In this episode, we look back on the crimes we covered this season and consider what we've learned about the nature of assassination, especially when artists are in the picture. Full transcript below.
Above: Scene from Macbeth by William Shakespeare. In the background, the Scottish thane prepares to assassinate King Duncan in his sleep. The killer's wife, Lady Macbeth, stands in the foreground. Undated, this print was created by Charles Rolls. Held by Folger Shakespeare Library: ART File S528m1 no. 28 copy 1.
Histories and Literary Criticism
---Chambers, Frank M. “The Troubadours and the Assassins” in Modern Language Notes 64.4 (1949): 245-51
---Daftary, Farhad. Ismailis in Medieval Muslim Society (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005)
---Daftary, Farhad. The Assassin Legends: Myths of the Ismailis (London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 1995)
---Lewis, Bernard. The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (New York: Basic Books, 2003)
---Silvestre de Sacy, Antoine I. “Memoir on the Dynasty of the Assassins, and on the Etymology of Their Name,” tr. Azizeh Azodiu, in The Assassin Legends (see above).
Dictionaries and Reference Works
---Anglo-Norman Dictionary (https://anglo-norman.net)
---Concordance of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, Opensource Shakespeare (https://www.opensourceshakespeare.org/concordance/)
-- -Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua castellana (ed. Joan Corominas)
---Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (http://www.dmlbs.ox.ac.uk/web/online.html)
---Middle English Dictionary (https://quod.lib.umich.edu/m/middle-english-dictionary/dictionary)
---Oxford English Dictionary
-p-Tesoro della lingua Italiana delle Origini (http://tlio.ovi.cnr.it/TLIO/)
It’s November 22, 1963, and Lee Harvey Oswald, assassin of President John F. Kennedy, is getting advice from John Wilkes Booth. They’re on the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, surrounded by stacks of cardboard boxes, with Oswald in a white t-shirt and Booth in the business suit he wore to Ford’s Theatre almost 100 years earlier. Oswald came to the depository this morning to take his own life. Booth wants him to take another’s instead. Up until today, the actor-turned-assassin has never met this friendless, twenty-four-year-old deadbeat, estranged from his wife and miserable in his thankless, minimum-wage job. Yet Booth claims to know precisely what he needs: simply to be seen. Having kept up on American drama, even in the afterlife, Booth proves his point by quoting a line from Arthur Miller’s 1949 classic, Death of a Salesman: “Attention must be paid.” The solution to Oswald’s predicament is simple, Booth maintains, turning into the devil of a morality play. Oswald must assassinate President Kennedy—his motorcade will drive by in just a few minutes. “I’m not a murderer,” Oswald protests. “Who said you were?” Booth replies.
OSWALD: You just said I should kill the President.
BOOTH: Lee… When you kill the President, it isn’t murder. Murder is a tawdry little crime. It’s born of greed, or lust, or liquor. Adulterers and shopkeepers get murdered. But when a president gets killed—when Julius Caesar got killed—he was assassinated! And the man who did it—
BOOTH: Ah! Look, you know his name. Brutus assassinated Caesar, what, 2,000 years ago, and here’s a high school drop-out with a dollar twenty-five an hour job in Dallas, Texas who knows who he was. And they say fame is fleeting.
Enticed by the promise of never-ending infamy, Oswald takes his shot.
This exchange comes from the 1990 musical, Assassins, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, author of such classics as Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd, and a book by John Weidman. The show centers on nine men and women who attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents, four of whom succeeded. As you can tell from the tete-a-tete between Oswald and Booth, Sondheim and Weidman take artistic liberties, orchestrating encounters between historical figures that never could have happened. I begin with this twisted temptation scene because underlying Booth’s argument is a question that dogged me as I researched this season: what’s at stake when we call a murderer an “assassin”? Why draw any distinction at all? In some cases, the answer is harder to pin down than you might imagine, partly because the meaning of “assassin” and its related parts of speech has evolved over time. Before we consider what we’ve learned this season, I’m going to tell you the story of where the term “assassin” came from and how it assumed surprising, new significances over the centuries. If you’re like me, it will blow your mind. Finally, we’ll consider the special ways we view the art of assassins as well as assassinations attempted by artists. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 10 of Assassins . . .
