Special Lecture Recaps

Columbia professor James Shapiro frames current cultural issues through lens of Shakespeare

Shapiro_James_CLSC_031121_CHQAssembly photo credit Mary Cregan copy



The works of William Shakespeare are taught across the country in everything from middle schools to colleges. One of Week Four’s Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle author of Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past and Future, James Shapiro, thinks that one of the reasons Shakespeare’s works are so prolific in the United States is because people can see conflicts reflected back at them in the plays. 

Shapiro’s CLSC presentation was broadcast on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform on March 21; it is still available for streaming. At 4 p.m. EDT Thursday, July 22 on CHQ Assembly, selections from that event will be included in a CLSC Special Week Four Program, with commentary on the book from Chatuauqua Theater Company Artistic Director Andrew Borba.

“Shakespeare has become more American than British now. And we have more Shakespeare Festivals than England, and we have more theaters for Shakespeare than England,” said Sony Ton-Aime, the Michael I. Rudell Director of the Literary Arts. “… No other writer explains America better than Shakespeare. The struggles that the characters go through are very similar to what America is feeling.”

Shapiro studied at Columbia University and the University of Chicago. He is currently the Larry Miller Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, where he has taught since 1985. In 2011 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker and The Guardian. He is the author of seven books. His latest — Shakespeare in a Divided America — was a New York Times “Ten Best Books of 2020” as well as a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction. He serves on the Board of Directors of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and is currently the Shakespeare Scholar in Residence at the Public Theater in New York City.

“Great productions of Shakespeare always connect with a cultural moment,” Shapiro said. 

The version of history that he was taught in school “had very little to do with the realities of the American experience,” he said. By using Shakespeare’s plays, Shapiro hopes to highlight the way certain histories have been ignored or suppressed, and that through the lens of theater, people will be able to discuss them. 

He points to Othello and President John Quincy Adams, who was an abolitionist but was unable to handle the idea of a white woman being in love with a Black man. Adams’ fears of miscegenation do not resonate with modern readers, but they remain a part of the history of the play.

Shakespeare in a Divided America

More recently, the musical Kiss Me, Kate — a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew — speaks directly to how women were pushed out of the workforce in the years following World War II. The play engages the plight of women who have to give up their independence whether it’s set in Renaissance-era Europe or postwar America. 

In his CLSC presentation, Shapiro wanted to focus on Macbeth, a play read by both Abraham Lincoln and his assassin John Wilkes Booth. He says that when Lincoln reads Macbeth, he sees a “deeply introspective hero,” one that resonates with his own feelings of guilt over a war in which upward of 700,000 Americans died. 

Booth, an actor that had appeared in a number of Shakespeare productions — including Julius Caesar — would read the same lines and see a heroic martial soldier. Shapiro refers to him as a “Lost Cause type.”

“Shakespeare is one of those places where we can still air our differences and stake a claim,” Shapiro said. “… You can have the very same words read in radically different ways, but at least they’re both engaging in a literary text.”

His book ends in the summer of 2017, when a production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in New York City featured a Donald Trump look-alike playing Caesar. 

“I use Shakespeare as a kind of core sample of where our culture is,” Shapiro said.

This is not the first time a president look-alike has played Caesar — two years previous, a Barack Obama look-alike played the central role. However, in 2017, Trump supporters appeared and threatened violence against the actors and the director. 

“Great theater lets us see things in our culture before they happen,” Shapiro said. “The violent storming of the stage, night after night, the last week of the run was a nice dress rehearsal for Jan. 6 and the storming the Capitol by the same exact kinds of people who believe that in the cult of Donald Trump, and did not believe in the rule of law, and free expression.”

From Shapiro’s perspective, Americans are not good at talking about what they disagree over. The lack of common ground makes having a vehicle that both parties can understand even more important. 

“The issues that divide us are issues of gender, issues of immigration, issues of race and issues of inclusion,” Shapiro said. “Wonderfully, Shakespeare’s plays are about all of those things. And rather than being canceled because of that, the left and the right for the last 200 years or so have both embraced Shakespeare.”

Rev. Robert M. Franklin speaks on internalized racism and the importance of dialogue


When the Rev. Robert M. Franklin, Jr. studied the initial community responses to The Mirror Project — an online conscience-building collaboration between Chautauqua Institution and the African American Heritage House — he found a community that was eager to learn, discuss, and take action against racism.

