Palpatine the Art Lover

One of the most captivating characters from the Star Wars saga is Emperor Sheev Palpatine. When we, as an audience, saw his first reveal in The Empire Strikes back (in chronological release order, of course, not the chronological story order) it was intriguing. Here was this giant, creepy figure for whom Vader not only immediately diverted his pursuits but knelt before. Darth Vader knelt before this guy. Though the Special Editions have erased him, Clive Revill did one heck of a job giving voice to the ultimate ruler of a galaxy far, far away.

Then, when revealed in Return of the Jedi, he was chalky menace backed on the soundtrack by what sounded like a moaning choir of the dead. While the actor changed, we ignored it thanks to Ian McDiarmid’s stunning performance of penultimate evil.


The unfairly-maligned prequels provided a depth to Palpatine that elevated him from simple caricature. He was revealed as a master politician. He was smooth talk and quick manipulation. He was…an art lover?

It would be easy to glance past this fact. In fact, I think many have thanks to the subtle brilliance of the dialogue and master performance, once again, of McDiarmid. (Fun fact: he had a touch of laryngitis and thought his dialogue would be re-dubbed during ADR. But it added something sinister to the quality of his voice, so it was kept.)

Palpatine's frieze
Speculation about what this displays include an ancient Sith battle. I like that story.

This scene, however, shows Palpatine to be a patron of the arts. His office does as well, with rich sculptures and antiquities that show an appreciation for great form. The wall sculpture behind him as he reveals his true identity to Anakin is one that has fascinated me since seeing it at a midnight showing in May 2005.

So I have begun to wonder about, and would love to explore, the idea of Palpatine as an official patron of the arts during the Imperial era in Star Wars. It’s easy to imagine him sitting simply in his throne pondering the dark mysteries and disappointments of Vader.

Even Lucas, though, was dissatisfied with the idea of Palpatine in a single dimension. We should be as well.

Imagine the story opportunities here and let your imagination run wild. Surely a despotic Master of the Dark Arts would commission great operas to commemorate his rise to power. As so many filmmakers like Oliver Stone have noted, the arts are a way to shape the landscape of popular memory and opinion. They are not just a reflection of it.

The voices calling for historical accuracy would be silenced by pressure. They would eventually be afraid to speak out as they saw the more vocal suffered strange accidents. The Jedi archives would be smashed, or restricted (another blog about what I think happened there at another time). The truth would become the wistful remembrances of the elderly who had to be ignored at family gatherings.

Luke playing with a T-16 model
“It’s not that I like the Empire, I hate it, but there’s nothing I can do about it right now…”

A younger generation would see the conflict as no longer relating to their lives. They would understand the story of the Empire as a fact of life that just had to be accepted, even if they understood it to be skewed. After all, what would it matter to their daily lives as they tried to survive?

It makes sense to me that Palpatine would work very hard to maintain his image as a man victimized by the Jedi and his political enemies. A way he could do that is to make sure that popular entertainment was bent toward telling his version of history.

I can see, very easily, Palpatine making his public appearances at populist plays that depicted and reinforced his necessary rise to power. There would likely be pieces written about his reluctant choices to become the steward of safety in uncertain times.

Imagine, also, the story possibilities for assassination attempts at such appearances. I know we won’t likely get the live action series at this point (as Star Wars Rebels fumbles its way to relevance). I could see such a rich storyline of someone trying at an opera appearance and Vader being sent to hunt down the conspirators.

Alas, I will just have to write these stories in my head. Perhaps it’s better that way. Richer. More engaging.

More artistic.


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