The Last Word
The Original Assassins: Murdering Potheads Who Lived in the Mountains
In Sondheim’s Assassins, Booth reminds Oswald that Brutus “assassinated” Julius Caesar. Most of us would use the same term to describe the Roman statesman’s killing. Yet Caesar’s contemporaries would not have, because the verb “assassinate” never existed in classical Latin, nor did the noun “assassin.” In fact, it was not until the twelfth century A.D. that the word “assassin” entered the Latin of medieval scholars and clerics. Shortly after, it cropped up in Romance languages like French, Italian, and Provencal, while the earliest known usage in English dates from circa 1340. Believe or not, the term “assassin” derives from a medieval Arabic noun, hashishin, which at first had nothing to do with murder. Rather, it referred to people who participated in another illicit activity: the consumption of hashish. In other words, the original assassins were a bunch of “potheads.” So how did the humble—not to mention mellow—hemp plant wind up associated with murder? The answer to this question takes us back to twelfth-century Egypt.
This derogatory moniker, hashishin, was first applied to a subset of Muslims known as the Nizaris. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 A.D., Muslims divided into two camps: the Sunnis and the Shia, the Shia in the minority. Over time, the Shia branched off into smaller subsects, which in turn branched off into even smaller groups. The Nizaris were one of these. As an ultra-minority in the Muslim world, they were often subject to discrimination.
Toward the end of the eleventh century, the Nizaris founded a decentralized kingdom, making their homes in hilltop towns across modern Syria and Iran. Though much smaller than neighboring sultanates, the Nizaris emerged as a force to be reckoned with in international politics, due in part to their diplomatic prowess. The Nizari leader bore the honorific of Shaykh, which means both “lord” and “elder.” It was the Shaykh who oversaw foreign policy.
Where diplomacy failed, the Nizaris practiced the strategic killing of political and religious enemies. They were neither the first nor the last sectarian community to murder rivals in this fashion. However, the Nizaris earned a reputation for such cloak-and-dagger statecraft for a simple reason: they were just that good at it. At times, they made a spectacle of homicide, pouncing on their prey while surrounded by bodyguards in public settings. At others, they killed behind closed doors, infiltrating the households of their targets disguised as loyal servants and biding their time until they could strike. Though adept at committing their crimes, the killers did not always get away with them. Indeed, these missions often ended in their death. The young men who undertook these operations may or may not have received training in the art of killing. Whatever the case, their fellow Nizaris celebrated their daring and readiness to sacrifice themselves for the community. The effectiveness of these tactics made the Shaykh a feared figure.
Already predisposed to look down upon the Nizaris as heretics, Sunnis resented them even more for these brazen acts of political violence. In twelfth-century Cairo, a potent mixture of fear and loathing led at least one Sunni writer to deride the murdering mountain-dwellers with an unlikely epithet: hashishin. It was not because the Nizaris were known for using hashish more than anyone else. At the time, moralists frowned upon weed as the pastime of the poor, crass, and uneducated. By hurling this insult at the Nizaris, the writer probably meant to cast them as unsophisticated and vice-ridden. He may have also wished to portray them as anti-social and irrational—you know, like stoners blazed out of their minds. At first, however, the name hashishin bore no explicit connection to the Nizari practice of killing political and religious foes.
Importing the Arabic
Europeans gradually heard tell of the hashishin. In 1096, Latin Christians embarked on the first crusade. Their victory placed large swaths of the Middle East under European control. Even after Muslims reconquered the crusaders’ strongholds in the thirteenth century, Christians continued to travel to these regions as merchants, missionaries, pilgrims, and more. Several travelers journeyed even farther afield to India and China. Over the course of the Late Middle Ages, these wayfarers found out about a sect of alleged “heretics” called the hasishin, often in the form of lurid tales told by anti-Nizari Muslims. Many—maybe most—of these accounts did not even refer to the Nizaris as the Nizaris. Instead, they called them the hashishin. Furthermore, they stressed the mountain-dwellers’ propensity for targeted killings, and this became the essential trait of the sect in the minds of Europeans. Western travelers took sensational yarns about the hashishin home with them.
