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Recapping "Mad March:" Basketball, Riots and Hitler’s Favorite Shakespeare Play

Mars, the Roman god of war descended upon Washington, D.C., last month, bringing “madness” into March, the month named in his honor. How do I know? I spotted his influence all over town:
  • Sighting #1: Thanks to the “informal” ticket-sale system on the sidewalk outside of the Verizon Center, where the NCAA Elite Eight games took place, I unexpectedly got to see a slice of March Madness firsthand as Marquette vanquished Miami and Syracuse subdued Indiana.
  • Sighting #2: A few nights later, at the D.C. Shakespeare Theater, I watched Adolf Hitler’s favorite play, “Coriolanus.” The play’s protagonist, Roman General Caius Martius, honorifically dubbed “Coriolanus” brings Mars to life, lustily spilling blood for the sake of his tribe and his personal pride. (Apparently Hitler found the “human-tank” hero inspiring—not many other people do, which is probably why “Coriolanus” is one of Shakespeare’s least popular works.)
Of course, Mars did not limit his visit to Washington last month; March Madness colored our entire nation, at least according to the map of team loyalties published by The Atlantic. Nor can we call Martial mania a recent phenomenon. Just look back to AD 532 when chariot racing teams (the Blues, Reds, Greens and Whites) rioted Constantinople into flames during the infamous Nika riots, which left tens of thousands of people dead. While March Madness wasn’t a bloodless affair, a brief reflection on the strange, varied and extensive history of human rivalries—spats about sports  teams, cities, classes, races, religions, even academic disciplines—led me to conclude that things could have gone worse for basketball. Much worse, in fact. The month witnessed a gruesome compound fracture; some lost bracket bets; and a spate of inflamed fans yelling at bartenders for changing the channel at inopportune times. But in the end, we avoided true calamity (think of the Hagia Sophia up in flames during the Nika Revolt). What kept full-blown mayhem at bay? The answer is partly economic and cultural; in modern American society, we regularly transcend our tribal instincts in order to transact with one another. And as trade alleviates the problem of scarcity, our relatively affluent environment frequently favors civility over scrappiness. The upshot: We buy tickets to watch spectacles of choreographed chaos unfolding in well-ordered arenas. But while the benefits of prosperity may soften and tame our bellicose bent, let’s not forget that trade cannot eradicate the underlying forces of selfishness and strife that course through individuals and groups alike. When resources get thin, Mars is quick to show his face—in both trivial and tragic ways (think of anything from road rage to office spats to riots over rising food prices). Mars must somehow be defeated for good. Happily, in D.C. on Easter Eve at the very end of March, Mars and his protégé Caius Martius Coriolanus got squarely upstaged as more people turned up for a Saturday night vigil celebrating The Hero of Easter than could fit into the Shakespeare Theater—a small hint of the promise that death will be the one to die in the end. So for now, the “mad month” is over. It’s high time for warmer, lighter days. Perhaps some Midsummer Night’s dreaming before too long?