“Assassins”: Sondheim’s Political Warning

The very billing of Yale Repertory Theatre’s recent production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” the classic 1990 musical about nine men and women who successfully and unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate presidents of the United States, resonates with today’s political climate. At a post-show talkback on April 1, a member of the production team pointed out that while the decision to mount the show this past month was made fifteen months prior to the performance, the tumultuous political climate had certainly been an inspiration. Politics were already present even before the lights went down at the University Theatre in New Haven. The program contained an insert asking patrons to keep in mind that the budget submitted by President Trump on March 16, a mere day before the production opened, recommended eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, from which Yale Rep has previously received funding. The insert encouraged audience members, if they felt so inclined, to contact their elected representatives about the matter. A few months ago, the printing of such notices would have been unimaginable, yet in today’s world it is part of the unfortunate war that some officials feel they need to wage against our nation’s culture.

“Assassins” lasts a little under two hours and is performed without an intermission. In that time, one can become bewildered and lost by its text, often based on the assassins’ actual statements and writings, as well as a made up dialogue that imagines potential interactions among the assassins (the possibility still exists since the three characters who are still alive, Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, Sara Jane Moore and John Hinckley Jr., have all been paroled or released with restrictions). Sometimes I felt as though I were watching a play written and performed by lunatics. Even knowing that Charles Guiteau’s gun isn’t loaded with bullets doesn’t keep one from perceiving a threat when he takes the time to point it at every single audience member. Perhaps a similar seemingly unending insanity can be experienced through watching act III of Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” but Tristan’s madness comes from the delirium caused by his injuries and is ultimately resolved by his and Isolde’s love death. One also has to sit through several hours of acts I and II before experiencing these feelings. With Sondheim the madness arrives quickly, remains unresolved at the end and is textual rather than musical, which makes the work more accessible.

Blending over a century of American history from 1865-1981, “Assassins” exists within a timeless netherworld in which Americans who have realized that the great freedoms granted to them by their nation enable them to commit terrifying acts of political violence. The musical opens with a mysterious proprietor of a fairground style shooting gallery, bedecked with American flags, challenging the would-be assassins to take their shots at the holder of their nation’s highest office. As the musical proceeds, the assassins are resurrected and enlivened through each other’s acts. The narrative is not chronological; after introducing John Wilkes Booth as the inaugural presidential assassin to the audience, the musical jumps between times as characters plan and perform their successful and unsuccessful assassination attempts. The musical ends with a powerful resurrection of Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy, the most recent successful presidential assassination, and its earth shattering aftermath. Yale Rep’s production enhanced these earth shattering events by incorporating jumbotron-like screens on each side of the stage that showed newspaper clippings and occasional live camera shots of the performers. One could even draw parallels to reality TV, a genre that did not exist in 1990.

In our time we can see “Assassins” as illustrating not just the danger of political violence, but the impact that deeply destabilizing actions have on our nation and others around the world. When a chief executive acts in an abusive manner, not befitting the position that they hold, then that person must be removed from their position. At the same time, to do so through “[moving] your little finger” is not a way to achieve our aims. We must use the tools of our democratic system as a means to end tyranny. Our own democracy was founded through the radical act of declaring independence from Great Britain, an act some may legitimately claim was unwarranted. If we are to be radicals, we must not be assassins; we must use reasoned arguments to further our case and be zealous in our demands for a different head of government  rather than completely destroy our democratic system.