Beware Theater in Politics

Crucially, the president himself must become a critic. One flop may not an election make, but a second one? Can't happen. At the next rumble -- er, debate -- Mr. Obama must pull off Mr. Romney's many masks and expose his contradictions.
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When a great playwright warns against making theater of a particular enterprise, we might lend him our ears.

Arthur Miller, creator of the timeless dramas Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, warned against treating politics as mere theater, as spectacle only. Writing about the Bush-Gore presidential race of 2000, Miller in an essay lamented:

The American press is made up of disguised theater critics; substance counts for next to nothing compared with style and inventive characterization. The question is whether the guy is persuasive, not what he is persuading us of.

In the first of the three presidential debates, held last week, between incumbent Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney (Miller would call them "so-called debates"), the media by and large played the critic, grading on "performance" and declaring a "winner" (Romney) and a "loser" (Obama). Accordingly, Romney "controlled the stage," while Obama broke out in "flop sweat," an actor's nightmare. True to Miller's lament, much of the media critiqued the performers on style and persuasiveness (here, here, and here), including a former theater critic turned commentator (here), while some remembered their role: to comment on substance and truthfulness (here, here, and here).

Interestingly, and encouragingly, voters themselves seem more fixed on substance than star turns -- on what was actually said and discussed onstage -- to judge by the anecdotal evidence of comments threads, debate watch groups, letters to the editor. Sure, some Romney supporters crowed their guy "won" and some Obama supporters conceded their guy "lost." But many polls show little change in Obama's lead and favorability ratings (here, here, and here) and, according to an overnight poll, 50 percent of undecided voters remained undecided after the first round.

So, one "flop" of a debate performance does not an election make -- a good sign for democracy, a form of government that depends on a discerning electorate. Meanwhile, the fact-checkers continue checking facts (here and here), the candidates rehearse for the next debate, and the campaign---or for Arthur Miller, the play---goes on.

For Miller, theater's bleeding into politics is inevitable. It starts at the basal level: More than a leader's character or proposals, we are influenced by our "glandular reactions" to a leader's personality. Aristotle saw us as social animals, "ruled more," writes Miller, "by the arts of performance -- by acting, in other words." Television, a 24-hour medium, heightens this effect exponentially: "Ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are... besieged... by acting." He goes on: "One is surrounded by such a roiling mass of consciously contrived performances it gets harder and harder for a lot of people to locate reality anymore." And the most compelling television fare in all the world? The American presidential race, because it can mean not only an entirely new direction for the country but, given America's power, the world: "Thus the television lens becomes a microscope with the world at the eyepiece." No pressure!

Therefore acting -- of a very high order -- is required: "The presidency, in acting terms," writes Miller, "is a heroic role. It is not one for comedians, sleek lover types, or second bananas." Should there be war, "a president rises to the stature of a tragic figure." Thus candidates seek to "draw down powers upon themselves which their ordinary behavior cannot possess," while somehow preserving their "regular-fella personae." Adding to the unreality of all this, to win the White House they must run against Washington, meaning they essentially run against themselves. Writes Miller, "There's a name for this sort of cannonading of Washington; it is called acting."

But Miller also sees the snare in this act: "The trouble is that a leader somehow comes to symbolize his country, and so the nagging question is whether, when real trouble comes, we can act ourselves out of it." Thus, the title of his essay, "On Politics and the Art of Acting," with emphasis on the art.

And it's here, I submit, where the theater critic -- that would be all of us in our armchairs, judging and critiquing, as well as those in the media -- can serve a vital, nation-saving function:

If indeed acting is required in our leaders, then we need to refrain from critiquing on style or persuasiveness, but instead call out that candidate who, in the course of one campaign, plays multiple and contradictory roles. Who, when the mask is pulled off, presents another mask contradicting the first. Who is, to put it explicitly, lying.