As the term hashishin entered European languages, a mythos sprang up around the Shaykh and the killers who killed in his name. Syrian Nizaris dubbed their ruler Shaykh Jebel, literally meaning “Lord or Elder of the Hill.” It became common for Europeans to translate this title as “The Old Man of the Mountain.” The Shaykh Jebel loomed large in Western understandings of the Nizaris, a source of fascination for his seemingly absolute control over his subjects. Travel writers like Marco Polo invented salacious explanations as to how the leader bent them to his will. Polo and others claimed that the Old Man of the Mountain drugged his servants with heavy-duty opiates. He guided them in their altered state to a pleasure garden and invited them to partake of carnal delights. The Shaykh then claimed to have taken them to Paradise and promised his hitmen that they would return there in the afterlife if they obeyed his every command.
As European authors built this mythology, they translated hashishin in a number of ways. Eventually, many dropped the “h” at the beginning, leaving them with asishin, the direct ancestor to the English “assassin.” By the end of the Middle Ages, the Nizaris were no longer known as such. To European writers, they were “The Assassins.”
The Assassins According to Poets
The word “assassin” has evolved since it first entered Romance languages, absorbing connotations about how and why these murderers murdered, only some of which have stuck around. A few examples will help us appreciate the specificity of the term as we make use of it today.
For more than one twelfth-century poet, the defining feature of an assassin was not that he killed. It was that he killed just because his master told him to. This idea springs from a source that might surprise you: the love songs of the troubadours. Primarily written and performed by men, these ballads typically celebrate the singer’s love of a beautiful woman only to lament his rejection by her or her complete ignorance of his existence, lowly nothing that he is. More than one sadomasochistic poet declares that he would obey his beloved’s every order, no matter how demeaning, to win her affection. More than one troubadour invokes the assassin in this vein. In one song, Aimeric de Peguilhan gushes, “You have me more fully in your power / Than the Old Man his Assassins, / Who go to kill his mortal enemies…” Another professes, “I am your Assassin, / who hopes to win Paradise / through doing your commands.” Thus, the troubadours present the assassin as distinct from other murderers by virtue of his motive: he kills out of unquestioning loyalty to a dominant figure.
Italian authors of the fourteenth century advance a more pedestrian idea about why assassins commit their crimes. In Inferno, Dante famously follows Virgil into the underworld, where he descends through circle after circle of sinners whose everlasting punishments fit their sins. In Canto 19, he crosses paths with a former pope, Nicholas III, condemned to roast for financial corruption. Dante likens the crooked pontiff to a “foul assassin.” If you’ve ever read the Inferno, you know that most editions include pages worth of footnotes explaining the author’s diction, allusions, and so forth. Well, Dante was just as hard to understand in the Middle Ages as he is today. For this reason, other writers published commentaries on The Divine Comedy. Anticipating confusion among readers, one of Dante’s earliest commentators defined “assassin” as “someone who murders another for money.” Thus, in medieval Italian “assassin” became synonymous with the modern term, “hitman.” Like the troubadours, Dante and his contemporaries distinguish between the assassin and other murderers based on motive. Dante’s assassin likewise kills for someone else. However, he kills for cash, not out of self-sacrificing obedience.
In 1667, John Milton conjured yet another vision of the assassin. His epic poem, Paradise Lost, appears to have introduced the adjective “assassin-like” into the English language. Milton’s examples of “assassin-like” behavior include ambush and engaging in armed combat without first making a declaration of war. While the troubadours and Dante underscore the assassin’s motive, Milton zeroes in on his methods. These killers differ from other murders because they’re furtive and excel in sneak attacks. They’re also prepared to play dirty.
