Shakespeare Theatre Company Mock Trial: The Robert Chiltern Affair

Legal luminaries gather to debate Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”

By: Sophie Gilbert

Irvin Nathan, Esq., the Acting Attorney General for the District of Columbia, represents the United States in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s 2011 Mock Trial, 'The Robert Chiltern Affair.' Photo by Kevin Allen, courtesy Shakespeare Theatre Company.
It was Oscar Wilde who wrote in 1893 that “the growing influence of women is the one reassuring thing in our political life.” Presumably he would have approved of the action onstage Monday night at Sidney Harman Hall, where Supreme Court justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor joined an all-star judiciary panel, including fellow Justice Samuel Alito and DC appeals court Judge Merrick Garland for Shakespeare Theatre Company’s annual mock trial, once described by the New York Times as a “Washington wonk’s dream.”

The trial, riffing on the company’s current updated production of An Ideal Husband, debated whether fictional character Laura Cheveley was within the confines of the law when she approached New Jersey Representative Robert Chiltern, the husband of a college classmate, and asked him to support an earmark for a tunnel connecting Penn Station and Secaucus. Cheveley, who stood to receive considerable financial gain from the new tunnel, attempted to persuade Chiltern by presenting him with a letter he had written almost 20 years ago that revealed his prior corrupt association with a lobbyist.

Acting as counsel for the defendant was Paul Weiss partner Beth A. Wilkinson—well known for her prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—who happens to be married to Meet the Press anchor David Gregory. Acting DC Attorney General Irv Nathan served as counsel for the United States, while the Supreme Court panel included Douglas Ginsburg, Brett M. Kavanaugh, and David S. Tatel.

The event, which sold out this year in less than two hours, was first established in 1994 by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in a bid to draw parallels between classical works and contemporary law. But as lofty as that sounds, the emphasis Monday night was primarily on entertainment, starting with a Lady Gaga reference in the first minute and ending with digs at Mitt Romney, Southwest Airlines, and even Justice Ginsburg, who poked fun at herself by offering a dissent against the final decision. Wilkinson drew applause when she asked the judges to accept “the fundamental truth that every other woman knows—there is no ideal husband,” adding as an afterthought, “except my own.” But the biggest laugh of the night came from Judge Douglas Ginsburg, who responded to Wilkinson’s statement that “Women are not disarmed by compliments. Men always are,” by saying, “Thank you.”

Props to both the judges and the attorneys for incorporating pop culture into their schtick: Everyone from the tea party to Kwame Brown’s “fully loaded” SUVs got a name drop. When describing the complicated position that Robert Chiltern found himself in, Nathan described it this way: “Like Charlie Sheen, he was caught between two goddesses.” And almost everyone made jokes about NBC and Meet the Press, especially Judge Garland. Justice Alito’s argument that the proposed tunnel would allow “more people from New Jersey to go to New York, raising the intellectual and cultural standard” was rebutted by Nathan, who stressed how depressed New Yorkers would be when they realized that “the light at the end of the tunnel was New Jersey.”

The evening ended with a popular vote, which overturned Laura Cheveley’s appeal and found her guilty of blackmail. “Mrs. Cheveley’s argument has more holes than a Southwest airliner,” Nathan said. The real winner, of course, was Shakespeare Theatre’s Bard Association, which succeeded in throwing a successful event and raising its profile for another year.

Subscribe to Washingtonian
Follow Washingtonian on Twitter

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos