Friday, September 23, 2011

Kite's Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman

Societal and cultural values are preserved through a variety of mediums. In folklore, which I believe is the street face of mythology we find a world of motifs (themes) that basically are regionalized interpretations of universal truths.

This means, for example, that the motif of hero may appear in one culture as a truly virtuous person (SuperMan) and in another may be presented as a masked man (think Zorro).

In the medium of American theatre,the hero takes on many forms and faces many issues, namely how to remain true to valued principles, such as justice. Keeping in mind that every group of people has its own renditions of what constitutes justice, I recently interviewed Playwright Robert Caisley about his play Kites Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman.

The play which explores issues of justice and judicial reform, has it's West Coast premiere on September 30 at the Sixth Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa CA (Sonoma County wine country). In it hitman Harry Kite swashbuckles his way through old and new world versions of crime and punishment basics. No easy feat.

Here is the Q/A with Caisley, Head of Drama Writing, Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Idaho:

Q: Seeking justice is a noble act. In the world of folklore the motif (theme) of justice is explored from many angles. How justice is defined, and who determines punishment are among the questions raised in your play which touches upon both 18th and 20th century sensibilities about justice. What are the most notable differences?

A: The 18th century was an interesting period of transition and change in thinking for social philosophers. There had existed this belief that the criminal tendency was innate and the natural bias it was a disease of the lower classes. You can see this idea being advanced that someone was born with criminal tendencies, lived a sordid anti-social life, and went to the grave a criminal and there was very little society could do to change that ineluctable fact. The only choice society had was to segregate the bad apples from the rest of decent (meaning wealthy) society. So the idea of rehabilitation was a very modern, revolutionary one that would begin to emerge in the 18th century in stark contrast to the wrong-headed view of crime and criminal behavior. In the early 18th century we didn’t have the benefit of modern neuroscience and psychology. Medicine had been dominated for at least 2,000 years by Hippocrates’ theory of the Four Humors (four substances flowing within the human body, the imbalance of which accounted for mood and behavior. Not very scientific.) It certainly didn’t help that the pseudoscience of Phrenology, developed in 1796 by Franz Joseph Gall, a German physician, was making wildly speculative claims about the relationship between the size and shape of the skull being an indicator of innate behavior and intellectual development. There was even an Italian doctor poking around within the prison system who was fond of measuring cheekbones and studying hairlines and the such and suggesting these physiological traits were empirical markers for criminal behavior. So you had all of this “backward” thinking, but at the same time we start to see, beginning in the 18th and on into the 19th centuries, a sharp rise in new and progressive social philosophy that started to take into account the social causes of crime within society, and what society’s moral response should be. So these two views clash in the play.

Q: Does the character Harry Kite possess traits that allow him to face personal and professional obstacles? If so, what are they and how are they important?

A: Harry Kite is obviously modeled on the popular cult hero of English folklore, Robin Hood. He is living “outside” the law, but that is only because the laws and lawmakers are so corrupt. So he’s an anti-hero.

Q: Societies can change their attitudes over time. In this play have the attitudes about crime and punishment shifted over time? Or are there intrinsic, non-negotiable truths about what justice is and is not?

A: I’d like to believe that in 2011 there is a very different view of crime and the criminal, but I think there is still a pervasive bias that crime and anti-social behavior is associated with the poor and under-educated. It’s a difficult myth to dispel because the empirical evidence suggests there is a direct, causal relationship between these two things. In the last few years we’ve seen numerous headlines in which the perpetrator of a crime is a large multi-national corporation that has defrauded the American public out of hundreds of millions of dollars. The executives of these companies usually receive a golden parachute, a slap on the wrist and an extraordinarily lavish severance package. By contrast, a young black male found in possession of a stolen vehicle will most assuredly feel the full weight of the law. So there continues to be a discrepancy between how the law is applied to the Haves and Have-nots.

Q: Theater is a powerful social tool as well as a form of entertainment. It lets people see themselves (through the guise of actors). What is it you want this play to show audiences about themselves?

A: I don’t think a single play can do anything to change this, but I think it’s every artist’s responsibility to raise questions about what is wrong with society, and hold the “mirror up to nature.” This is what the theatre is all about.

I encourage you to find out for yourself if theatre can chance your ideas about crime and punishment.

Kite's Book: Tales of an 18th Century Hitman - West Coast Premiere, Sept. 30 to Oct. 23, 2011

6th Street Playhouse: Historic Railroad Square, 52 West 6th Street, Santa Rosa, CA

Tickets: 707-523-4185 or visit

Photo: Rahman Dalrymple as Harry Kite

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