Because we are in the throes of the NBA playoffs, it seems appropriate to consider the connection between Shakespeare, the law, and basketball. Perhaps you fear I may really have to stretch on this one. (And perhaps you are correct.) But stretching is good for a person. Especially when it comes to basketball.
Many years ago, when my team at the time (the Houston Rockets) was in the finals against my other team at the time (the New York Knicks), I was zealously blocking off every evening to sit glued to the tube for the duration of each game. That was no small feat back then when I had a life—or at least five part-time jobs and a play always in rehearsal or production. Somehow I found a way. But one day—June 17, 1994, to be exact—things on the television took a decidedly dark turn. With the game on the line, the broadcast was suddenly interrupted by footage of a low-speed chase underway on a Los Angeles freeway involving the police and a white Ford Bronco.
By the time of the televised “chase,” everyone mildly conscious already knew that OJ Simpson’s estranged wife and her friend had been brutally stabbed to death in the Simpson mansion. And, from my perspective at least, everyone already knew that OJ was the prime suspect. And although I was mildly irritated that the game was being interrupted in this way, I also understood why the media correctly assessed that all of America would want to fixate on that white Bronco’s trajectory.
As I watched, I distinctly remember how I was suddenly broadsided by thoughts of Othello. “My God,” I said to myself, “he is going to commit suicide on national television.”
That was the only ending I could imagine. A tragic, violent, public ending. Because, at this point, I understood the OJ story as a story of high passions run amuck—a story about the horrible way that love, control, and violence can get all mixed up in a person’s head and how that ugly confluence can be magnified when the players are celebrities—especially the kind who earned their celebrity status by displaying super-human physical prowess for others’ amusement. I thought that the story would end tragically because OJ, a tragic hero, could not will it to be otherwise. OJ had loved so fiercely and possessively that he had to destroy what he could no longer have—the porcelain goddess who had proven to be merely human:
It is the cause, it is the cause, my soul,—
Let me not name it to you, you chaste stars!—
It is the cause. Yet I'll not shed her blood;
Nor scar that whiter skin of hers than snow,
And smooth as monumental alabaster.
Yet she must die, else she'll betray more men.
Put out the light, and then put out the light[.]
Like Othello, once OJ emerged from the jealousy-induced stupor that had permitted him to see his Desdemona as a little more than an unfaithful harlot, he could not possibly go on living knowing that he was capable of such monstrous thoughts and deeds.
Boy, was I wrong. OJ did not kill himself before a live TV audience. And very soon, with the help of one of the best criminal defense teams that money could buy, a potential tragedy became a very different kind of story.
Let me explain. There is a big difference between “tragedy” (an art form) and events that are simply horrible and sad. I learned this distinction years ago from the theater historian, Robert Corrigan, to whom I am mysteriously connected in several ways that I do not intend to reveal at the present moment.
Tragedy was invited by the Greeks during the Classical Age. Tragedy involves an heroic figure coming to a horrible crisis (that often includes his or her own messy death). But the crisis is brought on because of something fundamental about who he or she is. The horrible result is essentially inevitable; in fact, even when the hero tries to make choices to resist or avoid a bad outcome, that just moves him or her closer to catastrophe. Some might call this fate. Indeed, many Greeks, ancient and modern, were/are attached to this concept. And the concept of Fate works as a kind of shorthand for the reason why tragedy happens. But tragedy is not metaphysical; it is decidedly human. It shows how the very characteristics that make an individual unique and even admirable are the same things that can undo that person. In our vitality lie the seeds of our own destruction.
But OJ was not undone by the very qualities that had made him heroic; and Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals was not high-jacked by a tragic catastrophe. Instead, OJ turned his own story into a farce—or a melodrama. The story was ultimately about how clever lawyers can harness a legacy of racial iniquity to convince rational people to reject overwhelming evidence of certain facts for an explanation that, while valid as a theory to explain many other events, was wholly irrelevant to who killed Nicole Brown Simpson and her sweet gay pal Ron Goldman.
The transformation of OJ’s story from tragedy to farce/melodrama, which began during an NBA playoff game, occurred mostly with the assistance of the legal system. This is interesting for so many reasons. One reason is that the oldest extant tragedy, The Orestia, is about how an individual tragedy ultimately serves as the foundation for an important societal innovation--such that the human instinct to indulge in bloody revenge is channeled into the rule of law. The play ends with the primal goddesses, The Furies, being turned into “The Eumenides”—who conduct a trial that finally ends a cycle of revenge killings while still offering up justice.
The take-way from this ramble?!
Only a few folks have been able to create tragedies—including a handful of ancient Greeks and some guy we refer to as “William Shakespeare.” Tragedy is not the same thing as really sad or horrible or disappointing real-world events, although we use the words “tragedy” and “tragic” to describe such things all the time. When basketball games are interrupted by such events, the result will not likely be tragic in the high sense. When professional athletes commit crimes, it is not tragic—but very sad and something that can often be situated in a larger social context that merits further scrutiny. Tragedy and the legal system are mutually exclusive, but perhaps interdependent, human phenomena. This post really has nothing to do with basketball or Shakespeare. I need a vacation.
Happy Memorial Day weekend.