Directed and Adapted by NATHAN WINKELSTEIN
Featuring Shirine Babb, Kate Burton, Grantham Coleman, Keith David, Manoel Felciano, Denis O’Hare, Matthew Rauch, Liv Rooth, Stephen Spinella, Emily Swallow, Raphael Nash Thompson, Tamara Tunie, and James Udom
First performed in 1603, the start of the Jacobean era, Ben Jonson’s tragedy of epic proportions is an incisive portrayal of political cronyism, sycophancy, and power. Tiberius is the Emperor of Rome. Sejanus is his right-hand man. But—in a society where books are burnt, “knowledge is made a capital offense,” and free men have become “the prey of greedy vultures and spies”—factions are forming behind each of these charismatic leaders. Jonson’s linguistically rich play has startling significance today in its exploration of treason and totalitarian tyranny. Sejanus sets his sight on Emperorship. No one can stop him. His fall is inevitable.
SEJANUS HIS FALL will premiere LIVE on Monday, May 17, 2021 A recording of that livestream will be available until 7:00 PM EST on Friday, May 21 – then it disappears.
BULL SESSION | SEJANUS HIS FALL
Thursday, May 20, 2021 | 7:30 PM EST
An interactive discussion with director NATHAN WINKELSTEIN, scholar HENRY S. TURNER, and members of the company.
Red Bull Theater wishes to express its gratitude to the Performers’ Unions: ACTORS’ EQUITY ASSOCIATION, AMERICAN GUILD OF MUSICAL ARTISTS, AMERICAN GUILD OF VARIETY ARTISTS, and SAG-AFTRA through Theatre Authority, Inc. for their cooperation in permitting the Artists to appear in this program.
ABOUT THE PLAY
Ben Jonson’s Sejanus (1603-5) is a play written against a backdrop of conspiracy and domestic terrorism. In Tiberian Rome, rival factions negotiate a city ruled by the whims of a tyrant, who has delegated his authority to his new favorite, the violent former soldier Sejanus, and retreated to his beloved pleasure and torture chambers at his coastal villa in Capri. The play opens with ineffectual politicians whispering in a corridor about the fast-rising Sejanus and his shadowy crowd of enablers; it ends with savage images of a violent crowd storming the Capitol to tear Sejanus and his children limb from limb. In Jonson’s hands, tragedy becomes a remarkably modern exercise in political horror, as the play discloses a world governed only by a relentless will-to-power and the human capacity for betrayal. Spies hide spider-like on ceilings, and private speech circulates with alarming speed in a public echo-chamber of conspiracy theories, fear, and self-promotion. Mob violence has replaced representational politics, a new generation of leaders who might restore the liberal legacies of Rome are assassinated one by one, and suicide has become the only possible act of individual resistance.
Jonson wrote Sejanus in the summer of 1603, but its dark vision of corruption, betrayal, and absolute power can feel startlingly relevant today. The play was performed by Shakespeare’s play company, and Shakespeare himself played a role, although we don’t know which one—this is his last appearance in any cast list. Jonson was subsequently charged with “popery and treason” by Lord Henry Howard, a closet Catholic who was publicly (and perhaps predictably) an active anti-Catholic agitator. When Jonson eventually published Sejanus in 1605, the time was even more inauspicious. He would be imprisoned the same year for Eastward Ho (among other details, the play mocked the accent of the new King James I of Scotland); on November 5, a faction of regional Catholic conspirators came to London to blow up the House of Lords, kill the King, and reinstate a Catholic monarchy. Inconveniently, it happened that Jonson—himself a converted Catholic—had eaten dinner a month earlier with two of the primary conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot, and after yet another round of questioning by authorities, he was dispatched to interview a priest who might have valuable information. The experience must have been both agonizing and terrifying for him, and several of his works from this period sharply condemn spies and informants, even as they display a keen understanding of the weaponized power of language, of the limits of virtue in a culture that values people as instruments or “engines” for the ends they might achieve, and about the lessons that might be drawn from history, both ancient and more recent, for understanding contemporary political affairs.
–HENRY S. TURNER | Rutgers University
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
BEN JONSON (1572–1637) was one of the greatest poets and playwrights of the English Renaissance. Born in London and apprenticed to a bricklayer, Jonson by his twenties was making his living as a writer. He wrote numerous plays for the theatre; most of them were satirical comedies, such as Volpone (1606), Epicoene (1609), The Alchemist (1610) and Bartholomew Fair (1616). Set in bustling urban spaces, these dramas skewered the vices and follies of social climbers and those who lacked manners, learning or self-knowledge. Jonson also authored several tragedies set in ancient Rome as well as poems and masques—royal entertainments that honored the monarch, James I, before whom they were performed. Jonson never went to university, but he was exceedingly proud of his learning. In 1616 he published a large and beautiful folio edition of his plays, poems and masques modeled on the great Renaissance editions of classical writers. A contemporary of William Shakespeare, Jonson wrote a dedicatory poem for the much more modest 1623 folio edition of Shakespeare’s works produced seven years after his death by members of his acting company. In this poem, Jonson noted that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” but he generously praised his fellow playwright as “the soul of the age/The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!” In his later years, a fire destroyed Jonson’s library and many of his own manuscripts, and he was weakened by illness. He died a poor man and was buried in Westminster Abbey under a gravestone that simply says: “O rare Ben Jonson.”
–JEAN HOWARD | Columbia University