome for the right price. The entire court is convinced that Rome has a unique “manifest destiny” that they cannot betray.
The satire has all the finesse of a sledgehammer. This is not necessarily a critique; subtlety is not always a strength. Yet what precisely is being satirized? Who believes that the American empire is in decline? Raging bigots shocked that same-sex couples are now allowed to marry might bemoan America’s decline? Perhaps bourgeois chauvinists content to panic over recycled fluff pieces about the size of China’s economy as well? But racist fantasies aside, where is the decline?
Consider the international situation. Every day before breakfast our president qua imperator consults a list of names then dispatches his legion of robots to their bloody task. Bombs are once again falling on Iraq and Syria, while our own citizen-soldiers and foreign-born mercenaries wait in the wings to make their dramatic entrance. The empire’s favorite client state just penned the latest chapter in the long genocide of the Palestinian people. In India Naxalite comrades struggle every day for survival against the forces of the fascistic Modi regime. Even in ever-resilient Venezuela a socialist politician was tortured to death in his own home only last month.
Domestically, the rich grow richer while unions are crushed and for-profit prisons are erected. Of course, today’s misery of the American working class is less a decline for the empire than a return to form, the final undoing of the post world war compromise between management and labor. The American war machine grinds on inside and outside our borders and if it looks like a decline to some it is only because of the painful irony that Mao’s aphorism, “There is great chaos under heaven – the situation is excellent,” applies just as well to imperial policy as to revolutionary agitation.
Romulus is thus a contemporary satire with no contemporary basis. One might argue that since Vidal’s adaptation was written in 1962, we should not judge the satire against contemporary world affairs. Yet the American empire was no more in decline in 1962 than it is now. The American war of aggression against Vietnam was only beginning and the anti-war and youth movements so terrifying to conservatives and milquetoast liberals alike were in their infancy. It is true, however, that in 1962 the empire was facing an existential threat, psychologically if not materially. The USSR still opposed the empire in the Cold War and communism was on the march from Vietnam to Cuba. Perhaps this is the fear that explains the final act of Romulus, when the play takes a deeply conservative turn.
The final act finds Romulus alone, his family and court either fled or dead. He is left to face the victorious King Ottaker, who enters the scene dressed in the green fatigues of a jungle guerrilla. Ottaker reveals that he hopes to surrender to Romulus because he fears becoming ruler alongside his ambitious and cruel nephew Theodoric. After bickering about who has the right to surrender, the two bond over a shared philosophy that blends the banal (all empires rise and fall) with the smallest kernel of insight (individuals are powerless before the weight of history). Ultimately, the two leaders agree that there is no real difference between the ruling ideologies of their nations (“Romanism” and “Gothicism”). As the lights go down, Romulus stands in the empty pool, watching Ottaker and his guards in a tableau which mirrors that of Romulus and his attendants from earlier in the play. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Of course, the Goths, clad in Castro-esque fatigues, are the communists to the Romans’ capitalists, as the belabored -ism gag reminds us with characteristic unsubtlety. There is no possible reading of this conclusion other than to map the realities of Vidal’s time onto the play, though I wonder what the men and women of the Cuban or Vietnamese revolutions would have said upon being told that their struggles to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression were pointless.
The question remains: what does it mean to splice Vidal’s rote political cynicism into our own time? Most basically, it means very little. The empire is not in decline and, if anything, has only grown more entrenched since the fall of the Soviet Union. The satire simply fails to connect meaningfully with our world. Yet there is something more problematic here. While I don’t out-and-out reject the notion of art for art’s sake, political art cannot so easily abdicate responsibility. When we refer to the class war we are not speaking in abstract terms. The class war is a war, a war we are losing. We cannot afford to be lulled into a false sense of complacency about the state of the empire. Nor should we accept the liberal platitude that even if things are bad, any new system will be just as bad. Political art is in a position to say just the opposite, to critique the chains that bind us with painful accuracy and give us a real vision of what we are fighting for. By this metric, Romulus fails as a piece of political theater.
Still, those of us in Chicago are lucky to have Oracle. A theater company committed to making theater available for free is a rare thing, and I thank them from the bottom of my minimum wage earning heart. Despite the politically wrongheaded script,Romulus remained an enjoyable piece of craft, a testament to the volume of skill concentrated in the cast and crew. It is that same skill wedded to the superior political insight of Brecht and Sinclair that transmuted the earlier 2014 season into something more than just enjoyable theater. Romulus is ultimately a bifurcated experience, theatrically engaging but ideologically frustrating, and while it fails to be revolutionary art, at the very least it fails in an interesting and entertaining manner.
Thomas Crane is a working class militant and science fiction writer living in Chicago.