The troubadours, Dante, Milton—all have different ideas about what makes an assassin an assassin and thus what sets the assassin apart from your run-of-the-mill murderer. This is exactly what John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald are talking about in Sondheim and Weidman’s musical.
In Booth’s definition of “assassination,” politics play a more explicit role than in any other example we’ve covered thus far. For Lincoln’s killer, the ultimate assassination was that of Julius Caesar at the hands of Brutus. In his mind, a patriot slew a tyrant out of love for his republic. Unlike Brutus (not to mention Booth), Oswald has no political rationale for shooting Kennedy, at least as portrayed in the musical. He merely wants attention. But that matters little; cutting down “the leader of the free world” carries political implications no matter the motivation. The stature of the assassin and his target are also key to Booth’s idea about “assassination.” Caesars get assassinated, not anonymous shopkeepers. Posterity has remembered Brutus, just as it has Booth (and Oswald, too). The infamy of these criminals depends on the political importance of their victims.
Sondheim and Weidman’s musical reveals just how much the meaning of “assassin” has narrowed over time, at least in modern American English. When we talk about assassins, we seldom think of rabid devotees in thrall to an all-powerful leader. We occasionally have hired killers in mind as did Dante. Yet we often say “paid assassin” in these instances, suggesting that payment is not essential to our understanding of the term. Yes, these killers make use of “assassin-like” stealth and subterfuge as Milton described, but the methods of their crimes are of secondary importance when we use this word. Nine times out of ten, when we talk about “assassins,” we mean perpetrators of a politically motivated—and/or politically significant—murder, as Booth does in the musical. Some assassinations only meet one of these criteria. For example, John Hinkley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster. Though not politically motivated, this crime qualifies as an attempted assassination because it targeted a politician. Conversely, Hadi Matar recently stabbed novelist Salman Rushdie. The victim of this crime was no politician, but we still think of it as an assassination attempt because it was politically motivated. As we’ve learned already, politics was not always central to the idea of the assassin, and I have a sneaking suspicion that it assumed this prominence as recently as the latter half of the twentieth century. After a quick break, we’ll turn our attention to the artists profiled earlier this season.
“Murderer” or “Assassin”?
Now that we’ve broadened our knowledge of the history and meanings of the word, “assassins,” let’s look back on the criminals we covered earlier this season. It’s easy to slot most of them into one of the above categories. We met a hired assassin who attempted to kill for purely mercenary reasons. One of goldsmith, sculptor, and autobiographer Benvenuto Cellini’s innumerable enemies paid a professional jeweler named Leone Leoni to pulverize a diamond so the dust could be sprinkled in Cellini’s food, shredding his insides. Of course, Leoni kept the diamond for himself, and the plan fell through. Several others resorted to violence for political reasons: Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros led an assault on Leon Trotsky’s villa to annihilate Stalin’s number-one nemesis; actor, musician, and Roman emperor Nero sent a hit squad to his mother’s home to neutralize what he deemed a threat to his rule; Booth shot Abraham Lincoln dead because he viewed the president as a tyrant. We even saw a group of state-sanctioned killers in some ways reminiscent of the medieval Nizaris in the context of painter Sadamichi Hirasawa. Hirasawa’s supporters believed him innocent of the Teikoku Ginko bank robbery, which left twelve dead by cyanide poisoning, suggesting that a graduate of the notorious Unit 731, part of the Japanese Imperial Army, committed the offense. Among Unit 731’s activities were so-called “poison academies,” in which members trained to handle lethal substances, perhaps with an eye toward using them in future assassinations.
However, at least two artists blur the boundaries between “murder” and “assassination.”
