Sunday, June 25, 2017

Sunday Reading

Why We Must Mock Trump — Howard Jacobson in the New York Times.

Let’s look on the bright side: The spectacle of ireful Donald Trump supporters disrupting Shakespeare in the Park’s production of “Julius Caesar” and the subsequent tweetstorm of abuse directed at any company with Shakespeare in its name prove that plays retain the power to shock and enrage. Who said the theater is all anodyne, feel-good musicals?

I didn’t see the production that turned Julius Caesar into a Donald Trump look-alike, so I can’t comment on the accuracy of the impersonation or the violence against the president that some people believe it meant to incite. But there are a few things about the nature of Shakespearean drama in general — its subtle shifts in sympathy, the shocks it administers to our prejudices, its suspension of the drives to definitive political action — that obviously weren’t apparent to protesters.

The first of these is that a play, however incendiary its plot, is a very different thing from a political speech. A speech asks us to go out and do, or at least to go away and believe; a play by Shakespeare moves through time, measures action against motive and shows us consequence. We might enter the theater in rash spirits, but we leave it consumed by thought.

Mr. Trump never, in so many words, promoted the assassination of Hillary Clinton when addressing an election rally about the likely effect of her tinkering with the gun laws, but he avoided incitement only by making a sort of comic drama of his words — imagining what others might think or do, playing with future and conditional tenses, painting himself as innocent of any such intention himself. This wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a departure from the usual blunt declamations of the “Lock her up!” variety. Deep down in Mr. Trump’s ungrammatical subconscious, some ancient understanding of the nature of dramaturgical, as opposed to oratorical, discourse briefly stirred. No, he had not called for Mrs. Clinton to be shot.

Plays don’t tell you what to think, let alone how to act. A good play won’t even tell you what the playwright thinks. What did Shakespeare believe? We don’t know. Meaning emerges, in a drama, suspensefully, out of the interplay of forces, from the collision of voices. There is no such thing, in art, as non-contingent truth.

That Trumpists don’t recognize this process is not surprising. Mr. Trump’s appeal is to those who think truth comes in a capsule. But their rage at the depiction of the president as the soon-to-be-assassinated Caesar is encouraging to the satirist. Satire is less subtle than Shakespearean drama. It lowers its head and charges. The questions always asked of it — will it do any good, will it change minds, will it even be noticed by the people satirized? — are hereby answered. Yes, no and yes.

Vexation is its own reward. It is consoling to see how thin-skinned the partisans of Mr. Trump are. But in truth, we’ve always known this about people of an absolutist bent. Just before the war, Adolf Hitler tried diplomatic means to get the British cartoonist David Low barred from drawing cartoons of the Führer. It has even been suggested that Mr. Low’s name was on a list of people to be killed when the Nazis occupied Britain.

Communism’s failure of humor is the subject of Milan Kundera’s first novel, “The Joke.” For writing the words “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” on the back of a postcard to a girlfriend, Ludvik Jahn is expelled from the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and sent to work in the mines.

The more monocratic the regime, the less it can bear criticism. And of all criticism, satire — with its single ambition of ridiculing vanity and delusion — is the most potent.

This can be only because the boastful are thin-skinned and the intolerant are forever looking over their shoulders. Mr. Trump himself is visibly easy to wound. Should this be a reason to hold back? “Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?” the great satirist Alexander Pope asked. The question was rhetorical. Wounding the vainglorious is a pleasing pastime in itself and contributes to their demoralization. Fire enough salvos of comedy and their solemn edifices start to crumble. It might be a slow process, but it is at least the beginning.

Derision is a societal necessity. In an age of conformity and populist hysteria, it creates a climate of skepticism and distrust of authority. If mercy droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven, derision spurts up as though from a pantomime geyser, drenching the braggart and the fool in the foulest ordures.

[Photo by Sarah Krulwich, New York Times]

Past Is Prologue — Richard Ben-Veniste, former Watergate prosecutor, has a warning for Trump.

Watching the national controversy over the White House and Russia unfold, I’m reminded of Karl Marx’s oft-quoted observation: “History repeats itself: first as tragedy, second as farce.” I was a close witness to the national tragedy that was Richard Nixon’s self-inflicted downfall as president, and I’ve recently contemplated whether a repeat of his “Saturday Night Massacre” may already be in the offing. Given how that incident doomed one president, Trump would do well to resist repeating his predecessor’s mistakes—and avoid his presidency’s descent into a quasi-Watergate parody.

The massacre began when Nixon gave the order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, a desperate effort to prevent him from hearing tape-recorded evidence that proved the White House’s involvement in a conspiracy to obstruct the investigation of a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters. Nixon’s misuse of executive power backfired, immediately costing him two highly respected members of his administration: Attorney General Elliot Richardson and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, who both resigned rather than follow Nixon’s directive. Third in command at the Justice Department was Solicitor General Robert Bork, who agreed to do the dirty deed and fired Cox.

At the time, I had been working on Cox’s team for only four months and had just been promoted to chief of the task force investigating obstruction-of-justice allegations against Nixon. It was one of five such task forces that Cox organized to carry out his broad mandate. Although Nixon ordered the special prosecutor’s office abolished and commanded the FBI to seize our office and files, we remained employed by the Justice Department. Homeless, leaderless, and dazed by our proximity to the explosion the president had detonated in our midst, we brushed ourselves off and vowed to continue our work in whatever capacity we could.

It was only a matter of days, though, until the firestorm of public and congressional outrage over Cox’s firing forced Nixon to reverse course and promise to obey court orders that compelled his release of eight tape recordings. We returned to our office and were reunited with our files, and a new special prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, was soon appointed to lead the Watergate inquiry. Amid all the furor—which didn’t end there—the public correctly asked the question “What was Nixon hiding?” The answer was not long in coming: a lot. The tapes proved Nixon was not only a liar, but also an early leader of a plot to obstruct the investigation of those who organized and financed the DNC break-in. Nixon’s choice was either to face the music—likely impeachment, conviction, and removal from office—or resign.

In Watergate’s aftermath, I thought the unique circumstances that led to Nixon’s resignation in disgrace could never be replicated. But after just six months in office, the comparisons between Presidents Trump and Nixon are mounting:

Watergate involved political espionage and electronic wiretapping by the Republican candidate’s campaign committee against the DNC. “Russiagate” involves political espionage by the Russians against the Democrats, with possible collusion by members of the GOP candidate’s campaign or advisers.

Watergate saw the president’s firing of a special prosecutor. In Russiagate, FBI Director James Comey was fired after, in the president’s own words, the bureau’s investigation had put “great pressure” on him.

Nixon called the Senate Watergate hearings a “witch hunt,” and Trump repeatedly uses the same term to criticize the ongoing special-counsel investigation.

Nixon ordered CIA Deputy Director Vernon Walters to tell Acting FBI Director Pat Gray to back off the investigation tracing cash found on the arrested burglars at the scene of the crime. According to Comey’s sworn testimony before the Senate, Trump told him to go easy on former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who is being investigated in part for lying about his contacts with Russian officials.

Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield revealed the existence of a secret White House taping system in Senate testimony. Trump once suggested that he may have covertly taped his conversations with Comey, though on Thursday he denied doing so.

Nixon claimed the special prosecutor’s office was made up of political partisans out to get him, and Trump calls Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his staff “very bad and conflicted people.” Both presidents have also sharply criticized the press, calling it the “enemy.”

As if all these parallels are not enough, Trump’s surrogates have raised the possibility that he will fire Mueller, too. Presidential confidant and Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy told reporters earlier this month he believed Trump was considering the dismissal. Incredibly, longtime Trump supporter Roger Stone, who himself worked on Nixon’s reelection campaign, has loudly encouraged Trump to reprise the Saturday Night Massacre by firing Mueller. This despite the fact that Mueller—tapped to lead the FBI by George W. Bush in 2001 and selected by Trump’s own deputy attorney general to lead the Russia inquiry, has been on the job for only a month and is still hiring staff.

If Trump’s actions seem like a ham-fisted imitation of Nixon’s, they are no laughing matter. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said she is “increasingly concerned” that Trump will fire Mueller, and send a message that he “believes the law doesn’t apply to him, and that anyone who believes otherwise will be fired”—a perhaps unintentional allusion to Nixon himself, who once said that when a president does something, “that means that it is not illegal.” The usual limits on presidential power must apply to Trump, Feinstein argued: “The Senate should not let that happen. We’re a nation of laws that apply equally to everyone, a lesson the president would be wise to learn.”

The question is not whether Trump can fire Mueller—it is whether it would be a misuse of executive power for him to do so. Should Trump let Mueller go, it would spark a constitutional crisis the likes of which the country has not seen in four decades. The business of Congress would grind to a halt and the stock market would suffer a shock. With Comey’s dismissal as the backdrop, there could be an immediate resolution introduced in the House for Trump’s impeachment for attempting to obstruct a lawful, ongoing criminal investigation.

