Coast to Coast, Presidential Election Ignites New Look at Campaigns and Politics

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

It is the political season on stage as well as off-stage this month as more than a dozen plays about elections and political history flood the nation’s theaters from coast to coast in an effort to tie in to the close, heated Presidential campaign.

There is something for everybody, Democrat as well as Republican, liberal as well as conservative. You are tired of American politics? There are plays about politics in Norway, England, Ireland and Argentina. You don’t like contemporary politics? There is one play about Depression-era politics written in 1933, one about Richard Nixon’s 1952 Vice-Presidential campaign and another about the politics of 1600. You want women in politics? How about Eva Peron? Contemporary? The Los Angeles Mark Taper Forum has the play November and its modern presidential election plot.

The political plays are, of course, spurred on by the Presidential campaign between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and a host of gubernatorial, Senatorial and Congressional races in different states. We even have Bristol Palin, daughter of former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, who ran for the Dancing with the Stars television show title.

The latest entry in the political theater campaign is a revival of November, by David Mamet, that ran for a few months in New York in 2008. In it, the President, running for re-election, is played by Ed Begley Jr. He is out of money and running behind in the polls but, just a few nights before the election, he has hopes of winning due to some mysterious ideas. “His polls numbers are lower than Gandhi’s cholesterol,” joked a spokesman for the Center Theater Group, that is producing the play (I immediately wondered what Gandhi’s cholesterol was).

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man kicked off the political season when it opened last spring to tie into the Republican primaries. The play ran through the summer and into the fall. It was followed by Henrik Ibsen’s historical An Enemy of the People, about small town environmental politics in a Norway seaside resort in the latter days of the nineteenth century. Then along came a revival of Evita, about 1950s Argentine superstar Eva Peron, back on Broadway after 30 years. There was also Freedom of the City, set in Dublin in 1972, about the Irish political troubles there. Richard III, about the sordid politics of the British court in the early 1600s, played throughout New York last summer and then was staged at the Public Theater for three weeks. A new production of Richard III is at the Fourth St. Theater.

Next week is opening night for Checkers, about Richard Nixon’s fabled 1952 television speech about how his girls were not giving back their dog, Checkers, that a fan had given them as a gift, even if keeping him might be in violation of campaign laws. The play debuts at the Vineyard Theater in New York.

Many of the plays are about elections, some are about chicanery and some are about corruption. Both Your Houses, at New York’s Metropolitan Playhouse, as an example, is a 1933 play about corruption on a Congressional Committee.

Running on Empty, the one man political show starring comic Lewis Black, has been running since the beginning of the month in New York.

There is also something called Obamatry running at the Under St. Mark’s Theater, in New York’s East Village, which has to be an avant-garde look at the 44th President in an avant-garde theater. Austerity of Hope, about gay life in New York during the 2008 campaign, opens this week.

Why do Presidential campaigns and plays always mesh so nicely?

“Staging political plays in a Presidential campaign make sense because all the publicity of the campaign gets people interested in movies, television shows and plays about politics. It really is a ‘political season’ and people seem more inclined to go to shows about politics at this time,” said Alex Roe, the producer of New York’ Metropolitan Playhouse, that stages numerous history plays and is home to Both Your Houses. “The corruption in our play, in 1933, is just like the corruption you find in politics today. It doesn’t change. “

And the Presidential campaigns mirror political life. “The two candidate’s today talk about how to overcome hard times. Well, history plays about the Depression speak of that, too,” said Roe.

Doug Aibel, the artistic director of the Vineyard Theater, received the script for Checkers a year ago and loved it. He decided to stage it in October because there was a natural tie in to the campaign. “It is a fortunate connection for us,” said Aibel, “but this play could be produced at any time. It is a good play about a fascinating historical subject.”

In Checkers, playwright Doug McGrath examines Richard Nixon’s decision to go on national television to refute charges that he had accepted illegal campaign gifts. He defended himself and then, at the end, told America he was not giving back the little dog Checkers that his daughters loved. The people applauded and Nixon stayed in the race.

“It was a bold thing for Nixon to do. Remember, this is 1952, the infancy of television. Who knew who would watch and what they would think? Why make the presentation on TV? It was a big step for Nixon. He had to make all his finances public, that irritated his wife, and pretty much bare himself to the public. In the play, we see the personal side of Nixon and the conflict with his wife. The play humanizes him.”

And, Aibel added, we forget today how huge television audiences were in the 1950s. There were only three networks then and no cable television. “Everybody watched TV. Over 70 million people tuned in to the ‘Checkers’ speech. The audience was huge.”

He thinks staging it just before the election helps. “If anything, the 2012 campaign puts a spotlight on the play.”

There can be box office anger, though. “I think that many people get turned off by the never ending aspects of the Presidential race that we see on TV constantly. They say to themselves, no more politics, please, and won’t go to a play about politics, whether contemporary or a work from a hundred years ago. Producers walk a tight line,” said Roe. ‘Basically, to succeed you need a good play.”

The Vineyard’s Aibel agrees. “People are tired of politics, but they like to look back at an historical political event like this. It’s a fresh look at Nixon and his wife. It’s different.”

Producer Roe, in New York, thinks there is an added bonus to political plays. “You watch the play and all the problems it covers in American politics; you shake your head and ask yourself how on earth does Democracy work with all these troubles? Well, somehow, it does and you are happy for that.”

Others agree. “Any play about political history is a good juxtaposition against plays about politics today,” Aibel said. “What Nixon went through on one night these guys on the campaign trail today go through on TV every single day for months.”

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