Conspiracy, Shakespeare, and John F. Kennedy

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[dropcap]Upwards[/dropcap] of 80% of Americans believe that John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was killed as a result of a conspiracy. In fact, the House Select Committee on Assassinations in the late 70s concluded, “The committee found that, to be precise and loyal to the facts it established, it was compelled to find that President Kennedy was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy.”

And yet, the overriding myth today is that Lee Harvey Oswald, acting alone, killed the president. This was a carefully constructed tale written specifically to placate a worried nation by a blue-ribbon government panel led by Chief Justice Earl Warren.

And yet, even though people don’t believe it, they believe it.

I started studying the JFK assassination when I was a teenager. It fascinated me that — in one moment — our whole world could change forever, and I wanted to know why. When I moved to Los Angeles, I had a roommate who worked at KFI Talk Radio, and he convinced me to join him on-air to discuss the history and theories of the assassination. After that, I did many, many hours of talk radio as an “expert” all across the nation. For about a decade, I knew I could never make plans for November 22 (the anniversary of the assassination), because I would inevitably be doing some radio program on that day.

During this time, I was heavily steeped in research on the subject. I happened to be reading one of Shakespeare’s most iconic plays when I started to notice parallels between the playwright’s narrative and the characters and circumstances of the JFK story — parallels so peculiar that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Shakespeare’s usual brilliance aside, in this case, he seemed almost prescient: he seemed to see the future some 350 years before it happened.

I was soon down the rabbit hole — highlighting the connections and crafting the JFK story from what he wrote, bringing in other historical pieces to fill in where he left gaps, and writing new material where it became necessary. It took a while; like, more than 20 years. This was partially because of my need for information that did not yet exist. I wanted to be as historically accurate as possible, and thanks to Robert Caro’s amazing work on LBJ in 2012, The Passage of Power, I finally got confirmation of facts I’d only guessed at before.

The other reason it took so long was fear: this idea was too crazy! Could it possibly work? I was taking the sacred cow and using it for my own purposes. Wouldn’t people be upset that I was messing with the Bard? I’m cutting and rewording, and changing his beloved text. Ultimately, as the work progressed, I realized that I was merely reshaping and highlighting the connections that were already there. And my fear was vanquished.

I also realized it had to be done. It had become very important for me to tell this story. I started doing theatre when I was four, and I have always felt the purpose of theatre was to help better understand our world. Ultimately, art (and especially theatre) exists to challenge preconceived notions and to question the status quo. In the case of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, I believe it is our duty as citizens to challenge the “official findings.” There are just too many unanswered questions to remain silent.

I hope audiences will take the play at face value; some of it is metaphor, some of it is not. This is the story of what might have happened based on what I know, and of all the information we have available to date. We may never be told the truth. But I hope The Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) at least makes you think and talk about the possibilities. And about how to make sure it never happens again.

NOW PLAYING: THE TRAGEDY OF JFK (AS TOLD BY WM. SHAKESPEARE) at the Skylight Theatre, through November 6.

jfk-iconThe Tragedy of JFK (as told by Wm. Shakespeare) is the tale of the conspiracy to assassinate the 35th President of the United States and its aftermath. Using Shakespearian text, this groundbreaking theatrical event illuminates what might have happened surrounding one of the most shocking events in American history.


Daniel Henning

Daniel Henning

Daniel Henning is the founding artistic director of The Blank Theatre.