Rod Rosenstein, in his role as acting attorney general, followed the law in appointing Mueller to be special counsel to “ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” and related matters. It should be remembered that Nixon was named by the Watergate grand jury as an unindicted co-conspirator in a conspiracy to obstruct justice, and that the House Judiciary Committee cited his interference with Cox’s investigation among the grounds for voting in favor of impeachment. And only former President Gerald Ford’s pardon precluded an indictment of citizen Nixon for obstruction.

In Watergate, there were several Republicans in both houses who are remembered for putting country above party loyalty. The die-hards who stood with Nixon until the end—not so much. If Trump were to fire Mueller to cut off a full investigation, it would fall to congressional Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, to determine whether the United States continues to be a nation of laws. Americans would see whether a new Howard Baker, Lowell Weicker, Tom Railsback, Bill Cohen, Caldwell Butler, or Hamilton Fish would step forward and join with Democrats, who would no doubt sponsor an impeachment resolution. Or would GOP lawmakers simply go along with a foolhardy reenactment of the Watergate scandal’s Saturday Night Massacre?

O Canada? — Stephen Marche on his home and native land’s inability to celebrate itself.

July 1 is Canada’s 150th anniversary, but nobody seems particularly eager to join the party. The muted attempts at celebration have so far produced either awkwardness or embarrassment. A giant rubber duck, six stories tall, is supposed to arrive in Toronto Harbor on Canada Day, but its imminent appearance has been greeted by outrage over costs and suspicions of plagiarism. In March, the CBC, Canada’s national broadcaster, began televising a documentary series called “The Story of Us” to the almost instantaneous howling of Quebec and Nova Scotia politicians at what they regarded as significant omissions in our supposedly collective narrative. Resistance 150, an indigenous political movement, is planning to disrupt the anniversary itself.

The principal excitement of our sesquicentennial so far has been the fury of national self-critique it has inspired.

The irony is that Canada, at the moment, has a lot to celebrate. Our prime minister is glamorous and internationally recognized as a celebrity of progressive politics. We are among the last societies in the West not totally consumed by loathing of others. Canada leads the Group of 7 countries in economic growth. Our cultural power is real: Drake recently had 24 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 at the same time — for one shining moment he was nearly a quarter of popular music. Frankly, it’s not going to get much better than this for little old Canada.

So why is Canada so bad at celebrating itself? The nationalism that defined the country during the last major anniversary, the centenary in 1967, has evaporated. The election of Justin Trudeau has brought a new generation to power, a generation raised on a vision of history more critical than laudatory. We dream of reconciliation with the victims of our ancestors’ crimes rather than memorialization of their triumphs.

Mr. Trudeau has described the country he leads as “the first postnational state,” with “no core identity, no mainstream.” He may be right. But if we are a postnational state, then why are we even mentioning the formation of a national state in the first place? It seems so arbitrary.

The historical moment we will commemorate next Saturday is Confederation — a bunch of old white guys signing a document that bound a loose collection of provinces controlled by the British Empire into a vague and discontented unity without the slightest consideration of or participation by the First Peoples. It doesn’t seem ideal, or even accurate, as an origin. Needless to say, native people were here for thousands of years before that. And Canada managed to reach proper independence, with the right to amend our Constitution without approval from Britain, only in 1982.

Nonetheless, I will be celebrating. The British North America Act, which I was forced to study in school and which, at the time, I considered the single most boring object ever produced by human consciousness, has grown on me. Maybe I’ve aged. But so has the world. Confederation was an attempt at compromise between peoples within a unified political framework. In this way at least, a moldy 19th-century document has, oddly, prepared Canada for the 21st century surprisingly well.

Nationally, Canada has been spared the populism that has swallowed the rest of the Western world because there is not, and has never been, such a thing as a “real Canadian.” Kevin O’Leary — Canada’s supposed answer to Donald Trump — ended his campaign for the leadership of the Conservative Party, even though he was leading in the polls, because he couldn’t speak French well enough to win an election. To lead this country, you must be able to navigate multiple languages and multiple cultures. Our longstanding identity crisis has suddenly turned to a huge advantage — we come, in a sense, pre-broken.

Pierre Trudeau, Justin’s father, articulated Canada’s difference from other countries perfectly: “There is no such thing as a model or ideal Canadian,” he said when he was prime minister in 1971. “What could be more absurd than the concept of an ‘all Canadian’ boy or girl? A society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance and hate.” Despite this country’s manifold failures to uphold its ideals, its core vision has turned out to be much more sophisticated than America’s “E pluribus unum.”

Not that the pre-broken post-national condition is without its agonies. Colonized self-loathing seems to be a national trait we will never fully shake off. Canadian self-flagellation results always in the same warm, comfortingly smug sense of virtue. Self-righteousness is to Canada what violence is to America. It transcends the political spectrum. Whether it is Conservative insistence on frugality and small-town values or the furious outrage of identity politics on the left, everyone has the same point to make: We’re not as good as we think we are, and the government should do something about it.

The virtues of this country are mostly negative anyway, which may also make overt celebration difficult. Canada’s real glories are its hospitals and its public schools, but those, unlike the Marine Corps, cannot be paraded. Canada is, according to several international surveys, the most tolerant country in the world. But it’s absurd to celebrate not being quite as insane as the rest of the world. You don’t get a cookie because you hate people on the basis of their skin color a little less than everybody else.

None of what I have written should be taken to imply that Canadians don’t love their country, or that I don’t love my country. I do. Most Canadians do, too. They just love it quietly. They don’t want to make a big fuss. Britain made a big fuss with Brexit and look what’s happening to it. America at the moment seems full of dedicated, flag-waving patriots who love their country passionately, vociferously; they just can’t stand their fellow citizens or their government.

Canada’s reluctance to celebrate itself is actually something worth celebrating. It has become abundantly clear in 2017 that patriotism is for losers. Patriotism is for people and for countries that need to justify their existence through symbols rather than achievements. Canada is doing well enough that it doesn’t require spackled vanity. It doesn’t need six-story-high rubber ducks.

This is the most Canadian thing I will ever write, I know, but I’m proud of my country for its lack of pride.

 Doonesbury — He’s back.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Monday, June 19, 2017

More Sinned Against Than Sinning

There are some really stupid — and dangerous — people out there.  Via Raw Story:

According to the Boston Globe, theater companies across the country that perform Shakespeare are getting death threats over a New York Public Theater play in Central Park that depicts the death of Ceasar — but who looks like President Donald Trump.

The senders of these death threats are “outraged over the Public Theater’s controversial staging” of Shakespeare’s “Caesar” that features the infamous stabbing scene with a character inspired by Trump — but they appear to have gotten the locations a little off.

One such theater is Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, who have been “inundated with a flood of venomous e-mails, phone messages, and social media posts condemning them for the Central Park production.”

One sender told the management of the Lenox theater that they wish “the worst possible life you could have and hope you all get sick and die.” Another told them their “play depicting the murder of our President is nothing but pure hatred.”

The Lenox Shakespeare company is far from the only Shakespeare-performing theater who’ve gotten these kinds of threats. Raphael Parry, the director of Shakespeare Dallas in Texas, told the Globe that his theater “has received about 80 messages, including threats of rape, death, and wishes that the theater’s staff is ‘sent to ISIS to be killed with real knives.’” Theaters in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere in New York said they’ve received threats as well.

“We just got slammed,” Parry said. “It’s pretty amazing the vitriol, the wishing we would die and our family would die. A whole lot of them say that we should burn in hell.”

The directors of these two companies have differing theories about why their theaters have been targets. Dallas’s Parry blames “web analytics” that cause people searching for “Shakespeare in the Park” in Texas to see his company first, while Allyn Burrows of the Lenox, Massachusetts company has another explanation.

“What might be gurgling up for them is their ire around having to do Shakespeare in high school,” Burrows told the Globe. “They’re like, ‘you know what? I never realized I hated my English teacher as much as I did.’”

I don’t think these people are dangerous in terms that they’re a physical threat to the theatres or the directors.  They’re just dangerous to the point that they believe that even if they called the wrong number or attacked a theatre company that had absolutely nothing to do with the production in New York, they’re still justified in doing what they’re doing because they had to read “Othello” in high school.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sunday Reading

Innocent Bystanders — Leonard Pitts, Jr. in the Miami Herald.

You knew it was coming.

You felt it with a sickening certainty the instant news of a mass shooting flashed out from Alexandria, Virginia. So it was disheartening, but hardly surprising, to hear certain conservatives reflexively blame Democrats and their so-called “hate speech” for the carnage.

It happened Wednesday morning. The quiet camaraderie of Republican lawmakers practicing for a charity baseball game against their Democratic colleagues was shattered by rifle shots from one James Hodgkinson of Belleville, Illinois. Police officers providing security returned fire.

