HELL yeah

One of the awesome things about living in Minneapolis is that the Guthrie Theater is here, and if you’re lucky and have an x-treeemly nice friend who works there sometimes you get to do things like go see Sir Ian McKellen talk about his life as an actor and then take questions from the audience. I SAW GANDALF LIVE, YO. I’ve been to a couple of these “conversations” (Hume Cronyn and Tom Stoppard before this one), and they’re pretty universally awesome. Actors and playwrights tend to be pretty good storytellers, and it is so fun to see these legendary figures in real life, as it were. McKellen was no different: great sense of humor, funny anecdotes, patient tolerance of some of the off-kilter audience questions (one woman actually had the temerity to use her time at the mic to ask for tickets to McKellen’s sold-out run of King Lear. Sheesh.) The audience was already in his thrall, and after the question and answer session was over he stood up. But instead of leaving, he told us that he had “a little treat” for us, and related how back in 1964 he’d acted in this play Sir Thomas More, of which three pages are believed to have been written by Shakespeare. The play, surprisingly, had never been performed before McKellen’s production; he said he was one of the last actors who’d ever be able to claim to have originated a Shakespearean role. (How cool is that?) And then, out of nowhere, he pulled out this speech from the play, More’s response to the men of the city calling for the “removal of strangers” from the city. The speech was astonishing, not only for its beautiful language, but moreover for its startling relevance to the current political situation:

MORE. Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding tooth ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you: you had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.

… Let me set up before your thoughts, good friends,
One supposition; which if you will mark,
You shall perceive how horrible a shape
Your innovation bears: first, tis a sin
Which oft the apostle did forewarn us of,
Urging obedience to authority;
And twere no error, if I told you all,
You were in arms against your God himself.

… Nay, certainly you are;
For to the king God hath his office lent
Of dread, of justice, power and command,
Hath bid him rule, and willed you to obey;
And, to add ampler majesty to this,
He hath not only lent the king his figure,
His throne and sword, but given him his own name,
Calls him a god on earth. What do you, then,
Rising gainst him that God himself installs,
But rise against God? what do you to your souls
In doing this? O, desperate as you are,
Wash your foul minds with tears, and those same hands,
That you like rebels lift against the peace,
Lift up for peace, and your unreverent knees,
Make them your feet to kneel to be forgiven!
Tell me but this: what rebel captain,
As mutinies are incident, by his name
Can still the rout? who will obey a traitor?
Or how can well that proclamation sound,
When there is no addition but a rebel
To qualify a rebel? You’ll put down strangers,
Kill them, cut their throats, possess their houses,
And lead the majesty of law in line,
To slip him like a hound. Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come to short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whither would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,–
Why, you must needs be strangers: would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? this is the strangers case;
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

Just take a minute and read it out loud – it’s killer stuff. Even more so when it’s being declaimed by one of the most famous voices in the world on one of the most famous stages in the country. (I mean, come on: Magneto saying “Men like ravenous fishes would feed on one another?” YOU GOTTA LOVE THAT.) The audience went nuts for it, of course. For a brief moment I wished there was some way McKellen could be got to give that speech in the Oval Office, but I immediately realized the laughable absurdity of that idea. Like Dubya would comprehend .001% of it. Ha! Sometimes I crack myself up. Ah, well. At least I got to hear it.

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