Washington, D.C., has been confounded this summer. Not by the fact that Sarah Huckabee Sanders can’t eat out undisturbed, or that the former cardinal archbishop of the town has been accused of being a predator, or that the president has fired off another intemperate tweet.
Washington has been undone by the success of “Camelot,” a 58-year-old musical about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Put on by the Shakespeare Theatre Company (yes, they know it was written by Lerner and Loewe, not the Stratford bard), it has set sales records, and its run has been extended.
The Washington Post, after fulsomely praising the production, noted the wistfulness of the audience as they watched this tale of idealism, love and heartbreak.
Historically, its debut coincided with, and became the soundtrack for, the mythology of the Kennedy administration, which was in power when it first appeared. Jackie Kennedy made this connection explicit in an interview given days after her husband’s assassination, when she quoted his favorite lines from the end of the show:
“Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
She meant it as an elegy for her husband’s administration, but the audience in 2018 is thinking of a lot more than JFK. The story of King Arthur and his quest to build a more perfect kingdom upon the principles of chivalry and justice as an alternative to brute force might have seemed quaint and naive a few decades ago, but it is clearly striking a chord now.
The director, Alan Paul, makes it clear that the election of 2016 helped him to see the play with fresh eyes. “As we grapple with how our country has changed, as the framework of what’s acceptable continues to shift, the idea of ‘Camelot’ — that enlightened leadership, kindness and respect for each other is not something to be taken for granted,” he wrote.
The audience was clearly aware of this context. When the bastard son of Arthur, Mordred, speaks his lines of cynicism and coarseness, urging Camelot’s knights to throw off their ideals of goodness and ultimately bringing down the idealistic kingdom, the allusions were obvious.
Indeed, when the actor playing Mordred took his final bow, I heard boos from some audience members. It had nothing to do with his performance, but it had everything to do with his character. Instead of the actors breaking the fourth wall, the audience did.
Of course, one person’s Arthur is another person’s Mordred, and vice versa. Whatever one’s politics, however, I suspect almost all of us are wishing that we could more easily believe in, much less return to, an age when there were such ideals.
Can we really be happy in a time when restaurants are ejecting people they disagree with and White House officials mock dying senators? When political parties weigh every calculation by what it gains them? When the most helpless — the unborn, immigrant children, the poor and the powerless — are the most defenseless? Where is their Arthur to defend them?
Lerner and Loewe meant their play to be a tribute to the American dream. Yet the musical is in many ways a tragedy. Queen Guinevere betrays her husband for handsome Lancelot, a man whose purity gives way to adultery. The play ends at the dawn of a battle between the once close friends, and the ideal of Camelot is already fading.
A dark ending for a play ostensibly celebrating American optimism and confidence. What did Lerner and Loewe see in our future? More importantly, how do we reclaim that dream?
Erlandson, director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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