When the shooting was done, five people were wounded, including two officers and Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, whose injuries were critical. Hodgkinson, a 66-year-old left winger and former supporter of Bernie Sanders who was apparently motivated by hatred for Donald Trump and the GOP, was mortally wounded.

There was still blood on the ground when conservatives began laying the shooting at liberals’ feet. Republican Rep. Chris Collins blamed “outrageous” Democratic rhetoric. (He later expressed regret for that comment.) The InfoWars website cited a “hysterical anti-Trump narrative.” Radio host Michael Savage spoke of a “constant drumbeat of hatred.”

It was predictable because it’s what we always do. Jerry Falwell blamed the ACLU for 9/11. Jane Fonda blamed Sarah Palin for the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

At some point, you’d think we’d learn that rhetoric — excluding that which explicitly or implicitly calls for violence — does not “cause” people to shoot, stab, or bomb. By that logic, you’d have to blame Fox “News” and other organs of the right for the Planned Parenthood shooting and the Atlanta Olympics bombing.

It makes about as much sense. You know who’s to blame for this shooting? James Hodgkinson is.

Frankly, this sudden concern for the tenor of political discourse feels precious, even sanctimonious, given conservatives’ history of invective and lies. Where was all this fretting last year when Donald Trump said “Second Amendment people” might stop Hillary Clinton? Where was it week before last, when Eric Trump said Democrats are “not even people” to him?

The bottom line is that a president of unprecedented incompetence is being enabled by a Congress of criminal complicity in an agenda of frightful destructiveness. To see that and not say it loudly and emphatically would be an act of journalistic, political or civic malpractice. It would be un-American.

Not that liberals have any reason to feel smug about this. Taken in conjunction with a recent string of attacks on police officers, Wednesday’s shooting suggests something as startling as it is troubling. Namely, that left-wing terrorism might be making a comeback.

It has been 40 years since the likes of the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Weathermen disappeared from view, and in those years domestic terrorism has been exclusively a phenomenon of the political right. That may be changing now. It’s a deeply disturbing idea, suggesting as it does a nation ever faster pulling itself apart, a people riven by irreconcilable differences, a country that isn’t even sure it wants to be a country anymore.

These tired games of political one-upsmanship are too small for such a moment. This moment is for soul-searching, for considering who and what and even if we are, as Americans. It is for wondering what it means when baseball is not safe and being a Republican gets you shot. Nothing less than our national identity and ideals are at stake here.

A maniac shot up a ball field Wednesday morning. Five people were hit.

Three hundred and twenty-five million were wounded.

Propaganda Pros — Terry Heaton in Huffington Post on how the Religious Right pioneered right-wing propaganda.

So-called “fake news” took center stage on several occasions during former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee last week. More than once, Comey pointed to specific articles by the New York Times as not true or completely false. However, he did validate others, including one in which he himself had been the Times’ source. The fake news meme has become one of the most troubling arguments in the history of contemporary journalism, ever since Donald Trump used the term to describe CNN at his first press conference as president.

Americans find themselves drowning in this unseemly and childish battle for the soul of news and information purveyance, and the undiscussed problem is that the entire mess is built on the false narrative of “the liberal (elite) press.” I know, because I was among the people who advanced the concept and shaped the discussion in the early ‘80s, as senior and executive producer of Pat Robertson’s flagship television program The 700 Club.

Before Fox News, there was The 700 Club with CBN News and “TV Journalism With A Different Spirit.” We knew what we were doing in the exploitation of the word “liberal,” and truth-telling demands its deconstruction today. The all-or-nothing split between conflicting political narratives has reached its pinnacle with the election of Donald Trump, and it needs to be hacked into a million pieces.

William F. Buckley was among the first to give the word “liberal” a pejorative interpretation, but it was the wordsmith William Safire writing for Spiro Agnew who in 1969 elevated it to a political talking point in his famous speech that opened the war against the press during Richard Nixon’s secret battles in Vietnam. The word became the central weapon in a strategy that involved attacking the messenger instead of changing the message.

That political strategy has been so effective to date that it has given birth to the idea that mainstream news is actually “fake news” and not to be believed in the administration of President Donald Trump. The number of people who now believe this falsehood is staggering, and it poses a real threat to our democracy.

At The 700 Club, we exploited attacking the press in order to insert ourselves to the right of everybody else in presenting a Biblical, a.k.a. Republican perspective on current events. We offered a daily news program that expressed Republican party talking points that we marketed as a Christian worldview. Thus began the shifting of evangelicals to the GOP and the shifting of the GOP to the right. We served as the intellectual wing of the Moral Majority, although there was no theological love lost between Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

So let’s look at these events closely, because it has a direct bearing on the conflict today. Let me be very clear: the right-wing “news” that we created was a political response to the progressive nature of news and information. It’s important to understand this, because “right-wing news” is oxymoronic. There is no such thing, because the right represents olds, not news. By definition, news is new, and new is progressive. That conservatives view this as a bias is fine, but elevating that to some evil command-and-control mechanism for political liberals is a false narrative. Rush Limbaugh has made a living off of this phony hegemony, as well as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and whole host of mostly broadcasting personalities. Why? Because it sells and has been selling for almost 50 years.

But it’s entirely false, for the press is not the purveyor of fake news. That title belongs with those who create stories for political gain and clickthroughs. It may be politically expedient to label the mainstream as fake, but in order to do so, one’s source must be propaganda and nothing else. To us in the early ‘80s, it was easy to stake our claim in the world of journalism without complaint, because the press thought us outside Hallin’s Sphere of Legitimate Controversy and therefore unnecessary to cover. In his 1986 book The Uncensored War, Daniel C. Hallin identified three spheres of coverage by the Washington press corps.

Ron Powers once said of us on CBS Sunday Morning that we were “so slanted as to be vertical,” but for the most part, we operated without notice, which gave us the time to write our playbook, the one borrowed in order to create Fox News.

The editorial commentators of media companies determine their political leanings, not the content of the news itself. To behave otherwise is a violation of journalistic ethics and tenets, and no self-respecting news outlet would deliberately compromise its relationship with viewers or readers for political gain. It’s just not their cultural role. Only political propagandists are permitted such luxury, and where that is disguised as news, it cannot be trusted. And yet many people do, because their ears have been trained by people such as myself to identify clever social engineering as information they need in order to get back what they feel has been taken from them or get what feel they deserve from life.

We need to grow out of childish ranting that “Billy started it” or “everybody is doing it too” and let our inner adults take over. Democracy doesn’t stand a chance without an independent Fourth Estate.

Class Act — Ben Brantley in the New York Times with an appreciation of playwright A.R. Gurney.

There have been many tributes to A. R. Gurney, a prolific playwright whose worldly elegance of style was matched by his ingenuous enthusiasm for his craft. But Mr. Gurney, who died on Tuesday at 86, wrote what was surely the most exultant of these eulogies himself, in a play performed in New York more than 10 years ago.

The play is appropriately named “Post Mortem.” Staged at the tiny Flea Theater in 2006, it is set in a very near future in which Mr. Gurney is now dead (assassinated — rumor has it — at the behest of Dick Cheney), and an ideologically oppressive, technology-dominated United States is hostile to the antiquated art form known as theater. (The American government, bankrupted by the war in Iraq, has turned all Broadway houses into casinos.)

But a graduate student and his professor at a “faith based” American university unearth a manuscript of an incendiary play that they are determined to bring to light. And though the all-seeing eyes of the surveillance state discover the work’s existence and have it destroyed, our determined academic heroes recreate it from memory.

And what a profoundly influential play it turns out to be, as its performances spark rebellion against reactionary governments throughout the world. Its title? Also “Post Mortem.” Its author? One A.R. Gurney, described dismissively as a “minor late-20th-, early-21st-century” writer of the “middle-class comedy of manners,” who it now emerges had not only secretly written an earthshaking drama but also had affairs with Cameron Diaz and both Audrey and Katharine Hepburn.

 A playwright can dream, can’t he? Like most of his work — which includes classic anatomies of a vanishing patrician species of pale skin and inhibiting politeness (“The Dining Room,” “The Cocktail Hour,” “The Perfect Party”), “Post Mortem” is steeped in a sardonic wistfulness. It was written as a futurist comedy that exaggerated its author’s hopes and fears for a world to come that in many ways already existed.

Mr. Gurney’s writing never brought him the fame and wealth of contemporaries like Edward Albee and Neil Simon. His only plays seen on Broadway in recent years were short-lived revivals of his charming “Sylvia” (1995), about a divisive family dog, and the lyrical two-hander “Love Letters” (1989), an epistolary work that charts the course of a relationship over many decades.

Yet Mr. Gurney adored the theater with a passion that spilled over the edges of even his most decorous comedies, and he feared for its survival. He was his generation’s greatest practitioner of that gentle paradox, the elegiac comedy, which considered the passing of the civilization he grew up in.