The Institution welcomed Franklin, a long-time Chautauquan, former director of the Department of Religion and president emeritus of Morehouse College, to address the community and engage in a Q-and-A at 3:30 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 3, on the CHQ Assembly Virtual Porch. Erroll B. Davis, Jr., president of AAHH, said that one of the objectives of the project was to welcome a new expert every two to three weeks to speak on the major themes and concerns that arise in the community’s responses to weekly prompts about racism. Franklin was the first guest for The Mirror Project conversations.

In the community’s repsonses, Franklin said he noticed three major themes: a desire to learn about racism and how to be anti-racist, a desire to engage in dialogue and hear new voices, and a desire to act against racism as they see it. 

To establish the theme and direction of the discussion, Franklin looked to three quotes from historical thinkers. First, he pointed to a quote from 19th-century French sociologist and political theorist Alexis de Tocqueville in which he noted that America’s greatness “lies in her ability to repair her faults.” Second, Franklin shared a quote from American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, who believed that “people are trapped in history, and history is trapped in them.”

For his final quote, Franklin recalled his experience at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. While standing in the freezing cold Washington, D.C. crowd, Franklin heard the now-famous words from poet Maya Angelou: “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

“Those three quotes — the wisdom of Tocqueville, Baldwin, and Angelou — I think are the frame for how I engage (with) this wonderful set of reflections on the need to focus not simply on individual and personalized racism, bias, (and) stereotyping, but to think about systems that carry the burden and weight of those terrible penalties against certain people: people of color, women, LGBT (people), or non-Christians and non-Jews,” Franklin said. 

Franklin noted that Chautauquans are becoming more aware of how racism is perpetuated in ways that are not personal. While in the past, people conceptualized racism as one person attacking another on the grounds of skin color, people are now understanding that the most pervasive forms of racism are systemic.

One example of systemic racism Franklin pointed to was the continued failure to teach younger generations about Black history: in particular, the history of outward racism, discrimination, and hate crimes. Franklin repeatedly cited the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a Black community in Oklahoma was reduced to rubble and 300 were killed after a series of attacks by armed white rioters and arsonists. While this event is one of the largest cases of racist violence in the country, it remains largely untaught in American classrooms.      

“We have to be honest about the fact that there are larger systems and structures at work that preserve certain practices so even when you have good people with good hearts, we (have) systems behind us — in us, as Baldwin would say — that we have to reckon with,” Franklin said.

According to Franklin, there are three major forms of racism: individualized racism, where racism is perpetuated on a personal level; institutional racism, where racism is perpetuated through established systems; and the lesser-recognized internalized racism. 

“There’s a third dimension (to racism), of the internalized. That often afflicts people of color themselves when we internalize the negative perceptions and expectations of other people of color,” Franklin said. “That’s a more complicated dimension that did not get named in the (community responses) I read, and I want to flag that as work that we all have to be attentive to.”

Internalized racism begets generational trauma in people of color. This phenomenon was first observed in the 1960s in families of Holocaust survivors: although the new generation had never lived through the event, they internalized and learned the fears and coping mechanisms of their parents and grandparents. Now, the phenomenon is being recognized in marginalized groups like Black people and refugees. 

“In African-American communities today, there’s a lot of talk about generational trauma: what we inherited from our ancestors,” Franklin said. “Some of the stuff our ancestors did to cope 20 years, 50 years, 100 years ago may be inappropriate today, may be dysfunctional today. And yet, in our culture, in our church life, in our family life and lore — some of those practices are still at work. And we got to work through that.”

Davis and Franklin addressed that one unhealthy coping mechanism was the silence and lack of education that lent itself to institutional racism. In Franklin’s point of view, his ancestors who moved North during the Great Migration may have avoided teaching their children about the lynchings and segregation that were so common in the Deep South in an attempt to shield them from pain or paranoia. 

“I think about my own grandmother. Some of the things they experience, they did not want to tell us  — they wanted to protect us kids,” Franklin said. “We’re now in the North, we should be free. (My grandmother thought) don’t burden (the kids) with what Emmett Till experienced and observed.”

However, Franklin noted that fleeing the Deep South did not shield him from racism. While in the ROTC, he and a colleague named Colonel McCurdy — both in uniform — were stopped by police and had their car searched for drugs, despite no real evidence of drugs present. 

“I felt bad for Colonel McCurdy — I was embarrassed for him because … it just didn’t seem right. This is the best good citizen I know, and he’s standing on the street with this police officer,” Franklin said. “I thought, ‘There’s something wrong with this,’ but I found myself drawing on that inner resource: be willing to compromise, to negotiate in order to live another day, and resist this kind of racism in the future.”

Franklin noted, however, that this chain of silence is being broken by young people across the country. In particular, he applauded the young people at the Institution for their willingness to have uncomfortable conversations. 

