Play Depicts Scalia As Supreme Court's 'Originalist'
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Drama, suspense, monologues, arguments - what could be more theatrical than the U.S. Supreme Court? A new play called "The Originalist" takes a look at one of its real-life stars - Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia is part of the court's conservative wing known best for his at-times acerbic dissents. He is, as the title suggests, an originalist. He believes that the court should follow the original meaning or intent of the framers of the Constitution, which we see time and again in his decisions. But the Supreme Court justice is also a devout Catholic, a lover of opera and a man who likes a good debate. The play shows the jurist both in and out of the courtroom. John Strand wrote "The Orignialist." It will premiere at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., this week. He joins us here in our studios along with Edward Gero, who plays Justice Scalia. Welcome to both of you.
EDWARD GERO: Thank you, Rachel.
JOHN STRAND: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.
MARTIN: How did this idea come to you, John? I mean, why focus on this particular man and judge?
STRAND: Well, from a playwright's point of view, you've got someone who's brilliant, opinionated, controversial, combative, a real showman at heart I think, and, you know, a figure of real divisiveness in some ways that it seems to split opinions on both sides - left and right. People have strong opinions about him. It seemed natural to present on stage a character with those kinds of qualities. But I was really interested, too, in exploring a little bit about the middle and what has happened, the disappearance of the middle in our political discourse.
MARTIN: So how did you prepare for this, Ed?
GERO: Well, I read several biographies, particularly John Biskupic's "American Original." There's, of course, just so much material on video, YouTube on the record. And I also had the opportunity to go to the court, watch him hear arguments several times. And he was generous enough to invite me into chambers and to spend some time and...
MARTIN: What was that like?
GERO: It was extraordinary. I mean, he is an enormously charming, witty - everything they say about Antonin Scalia is true. We talked about Italy. We talked about family. We talked about fathers. We talked about many things. And we didn't talk about the play. We didn't talk about politics.
MARTIN: You didn't?
MARTIN: So you don't know if he was into this idea? Was he flattered by...
GERO: Well, I presume he must be interested. He invited me to lunch. I mean, he's not without an ego, I'm sure, you know.
MARTIN: Did he notice the resemblance - the physical resemblance?
GERO: He did. He did. It's interesting. We discovered that our families come from a very similar area of Italy - same province. In fact, about 10 kilometers away from each other - my ancestral family and his. So we probably share some DNA not going too far back. But he said, yeah, you kind of look like me a little bit.
MARTIN: Did you talk to anyone who knew him in a different way? I mean, it's one thing to get to sit and talk with him, but, you know, he is portraying a certain part of himself.
GERO: Right, exactly. He's presenting.
MARTIN: Yeah. Did you get the dirt on him from anyone else?
GERO: Well, no - we spoke to court watchers, other attorneys, friends, colleagues.
STRAND: But also, we had a former federal judge, several lawyers. I've been able to contact and interview former law clerks, Scalia clerks who were very forthcoming about him as a person. They're not eager to discuss the details of clerking for him in terms of the law and the legal - but in terms of their personal relationship, they were very forthcoming. So we learned a lot about what he must be like to work for.
MARTIN: So we should say a lot of the dramatic tension in the storyline is about this relationship that Justice Scalia has with a law clerk.
STRAND: It is - with a law clerk, a younger law clerk who comes from a very different political perspective than he. And it becomes something of a battle between the two.
GERO: But not personal. It's dialectic.
STRAND: It's never personal.
GERO: It's really with the respect that I sense being in the courtroom. Let's attack the arguments, and let's listen acutely to each other. And let's debate the ideas. But it's not ad hominem.
GERO: I think that's one of the key themes of the play that John has captured beautifully.
STRAND: So it's an attempt to maybe understand the person in a different way. If you dislike someone's viewpoint, then it seems incumbent upon you then at that point to know what you're talking about, understand, read the dissent. And then if you wish to attack it, you're forearmed, you know, and that's great. But that doesn't happen frequently enough. A lot of it's just the kind of personal attack, very vitriolic at times. And then useless, in my point of view.
MARTIN: Is that normal? I mean, this - the law clerk in the play, her name is Cat, a young woman, very bright obviously to have secured such a position. But she is ideologically not aligned with him.
MARTIN: Is that typical for a justice to hire someone to a clerkship someone who disagrees with him?
GERO: It happens occasionally, right.
STRAND: It happens occasionally. Yes, it does.
GERO: Not that often, but it does help each - the justice hold their argument.
STRAND: The term is...
MARTIN: And does he do this - Scalia?
STRAND: He does. The term is counter clerk. And I, in fact, spoke with someone who recently clerked with Justice Scalia who is a self-identified liberal. And of course, Scalia knew that when he chose this person. And I was told that he values that kind of give and take in the debate. He wants to hear the other side of the argument. That's his entire training, I think, in law from the time he was a student at Georgetown. That's the training. Show me the other side, and then let me debate it with you.
GERO: Bring it on. Bring it on. Give me your best shot.
MARTIN: What do you want people to walk away from this play with, Ed? What do you want to do as the person charged with portraying this man?
GERO: Well, I certainly want them to be entertained. But I want them to have an experience that perhaps changes their mind about not precisely what his opinions may be or his decisions, but how he arrives at them. There's a growing respect I have for someone who may appear to be arrogant that actually has confidence because he's very sure. He's done his homework. He's done his research. He's thought it through. And you don't have to agree with me, but that's what democracy is about. He stands for the democratic process. The courtroom, in my experience of observing, it's the last great Socratic classroom in this country, maybe in the world, where people can have debate, strongly, adamantly with respect. And plus, where he comes from. He is so much the immigrant American who has taken on America full tilt. I own it. It's mine. I've earn - you know, we've come here. And he stands for it. And I really respect that, and I hope they get that sense.
MARTIN: The play is called "The Originalist." It opens Friday at Arena Stage in Washington. John Strand and Edward Gero, thanks for joining us in our Washington studios.
STRAND: A pleasure.
GERO: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.