This sensibility is most pointed in the works that made his reputation, starting in the early 1980s with “The Dining Room.” The leading characters in these plays were members of an upper middle class of Anglo-Saxon descent and dwindling affluence and influence. Mr. Gurney regarded such folk, his spiritual and genetic kin, with a critical fondness that was too cleareyed to be nostalgic.

Some reviewers still felt that Mr. Gurney was terminally limited by the gentility that shaped his characters. But as he grew older, he increasingly chafed against such perceptions. He began to experiment with new subject matter — retelling the story of Shakespeare’s Shylock in “Overtime” (1996), probing the Middle East conflict in “O Jerusalem” (2003) and crossing the ocean to set his diffident alter ego to roam (and get lost) in Japan in his poignant, autobiographical “Far East” (1999).

Unlike many of his social stratum, Mr. Gurney’s political sympathies skewed left, and he was enraged by what he saw as the failings of the George W. Bush administration in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. At the experimental Flea Theater in downtown Manhattan, overseen by his friend Jim Simpson, Mr. Gurney found an unlikely forum for expressing his grievances.

Writing in his 70s and 80s, he produced for the Flea a series of vigorous and fanciful satires about the state of his nation, which were written and produced quickly enough to feel as topical as the headlines on the days of their performances. They included “Screen Play” (2005), a prescient variation on the film “Casablanca,” in which American freedom fighters are smuggled into Canada.

My enduring favorite, though, is the wonderful “Mrs. Farnsworth” (2004), in which Sigourney Weaver played a socialite with a secret (it involved the sitting president) and John Lithgow her William F. Buckley-esque husband. Ms. Weaver’s character was ultimately too, well, well mannered to detonate the metaphorical bomb that might have brought down the Bush administration.

Mr. Gurney, though, had by that time shed many of his own inhibitions as a playwright. And he waged his own small but determined battle for the theater as a tool of resistance and enlightenment.

I can think of few artists who were reincarnated as angry young men in their old age as unexpectedly and vitally as Mr. Gurney was. And young is the right adjective. The last new work I saw by him, at the Flea last fall, was a double bill of short works that pondered the boundaries of classic theater (in the first) and gender (in the second) with an infectious excitement you associate with writers in their 20s.

Its title was “Two Class Acts,” referring to subversive intellectual exploration, theatrical performance and honorable behavior under siege. Those who would pigeonhole its creator should remember that all the meanings of “class act” apply to Mr. Gurney.

 Doonesbury — Who’s minding the kids?

Monday, June 12, 2017

Et Tu, Delta?

Delta Airlines yanked their sponsorship of Shakespeare in the Park because they were doing theatre.

Two major US corporations have ended their sponsorship of a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in which the Roman leader mimics Donald Trump.

In the New York-based production, Julius Caesar is depicted as a blond-haired businessman in a blue suit.

The production company, Public Theater, said the character was a contemporary Caesar “bent on absolute power”.

One of the sponsors, Delta Air Lines, said the producers had “crossed the line on the standards of good taste”.

In the Shakespearean tragedy, which is staged in New York’s Central Park, Caesar is assassinated in a lengthy scene in which he fights off his attackers before succumbing to multiple stab wounds.

The lead character’s wife in the play, Calpurnia, is depicted wearing designer outfits and speaking with an apparent Slavic accent.

In announcing the production earlier this year, Public Theater described its portrayal of the Roman leader as “magnetic, populist and irreverent”.

On its website, the company states that the play is about “how fragile democracy is,” adding that it highlights how the “institutions that we have grown up with can be swept away in no time at all”.

Delta said on Monday that the “graphic staging of Julius Caesar” at the Free Shakespeare in the Park event “does not reflect” the airline’s values.

I haven’t seen the production so I can’t render a critic’s point of view, and as a rule I’m not wild about staging Shakespeare with a contemporary theme unless it truly adds to the telling of the story as opposed to making a political statement.  Getting the vapors over a staging of “Julius Caesar” and calling the assassination scene “graphic” is a little too cautious; the scene is supposed to be graphic.  But apparently Delta and BofA were worried about backlash from a White House that thinks “Gilligan’s Island” was a documentary.

Theatre is supposed to startle the sensibilities, or at the very least make you think.  So perhaps that’s why the sponsors got upset; the Trump people are trying to ban thinking.

PS: In 2012, the New York Acting Company did a production of the same play with Caesar modeled on Barack Obama.  Remember the outcry about that?  Yeah, me neither.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sunday Reading

Scientific America — Charles P. Pierce on the march for science.

WASHINGTON—They named this town—Forgive me, This Town—after a man of science, a surveyor and an experimental farmer from down the cowpaths in Virginia. In 1783, while waiting to hear that the fighting part of the American Revolution was over, he took time to team up with another science aficionado, a not-altogether successful engineer named Thomas Paine, to investigate the phenomena caused by swamp gas in Virginia. Four years later, in a closed laboratory of politics in Philadelphia, he presided over the deliberations that produced a Constitution that, in the eighth section of its very first article, promised that the new government would,

“…To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts…”

Talking through a thick mist thickening swiftly into a hard rain, and talking from a stage beneath the obelisk dedicated to that one famous polymath out of an age famous for producing them, Bill Nye took it upon himself to remind the people who had gathered on Saturday to March For Science, that they were descended in every important way from men of science.

The Framers of our Constitution, which has become a model for constitutions of governments everywhere, included Article I, Section 8… Its intent was to motivate innovators and drive the economy by means of just laws. They knew our economy would falter without them, without scientifically literate citizens, the U.S. cannot compete on the world stage.

(Speaking immediately before Nye, Manu Prakash, a Stanford neuroscientist, argued that scientific literacy was a basic human right because, in so many places, it literally is a matter of life and death.)

Yet, today, we have lawmakers, here and around the world, deliberately ignoring or actively suppressing science. Their inclination is misguided and it is in nobody’s best interest.

This, of course, was the central paradox of Saturday’s event, which coincided with the 47th celebration of Earth Day. It was the brainchild of a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had been on fire for what was then called “ecology” or “conservation” ever since he ran through the woods in and around Clear Lake, the small village in northern Wisconsin where he grew up.

As he came up through politics, Nelson was steeped in the Progressive heritage of his home state. In 1963, in his first year in the Senate after two terms as Wisconsin’s governor, an ascension to which Nelson’s environmental policies were critical, Nelson convinced President John F. Kennedy to embark on a series of speeches across the country concerning the environment, one of the most public demonstrations of White House commitment in that regard since the death of Teddy Roosevelt even though Kennedy was swamped on the tour with questions about a nuclear test-ban treaty that he’d recently concluded with the Soviet Union.

By 1970, Nelson was in his second term in the Senate and the news had become full of environmental catastrophe. In January of 1969, there was a massive oil spill off Santa Barbara in California and, almost exactly six months later, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland famously caught on fire. On April 22, 1970, Nelson helped organize Earth Day, which was a massive outbreak of activism around the country. That kicked off what became known as the Environmental Decade, wherein was passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and other environmental regulations, all of them based on a sturdy bipartisan scientific consensus.

That was then. This is now. In 2017, the country needs a series of marches across the landscape to remind itself that scientific progress and American democracy are inextricably bound for their mutual survival. The current president* has leaked a budget that decimates the federal government’s role in all manner of scientific research, from the fight against epidemic disease to the war on climate change. Which was why, walking through the drizzly day on the White House end of the National Mall, you saw epidemiologists sharing umbrellas with geologists, or a group of microbiologists huddling low under a spreading cherry tree alongside a knot of anesthesiologists. People walked around dressed as bees and as lobsters and as Beaker, the lab assistant from the Muppet Show. People walked around in overalls and in lab coats. They wore the now-classic pussy hats repurposed to resemble the configurations of the human brain and they wore stethoscopes around their necks.

“What do we want?” the signs said.

“Science!”

“When do we want it?”

“After peer review!”

(The musical interludes from the main stage were enlivened by the appearance of Thomas Dolby, who performed his hit, “She Blinded Me With Science,” backed by John Batiste and Stay Human, which gave Dolby’s vintage techno-pop tune a bit of New Orleans second-line juice.)

There was a great deal of infighting—”Some very ugly meetings,” said one person familiar with them—about how specifically political the march should be. The older and more conventional scientists—most of them white males, for all that means in every public issue these days—tried to make the march and the events surrounding it as generic as possible.

The younger scientists, a more diverse groups in every way that a group can be, pushed back hard. The available evidence on Saturday was that their side had carried the day. Given the fact that, for example, Scott Pruitt, who took dictation from oil companies when he was Attorney General of Oklahoma, is now running the EPA, they could hardly have lost. More than a few signs reminded the current president* that, without science, he would be as bald as a billiard ball.