Consider the killing of the Milanese Pompeo by Benvenuto Cellini. Recall that these two worked together at the Papal mint, Cellini as the engraver and Pompeo as the valuer of each coin. Theirs was not a cozy office relationship. In fact, they hated each other, and Pompeo appeared to have played a part in Cellini’s firing from the Mint. In revenge, Cellini stabbed Pompeo to death on a crowded street. Nobody hired Cellini to knife Pompeo, nor was there a political motive behind the murder—it sprang from a personal grudge. Nor were there marked political implications to Pompeo’s slaying in itself. Nevertheless, readers of Cellini’s autobiography have sometimes called this murder an “assassination.” We talked about a passage in the book, in which Cellini returns to the crime scene and gets arrested on unrelated charges. In John Addington Symonds’ 1887 translation of Cellini, the goldsmith points out that his detainment is occurring “exactly on that very spot [where] I had assassinated Pompeo.” Cellini does not use the Italian equivalent of “assassinated” in this passage, though he does elsewhere. From a twenty-first-century perspective, Symonds’ wording is puzzling, but maybe it’s down to the method of the murderer. Cellini bum-rushes Pompeo at a bustling intersection, staging the sort of ambush that Milton dubbed “assassin-like” in Paradise Lost. It might make sense for a Victorian translation to evoke this now-antiquated sense of the term. By putting the word “assassinated” in Cellini’s mouth, however, Symonds is passing some kind of judgment—maybe a moral one—on the nature of the goldsmith’s crime.
Even trickier is the case of feminist Valerie Solanas, who shot Andy Warhol in 1968. Did Solanas attempt to assassinate Warhol or merely to murder him? What’s at stake in choosing one over the other?
Let’s review the facts: Solanas wrote a comedy titled Up Your Ass and delivered a manuscript to Warhol in the summer of 1967, hoping he would produce it. Months passed by without a production, and Warhol backed away as Solans grew pushier about staging the play. Around this time, her mental health declined. Overcome with paranoia, Solanas came to believe that Warhol would appropriate her writing and pass it off as his own. Then, on June 3, 1968, she went to his studio, the Factory and shot him. Warhol only barely escaped with his life. There’s no hard evidence that Solanas saw the shooting as a political act. It was born of a bitter grudge and what might have been a bout of paranoid schizophrenia.
Still, multiple observers saw the crime as political, probably encouraged to do so by the prevalence of political violence at the time. Members of the anarchist cell, Up Against the Wall, Motherfucker, held rallies lionizing Solanas as the “sweet assassin.” For them, Warhol represented a pillar of the capitalist establishment—he embodied a market that filled millions of cans with tomato soup and constantly tried to sell them to you. Solanas had tried to topple him. Members of the women’s movement saw a different political significance to the shooting. Prominent feminist Ti-Grace Atkinson defended Solanas at first, viewing the crime as a feminist assault on an exploitative man, even an assault on the patriarchy itself.
Personally, I hesitate to call the Factory shootout political in origin or in effect—Solanas was mentally ill and angry over a personal grievance, while Warhol strikes me as a pretty far-fetched poster boy for either patriarchy or capitalism. For her part, Atkinson has changed her mind about the matter. Looking back on the incident years later, she declared, “It had nothing to do with feminism. It had to do with artists’ rights.” In others words, it was concerned more with questions of intellectual property rather than political issues. Others continue to politicize the attack. The most whack-you-over-the-head example can be found in season 7 of the anthology TV series, American Horror Story. In one episode, Solanas, played by Lena Dunham, shoots Warhol, played by Evan Peters. Right before firing the bullet that hits the artist, the shooter cries, “Down with the patriarchy. Suck my dick, Warhol!” (Solanas most assuredly did not say these words before she shot Warhol, but for what it’s worth, I can definitely imagine her telling her victim—or anybody, really—to suck her dick.) These conflicting viewpoints teach a valuable lesson: Like any work of art, the meaning of violence is open to interpretation, and people will make of it what they will.
More to the point, the case of Solanas goes to show that language matters. As soon as you call the Warhol shooting an attempted “assassination” rather than a “murder,” you’ve taken the conversation way beyond the walls of the Factory. By implication, you’re talking about cultural, social, and economic forces—capitalism, patriarchy, take your pick—that arguably affect all of us and about how they gave shape to the motive and meaning of the crime.
