- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Friends, Americans, countrymen, lend me your ears. Last week marked the anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. To celebrate, the National Endowment for the Arts and Arts Midwest have organized a traveling tour that will bring stage productions, artistic workshops, lectures and symposia to all 50 states. Bravo to that.

NEA promotional material for "Shakespeare in American Communities" notes that this professional program which will stop in 100 towns and cities of all sizes "revives an American tradition of touring Shakespeare's plays." Indeed, it also returns the works to broad segments of society. In years gone by, Shakespeare was as popular in mining towns as uptown. The book standing next to the Bible on shelves in millions of middle- and working-class American homes used to be the plays of Shakespeare. While today's popular imagination largely is distracted by such low-brow fair as reality TV and video games, there were days when more people of all classes looked for a little enlightenment in entertainment. This NEA program brings back the spirit of that dual mission.

We're not convinced the government should be in the arts business at all. But so long as it is, there's no question that promoting the Bard's "Hamlet," "Othello" or "Richard III" is a more worthy use of taxpayer funds than the blasphemous portrayals of crucifixes masqueraded as art in recent years. For too long, the motivating force of the established art world has seemed to be directed at nothing but offending the sensibilities of most Americans. Some artists surely are called to challenge society, but that doesn't mean the public has to subsidize them. That, refreshingly, is a different argument for a different day.

In "Julius Caesar," Shakespeare wrote that, "The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones." In the case of the greats of literature, genius that had been respected for centuries has started to lose its pride of place to contemporary writers. Most of today's high-school students never have seen a live production, and even prestigious universities such as Georgetown no longer require one Shakespeare course to fulfill an English major. The "Shakespeare in American Communities" tour will help restore the poet's relevance to Americans and introduce a new generation to the delights of the stage. We applaud the NEA for the effort.

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