Broadway Sacrifices a Classic to Mock Trump
Atticus Finch may soon be de trop in polite company. That is, the Southern gentleman lawyer could be cast out, if he were real and not a projection of the collective American imagination.
Harper Lee’s beloved character, based upon her real-life father, is being pressured to do what’s only proper in our shame-happy culture: repent for his past sins. But since the stoic Finch is nothing but ink, paper, and a pinch of personal memory, he has no means to defend himself against the new calumny being heaped upon his reputation.
A new theatrical adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird” just debuted on Broadway. Written by Aaron Sorkin, the staged version of “Mockingbird” takes a decidedly more political tone. And, in Sorkin’s morally preening style so beloved by college frosh, the South’s benighted values are put under an extra sharp glare from the theater’s spotlights.
You see, Lee’s wistful, innocent tale of a young girl learning that good can conquer misguided prejudice isn’t enough for modern liberal audiences. Racism must be stamped out, even in a fictional world. Finch, who accepted his duty to defend an innocent man against the mob, isn’t harsh enough against his fellow townspeople. Sorkin strips Finch of his nobility, portraying him as a good-intentioned but hapless defender of colorblind justice.
Drama critic Terry Teachout doesn’t mask his disdain for the revisionist revival of “Mockingbird,” writing:
Mr. Sorkin’s Atticus, it seems, is incapable of fully appreciating the total depravity of his racist friends and neighbors, a hookwormy gaggle of populism-spouting gargoyles (I’m surprised they weren’t wearing red MAGA caps with their KKK hoods) in whose underlying humanity he benightedly believes.
Sorkin’s dirtying the waters of Finch’s legacy is deliberate. In an essay for New York, he describes the search for Finch’s fatal flaw, discovering it in what we all considered a virtue up until, approximately, the minute Donald Trump took the oath of the presidency. Finch’s problem, Sorkin observers, is that he “believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”
The horror! Harper Lee’s creation is nothing but our doddering president apologizing for neo-Nazis! Who knew?
With the moral ambiguity of a rock, Sorkin rejects swaddling “the book in bubble wrap and transfer it gently to a stage.” Instead, he’s created a critical literacy student’s take on “Mockingbird.”
Sorkin’s iteration of an American classic will appeal to woke Manhattanites who mock blinkered southerners from the comfort of their prohibitively expensive high-rise apartments. But, it really only amounts to lazy moralizing. Sorkin thinks empathy has limits, that consideration extends only to the non-racist or prejudicial. That Finch could defend a black man in the segregationist Deep South while still believing in the humanity of his neighbors is unconscionable. Far better for Finch and family to high-tail it out of Maycomb and settle somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon.
Life doesn’t work like that, as anyone who doesn’t rest easy on a cushion of wealth can attest to. We don’t choose our family; we rarely get to choose the people we’re raised around. Yet we’re bound by obligation to love and respect them regardless of their views.
As for superimposing modern values on the past, the entire business, which seems to have taken root in many universities, is myopic. It is sanctimony disguised as wisdom. From Rudyard Kipling to Thomas Jefferson, the bright lights of the West, and of humanity in general, are being dimmed because of perceived moral failings. Contextual consideration is dropped. The struggles that were present in the subject’s time are forgotten about. An entire life -- accomplishments, courage, ideas, and reputation -- is dismissed because a person didn’t check off the proper woke boxes circa 2018.
In judging historical figures unworthy of modern reverence, we do ourselves an injustice. As Adam Gopnik writes, “we need to be charitable about the moral failings of our ancestors -- not as an act of charity to them but as an act of charity to ourselves. Our own unconscious assumptions and cultural habits are doubtless just as impregnated with bias as theirs were.”
Finch was based on a real person, but wasn’t, in a corporeal sense, real. He did, however, embody what would become our country’s creedal values. He was an ideal contained within a story, making him more influential than those of the living.
Despite Sorkin’s best efforts, Atticus Finch will remain a moral compass in the American canon. Too many children admired his bucking of societal convention, his devotion to due process and basic fairness. Even at a young age, they intuited that they too could someday be in Tom Robinson’s predicament and would need the aid of someone who put higher principles above brutish prejudice.
Harper Lee’s account will stand the test of time. Sorkin’s telling will, if the drama fates prove just, not even become a regional theater staple.