February 12, 2006

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.

“I think 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.

“Maybe 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.”

The landscape of news changed, as well.

"The explosion 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.

Surely among 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.

Thinking back 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.

Actually, that 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.

Ellen Steinbaum can be reached at citytype@globe.com. You can see past City Type columns at www.ellensteinbaum.com.

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