“I’m so proud of the young people at Chautauqua who are having those honest conversations: especially in the Chautauqua (Theater Company), all of the wonderful arts programs, some of the young clergy, (Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra) leaders. Chautauqua’s blessed by youthful energy, vision, and innovation,” Franklin said. 

Not only were young people commended for their work: Franklin pointed Black women as being the people who have consistently cut through harmful, generational practices of internalized racism. 

“It’s that internalization, it’s Black people practicing bad practices toward other Black people. It’s the colorism, and the color hierarchies. It’s judgements about hair, and morphology and images of beauty. So, it’s a lot of stuff in the Black community we’re working through,” Franklin said. “Fortunately, it really credits so many of the especially female authors that are breaking the silence on these issues and say, ‘We need to talk about this.’ Because, often it has been men in power who have not broken the silence on these issues of race, gender, and class oppression.”

Looking at the prompt responses from The Mirror Project and at current events, Franklin said that while there is a major emphasis on learning and action, he wishes there was more dialogue on issues of racism. Most importantly Franklin stressed the importance of finding willing partnerships for discussion, rather than “grabbing people off the street.” He said that the Institution, as well as university spaces would be a great place to start.

Franklin also recommended that white politicians, namely the 2020 president candidates, take on issues of prison, police, and education reform in their policy. He noted the book The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, which illustrates how these institutions perpetuate centuries-old racism.

Not only should reform come on the political level, Franklin said that business owners and executives should be working to reform their industry from the inside. He advised that those in charge regularly assess and grade the inclusivity of their board, CEO, leadership, employees, and company culture. 

This constant evaluation is applicable to places of worship, as well. Franklin said that churches could, and should, take initiative in teaching about racism and equality, as well as be a resource for those who seek extra help.

“I love the idea of taking initiative. I urged you early on (in the presentation) after hearing from James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Alexis de Tocqueville — you need to take a few more risks,” Franklin said. “Push out a little beyond your previous practices, the status quo, your comfort zone, and be honest about (racism). If you’re not being a little stretched, you’re probably not doing enough.”

Franklin urged individuals to address and fight racism peacefully. He said that he and his wife were disappointed at the loss of buildings, jobs, and community resources as a result of destructive individuals at Black Lives Matter protests across the nation this summer. He pointed to some of the final words of Rep. John Lewis for guidance.

After Lewis’ death, The New York Times published an open letter titled “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of Our Nation,” in which he advocated for nonviolent social change. Having participated in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s himself, Lewis urged young activists to look to their elders for wisdom. Franklin called this letter a must-read. 

In his April 2020 book Moral Leadership: Integrity, Courage, Imagination, Franklin points to many social justice leaders of this era as a model for moral leadership and ethical integrity — such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Cesar Chavez

Franklin and Davis encouraged the audience to participate in the next Mirror Project prompt following the discussion. This prompt asks the audience to do a personal “inclusion audit,” to see how they can welcome more diverse ideas into their life.

Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford and Chautauqua’s Gene Robinson make up for lost time in a COVID-19 world

Crawford and Gene

The Avett Brothers would have performed at the Chautauqua Amphitheater for the third time on July 22, 2020, after speaking at the Hall of Philosophy about their faith journeys earlier that day — if everything had gone according to plan.

The Avett Brothers are scheduled to return to Chautauqua and perform on Aug. 4, 2021. In the meantime, bassist Bob Crawford spoke with Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson. Found on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform with the title “Faith on Stage: A conversation with Bob Crawford of the Avett Brothers” and Crawford’s “The Road to Now” podcast, the discussion was a departure from the Interfaith Lecture Series’ Week Four theme, “Ethics in a Technologically Transforming World?”

However, the two did discuss how summer 2020 — with the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic, Donald Trump as president, and George Floyd’s death sparking a national and global response to support a historic civil rights movement — has changed their lives and their relationship with their Christian faith.

“In my life, I feel like the times when I am in the middle of the greatest distress, or that I am the most fearful, or I am up against the greatest challenge, that the gold lining in that dark cloud is it just seems easier to be in touch with God,” Robinson said, “or maybe that it’s easier for God to get through to me when I’m already beaten down.”

Robinson cited the situations in the Book of Matthew as an example.

“All the situations laid out there — blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who lack righteousness — all of those are situations that no one would want,” Robinson said. “What makes you blessed if you have them? And it seems to me that when you are in dire straits like some of those situations, God has a real chance to get through to us.”

Crawford agreed with this in reference to when he and his wife discovered that their daughter Hallie was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2011. 