Romney had the president flummoxed in last week's debate because, instead of launching zingers, he launched an entirely new persona, one tacking strenuously to the center when in the primaries he was the "severe" conservative who pandered to, and won, the screamingly anti-government Tea Party faction. The "ideological reinvention" was audacious, as The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg described: By debate's end, "Romney had retrofitted himself as the defender of Medicare, the advocate of Wall Street regulation, the scourge of the big banks, the enemy of tax cuts for the rich, and the champion of tax relief for the middle class" -- all claims "spectacularly false." It was such a Houdini act that, presidential and polite, Mr. Obama couldn't get a handle on it. (See also here.)

(By the way, notice how quiet those Tea Party screamers have become post-debate, despite Romney's betrayal? Now, that's acting.)

Falling for Romney's magic act, the usually astute David Brooks, conservative columnist for The New York Times, in a post-debate column titled "Moderate Mitt Returns!" (exclamation point is his) wrote that, finally emerging "from the fog," Romney "broke with the stereotypes of his party and, at long last, began the process of offering a more authentic version of himself." This is beyond absurd: How can you serve up various versions of your authentic self and still stay, you know, authentic?

Meanwhile, in this armchair, as Romney was subdividing his authenticity, I was writing the president's comeback lines for him, and delivering them: "Since when do you care about 'all the people'? We all saw the 47 percent tape!" "Since when did you include pre-existing conditions in your healthcare plan?" "I saved the auto industry, but you were all for letting it go. Your father's industry. Was that Oedipal?"

Crucially, the president himself must become a critic. One flop may not an election make, but a second one? Can't happen. At the next rumble -- er, debate -- Mr. Obama must pull off Mr. Romney's many masks and expose his contradictions. Fortunately, Mr. Obama has the edge here, having a far more coherent self than his challenger. I suspect Mr. Obama has already taken himself to the woodshed for last week's performance; I hope he's dusting off his Chicago game for the next. Yes, it's one of civilization's discontents: learning how to argue without losing your civility. But it can be done, presidentially and simply: "Governor, that's not the truth -- and one of your multiple selves knows it." Or as writer Aaron Sorkin states it explicitly: "You're lying, Governor."

Speaking of Oedipus, the tragedy: Ending his essay, Arthur Miller reveals himself to be the full tragedian, in alliance with the ancients and the moderns both, also with Shakespeare, in declaring that all politics is corrupt and that there is no help for it but art:

I'm afraid, we can only turn to the release of art, to the other theater... where you can tell the truth without killing anybody and may even illuminate the awesomely durable dilemma of how to lead without lying too much. The release of art will not forge a cannon or pave a street, but it may remind us again and again of the corruptive essence of power, its immemorial tendency to enhance itself at the expense of humanity [italics mine].

Here I have to rebut the great playwright, and I think many other Americans would, too. Thanks to the theater, we do know that power can be corrupting. At the moment, however, it's corporate power rather than political power that's being abused, with big money profiting from the Citizens United decision to buy the politics it needs to stay dominant. Republicans, party of corporations and the rich, need to take note.

As for politics: Yes, politics is messy and rough, and this season saw new frontiers in stupidity (remember "9-9-9"?). But that's because we're a democracy, and in a democracy we all, bless us, believe to our core that we have a voice, thus the noise. While there is evidence of political dysfunction, notably in Congress, the world's oldest democracy still must believe that when Mr. or Ms. Smith goes to Washington, power can be wielded in a way that humanity is enhanced (to recycle Miller's words above). Otherwise why the extraordinarily high interest in this election and how explain why so many good people are running for office at all levels?

So this American is not ready to surrender to "the release of art," most especially a tragic, fatalistic art; nor are masses of other Americans; to do so seems un-American. But we do know we are in trouble, possibly in decline -- as a nation, an economy, an ideal. Thus the larger drama: In my mind's eye, I see an ancient amphitheater where the drama of America is now playing out, where the major dramatic question is: Will America survive, will it mature? We can and will -- if we call out the bad actors and applaud the good ones.

Off with the masks!

Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is author of the recently published book, "Two Plays of Life and Death"; she is at work on a play titled "Prodigal." Her book of commentary is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character."

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