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Could A Play Stop A Demagogue? Theatre and Electoral Politics

The US presidential candidate in It Can’t Happen Here, the prescient 1936 play by Sinclair Lewis, doesn’t childishly insult his rivals nor boast about the size of his penis. He doesn’t deride Mexicans as rapists and women as fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals. He doesn’t call for a ban on all Muslims, or explicitly advocate the use of torture and the murder of terrorists’ families. 

Have stage plays or musicals helped or even influenced the US electorate during an election year?

But Buzz Windrip does encourage violence among his supporters; proclaim “the people sick to death of political chatter…It’s time to act”; promise to “keep our dollars at home and reduce taxes.” And he does declare his intent to “build a wall...” That line got a laugh when actor Michael Sean McGuinness said it as part of the staged reading of the play by the Peccadillo Theater Company one night late last month at the National Arts Club.

He had paused before finishing the line in the script, which reads as a whole: “We intend to build a wall of steel against European dictatorship.”

It  Can't Happen Here at the Adelphi Theatre on Broadway, 1936. 

Still, that was the line that had convinced Peccadillo Artistic Director Dan Wackerman to stage the play: “I realized that It Can’t Happen Here was suddenly more relevant than it had been since its first production,” Wackerman says. The play, which was Lewis’ stage adaptation of his novel and dramatizes the way that a demagogue gains power, was produced in 1936 through the Federal Theatre Project simultaneously in nearly two-dozen theatres across the nation, including Broadway. It was Wackerman’s hope that his audience would not just see the parallels between then and now, but that Lewis’ play would contribute to the movement to stop Donald Trump from becoming president. “I think it’s going to take theatre a while to catch up with this politically. Nobody saw this coming.”

Can it ever catch up?

picture of a man
Dan Wackerman. Photo by Jonathan Mandell. 

Although it’s hard to picture many things more consequential than a presidential election, the best known current dramatic depictions of political campaigns on stage or screen treat them strictly for entertainment; it’s hard to see Netflix’s House of Cards with its literally murderous candidate or HBO’s Veep with its clownishly inept one, for example, as offering much helpful insight. Could this jokey approach to electoral politics partially explain the jolting real-life success of a candidate who had no previous political experience but was prized as a showman?

Two separate projects for New York stages, however, are tackling this year’s presidential election in intriguing ways—one obliquely, one head-on.

The Rooms Where It Happened
Has theatre played a role in electoral politics? Cynics would be quick to say yes, all the time, taking the question in a way it was not intended: “The presidency is the prize we give to the actor who does the best imitation of a president,” a character says in Arthur Miller’s last play, Finishing the Picture.

To put the question more clearly: Have stage plays or musicals helped or even influenced the US electorate during an election year? Dan Wackerman’s answer to this question was a list of titles (such as Lillian Hellman’s Watch on the Rhine) that focused on political concerns, but not specifically electoral issues or candidates.

There are a handful of well-known American plays about the electoral process—Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, which was revived for the second time on Broadway in 2012, is a prime example of a look at a fictional presidential campaign. Hamilton and 1776 (which was recently revived over a long weekend as part of the Encores! Concert series) both offer historical glimpses into the process of democracy. The song in Hamilton, “The Room Where It Happens,” for example, describes two backroom deals, one of which cheated Aaron Burr out of the vice-presidency.

There is also a category of plays about political figures, most of them historic—and, for the past half century, mostly satirical.

The Gabriels
On March 3 of this year, television viewers watched the notorious 11th Republican Presidential debate in which Donald Trump held up his hands and said: “Look at those hands. Are they small hands? And he [Sen. Marco Rubio] referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”

The next night, March 4, the Gabriel family of Rhinebeck, New York discussed the debate obliquely, and briefly, around the kitchen table:

Mary: After last night, I’d vote for Megyn Kelly.
Hannah: If she wasn’t a Republican.
Joyce: You watched that? How could you watch that?

These were characters in a play by Richard Nelson entitled Hungry, which opened that night, the date in which it is set. Hungry is the first of three plays in a planned cycle at the Public Theater, The Gabriels: Election Year In The Life Of One Family.

The cycle will culminate with the third play, Women of a Certain Age, which will be both set and open—and which the playwright will finish writing—on Election Day, November 8, 2016.

Nelson has tackled such an ambitious and timely series before. The Apple Family Plays: Scenes from Life in the Country, a quartet of plays about the Apple family (also from Rhinebeck) both opened and were set on significant days over a three year period: That Hopey Changey Thing  was set—and opened—on the night of the midterm elections in 2010;  Sweet and Sad  on the 10th anniversary of 9/11;  Sorry    on the day of the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012;  Regular Singing    on the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

women in a kitchen
Hungry  by Richard  Nelson. Photo by Joan Marcus. 