Generally, though, there was more than a little sadness on all sides that it ever had come to this, that a country born out of experimentation had lost its faith in its own true creation story, that a country founded by curious, courageous people would become so timid about trusting the risks and rewards of science.

Beka Economopoulos runs something called the Natural History Museum, a project that takes her around the country not only educating students on the natural world, but also taking expeditions to places in which environmental damage is severe. “We collaborate with scientists, local community organizations, and museums across the country to address pressing community concerns and global challenges,” she said. “Science has never been apolitical. It’s always been situated within a context. All science is dedicated to pursue truth, but there are decisions made on what kind of science gets funded and what doesn’t, what kinds of questions get asked.

“The goal of science is not the popularization of knowledge. It’s the pursuit of truth. Scientists look to obliterate existing knowledge by finding something beyond it. Copernicus, Galileo, Rachel Carson, these are scientists that disrupted the status quo but, we look back at them now, and we see that they advanced humanity and the world we live in.”

When the speeches were done, all those people who’d hung in there through the rain walked up the wide boulevards past all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution, founded in the 1840’s at the bequest of an Englishman named James Smithson. “I then bequeath the whole of my property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase & diffusion of knowledge among men,” Smithson’s will read. As they walked past the buildings founded out of Smithson’s generosity, you wondered in the mist and rain why it all seemed so much like archaeology now.

On-The-Job Training — Jeff Shesol in The New Yorker on learning how to be president.

“There’s just something about this job as President . . .” George W. Bush observed last week, in an interview with NPR. “You think one thing going in and then the pressures of the job or the realities of the world, you know, are different than you thought.” Bush wasn’t reminiscing about his own Presidency; he was “opining,” he said, about the current one. The reality that Bush had in mind—the one that he hopes President Trump will embrace—is that it is in America’s national interest “to be allies with Mexico and not alienate Mexico.”

Trump, of course, has invested a great deal of energy in denying that particular reality—along with many others, from the existence of climate change to the role of Russian meddling in last year’s Presidential election. Yet, in recent weeks, Trump has conceded that he might, in fact, have been wrong about a thing or two, and now stands corrected. “It turns out” and “nobody knew” are two of the signal phrases by which Trump indicates that an epiphany has arrived: that health-care policy is “so complicated,” or that North Korea is not a Chinese client state. “After listening [to President Xi Jinping, of China] for ten minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month. Never mind the obviousness of these statements, or Trump’s weird guilelessness in presenting them as insights; they are being received, by some, as signs that Trump is growing in office. “I think President Trump is learning the job,” Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, said last week.

Learning the job, in fairness, is a big task for any new President. “Regardless of his prior training, nothing he has done will have prepared him for all the facets of that job,” Richard Neustadt, the great scholar of the American Presidency, wrote in “Presidential Power,” his influential study, in 1960. All Presidents, he argued, enter office ignorant, innocent, and arrogant—liabilities it can take two, three, or even six years for them to overcome. Some never do. Neustadt saw “a certain rhythm” in the Presidential learning process, and, indeed, in most cases, it follows a well-worn path: the chaotic cram session of the transition; the headiness and disappointments of the first year; the midterm elections in the second (a “shellacking” of the President’s party, as Barack Obama described it in 2010, tends to dispel any lingering arrogance); and, of course, the crises—domestic and foreign—that come without warning. The education of a President is episodic, driven by events. The results, as we know, are uneven. They depend not only on fate but on the answers to three basic questions: what are the “particulars of [a President’s] ignorance,” in Neustadt’s phrase; does he have the humility to acknowledge them; and does he have the capacity—political, moral, intellectual—to address them?

John F. Kennedy faced all these questions. He entered the White House well prepared despite his youth: he had served fourteen years on Capitol Hill, had commanded, with distinction, a Navy torpedo boat during the Second World War, and had spent the better part of his life studying and exercising power. Yet, during his first few months as President, his particular ignorance emerged: an excess of trust in the C.I.A. and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who convinced him, despite his doubts, to approve an invasion of Communist Cuba by a brigade of exiles. Kennedy hesitated; he asked tough questions of his briefers, but, in the end, he acceded, taken in by their optimism. The instant and utter failure of the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, in April, 1961, filled Kennedy with self-doubt and self-blame. “It is a hell of a way to learn things,” he said over lunch with James Reston, of the Times, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. But he did learn things, and soon changed things, as well: he not only replaced the leaders of the C.I.A. but also, from that point forward, regarded intelligence estimates and military plans with far greater skepticism. The historian Robert Dallek, in his biography of J.F.K., writes that Kennedy saw his missteps as “object lessons in how to be more effective. His resolve stood him in good stead: he managed coming crises”—most significantly, the Cuban Missile Crisis of the following year—“with greater skill.”

Bill Clinton, too, stumbled out of the gate. “Clinton terrified me,” one of his policy advisers, Bill Galston, later confessed, “because he almost always knew a good deal more about the subject, or at least some aspect of the subject, than you did.” Yet the disorder of the White House during Clinton’s first year—the famously long meetings that circled an issue but never really resolved it—raised the question of whether his intellect was always an asset. Clinton had a lot to learn in a hurry: about managing (and allowing himself to be managed by) the White House staff; about the hostility of the press corps and the snobbery of the Washington establishment; about the ideological stalemate in Congress; and, not least, about U.S. leadership in a shifting, often perplexing, post-Cold War world. Anthony Lake, his national-security adviser, and Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, urged Clinton to get more engaged in the foreign-policy process and to conduct himself as Commander-in-Chief. “It took a while for Clinton to do the commander bit, which is to say issuing orders crisply,” Lake recalled in an oral-history interview. “It’s in the little things.” It was also in the big things: in August, 1995, after two years of discussion and delay, the Clinton Administration decided to act against Serbian aggression in Bosnia, and led a successful NATO bombing campaign. By 1996, Clinton was more sure of his footing on the global stage. The Times—which had been quite critical of Clinton’s conduct of foreign policy—endorsed his bid for reëlection, noting that he was now “regarded internationally as a leader with a sophisticated grasp of a superpower’s obligation to help the world manage its conflicts and economic contests.”

What is Trump’s particular ignorance? It is not a stretch to say that Trump knows less about policy, history, the workings of government, and world affairs than any of the men who preceded him as President. Trump’s ignorance sends historians and commentators scrambling for sufficient adverbs: to Daniel Bell of Princeton, Trump is “abysmally” ignorant; to Josh Marshall, of Talking Points Memo, he is “militant[ly]” so. “Proudly” is another popular one. Last summer, Trump told the Washington Post that he doesn’t need to read much because he makes great decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense.” The problem is not just what Trump doesn’t know; there is an expanding, alternative universe of things he imagines or insists to be true, from his claim that “millions” of illegal immigrants gave Hillary Clinton her victory in the popular vote to his charge that President Obama ordered a wiretap of Trump Tower. “He has made himself the stooge, the mark, for every crazy blogger, political quack, racial theorist, foreign leader or nutcase peddling a story that he might repackage to his benefit as a tweet, an appointment, an executive order or a policy,” the Los Angeles Times editorial board wrote earlier this month. Trump is somehow both credulous and cynical; if he were “mugged by reality,” in the old, conservative cliché, he would pin it on Obama, or perhaps Arnold Schwarzenegger.

This is not to say that Trump is incapable of learning in office. His recent changes of tone, opinion, and direction—on the importance of NATO, for example, or U.S.-China relations—might be signs that his thinking is evolving. They could also be tactical moves, or head-fakes, or further evidence that—unmoored from any core convictions—he is easily swayed by certain advisers. Whatever the case, it is one thing for Trump to acquaint himself with reality; it is another thing to know what to do about it. The singular burden of the Presidency is not merely to acknowledge obvious facts; it is, as Neustadt wrote, to determine a course of action “when conventional wisdom fails, the experts disagree and confusion dominates.” It turns out this job is not so easy.

So Nice To Have You Back Where You Belong — Ben Brantley reviews the revival of “Hello, Dolly!” with Bette Midler.

The pinnacle of fine dining in New York these days can’t be found in a Michelin-starred restaurant, though it will probably cost you just as much. No, you’ll have to get yourself and your wide-open wallet to the Shubert Theater, where the savory spectacle of Bette Midler eating turns out to be the culinary event of the year.

Ms. Midler — who opened in the title role of “Hello, Bette!,” I mean “Hello, Dolly!,” on Thursday night — not only knows how to make a meal out of a juicy part; she knows how to make a meal out of a meal. In the second act of this exceedingly bright and brassy revival, Ms. Midler can be found sitting alone at a table, slowly and deliberately polishing off the remnants of an expensive dinner, from a turkey bone dipped in gravy to a multitude of dumplings, while the rest of the cast freezes in open-mouthed amazement.

Ms. Midler brings such comic brio — both barn-side broad and needlepoint precise — to the task of playing with her food that I promise you it stops the show. Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show. As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine red plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance.

