Kelly as Coriolanus? Dear God, No!

Fiennes as Coriolanus


Last week witnessed four memorable speeches, including excellent ones by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen says, however, that the two that stood out were the ones by “wounded warriors.” In a fine article, Cohen compares Sen. John McCain to Richard II’s John of Gaunt and Chief of Staff John Kelly to the grieving father Talbot in Henry VI, Part I.

Where McCain’s remarks soared, however, Kelly’s suddenly veered off into Trumpian darkness, which Cohen attributes to projection. That is, everything Kelly said about Trump’s critics actually applies more to Trump himself. Cohen speculates that Kelly is becoming frustrated and bitter at what he has been forced to sacrifice for Trump and so is lashing out. Once again, the president’s incessant lying is contaminating someone who works for him.

Rather than Talbot, I would compare Kelly to Coriolanus, whose bitterness against republican rule leads him to betray his country. We can only hope that, like Coriolanus, Kelly finds his way back to the light.

McCain is in that light. Here’s Cohen making the comparison:

Senator John McCain, bearing the wounds of years of torture in a North Vietnamese prison, with an incurable cancer in his future, spoke while receiving a medal. John Kelly, grieving for his son lost in battle and for others like him, surprised and stunned reporters in a White House press conference. Their contrasting visions of this country, of military service, and of our future bear reflection.

It was Shakespearean. John McCain, like old John of Gaunt, might truly say, “O, but they say the tongues of dying men, Enforce attention like deep harmony: Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain.” John Kelly, like the grim warrior Talbot looking at his son’s corpse, might say “Triumphant death, smear’d with captivity; Young Talbot’s valour makes me smile at thee.” But the two could not be more different.

McCain’s was a speech of fire but also of light: “What a privilege it is to serve this big, boisterous, brawling, intemperate, striving, daring, beautiful, bountiful, brave, magnificent country.” As he, like Bush, denounced blood-and-soil nationalism, he told his listeners, “We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” But staring into the shade as he is, McCain sang of others: “I’ve been inspired by the service of better patriots than me.” He celebrated America, “this wondrous land,” and if he paid tribute to those who fell, he spoke chiefly of an America that makes “the future better than the past.”

Kelly’s speech too started out movingly as he described “the care with which American soldiers treat their dead comrades, the impossibility of saying the right thing to bereaved parents, his solitary walk among the graves at Arlington.” Then, however, it became

a meditation on the difference between “the 1 percent” and the rest of us, between those who bear the sting of battle and burden of grief at young lives lost, and those who watch from the sidelines. He lashed out (inaccurately, as it turned out) at the politician who overheard the call because she was a friend of the family. He lurched into images of the past in which women were regarded as sacred. He pointedly discriminated among those asking questions, suggesting that only those who were Gold Star relatives or knew a stricken family had the right to ask him questions. Indeed, the White House press secretary later declared that it is improper for anyone to question a Marine four star—a statement worthy of Wilhelmine Germany at its worst.

Kelly’s speech ended with disdain for those who are not military:

He told those in the audience that he did not look down on them for not having served; rather people like him—again, the 1 percent—merely feel sorry for civilians. But his final shot—“So just think of that”—undercut the previous sentence. The contempt was unmistakable.

I’ll compare Kelly’s contempt for civilians with Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob in a moment. Let’s look first at the McCain-Gaunt comparison.

The elderly Gaunt regards with dismay the irresponsible Richard II, whose dissolute behavior is running England into the ground. He hopes that his words, coming from a dying man, might have a salutary effect on the young monarch:

John of Gaunt
Will the king come, that I may breathe my last
In wholesome counsel to his unstaid youth?

Duke of York
Vex not yourself, nor strive not with your breath;

For all in vain comes counsel to his ear.

John of Gaunt
O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:
Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,
For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.
He that no more must say is listen’d more
Than they whom youth and ease have taught to glose;
More are men’s ends mark’d than their lives before:
The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last,
Writ in remembrance more than things long past:
Though Richard my life’s counsel would not hear,
My death’s sad tale may yet undeaf his ear.

York knows the king too well to hold out any hope, however. Richard’s ears, he says, are “stopp’d with other flattering sounds.” And so it proves the case as Richard calls Gaunt “a lunatic lean-witted fool” when offered advice. “Wert thou not brother to great Edward’s son,” he says, “This tongue that runs so roundly in thy head/Should run thy head from thy unreverent shoulders.”

We see the full weight of the tragedy in Gaunt’s loving description of England. One’s country never looks so beautiful as when bad leaders damage “her reputation to the world.” England, Gaunt says, is “now bound in with shame” and “hath made a shameful conquest of itself”:

This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England…
This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

And finally:

Ah, would the scandal vanish with my life,
How happy then were my ensuing death!

Kelly too talked nobly for a while, moving everyone with talk of his dead son. So does Talbot:

Come, come and lay him in his father’s arms:
My spirit can no longer bear these harms.
Soldiers, adieu! I have what I would have,
Now my old arms are young John Talbot’s grave.

To switch suddenly from Talbot’s heartbreaking grief to Coriolanus’s contempt for the mob is to experience the confusion of those that were listening to Kelly. Here’s the Roman general heaping scorn upon those who do not fight, which is also scorn for fickle politics:

What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun…
                                        He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. 

Unlike his fellow general Menenius, who knows that he has to work in concert with the people, Coriolanus becomes more and more dictatorial. Frustrated with republican politics, he complains that “crows…peck the eagles.” He could be Trump and Kelly complaining about the press and vocal women of color.

When Coriolanus is banished, he claims (sounding a bit like Ayn Rand’s John Galt) that it is actually he who is banishing Rome:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts!

This attack by a military man against republican rule is so powerful that Coriolanus, according to Wikipedia, was banned in late 1930s France and then again in post-World War II Germany for being too popular with fascists.

Although Coriolanus joins the enemy and attacks Rome, ultimately he redeems himself by striking a peace deal rather than conquering the city. He pays the ultimate price for doing so as his allies kill him as a traitor, but at least he proves faithful in the end.

If Kelly truly believes that the military are superior to civilians, then he represents a Coriolanus-type threat. Democracies are messy even in the best of times and don’t run like a military hierarchy. On the other hand, if he can find his way back to American ideals as Coriolanus finds his way back to Rome, then redemption is possible.

Might Kelly rediscover honor and, like John of Gaunt, speak truth to his powerful boss, whatever the cost? Sen. McCain stands as a model.

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