Interpreting Art—and Assassinations
When I wasn’t fretting over whether to call this season Assassins or Assassins?, I was pondering another question: How does an assassination change the way others view the art of an assassin—or alleged assassin?
Because of the crime’s magnitude, trying to kill a public figure has a way of overshadowing the art itself. That’s what happened to Solanas, at least at first. Her attempt to shoot Warhol dead eclipsed her reputation as a writer, and the play that led to the attack in the first place, Up Your Ass, never saw the stage until almost four decades after it was written. Since the late ’90s, literary critics have tried to give Solanas her due, foregrounding her work and downplaying the role of the shootout in her life story. The title of Breanne Fahs’ biography of Solanas neatly illustrates as much—Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM [and then, in parentheses] (and Shot Andy Warhol).
John Wilkes Booth met a similar fate. Sure, everyone knew that he acted, but throughout the twentieth century, the quality of his acting was largely forgotten. Nobody remembered him as one of the great Richard IIIs of the nineteenth century; they remembered him as the assassin of Abraham Lincoln, and I can see why. Here’s how the Dictionary of American Biography, written in the early 1900s, chose to remember him: “Booth, John Wilkes. Nationality: American[.] Occupation: Assassin.” The article touches on his stage career later, but really? No mention of his acting under “Occupation”? Part of this stems from the ephemerality of theatrical performance. It’s impossible to appreciate acting more than a century after the performer stopped performing. At the same time, it’s hard to stress the accomplishments of an actor like Booth without appearing to minimize the severity of his crime.
When they don’t obscure it, assassinations color the way you look at the art of the assassin. Parallels with the acts of violence they committed suddenly leap out at you, impossible to ignore. In some cases, the subject matter of art is seen to foreshadow the artist’s crime. For instance, though historians seldom stress the effectiveness of Booth’s turn in Julius Caesar, many have pointed out that he performed in Shakespeare’s historical tragedy just months before the assassination. The Nazis may have pursued a similar line of thought when they arrested Otto Dix. As you may recall, Dix painted pictures of trench warfare and the havoc it wreaked on the human body. For instance, his 1920 painting, Prague Street, shows two disabled WWI veterans with artificial limbs begging on Dresden’s main shopping boulevard. In general, Dix regarded his handiwork as apolitical, casting it instead as a faithful reproduction of reality as he perceived it: “I am neither political nor tendentious nor a pacifist or a moralist or anything else.” Despite Dix’s claims to objectivity, however, it’s easy to see why a viewer would take Prague Street as an anti-war statement, a repudiation of the supposed glory of having served on the front. The war-mongering Nazis certainly viewed it as ideologically suspect and even unpatriotic. They stripped Dix of his professorship at the Dresden Academy of Art and displayed his work at the traveling Degenerate Art exhibition. After carpenter George Elser tried to blow up Adolf Hitler and as many Nazi bigwigs as possible in 1939, the police came knocking at Dix’s door, suspicious about his potential involvement. It’s unclear why they fingered him as a suspect, but an assassination attempt may have looked like an extension of what they saw as Dix’s politically subversive art.
Alternatively, art can be seen to echo crimes after the artist commits them. For instance, Nero portrayed the matricidal Orestes on multiple occasions after having his own mother murdered. Some scholars have viewed this cringey choice as an effort by Nero to justify the killing of Agrippina.
The Artistry of Assassinations
When artists commit a crime, it changes the way we look at their art. It can also change the way we look at their crime. We start to perceive ingenuity—even “artistry”—in their offense and connect that with the offender’s vocation as an artist.
