History plays — a venerable theatrical genre that now seems to be in vogue — often appear to be veiled comments on current events. Take the musical “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” by Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman, which made its debut in January at Center Theater Group in Los Angeles. It recasts the seventh president as an alternative-rock star and suggests audiences draw parallels between, say, his treatment of American Indians and the current immigration debate.Blankenship also mentions Richard Nelson's Conversations in Tusculum, which “imagines Brutus and others deciding whether to assassinate Julius Caesar,” and Tanya Barfield's Of Equal Measure, an “epic-minded, 10-actor piece about a woman who sees injustices in Woodrow Wilson’s presidency.”
One of my favorite pieces in PEN America 8 is a scene from Theremin, Czech playwright Petr Zelenka's witty, Stoppard-esque play about Léon Theremin, the Russian inventor and spy who created a musical instrument you play simply by waving your hands between two metal antennae (as Theremin himself is doing in the photo below). In the scene we included, Theremin is a guest on a radio show, where he explains this bizarre instrument (later featured in many horror movies and one or two Beach Boys tunes):
THEREMIN: It is an instrument that can be played by just about anybody.The English translation is by Stepan Simek, who received a grant from the PEN Translation Fund, and who has also translated Zelenka's Tales of Ordinary Madness.
RADIO HOST: And the other instruments can’t?
THEREMIN: Not really. Let us assume that the Russian Revolution in 1917 abolished inequality between people in
. Possibly not entirely in practice, but certainly in theory. What followed was land reform, collectivization, and the nationalization of industry… Russia
RADIO HOST: Mr. Theremin, this is a Catholic radio station.
THEREMIN: Of course. But we still have to deal with the last remaining inequality between people. Talent. If we are to draw the argument about inequality to its logical conclusion, we must consider talent as something that continues making people fundamentally unequal.
RADIO HOST: This is a very… remarkable idea.
And no, this isn't the only play based on the life and work of Léon Theremin, in case you were wondering.