They seemed such an odd couple at first: the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and…the Pentagon?
“I think it’s safe to say that the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense have never before been mentioned in the same sentence,” quipped poet–turned–NEA Chair Dana Gioia in an press release when the deal was first announced, on Oct. 2 last year.
Not exactly: The nation’s largest financial supporter of the arts had already earned a same-sentence mention with Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz’s department in the $368 billion 2004 defense bill a week before, and it quickly went to work for the boys in khaki. Armed with $1 million in defense funding, the NEA is presently supplying U.S. forces with a variety of creative outlets—including the rather unpoetically named Shakespeare in American Communities Military Base Tour, which brought the Bard to nearly 900 servicemen and -women and their military brats at Virginia’s Quantico Marine Base on Sept. 24 for an Alabama Shakespeare Festival performance of Macbeth.
Read my lips: This isn’t George W. Bush’s father’s NEA. Long gone is the group that caught flak for supporting Robert Mapplethorpe’s notorious nudes and Andres Serrano’s money shot of a crucifix in a jar full of piss and saw its budget slashed after the so-called Republican Revolution in the mid-’90s.
No, these days the NEA is more, well, compassionate. And conservative: Buoyed by four straight years of budget increases under Bush II, the endowment now promotes patriotism through its newly created American Masterpieces campaign and associates itself with such innocuous initiatives as First Lady Laura Bush’s National Book Festival.
In an era of record budget deficits and open-ended war, President Bush’s call for even more funding for the NEA in fiscal year 2005—about 15 percent more, in fact, up to $139.4 million—might seem strange. But then again, this is the modern Bush administration: Even the NEA is part of the war effort.
Under its militarily titled Operation Homecoming, the NEA is encouraging U.S. troops to wax poetic about their wartime experiences if, er, when they return from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or wherever else the war on terrorism takes them—Vicenza, Italy, for instance, where, according to Stars and Stripes, D.C.’s own E. Ethelbert Miller recently recruited members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade to put pen to paper. “What have you been a witness to?” the local poet asked. “You have some wonderful stories to tell that the American people aren’t hearing.”
Next year, an NEA-appointed panel of literary experts plans to assemble the “best examples” of essays, letters, and other submissions from U.S. troops into an anthology to be published in partnership with the Pentagon and bomber builder Boeing Co. (S&T, for one, has high hopes for the works of retired Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the Shock-and-Awe invasion, then bailed on the messy occupation, and Pfc.
Lynndie England, whose memoirs should be full of vivid accounts of winning the hearts and minds of Abu Ghraib prisoners.)
And then there’s that Shakespeare program, in the midst of a 13-stop tour to bring a bit of classic tragedy to military audiences nationwide. Why Macbeth? “Because its theme and its story would appeal to military personnel and their families,” says Alabama Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Kent Thompson. “And it’s one of the most well-read of Shakespeare’s plays.”
And one of the most violent. What better way to keep the troops pumped up for more warfare than a good old-fashioned tale of bloody battle and political assassination?
There are some, however, who suggest that Macbeth might send our troops the wrong message. A recent Associated Press story, for instance, begins, “Pentagon money is sending a stage play about a military hero who murders his commander in chief on a tour of 13 military bases.” The article goes on to quote Thompson as saying, “Macbeth deals with the issues confronting military leaders today—what happens when the greatest warrior a country has decides he will be King at any price. It’s also a fascinating study in the self-creation of a tyrant.”
That statement has prompted some to question the director’s intentions. “A lot of people ask me if I’m trying to make a statement about Iraq, war, the administration,” says Thompson, who now downplays the play’s parallels with current events. “That trivializes the greatness of the play.”
Perhaps. But this is, after all, a story about a politician’s dubious rise to power. About fanatical religious advisers steering a feckless leader into unnecessary conflict. About how power achieved through bloodshed is only maintained through more bloodshed. And don’t we still perform and watch and read the quotable Brit because his works apply just about as well to our age as they did to his own?
“There’s certain things in lots of plays that, as you do them, seem to relate a lot to what’s going on,” says Michael Kahn, director of the D.C.-based Shakespeare Theatre’s own current production of Macbeth. “I think it’s a play about taking actions without considering the consequences. So maybe it’s a good choice [for a military audience].”
Making the play even more timely is its gruesome conclusion. Just like unfortunate war-on-terror casualties Daniel Pearl, Nicholas Berg, Jack Hensley, and Eugene “Jack” Armstrong, the title character is savagely decapitated, with his severed head displayed like a trophy. “We bring it on stage stuck on the end of a bloody pole,” says Thompson. “It always gets a very visceral reaction from the audience.”
YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOODMAN UP
Acclaimed modernist architect Charles M. Goodman could have knocked down his Alexandria farmhouse a half-century ago. Instead, he stuck with the original structure, spruced it up, and built a new addition, installing those expansive glass-and-wood panels that made him famous throughout (“Heart of Glass,” 9/5/2003).
But now you can bring the house down—and for the low, low price of just $1.65 million.
Goodman, whose Hollin Hills development was named one of the American Institute of Architects’ “10 milestones in the future of America’s architecture” in 1957, died in 1992. Most of the modern-housing guru’s original six-acre property off of North Quaker Lane was sold to a developer years ago. Since then, six neocolonial brick McMansions have sprung up on the wooded site. The historic black-stained farmhouse, still owned by Goodman’s widow, stands empty—at least for now.
“Unique opportunity!” trumpets a Sept. 26 ad in the Washington Post Magazine. “Set back and secluded from the street sits the existing home which was modified in the 1950s by a nationally renowned architect. The perfect opportunity to renovate and/or build new….”
And perfectly legal, too. “There’s nothing that says someone can’t tear the house down,” explains Weichert Realtors agent Christine Garner. “It is already divided into two separate buildable lots….For those that would want two houses, they could tear it down. For those that want to keep it, make a little mini-estate, they could. For those that would renovate that one and build new in front—I mean, there’s a number of options.”
Of course, someone could also just move into the house and leave well enough alone. “I think it’s an important house,” says D.C. architectural photographer Robert C. Lautman, who worked with Goodman for more than 20 years. “Whoever decided to buy it, if they wanted to live in it, could really learn to appreciate it.”
But that doesn’t seem likely. Goodman’s modernist farmhouse has been on the market, Garner says, “for a number of months”—off and on for a total of 331 days, to be exact—with no takers.
“It’s an unusual combination,” says Jere Gibber, executive director of the National Preservation Institute in Alexandria. “It would take a certain kind of person to want it, somebody who was just in love with the idea of the house and that it was a Goodman house.”—Chris Shott
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