Play about Justice Scalia triggers political debate

Becky and I made the drive to Indianapolis to see “The Originalist” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. The performance we experienced reminded me once again that the best art is not only entertaining but thought-provoking.

“The Originalist” powerfully meets and surpasses both requirements. You can see it on the Upperstage through Nov. 12.

The play is really a sort of dance between Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Cat, a young lawyer who is chosen by Justice Scalia as one of his law clerks. During the 90-minute performance, these two characters present differing views and opinions on some of the major issues of our time.

This attempt to dramatize arguments could have made for a rather tedious version of one of those TV political talk shows which are really yelling shows featuring noisy, opinionated people from the left and right who never really listen to each other.

It is nothing like that. Thank goodness.

According to the notes in the playbill, during his tenure on the Supreme Court, Justice Antonin Scalia “was one of the most controversial figure in the nation.” This was due to his “rigorous viewpoint, vivid writing and larger-than-life personality….” Anyone who paid attention to politics during his three decades on the court would likely agree with this assessment.

Justice Scalia was a leading advocate and upholder of American conservative opinion. He also was an “originalist” who held that the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution should be based on what the framers and those who ratified it more than 200 years ago understood it to mean.

During one early scene as opera is playing in the background, Scalia likens the Constitution to a musical score and insists that one should play the notes as the composer wrote them. This comment is underscored by the knowledge that he was a well-known opera enthusiast. This is an enthusiasm he shared with fellow justice and dear friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is perhaps as liberal as Scalia was conservative.

This liberalism would easily describe Cat, the young law clerk who arrives at the justice’s office for an interview. This first meeting soon spirals into a contentious debate over affirmative action among other current political issues. It becomes clear that Scalia enjoys a good argument and is looking for a law clerk who will challenge him with forceful and well-thought out positions on the issues. He certainly finds one in Cat.

As the play progresses the two characters offer arguments for and against several of the debates we are having in this country today. As this is happening they are revealing more of themselves to each other. The more they learn about each other, the more they understand each other. The more they understand each other, the less anger and exasperation they encounter.

Neither character gives up on the convictions he or she holds, but they come to a middle ground, of sorts, as humans beings who embrace different beliefs.

This is one of those works that continue to stay with you long after you walk out of the theater. Becky and I discussed and grappled with the issues “The Originalist” presented as we drove home, and we are still talking about it nearly two weeks later.

Justice Scalia periodically selected at least one law clerk who held “liberal” views in order to hear the arguments from that side of the debate. We left the play challenged to have similar discussions with others who might hold differing views from our own — discussions based on ideas rather than emotions, on evidence rather than opinions. We want to grow in our understanding of others and of the world.

In today’s left/right, either/or world, I fear we have our work cut out for us.

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to