The Originalist, a world-premiere play by John Strand at Washington’s Arena Stage, explores the personality and legacy of an atypical theatrical character: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. “He has intrigued me for a long time because he’s kind of a lightning rod,” says Strand in the program notes. “Half the country thinks of him as a monster, and half thinks of him as a hero … How can you resist a character who’s a brilliant jurist, and also a showman at heart?”
The play attempts to unpack Scalia’s intellectual commitment to originalism, and the extent to which his personal beliefs have any influence on his interpretation of the law. The Atlantic’s two Supreme Court correspondents, Jeffrey Rosen and Garrett Epps, discuss the success of The Originalist, both as an analysis of judicial process, and as a theatrical interpretation of a divisive and fascinating individual.
Rosen: As an evening at the theater, I thought The Originalist was entertaining. Edward Gero, who looks remarkably like Justice Scalia, offered an eerily convincing physical impersonation of the justice—down to his Jackie Gleason slow burn, his operatic facial expressions and hand gestures, and his belly laugh. As an opera lover, I enjoyed playing name-that-tune for the music between the scenes. (After Scalia teaches his liberal law clerk how to shoot a semiautomatic assault rifle at a private shooting range in Northern Virginia, the speakers piped out the song from Cosi fan Tutte expressing doubt in Italian about “stability in a soldier or virtue in a man.”) There were plenty of clever lines that had the audience in stitches.
SCALIA: Just how liberal are you anyway?
CLERK: Sir, I fall into the ‘flaming’ category.
SCALIA: Probably every liberal’s fate in the afterlife.
And the broad ambition of the show—to dramatize the intellectual, political, and cultural stakes in the battle of ideas at the Supreme Court over how to interpret the Constitution—is entirely worthwhile.