Back on a Broadway stage in a book musical for the first time (can it be?) since “Fiddler on the Roof” half a century ago, Ms. Midler is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings. Her audiences, of course, are primed for Ms. Midler to give them their money’s worth in Jerry Zaks’s revival of this 1964 portrait of a human steamroller out to land a rich husband in 19th-century New York. The show was a scalper’s delight from the moment tickets went on sale.

But Ms. Midler isn’t coasting on the good will of theatergoers who remember her as the queen of 1980s movie comedies or as the bawdy earth goddess of self-satirizing revues from the ’70s onward. As the center and raison d’être of this show, which also features David Hyde Pierce in a springtime-fresh cartoon of the archetypal grumpy old man, Ms. Midler works hard for her ovations, while making you feel that the pleasure is all hers. In the process she deftly shoves the clamorous memories of Carol Channing (who created the role on Broadway) and Barbra Streisand (in the 1969 film) at least temporarily into the wings.

The show as a whole — which has been designed by Santo Loquasto to resemble a bank of Knickerbocker-themed, department store Christmas windows — could benefit from studying how its star earns her laughs and our love. Playing the pushiest of roles, the endlessly enterprising matchmaker Dolly Levi, Ms. Midler never pushes for effect. Her every bit of shtick has been precisely chosen and honed, and rather than forcing it down our throats, she makes us come to her to admire it.

Much of the rest of Mr. Zaks’s production charges at us like a prancing elephant, festooned in shades of pink. This is true of the hot pastels of Mr. Loquasto’s sets and costumes, and of Warren Carlyle’s athletic golden-age-of-musicals choreography, which is both expert and exhausting.

When an onstage laugh is called for, it comes out as a deafening cackle or a guffaw, which is then stretched and repeated. Double takes, grins and grimaces are magnified into crushing largeness, while the chase sequences bring to mind slap-happy Blake Edwards comedies. Even reliably charming performers like Gavin Creel and Kate Baldwin, who play the plot’s supporting lovers (with Taylor Trensch and Beanie Feldstein as their second bananas), seem under the impression they’re in a Mack Sennett farce.

My audience couldn’t have been more tickled by these hard-sell tactics, which hew closely to Gower Champion’s original staging. A tone of sunny desperation isn’t out of keeping with what seems to be this production’s escapist mission, which is to deliver nostalgia with an exclamation point.

Featuring a book by Michael Stewart and a tenaciously wriggling earworm of a score by Jerry Herman (given gleaming orchestral life here), “Hello, Dolly!” is a natural vehicle for rose-colored remembrance. It was adapted from Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” which grew out of his “The Merchant of Yonkers,” itself adapted from an 1842 Austrian reworking of an 1835 American one-acter.

With its folksy wisdom and air of life-affirming wonder, Wilder’s script translated fluently into the hyperbole of a big song-and-dance show, which spoke (loudly) not only of a more innocent age of American history but also of a time when musicals were upbeat spectacles, with outsize stars to match. (Ms. Channing was succeeded by a cavalcade of divas, from Ethel Merman to Pearl Bailey.) Don’t forget that “Hello, Dolly!” opened just two months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, when the United States felt anything but united.

The genius of casting Ms. Midler as Dolly, a widow who decides to rejoin life by marrying the rich and curmudgeonly Horace Vandergelder (Mr. Pierce), is that she built her career on making nostalgia hip. Even when she was sassing and strutting for the gay boys at the Continental Baths in her youth (when the original “Hello, Dolly!” was still on the boards), she was channeling entertainers from the days of burlesque.

With Ms. Midler, such hommages were never merely camp. She exuded bone-deep affection and respect for vaudeville stylings, in which impeccably controlled artifice became a conduit for sentimentality as well as rowdy humor. That affinity pervades every aspect of her Dolly, which is less a fluid performance than a series of calculated gestures that somehow coalesce into a seamless personality.

Consider, for starters, her hydraulic walk, made up of short, chugging steps. (A real train materializes for the big “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” number, but Ms. Midler is the real locomotive wonder.) Or her take-charge New Yawk accent, spiced with the insinuating inflections of Sophie Tucker. Or her stylized collapse into exhaustion in the middle of the title song.

Without stripping gears, she makes fast switches from explosive comedy to a sober emotionalism that never cloys. (Her pop hits, you may remember, include the weepy “Wind Beneath My Wings.”) And her final scenes with Mr. Pierce, who delivers a beautifully drawn caricature (and is rewarded with a solo that was cut from the original), may leave you with tears in your eyes without your quite understanding why.

Ms. Midler’s talents have never included a conventionally pretty voice. Yet when she rasps out the anthem “Before the Parade Passes By,” you hear her voice as that of a nightingale. And when she hikes up her period skirts to shuffle her feet, she gives the impression she’s dancing up a storm.

She’s not, of course. (Her kicks in her big numbers are only from the knees.) But a great star performance is at least 50 percent illusion, conjured by irresistible will power and cunning. Ms. Midler arranges her component parts with the seductive insistence with which Dolly Levi arranges other people’s lives.

After two acts of fending off Dolly’s charms, Horace finds himself proclaiming, in happy defeat, “Wonderful woman!” Nobody is about to argue with him. [Photo by Sarah Krulwich/New York Times]

Doonesbury — Action Figure.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Welcome to Independence

Welcome to Independence, Kansas, and the Apple Tree Inn, the Algonquin Hotel of the prairie. In the last twenty-five years I’ve met and chatted and stayed up into the wee hours of the morning singing songs in the lobby with some legendary theatre people, ranging from Edward Albee to Shirley Knight to Jane Alexander to Pat Hingle to August Wilson to Robert Anderson to Christopher Durang and many others. This is my theatre family reunion.

The New Play Lab is already underway, but I need to get a few things done — like get something to eat — and then tonight we have a welcoming barbecue at the college and meeting my fellow playwrights and making some new friends.  Tomorrow is my play’s reading and a lot of other things, so … I’ll post when I can and share what I have.

On The Road

I’m heading off to Independence, Kansas, for the 36th William Inge Theatre Festival.  I’ll be having a short play read in the New Play Lab, then presenting a paper at the scholars conference, and doing a workshop on dramatic criticism.  It will be a full week, and as I have in the past, I’ll post some stories and pictures.

Independence Historical Museum

So this is it until I get settled in to my hotel room.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

This Date In Theatre History

April 12, 1977 — forty years ago today — my first full-length play “The Hunter” was produced at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Rarig Center Experimental Theatre. It was in partial fulfillment of my MFA.

The one thing I’ve learned in the last four decades is that I learn something new with everything I write and that at the ripe old age of 64, I am still an “emerging” playwright.

The original cast of “The Hunter” – April 1977

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Sunday Reading

Taking Back Kansas — Benjamin Wallace-Wells in The New Yorker on how moderate Republicans are bring sanity back.

This week, the Kansas Senate voted by a wide margin to expand the state’s Medicaid coverage. A majority of Democrats supported the bill, as might be expected, but so did a majority of Republicans. That the vote was both bipartisan and decisive is a modest but promising sign for the future of public health insurance. But the vote had an added significance because it took place in Kansas. For the six years that Sam Brownback has been Governor, the state has been the scene of what may be the nation’s most extreme experiment in conservatism. The Medicaid vote capped an extraordinary year-long turn against Brownback, in which many of his allies in the legislature were defeated in primary and general elections, and, in the legislative session now coming to a close, his budget and priorities were rejected. The political history of the past quarter century has been one of deepening polarization. The reaction in Kansas suggests that it is still possible for a party to go too far—that there is still a center in American life which may yet hold.

Brownback, who has a law degree from the University of Kansas, is possessed of a low-key personal style and a high-intensity conservative politics. He has been the defining figure in Kansas political life for two decades, since he won Bob Dole’s Senate seat in the 1996 election. In the mid-aughts, when evangelical conservatives were understood to be the country’s most powerful political bloc, Brownback had seemed a plausible representative for the G.O.P.’s future—a rigid social conservative who found some ways to appeal to moderates. He made increasing American aid to Africa his cause, and cited the example of William Wilberforce, the Christian abolitionist who helped lead the campaign to end the slave trade in the British Parliament, so often that there was a rash of editorials about the rise of “Wilberforce Republicans.” But national politics grew more liberal and optimistic, and after a brief bid for the 2008 Republican Presidential nomination Brownback returned to Kansas, where he won the Governor’s office in 2010. In his first term as Governor, he focussed on a different kind of problem. People were leaving his state for “faraway places that entice our children to abandon the communities that nurtured them,” he wrote, in 2012. “I don’t have oceans and I don’t have mountains,” he pointed out to an interviewer last year. “Just got mountains of grain.”

