The Lamentable Tragedie of Scott Walker

by Doug Reed

I have no place writing for a magazine devoted to poetry. I am not a poet.

I do not read much poetry. Aside from dirty limericks, I rarely write poetry.

I am an actor and a playwright, so I feel an affinity for you poets.
When the great day comes when we all choose up sides, I'd like to
think that the poets and playwrights will all be on the same team.

Last winter, I was working on a play called "Reassembling Mr. Dumpty".
It was a corporate comedy about a CEO who loses his mind and has to
have his psyche reassembled by his underlings in time for an important
meeting. I had a summer slot at Broom Street Theater in Madison, and I
was making good progress toward finishing the script.

Then Scott Walker happened to my state.

I protested. I marched. I slept on the marble floor of the Capitol. I
sang. I chanted. I yelled myself hoarse.

The one thing I didn't do was work on my little corporate comedy.

Not only did I not have the writing time, I had no psychic space. My
thoughts were of nothing but the political emergency of the moment.

I called the theater, and told them that I would not be handing in a
script for "Reassembling Mr. Dumpty." Instead, I began work on a play
called "Fuck You, Scott Walker."

My stage manager told me that she had spent her entire winter yelling
at Scott Walker, and had no desire to sit through angry agitprop all
summer. She said she'd only work with me if I did something to make it

This presented a dilemma. Scott Walker is not an interesting man. He
is smug, arrogant, and unchanging. When the great day comes for
choosing up sides, I will be proud to stand against him.

This does not make Scott Walker an interesting character for a drama,
however. While trying to imagine how to give the man some sort of
dramatic arc, I had a mental image of Scott Walker giving a soliloquy
to an audience where he simply stated, "I'm right."

The idea that became "The Lamentable Tragedie Of Scott Walker" came to
me in a flash.

I saw all of Wisconsin politics as a Shakespearean history play.
There's the corrupt king, whose fatal flaw is that he will not listen.
There's the incestuous inner circle featuring the Fitzgerald brothers,
and their father, who heads the State Police. There is the rival duke
who goes into exile, in this case played by the Fab 14.

For one moment of clarity, I saw the whole thing in my head. I called
my costume designer and asked what she thought of Elizabethan. "How
big do you want the codpieces?" she asked.

This was near the end of February. Rehearsals for the play began on
June 1. I had committed myself to writing a Fakespeare history play
about events still in progress, and I had about 90 days to do it in.

The first thing I did was look up "iambic pentameter" in the dictionary.

I have acted Shakespeare on occasion. I played Claudius in Hamlet in
2009, so I had some familiarity with the form. However, acting
Shakespeare is a question of using the verse to get to the emotion.
Writing Shakespeare creates a whole set of constraints—trying to
organize the syllabic stresses so that the actor has the emotional hot
words in the right places. There's also the question of having the
lines actually convey the intended meaning.

I made the decision early on that Walker and his court would speak
iambically, and that the protestors and minor characters would speak
more prosaically.

My God, was it painful at first. Counting every syllable on my
fingers. Running to the thesaurus every time I needed a three-syllable
adjective with the stress on the second syllable. Working at a pace of
about half a page per day.

After two weeks of writing, I was about ready to abandon the iambic
idea when something clicked. Stresses fell where I wanted them to.
Lines began popping into my head in the iambic form. I began to feel
the 10-syllable rhythm, as opposed to painfully having to count each
line out.

From a theatrical point of view, the play was as tremendous a success
as could be hoped for. We had sold out crowds. We added shows, and
those sold out. We got rave reviews, lots of press coverage, and I
heard from several audience members that the chance to laugh at the
events of 2011, and to see Walker in a broader historical context,
helped to heal some of the raw wounds caused by the ugliness and
divisiveness of the Walker administration.

One of the best parts of the "Lamentable Tragedie" experience was
making the transition from non-poet to sort-of poet. In future plays,
even those not set in Elizabethan England, I've discovered how the
form of the language can amplify the meaning of the language. I'm a
prosaic writer, and haven't ever given the shape of my sentences a
tremendous amount of thought. I suspect this is stuff you poets learn
in Poetry 101 class. I'm coming to it late in my creative life, but
coming to it enthusiastically.

The play ends with Walker escaping the mobs by climbing to the top of
the Capitol dome. The statue of Wisconsin comes to life, and throws
him to the ground (symbolizing his recall). As a committed pacifist, I
didn't want to end the play depicting an act of violence against a
real person. However, Scott Walker was the title character, and
knowing that the title characters in Shakespeare's tragedies never
survive to the end of the play, I felt I had to be true to the form.

I'll leave you with the final words of the play, and you may judge for
yourself how successfully I used the iambic form. It's the speech I'm
most pleased with, as it comes closest to the central meaning of what
I was trying to say. The character speaking is Walker's Fool, who
represents the best ideals of Wisconsin's civil servants. For opposing
Walker, he is cast out of the administration and loses his home. As
Walker's body lies on the ground, the Fool delivers the final elegy to
the audience.

There he lies. Sic Semper Tyrannis.
This should be the ending of our tale,
but we who read the histories know better.
Push one tyrant down, there a dozen rise,
therefore, unsleeping eyes must watch and wait.
Your vigilance is the cost of freedom.
Your enemy, you see, is not that ass,
Your real foe is the ass you call your own.
That piece of meat behind you on your chair.
Superfine in jeans, but slow to action
When danger calls, sits inert on the couch
Now is the time for all good folks to move!
To fight that foe and shake that fine fine thing.
Write that letter. Make that call. March that march.
Democracy will never never thrive
as a sullen apathetic lump.
I saw for some brief moment in the snow
the blooming of democracy unfold
I mean to guard it precious evermore
and pass it to my children to preserve.
That, then, is the meaning of this fool’s dream.
that all of our labor worked in concert.
That capitalism’s competition
did never make us into cannibals.
Nor obscure that deeper mighty truth
that all men and women are my sisters
and my brothers. That all our work is one.
Your breath is from that same creator god
as animated soul within my breast
That your triumph is my triumph, and your woe, mine.
That I am proud to call you kin
In the family of Wisconsin, of America, and of humanity.
If this, then is a fool’s dream, then may I ne’er awaken.
Now, tell me what Democracy looks like.

This is what Democracy looks like!

Tell me what Democracy looks like!

This is what Democracy looks like!

Tell me what Democracy looks like!

This is what Democracy looks like!


The cast with the real Sen. John Erpenbach, center, & playwright Doug Reed, in front of the senator.