“God was our rock,” Crawford said. “And it was the one piece of rock we could stand on while surrounded by an ocean. And it’s because you’re finally listening. You’re finally listening when you’ve had everything swept out from under you.”

Crawford grew up Catholic and was baptized at a few months old, went through the sacrament of reconciliation and went to church regularly with his family. Crawford said Catholicism was a source of trauma for his father, who grew up with a strict Catholic father of his own.

“Sometimes people wield faith to wield power over someone,” Crawford said.

As a result, out of social pressure, Crawford’s father treated his religion as a set of hoops to jump through. When Crawford received his first communion, his family stopped attending church. As a teenager, Crawford was not as religious. His prayer habit had waned until he and his wife started praying two months before Hallie got sick. And when his father was dying earlier this year, his family believed he was going to live when he was sent to the hospital. But Crawford couldn’t rationalize how his father would pull through.

Crawford said prayer was like a muscle that provides comfort from God. Robinson agreed.

“Sometimes those muscles atrophy, and then when we need to use them, they fail us,” Robinson said.

Crawford said it was hard to complain about his own struggles during a pandemic. Every day, he said he is grateful to be home with his family for so long, while also feeling the weight of uncontrollable outside forces. But it has also forced him to be closer with God.

“Whenever I’m having a bad day, or I’m feeling like my ego has been hurt, or my pride’s been hurt, that’s it,” Crawford said. “You’re seeking joy in something that’s not God.”

Crawford’s daughter, now 10, was diagnosed with her brain tumor at 2 years old after having her first seizure in her crib. When she was first admitted into the hospital, Crawford and his wife started praying all the time, alone and with family and friends who visited Hallie. Crawford called this his conversion. He would say the rosary between three to four times a day.

After Hallie got sick, he spent more time alone praying with the Word like a Protestant. Crawford has added more Catholic-like tendencies in his faith practice since then, though he might end up Episcopalian as the way he approaches his faith shifts over time.

As this is Robinson’s religion, Robinson joked as if to welcome him as an Episcopalian right then.

“Welcome! Come on home,” Robinson said. “You know, sometimes I think people come to church for God and we give them religion instead. … Religion by itself is not like having a relationship with God.”

Crawford is also wary of religion on its own.

“Religion on its own can be used to justify things personally or on a national scale or corporate scale that run contrary to the faith, to the gospel,” Crawford said.

Robinson shifted gears to talk about a lyric from the Avett Brothers’ song, “Live and Die”: “You can say goodbye to how we had it planned.”

Crawford said that Seth Avett wrote that lyric and has said to Crawford that he thinks of Hallie every time he sings it. Crawford said the lyric was about “loving the Hallie that exists, though that Hallie is radically different from the one who was born and given to us by God.”

Crawford said Hallie lost the right side of her brain, doesn’t walk, and has to rely heavily on others for her needs.

“There isn’t a word that expresses how precious Hallie is today,” Crawford said. “ … When I am sad for the things that won’t be for her, and that hurts me and I’m sure it hurts my wife, when those times are upon me, the goal is to be in Hallie’s world.”

There have been bad points in the Crawfords’ journey, like when it was possible that Hallie would never be able to sit up and might have had to rely on a feeding tube for the rest of her life if she survived the cancer. They had to rush Hallie from a rehab facility in Charlotte, North Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee, when they discovered her cancer was more severe than they thought. While packing up her hospital room, Crawford started praying to God to make the steps to the car for him because he felt he could not do it himself.

Crawford sometimes prayed that she would simply know joy. And she does.

“She’s one of the most joyful beings you could ever be around,” Crawford said. “She’s also a pain in the butt and demanding. And she’s a diva.”

Robinson said this was something to be emulated.

“All of us are trying to get the entire world to play on our playing field,” Robinson said. “And when you make those kinds of demands on people, most people are not willing to play on your field. So that effort to be in that person’s world, and to be present to that, seems to be something to long for.”

Crawford said that Hallie is never not in the present.

“She lives completely in the moment,” Crawford said. “And all that weight that’s on all of us to perform — and I mean like perform in life and have a good job and be successful and have people like us — all this weighs us down, and it is the root of all our problems and our woes. She’s free of that. She’s not carrying that. When she’s not happy, you know she’s not happy. But when she’s not happy, she’s not happy now.”

While reflecting on the scariest moments of Hallie’s cancer, Crawford said COVID closing everything down felt familiar.

“For my wife and I, it’s like, yeah, we know what this is like,” Crawford said. “We know this — the moment everything just completely changes, when what you planned, what you thought, what you expected would be there no longer is.”

In response to Crawford saying he sometimes becomes frustrated and scared about the pandemic, Robinson cited part of an Episcopalian prayer book that is meant for people who are sick.

