- Posted by Paul Gowder on October 29th, 2009 filed in Paul Gowder, Reviewer at Large, bay area events, politics, scene, something actually optimistic and non-misanthropic!, theatre
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Regular readers will know that I very rarely write positive reviews of anything. It’s not that I’m a sourpuss, exactly. It’s more that negative reviews are much more fun — there’s far more scope for creativity and humor and hyperbole in disdain than in praise. But I like to think that it means that when I do write a positive review, it’s really meaningful.
Well, I’m writing a positive review now. David Mamet’s play, November, is playing till November 15 at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. And it is sublime. It is hilarious. Everyone should see it. Certainly every political scientist should see it (I e-mailed the Stanford political science department from my iphone in intermission, commanding accordingly). Everyone who needs a comic take on the Bush administration or on the ultimate emptiness of power in general should see it.
Let’s put it this way. Y’all know that Machiavelli wrote a couple of delightful plays (Mandragola, Clizia), right? Well, they were about sexual scheming (you know, friars plotting with lovers to get with other people’s wives, that sort of thing), but I’m sure I’m not alone in wishing he’d written a more explicitly political one. If he’d been around for the last days of the W administration (to which there are many references), and he’d decided to turn his comedic talents to his real area of expertise, he could very well have written November.
The play is about a profoundly corrupt, cynical, and incompetent president in the death rattle of his reelection campaign (Andrew Polk starring as President Charles Smith), struggling to keep up the fight, and wrestling the temptation to just sell a bunch of pardons, stick the money in a Swiss bank account, and retire to motivational speeches at mini-malls. The “keep up the good fight”/”take the money and run” aspects of his personality are surgically extracted and anthropomorphized, like the angel and demon that used to appear on the shoulders of cartoon characters, in his two chief aides — the idealistic hippie lesbian speechwriter (Rene Augesen as Clarice Bernstein), and his chief-of-staff/right-hand-man/plumber (Anthony Fusco as Archer Brown, the glorious Laurel to Smith’s Hardy). Together, they deal with a rogue’s gallery of mostly (but not entirely) unseen lobbyists, significant others, political fixers, etc. Many of the gags revolve around Smith’s trying to extract as much money as possible from corporate America before leaving office and his desire to go out with a “legacy,” and the contrast between the meanness of the first ambition and the pomposity of the second. It’s really really great.
Yet it’s not really a “make fun of Bush” play. You can interpret it that way (and had McCain been elected last year, it would have felt like dark humor rather than the quite light humor it presents as now), but you need not do so. I prefer to think of it as a play about the impotence of power — President Smith is kind of a gutter-guttural howling Caligula, an Azathoth — the blind idiot god from the Lovecraft mythos — but more pitiful — more Phillip K. Dick, a weak little god who is always in danger of being squished by the dominatrix-boot of fortuna. Smith knows — knows! — that he ought to be able to fill his campaign coffers and send heavily-armed goons to do his bidding across the world as well as in his own White House, but he never really seems to be able to do so. He tries and tries, but circumstances and his own folly (dare I say his lack of virtu?) reduce even the awesome force at the fingers of the President of the United States to absentee soldiers and lobbyists who put him on hold. The administration really resembles Nixon more than Bush — or perhaps even an imagined world where Spiro Agnew somehow became president, but had a Bernstein (surely this name was no accident?) around to keep him a teensy bit honest.
The play has a sensibility similar to that of Byron’s Ode to Napoleon. For those who haven’t read it (why the fuck not?), it’s basically Byron kicking dirt into Napoleon’s eyes while he’s lying on the ground, having been beaten up by bigger boys. Cruel mockery, the message is “imperial power comes to this? Thanks, Napoleon, for showing the ambitious how pitiful this supposed ‘glory’ can be.” A couple of excerpts:
‘TIS done — but yesterday a King!
And arm’d with Kings to strive –
And now thou art a nameless thing:
So abject — yet alive!
Is this the man of thousand thrones,
Who strew’d our earth with hostile bones,
And can he thus survive?
Since he, miscall’d the Morning Star,
Nor man nor fiend hath fallen so far.
Ill-minded man! why scourge thy kind
Who bow’d so low the knee?
By gazing on thyself grown blind,
Thou taught’st the rest to see.
With might unquestion’d, — power to save, –
Thine only gift hath been the grave,
To those that worshipp’d thee;
Nor till thy fall could mortals guess
Ambition’s less than littleness!
Thanks for that lesson — It will teach
To after-warriors more,
Than high Philosophy can preach,
And vainly preach’d before.
That spell upon the minds of men
Breaks never to unite again,
That led them to adore
Those Pagod things of sabre sway
With fronts of brass, and feet of clay.
The triumph and the vanity,
The rapture of the strife –
The earthquake voice of Victory,
To thee the breath of life;
The sword, the sceptre, and that sway
Which man seem’d made but to obey,
Wherewith renown was rife –
All quell’d! — Dark Spirit! what must be
The madness of thy memory!
The Desolator desolate!
The Victor overthrown!
The Arbiter of others’ fate
A Suppliant for his own!
Is it some yet imperial hope
That with such change can calmly cope?
Or dread of death alone?
To die a prince — or live a slave –
Thy choice is most ignobly brave!
* * *
But thou — from thy reluctant hand
The thunderbolt is wrung –
Too late thou leav’st the high command
To which thy weakness clung;
All Evil Spirit as thou art,
It is enough to grieve the heart
To see thine own unstrung;
To think that God’s fair world hath been
The footstool of a thing so mean;
And Earth hath spilt her blood for him,
Who thus can hoard his own!
And Monarchs bow’d the trembling limb,
And thank’d him for a throne!
Fair Freedom! we may hold thee dear,
When thus thy mightiest foes their fear
In humblest guise have shown.
Oh! ne’er may tyrant leave behind
A brighter name to lure mankind!
Thine evil deeds are writ in gore,
Nor written thus in vain –
Thy triumphs tell of fame no more,
Or deepen every stain:
If thou hadst died as honour dies,
Some new Napoleon might arise,
To shame the world again –
But who would soar the solar height,
To set in such a starless night?
Weigh’d in the balance, hero dust
Is vile as vulgar clay;
Thy scales, Mortality! are just
To all that pass away:
But yet methought the living great
Some higher sparks should animate,
To dazzle and dismay:
Nor deem’d Contempt could thus make mirth
Of these, the Conquerors of the earth.
What about the other stuff, the acting the set the costumes all that rot? Flawless. Indeed, glorious. The most stellar aspect is Polk’s ability to handle numerous one-sided telephone calls (calls that invariably end in a “fuck you too,” and feature multiple threats to put the silent interlocutor on the “piggie plane,” hooded and manacled, and extraordinarily render him to Bulgaria for the usual sorts of purposes). It can’t be easy to conduct dialogue without another actor on the other end, but Polk handles those conversations so well that you can almost hear the other side of the conversation.
Because I have high-level A.C.T. connections, I got to sit in the front row on opening night. For free. Be jealous. Also be jealous that I found myself chatting with the artistic director of the theatre during intermission, the amazing and wonderful Carey Perloff, and like her so much that I’ve created a facebook fan group/marriage proposal.
This is a strong candidate for best play I’ve ever seen. Go see it. Now. No excuses. Do it. Do it!