The characters in Hungry bring up politics casually, in-between idle chatter about more personal matters, as might an actual family. There is no more than ten minutes of conversation about the election in a play that lasts one-hundred minutes without an intermission.

What Nelson is attempting seems to be a kind of deeply felt election year poll, filtered through an artistic sensibility, yet more accurate in its own way than the statistics from the latest polls quoted each night on the news.

The Debates
During the first Democratic presidential candidate debate of the 2016 election last October, Paul Bedard was struck by a comment that Hillary Clinton made: “When we met in Copenhagen in 2009, President Obama and I were literally hunting for the Chinese, because we knew we had to get them to agree to something,” 

“Literally hunting”?

Bedard, the artistic director of a five-year-old company called Theater in Asylum, had organized a watch party for the debate, and shortly afterward he and his company performed The Debates: Debate #1, an imaginative re-creation of the debate. More than a dozen actors memorized the then-five candidates’ words and gestures, even their breathing, and mimicked them alongside video highlights.  (“Mimicry is a great way to illuminate character,” Bedard says.) They included Clinton’s “literally hunting” remark and then followed it with a dream sequence, featuring a performer dressed as Elmer Fudd armed with a sparkle-encrusted squirt gun, who was literally hunting Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny.

picture of a man
Paul  Bedard. Photo by  Jonathan Mandell. 

If this sounds as if Asylum was literally mocking one of the candidates, that, Bedard says, was not their aim. “We want to turn theatre people onto politics, and turn political people onto theatre. We want to empower people who believe they are not political, or feel intimidated by the political process.”

So far, there have been a total of eight Democratic debate watch parties that Asylum has organized, and two more shows they’ve put together based on the debates. They are planning a ninth watch party, next Thursday at the 12th Street Ale House in the East Village, and then a fourth show, The Debates: New York Primary, to be performed for free at the Kraine Theater on April 18 and 19, the day of the New York primary.

actors on stage
Courtesy of Theatre in Asylum.  

In the second debate, the watch party was struck by this exchange:

Moderator: How high would you raises taxes?
Sanders: We haven't come up with an exact number yet, but it will not be as high as the number under Dwight D. Eisenhower, which was 90 percent…. I’m not that much of a socialist compared to Eisenhower.

So, in The Debates: Debate #2, after reading aloud the transcript of the exchange, the Asylum performers impersonated each president from FDR to Obama, each briefly presenting the political and economic situation at the time (using verbatim quotes  as much as possible) and then explaining what the tax rate was. (“It was high until Reagan.”) They followed this with a discussion of the candidates’ proposed tax plans.

There is so much information in an election year... Art helps us understand the stakes, the context, and the humanity within the chaos.

For The Debates: Debate # 4, Asylum created an original musical theatre number, “When I go down to Wall Street,” that explained economic regulatory legislation such as Glass-Steagall and Dodd-Frank, and the plans each candidate had to regulate Wall Street.

“We’re trying to give people the tools they need to decode what’s going on,” says Bedard. “When people turn on the debates, they just hear a lot of yelling.”

people dancing
Courtesy of Theatre in Asylum.  

Why did Asylum take on just the Democratic primaries? “We felt the people we could be the most useful for are Democratic voters,” says Bedard. “There’s very little nuance going on with the Republicans.” Besides, he says, “I’m not sure I could be fair to Trump.”

Still, although Bedard’s personal political leanings are clear—he wears a Bernie campaign button—he sees Theatre in Asylum’s project as non-partisan, a theatrical version of the League of Women Voters. “I hope the show can help people clarify what they believe.”  If it came down to it—if Trump becomes a candidate in the general election and Asylum decides to continue its shows (as they’re thinking of doing)—“my goal of creating political confidence is higher than my goal of stopping Trump.”

a man playing guitar
Courtesy of Theatre in Asylum.  

“Elections are an enormously special time; they prompt soul searching for Americans,” Bedard says. “As a society we’re asking who are we, and who do we want to be. If a year ago, you had said there would be a socialist and a potential fascist running, and we would be taking them seriously, you’d be laughed at.”

Bedard continues:

There is so much information in an election year. I believe it is the artist's duty to help make sense of it all, not with more information, but with interpretation, narrative, color, sound, story. Art helps us understand the stakes, the context, and the humanity within the chaos.

Jonathan Mandell’s NewCrit piece usually appears the first Thursday of every month. Find his previous pieces here.

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