On a warm late-July evening, I recently attended an outdoor performance of Shakespeare’s timeless A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The comedy was put on by students from Chesterton Academy, a relatively new Catholic classical high school in Menomonee Falls. The play, of course, was brilliant and hilarious. This particular performance was set against a row of old pines in a serene local park, fitting perfectly with the mystical forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Fiery rays of a setting summer sun filtered through curtains of branches that elegantly drooped over the actors’ heads. A calm stream flowed backstage. The students put their hearts into the performance, memorizing and mastering the Bard’s elevated and demanding iambic pentameter. (They volunteered to put on the play to raise funds for students to attend the March for Life in January in Washington DC.) I noted that the performance was brilliant and hilarious, and it was. But I’ll add another adjective: courageous. I don’t know if the young students on the shaded, grassy stage that late July evening fully realized the extent of their counter-cultural act in 2021. But many of us watching took note.
There was a time, not long ago, when the sight of high school students performing a Shakespearean tragedy or comedy would be uncontroversial and quite the norm. But that was then. As we speak, an ideological war has been unleashed within the broader culture, and specifically within mainstream education, on everything associated with Western culture and history. Recently, Nike (yes Nike) released an obnoxious commercial in which a smug teenager with purple hair informs viewers about her rejection of the Greek classics as part of “the patriarchy.” There are even calls in some quarters for math itself to be “decolonized” of its Greco-Roman ties to logic and reason. The first instinct is to laugh it all off and move on. How stupid. How insane. And it certainly is those things. But amidst the laughs, incredulity and deserved eye-rolls we shouldn’t ignore the intensity, vigor and animosity with which disciples of woke ideology are taking the ax to the intellectual, historical and spiritual roots of Western culture. It’s coordinated, ruthless, well-funded, and gaining steam.
Scores of articles have been written over the past year documenting the many efforts in schools to cancel the classics. And it’s not just books in the classroom that are targeted for destruction. Historic monuments and statues in public squares across the West have been toppled, either with ropes by violent mobs or with votes by city councils. Catholic churches have been set ablaze across the West, with little attention from the media.
A Cream City Catholic article on the summer of riots last year warned,
It won’t end with a building. First they dumped the statue in the harbor, next they’ll dump you. And anyone who is spiritually connected to our past — anyone who even looks like he could be descended from someone connected to Western, and therefore Christian, civilization — is marked for destruction. So it was with the aristos in old Paris and the kulaks in the wheatfields of Ukraine.
What is it about the well-thumbed classics that throws the woke into fits of iconoclastic apoplexy? If you read them, it’s not hard to see. Separated by millennia, the classics, from Greek tragedies and epics to Shakespearian comedies, were penned in eras that comprehended transcendence and the submission of human to divine commands. Antigone defies the injunction issued by Creon, her uncle and king, in order to follow the divine injunction to bury the dead. Pylades, in The Libation-Bearers, counsels Orestes, “Make all men living your enemies, but not the gods.” In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we see the interconnectedness of the spiritual and material worlds. When things aren’t “right” between Oberon and Titania in the immaterial world of the fairies, the repercussions ripple out into the world of forest, flesh and bone. Emphasis on the hierarchy of being and the importance of harmony and order between the invisible world of the spirit and the visible world of matter permeate the comedy and so many of the classics. This kind of message is poison to the secular materialist of today.
We’ve seen the modus operandi of cultural iconoclasm before. When Poland was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, Polish culture and identity were signed out for brutal elimination by the Germans. Universities were closed and professors killed. A young student and future pope, Karol Wojtyła, decided to fight back, not with bullets and rifles but with literature and poetry. With his friends, he organized a clandestine theatre group, secretly meeting in their respective homes with one goal in mind: the preservation of Polish culture and memory. They recited works of Polish literature in the dead of night, as sirens blared and armored tanks passed by. To be discovered would mean certain arrest and likely death. The Poles and Germans understood culture as the spiritual elixir of a people. And the preservation of Polish literature was a key battlefront in that war. Even if geo-political boundaries were erased, the Poles knew that a culture and a distinct people could endure, as long as it retained its memory, preserved, for example, in literature. The Nazis of the ’40s and woke ideologues of today are in agreement: in order for a revolution to succeed, memory must be erased, whether in the classrooms, the parks or on the streets.
As I said earlier, I’m not sure the outstanding young students who performed A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a serene, tucked away niche of a local park on a muggy Friday night viewed their performance in such monumental terms. But whether they knew it or not, what they accomplished was in fact a courageous act of cultural preservation and gratitude to those who came before us, as well as a defiant molṑn labé, (“Come and take it”) to woke iconoclasts.
As radical and violent ideologies gain ever greater access to and control over the mainstream, those of us who admire the Great Books should be ready to defend them, read them, perform them, live them, and then pass them on as living testaments to our culture, history and enduring way of life.