Brownback decided to remake Kansas by radically cutting taxes, an experiment to draw new business and people to the state. “We can no longer afford to view our current economic crisis as something distinct and apart from the crisis of family and community decay,” he wrote in an op-ed, in 2012. Brownback persuaded the legislature to adopt budgets that would eventually eliminate taxes on three hundred and thirty thousand small businesses, and cut the state’s top income-tax rate by a third. Brownback chose to opt out of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, which denied coverage to more than seventy-five thousand Kansans.

But the flight out of Kansas did not reverse, and as revenues diminished even basic state functions began to erode. Budget shortfalls were so severe that Kansas turned to raiding its highway-construction fund, which meant that highways were not repaired. Without Medicaid patients, a large rural hospital in Independence had to close. Public schools saw their performance on standardized tests decline, as the state contributed less to their budgets; the Kansas Supreme Court held in two different cases that the state’s underfunding of education was in violation of its own constitution. Brownback became the least popular governor in the country—last September, his approval rating was at twenty-three per cent. Seven separate organizations were founded with the goal of electing moderates, and one of them, the Save Kansas Coalition, persuaded the four living former governors of the state—two Democrats and two Republicans—to denounce Brownback and endorse moderate candidates for legislative offices. Mike Hayden, a former Republican Governor, said that Brownback and his allies “should be ashamed” of what their tax cuts had done to the state. “We virtually don’t have a penny in our pocket,” Hayden said. “The experiment is failing.”

In the Republican primaries last year, moderates ousted more than a dozen Brownback supporters, most of them explicitly declaring their opposition to the Governor. In the general election, more than a dozen more Brownback Republicans lost to Democrats. When the legislature reconvened, in January, a moderate coalition rejected Brownback’s budget and voted to expand Medicaid. (Yesterday, Brownback vetoed the legislation; the moderates may be a few votes short of overriding him.) At a forum after the election, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party suggested that there were “some voters who were anti-Brownback and there were others whose main motivation was they didn’t like the status quo.” He conceded, “They had this uncomfortable feeling about Kansas.”

State legislative elections receive little attention, but their stakes are high, making them a good target both for lobbyists and for ideological factions. Harvard’s Theda Skocpol has found that the best predictor of whether a state legislature voted to curb public-employee bargaining in 2011 was not public opinion within the state but whether the Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity, which was pushing the issue, had a paid staffer there. In Kansas, legislators make less than twenty thousand dollars each year, which may mean that candidates tend toward the committed fringes. In 2011, a Brownback ally in the legislature named Virgil Peck said, about a bill proposing that feral hogs be shot from helicopters, “Looks to me like, if shooting these immigrating feral hogs works, maybe we have found a solution to our illegal-immigration problem.”

The revolt of the Kansas moderates has some of the feel of a social restoration, in which small-town institutionalists reclaimed Republican politics from the ideologues who had taken over. Peck was beaten in the Republican primary by a retired Air Force commander. A school superintendent in Stafford beat a more conservative incumbent; so did a retired school superintendent from Tonganoxie. The moderate coalition that voted to expand Medicaid coverage was led by a retired anesthesiologist, Republican Barbara Bollier, who had been kicked off the Health Committee when the State Assembly was in more radical hands. Last week, shortly after the vote to expand Medicaid coverage, the State Senate passed a resolution condemning pornography. That seemed like a good hint at where Kansas politics might go, guided by the remnant faction of religious conservatives and the rising one of school administrators.

For all its excess, the Brownback era obeyed a certain logic, which also helped fuel the rural support for the Trump campaign. If you believed that your home was under existential threat, then an extreme politics made sense. In 2015, the Times Magazine published a moving story by Chris Suellentrop, a journalist and Kansas native, whose uncle, a state legislator with a serious and temperate disposition, had joined the Brownback movement. Gene Suellentrop was sensitive to his fellow-Kansans’ plight. Without an aggressive effort like Brownback’s to draw business and attention, he told his nephew, “everyone else will see us as flyover country.” In retrospect, voters’ perceptions of the state’s precariousness and Brownback’s radical politics acted as mutual accelerants. The question now is whether those levers can act in reverse—whether moderate politicians can persuade residents that no social precipice is near, that Kansas is not dying.

Do It Now — Jonathan Chait on the need to filibuster Neil Gorsuch.

Neil Gorsuch will be the next Supreme Court justice. “He’ll be on the floor of the Senate next week and confirmed on Friday,” promised Mitch McConnell, and there is no reason to doubt him. Either Democrats will filibuster, and Republicans will change Senate rules to prevent filibusters of Supreme Court nominees, resulting in Gorsuch being confirmed, or Democrats will fail to filibuster, resulting in Gorsuch being confirmed. The only question at issue is in what fashion Gorsuch takes his seat. Republicans are fervently working to persuade Democrats to let Gorsuch take his seat without a change in the filibuster rule. Why do you think they care so much?

If Republicans are telling Democrats that any attempt to filibuster the Republican nominee will lead to the Republicans abolishing the filibuster, it stands to reason that the filibuster is not worth keeping around. What value is there in a weapon one’s adversary can disarm at any time?

Republicans have devised a somewhat complicated response to this objection. Yes, they concede, the filibuster is useless right now, in this instance. But that is only because the merits of this particular nomination so obviously and clearly lie on their own side. “If Neil Gorsuch isn’t good enough, there’s never going to be a nominee good enough, and so I don’t see any advantage to rewarding bad behavior,” says Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn. Republican senators’ “appetite is entirely a function of circumstance,” argues Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist. “Only seeing such a model jurist held hostage to cynical political whims would be enough to compel the righteous indignation necessary to go nuclear.” (Going “nuclear” means changing Senate rules to limit the filibuster.) If Democrats drop the filibuster, Republicans will leave it in place, and maybe Democrats will get to use it next time. Maybe!

One flaw in this argument is that it utterly ignores the circumstances by which Gorsuch came to his nomination. Yes, he is well qualified and respected by liberal peers. On the other hand, he only has the opportunity to claim a Supreme Court seat because Republicans violated a long-standing norm that allows presidents to nominate somebody — the exact parameters of who that somebody is being the subject of regular dispute — to fill a vacant seat.

The Republican incredulity that Democrats would have the gall to object to fine, upstanding Neil Gorsuch is quite special. (How can you complain about me picking up some money I found lying there on the sidewalk? Never mind whether it got there because I ripped the wallet out of your pocket.)

The notion that Republicans would somehow not be willing to abolish the filibuster for Trump’s next nominee, after being willing to do so to complete the wake of the judicial heist of the century, defies plausibility. Every Supreme Court vacancy counts for one vote. The next vacancy will matter just as much as this one. Sure, if Trump decides to nominate Michael Cohen or Scott Baio to the Court, some Senate Republicans might object. But Trump has clearly indicated that he defers on this subject to regular Republicans. The next judicial vacancy will seem at least as crucial as this one, and the pressure on Senate Republicans to confirm their party’s choice will be overwhelming.

We already live in a world where a Republican president has a 50-vote standard to confirm a nominee to the Court. The only question is whether Democratic presidents have the same standard. The worst possible outcome for Democrats would be to allow Republicans to fill a vacancy with 50 votes while forcing their party to muster 60. And there is a lot of reason to believe this is the case right now. Barack Obama’s last Supreme Court nominee, the highly respected and moderate jurist Elena Kagan, got the support of just five Republican senators, of which two were driven into retirement by actual or threatened primary challengers in part because of those votes. Once Democrats lost their supermajority, their ability to seat a justice probably disappeared with it.

In 2014, Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Elle that she did not want to retire in part because she believed Senate Republicans would filibuster any left-of-center nominee to replace her:

Who do you think President Obama could appoint at this very day, given the boundaries that we have? If I resign any time this year, he could not successfully appoint anyone I would like to see in the court. [The Senate Democrats] took off the filibuster for lower federal court appointments, but it remains for this court. So anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they’re misguided.

Mitch McConnell wants to preserve an ambiguous situation where the norms say one thing and the rules say another. This is to his advantage, because he is a serial violator of norms. This isn’t a moral question — he’s a brilliant tactician and he’s very good at identifying political strategies that are legal but which have not been used due to social convention. If McConnell can use the threat of the nuclear option to make the filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee a useless weapon for the opposing party, he can preserve it as a potential useful one for himself. If Democrats don’t make McConnell abolish the Supreme Court filibuster, he may use it to blockade their next nominee, and they will have only themselves to blame.

Double Bill — Two plays by William Inge that epitomize the plain-speaking charm of his characters and home town are running in repertory.  Elisabeth Vincentelli has a review.

Hal and Marie are young, gorgeous, vital. They’re also inopportune outsiders, wreaking havoc on seemingly tranquil communities.

As the catalysts in two William Inge plays of the 1950s, Hal (in “Picnic”) and Marie (in “Come Back, Little Sheba”) are inadvertent agents of change. But don’t expect melodramatic fireworks: The shows depict lives in turmoil with deceptive simplicity — an elusive quality that the Transport Group captures in the graceful revivals now in repertory at the Gym at Judson.

