All the (Political) World’s a Stage
In the last
election did you just for a minute wish you could vote for Jed Bartlet,
the fictional president on The West Wing? And if I say “woman
president,”what’s your first thought--quick--Liberia,
Chile, or Geena Davis? With the intersection between politics and
culture looking increasingly like an overachieving interstate cloverleaf,
it seems fitting that some of the most thoughtful political commentary
comes from a former drama critic.
the cultural story and the political news story are inseparable,”
says Frank Rich. Rich is op-ed columnist and former chief drama
critic for The New York Times; the author of Ghost
Light, a memoir; and Hot Seat, a collection of theater
reviews; and co-author, with Lisa Aronson, of The Theatre Art
of Boris Aronson. His visit to Boston on February 12 for a
Celebrity Series “Conversation” gave me the opportunity
to consider this writer I have long admired a “City Type”
for a day.
For Rich, who
grew up in Washington, D. C., politics and theater have always been
interwoven. As a student at Harvard he was both a drama critic and
editorial chairman for the Harvard Crimson, foreshadowing his career
path from theater to politics.
the move was fated to happen, but it wasn’t planned,”
Rich says, noting that, in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was decimating
Broadway. Suddenly theater was a story as much about politics as
about stagecraft. “People were literally dying in the wings.
I became interested in bursting beyond the bounds of normal reviewing.”
of news changed, as well.
of 24/7 news on television and the Internet,” says Rich, “combined
with the swallowing up of network news operations by giant media
companies. The changes in media culture and an administration that
is probably the most savvy in manipulating that culture have combined
to create an almost fictional story line.” He cites as “a
classic example” last month’s White House gathering
of 13 former secretaries of state and defense which the President,
according to news reports, attended for between five and 10 minutes
of conversation before everyone arranged themselves for the photo
that appeared next morning on front pages across the country.
the political theater’s greatest hits is the 1992 campaign,
where the political-cultural divide blurred as candidate Clinton
played sax on late-night television and the nation’s vice
president debated a sitcom character, Murphy Brown. By now we’re
used to it. We barely blink when scripted illusion trumps reality.
When we watched footage of President Bush serving Thanksgiving dinner
to the troops in Iraq in 2004, did we even realize that those applauding
soldiers and marines were having their cranberry sauce and stuffing
at around 6 AM? Looked like Thanksgiving dinner to us. And of course
we’ll always have the “Mission Accomplished” backdrop,
the summer stock brush clearing.
to his reviewing days, Rich says, “I think the least important
role of the critic is to come to a judgment about a show.”
He tells of another former Times drama critic, the legendary Walter
Kerr, who “made you feel what it was like to be in that theater
on that night.” Reviewers like Kerr, he says, felt their job
was to generate an excitement about the art form, and perhaps to
champion something new and exciting, even if it might be unpopular.
sounds like political writing, too: trying to offer the reader a
front-row seat to what unfolds each day. Since we can’t always
attend the performance, we need to rely on someone to tell us about
it. We’re hoping for a reality show.
can be reached at email@example.com.
You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.