“And if the answer to this prayer is that I have to lie here,” it reads, “let me lie here boldly.”

In regards to staying at home to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Robinson said there is a message for everyone in this prayer.

“There is a kernel of hope in there, in terms of the pandemic, that we could feel good about doing nothing because it’s what’s going to save countless lives out there,” Robinson said. “It’s not that we’re doing nothing, we’re doing nothing boldly to actually accomplish something.”

Crawford said his 9-year-old son has handled the changes due to COVID-19 well, but asked Robinson about how he counsels people to speak with their kids about this.

“In terms of faith, it’s a great time to remind ourselves and our kids that God never promises to take this difficulty away,” Robinson said. “God just promises to be with us in it and to never leave us. … It’s just enough. God being there doesn’t make it all alright, but it’s enough.”

Soltes links art, religion and politics in ‘eternal triangle’

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Emma Morehart | Staff Writer

Ellie Haugsby | Staff Photographer
Dr. Ori Soltes considers the interrelated roles of art, religion, and politics during a 3:30 p.m. lecture in the Hall of Philosophy on Monday.

“What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon and three legs in the evening?”

If the average Chautauquan didn’t know the answer to this riddle, he would have been punished by the plague in Sophocles’ play “Oedipus the King.” What he also probably didn’t know was that this riddle highlights an “eternal triangle” of art, religion and politics.

In Sophocles’ story, Oedipus solves the Sphinx’s riddle with a simple answer: a human in the beginning, middle and end of life. As a result, Oedipus was hailed a hero for saving the town of Thebes after the Sphinx was forced to kill himself. This play represents a tie between art and religion, said Ori Soltes, the director of the Chautauqua Discoveries series this week and Week Six.

Chautauqua Discoveries is a program run by the Athenaeum Hotel. In addition to leading the program this year and last, Soltes has served as the theologian-in-residence for Chautauqua’s Department of Religion and has spoken in the Amphitheater several times in the 14 years he has been visiting. Soltes teaches theology, philosophy and art history at Georgetown University.

Soltes used his customized background to present a lecture Monday called “The Eternal Triangle: Art, Religion and Politics.” He began his lecture by telling an ancient Samarian myth about creation and destruction as two sides of the same coin. In this religious story, a mother goddess who personifies uncontrollable waters and floods is killed, and her destruction creates the earth.

This story was acted out, not simply told, creating an unbreakable link between the story and the audience, but also between religion and art, Soltes said.

“Religious ritual was theater and theater was religious ritual,” he said. “The one interwove the other … and served the purpose of our relationship with the gods.”

Greek theater also often linked art and religion in two related ways. The first is that Greek theatrical storylines often were about religion and linked the audience to their relationship with the gods. More directly, theater was under the patronage of the gods.

The link between art, religion and politics is more difficult to make, but does exist. Often, religion and politics were the two primary subjects that theater engaged, Soltes said.

Louis XIV of France was known for, among many things, his patronage for the arts and adherence to the theory of divine right of kings. Louis XIV furthered the arts in France and was called by some the “protector” of the French Academy and of French artists and writers.

The divine right of kings directly linked Louis XIV’s political power to his religion.

“(Divine right stated that) I rule because God wants me to,” Soltes said of Louis XIV. “That idea and its interweave of art goes back to that idea that through art, we can trace politics, religion and art.”

A statue of Augustus depicts him as the commander of the Roman army, his political position, with an image of Cupid at his feet, representing his religious role and his mythical ancestor Venus, Cupid’s mother and the goddess of love.

This piece of art connects Augustus’ political and military accomplishments to the fact that he was descended from Aphrodite, Soltes said.

As Soltes took the audience from Louis XIV and Augustus through the changes of Christian art during the Renaissance, he arrived at the complexity of the Vatican in Rome, an establishment that is simultaneously political, religious and artistic.

More recent theater works, like Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” link art to politics in obvious ways and allow viewers to take in both art and perspectives about politics.

“The question becomes the dynamic balance between … the political leadership and … the role of religion as an ‘I religion’ and the role of religion as an ‘everyone’s religion,’” Soltes said. “How does that get interwoven … and to what extend do we carry that beyond the gates (of Chautauqua)?”

The lecture did, in fact, ask questions that many Chautauquans had not considered. Austin Swanson, a regular Chautauquan, said he had made the connections between the gods and the kings, the wealthy and the powerful, but had not articulated them.

“(The lecture) really came alive to me in the last 15 minutes,” Swanson said about the examples of the Vatican and Arthur Miller. “He helped firm (those connections) up.”