Sometimes criminals commit their crimes with artistic flair. Cosndier Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. During the Spanish Civil War, he wore flashy uniforms and supposedly charged into battle with a purple-and-gold cape. Asked why he favored such apparel, he replied, “What’s the sense of being an artist if you cannot design your own uniform?” When Siqueiros led the siege on Trotsky’s villa in 1940, he likewise created a disguise with care, donning dark sunglasses, false whiskers, and military garb. Proud of his handiwork, Siqueiros modeled his outfit for his accomplices, expecting them to appreciate his creativity. In a more extravagant example, Nero supposedly worked out how to assassinate his mother at a theater. The emperor ordered the construction of a superyacht that could break apart on cue—a special effect he observed onstage. Then, he gave it to his target as a gift, hoping that she would sink to the bottom of a lake when the ship collapsed in on itself.
According to some observers, three of the criminals covered this season created works of political theater when they did their misdeeds. Not surprisingly, two of them worked—or tried to work—in show business.
Least intuitively, perhaps, one scholar has interpreted the Warhol shooting as a work of avant-garde performance art. In his book, Cutting Performances, James M. Harding underscores “the deliberate theatricality of Solanas’s act.” Part of the author’s argument involves a paper bag Solanas brought to the Factory and left behind as she fled. When police later inspected it, they found a sanitary napkin inside. Harding views the attacker’s paper bag as something of a prop, claiming that it “has a major part to play not only in establishing Solanas’s act as a calculated aesthetic performance but also as a performance that like the sanitary napkin among its contents transgressed decorum by calling attention to basic female experiences that were publicly taboo and tacitly elided within avant-garde circles.” Yep, that’s all one sentence, in case you were wondering.
Some have seen the Teigin incident as another piece of political theater. In that case, the poisoner donned a costume—a uniform complete with government insignia—and also brought a prop—a name card—to the crime scene. He also rehearsed the theft in advance. The killer’s supposed government affiliation and medical expertise allowed him to convince sixteen people to swallow cyanide. The murderer robbed the bank where the incident took place, but was money what he really wanted? After all, he left without taking piles of cash in plain sight. In his book about the enigma, The Flowering of the Bamboo, William Triplett explores several possible explanations. According to one, the perpetrator meant to expose a decidedly Japanese deference to authority, a symptom of a political system in which an emperor wields absolute power. For those who buy this theory, the Teigin murderer issued a critique of the national character. Supporters of this argument, do not necessarily assume Hirasawa—or any other creator—committed this robbery. However, by making this claim, they effectively treat the Teigin killer as a performance artist.
The third and perhaps most compelling example is the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. On April 14th, 1865, Booth snuck into the presidential box at Ford’s Theatre and shot Lincoln in the back of the head. After declaring “Sic semper tyrannis,” “Thus always to tyrants,” the assassin leapt from the box down to the stage and fled. It doesn’t take a doctorate in theater and performance studies to wrap your head around the theatricality of this crime. An actor committed it in a crowded playhouse, in the middle of a performance. After pulling the trigger, he recited a line he had memorized and then performed a stunt, much as stage performers did at the time. There’s definitely ego and self-aggrandizement at play here. Booth made a show of his audacity to everyone at Ford’s, as if expecting awed respect for killing a president in public before making a daring, skin-of-his-teeth getaway. As already noted, moreover, violence can mean different things to different people, and Booth used the high visibility of his offense to control—or at least attempt to control—the meaning of that offense. Sic semper tyrannis, he proclaimed from the box. “A tyrant has died,” he insisted to his audience, “and justly so.” Needless to say, fleeing the theater for fear of getting tried and executed for treason tacitly acknowledges that many would deny the supposed nobility of the assassination. Still, convincingly or not, Booth made an effort to craft his own narrative.
With that, we’ve said just about all we have to say about David Alfaro Siqueiros, Valerie Solanas, Nero, Otto Dix, Sadamichi Hirasawa, Benvenuto Cellini, and John Wilkes Booth. But we haven’t finished with the theme of assassination. So if you want to hear all five, please consider becoming a patron. Bonus episode 1 will take us behind the scenes of Our American Cousin at the time of Lincoln’s assassination and tell the story of how one performer fought to control the chaos that ensued inside the playhouse.