Inge doesn’t have the reputation of his contemporary Tennessee Williams, perhaps because he lacked Williams’s incantatory flamboyance, which encouraged myriad staging possibilities, audience devotion and a thousand campy spoofs. But his work burst with generous humanity and possessed a sure grasp on the power of intimacy — something these productions skillfully bring to the fore.

The director Jack Cummings III has staged both shows in close quarters for about 85 people at a time. The Kansas porches where the “Picnic” action takes place are gone, and Dane Laffrey’s scenic design consists of a few rusting deck chairs in front of a plywood back wall. There is period furniture in “Sheba,” which only reinforces the play’s take on claustrophobic middle-class despair. In each case, theatergoers are never more than a few feet from the actors — in some scenes, a few unsettling inches — turning from passive viewers to emotionally invested neighbors.

In “Picnic,” Hal (the likable but distractingly gym-buffed David T. Patterson) is an ebullient drifter who lands in a small Kansas town and starts doing odd jobs for Mrs. Potts (Heather MacRae). The mere presence of this pulchritudinous life force sends the local women into a spin, from a suddenly giddy Mrs. Potts to the young beauty Madge (Ginna Le Vine) to the single schoolteacher Rosemary (Emily Skinner). Even Madge’s boyfriend, Alan (Rowan Vickers), gets a touch of Hal fever.

The contaminant in “Sheba” is Marie (Hannah Elless), a pretty coed who rents a room from Doc (Joseph Kolinski) and his wife, Lola (Ms. MacRae). The older couple appear happy enough, but their obsession with Marie suggests fault lines. Doc is in Alcoholics Anonymous and sticks to meticulous routines as a way to cope; he also sneaks looks at Marie, his fixed expression imbued with guilt and creepy desire.

As for Lola, she engages in conversation with deliverymen (all portrayed by John Cariani); the connection is played as a result of unbearable loneliness rather than misguided flirtation. She treats Marie like a surrogate daughter (her actual child died soon after birth), pouring onto her the affection she probably unleashed on her now-missing dog, Little Sheba.

The story is fairly predictable, especially with a bottle of whiskey sitting on top of the fridge like a malevolent lighthouse luring Doc to the shoals. But the play proves spoiler-proof, the payoff simply devastating.

“Sheba” and “Picnic” have a lot in common, most notably their juxtaposition of disappointed older characters with younger ones who still have the luxury of options. Some of these options may not be healthy or enduring, but at least the young’uns can try again. They don’t realize what their older counterparts know: Nothing lasts, least of all joy and looks.  [Photo by Richard Termine/New York Times]

 Doonesbury — Topic of the day.

Monday, February 27, 2017

And The Oscar Goes To… ?

I didn’t watch the show so I hear there was some confusion at the end.

“Moonlight” — the film — is based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney.  He’s a graduate of Miami’s New World School of the Arts and soon to be the head of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama.

Wow. Congratulations.

By the way, if Betsy DeVos had her way, there would never have been a New World School of the Arts.  The money for that public school would have gone to some scammer setting up a charter school and strip joint and that would be the end of it.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sunday Reading

His Greatest Weakness — John Stoehr in the Washington Monthly.

I teach a class at Yale on the classic books of presidential campaign reporting, books like Teddy White’s The Making of the President. As you can imagine, my students are exceedingly bright, highly informed, and savvy. But they don’t know much.

By that, I mean they don’t know much about how normal people think about politics. I know that I’m suggesting that my students aren’t normal. They are normal in the sense that they are smart young adults with all the concerns smart young adults have. But they aren’t normal in another sense. They are elite.

To get to Yale, they have gone through years of indoctrination making them suitable to Yale. I don’t mean brainwashing. I mean they know deep in their bones that they are required to make arguments based on facts and come to conclusions through reasoning. They must master and pledge allegiance to logic.

As you can imagine, my students find Trump supporters confounding. This is not an ideological reaction: I have liberal, libertarian, civic republican, and conservative students. They have been shocked by Trump’s election, because to them he is so transparently unfit to lead anything, much less the US government.

They know he’s unfit, because they know something about politics and policy, and knowing something about politics and policy means they know when the president is demonstrating some kind of allergy to falsifiable objective reality independent of his insecure ego.

My students, in other words, privilege knowledge, because to them, knowledge is how they will command and control their destinies.

What they don’t know is that most people don’t know much about politics, don’t know much about policy, don’t care to understand the details that make up the foundation any position, and don’t think they need to care about understanding those details, because knowledge is not what they trust most in the world.

What they trust is character.

Before I continue, let me say one more thing. After I strive mightily to get my students to understand how normal people perceive politics, they often come to an unfair conclusion—that the people who support Donald Trump are racist and stupid.

That’s probably true for a good number of the president’s supporters, but it’s certainly not true for a great many more. The reason is simple: politics is about conflict. Most people, whether normal or elite, really try to avoid conflict. It’s okay to not know much about politics, and not to care to know, because people just want to get along. No one should be faulted for that.

Besides, life is hard. There are so many things to worry about—jobs, kids, finances, health, so very many things—that Washington politics is the last thing most want to think about. I often tell my students that most people have something better to do.

The reason I’m going into the weeds like this is to get readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy to understand how and why his supporters very much like what the president is doing, even though it makes no sense to the readers of the Washington Monthly and anyone who believes Donald Trump is a singular threat to democracy. In understanding how and why these people very much like what the president is doing, we can devise an effective strategy for the battles ahead.

There’s a reason why Donald Trump is reportedly fond of watching himself on TV with the sound turned off. It’s not only because he’s a narcissist, though narcissism surely plays a part. It’s also because he is trying to experience what most normal people experience when they watch the president on TV, and that means a majority of people since most still get their news about what’s happening in Washington from TV, despite the ubiquity of digital. Remember, they don’t know enough to know he’s lying. What they can see is Trump’s performance: the expressions of strength, the wit and charm (which are evident), and the braggadocio.

[Thursday]’s press conference was in fact a hot mess, but imagine watching it with the sound turned off so you don’t know what the president is saying. Imagine watching the president’s gestures, his expression, his sparring with the press. That’s probably a close approximation of what his supporters experience when they watch the president on TV. That’s the extent to which most people assess the president’s policy views. It is style’s mastery over substance.

Which brings me back to character. That is something people can judge, because they trust their ability to size up the president. That trust, of course, is misplaced, because Trump is in fact a serial liar, but remember, most people, especially Trump supporters, don’t know enough about politics or care enough to know much about politics, so they don’t know he’s lying.

What they can see is how he looks. And this is key.

I really want you to understand the connection between Trump’s appearance and the trust his supporters place in him. What the Democratic opposition needs to do is undermine that trust. Part of doing that is pointing out every time Trump lies. (The Washington press corps is doing that.) But the opposition must also attack the president where it really hurts him—by appealing to logic and reason, but not only logic and reason. The opposition must wound the president by focusing on his weakness.

Fact is, the president is weak. We saw that yesterday. When confronted with the fact that he did not win a bigger electoral victory than anyone since Reagan, he immediately backed down, spluttering something about how he had been given that information so it’s not his fault. Some have implied he will never accept the truth, so don’t bother. But that’s an argument of logic and reason. What happened in that brief exchange needs to happen a million times over in order to reveal that the president is weak and that in that weakness his supporters have misplaced their trust.

So, say it with me: The president is weak.

Say it again. Over and over. Then when the president really does demonstrate weakness, as he did when confronted by the reporter about his fake electoral landslide, the president will have substantiated the opposition’s charge of weakness.

That will hurt.

Trump ran on strength. Only he was strong enough to solve our problems. And people believed him. They still believe him. But if the opposition can establish an image of weakness, it will come close to breaking trust in him.

Who Watches the Watchers? — Linda Greenhouse in the New York Times.

Whom do federal immigration agents despise more: former President Barack Obama, or the immigrants whose lives are in their hands?

That uncomfortable question came to mind as I read articles over the past week of the growing numbers of raids, roundups, the knocks on the door, the flooding of “target-rich environments,” a phrase an anonymous immigration official used in speaking to The Washington Post. What’s a target-rich environment? “Big cities,” the official explained, “tend to have a lot of illegal immigrants.”

Clearly, with President Trump’s executive orders having expanded the category of immigrants deemed worth pursuing and deporting, the gloves are off. There’s been plenty of news coverage of this development, but few reminders of the context in which the pursuers have been freed from previous restraints.

So it’s worth noting that the union representing some 5,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents actually endorsed Mr. Trump in September, the first time the union endorsed a candidate for president. In an inflammatory statement posted on the Trump campaign’s website, Chris Crane, president of the union, the National ICE Council, complained that under President Obama, “our officers are prevented from enforcing the most basic immigration laws.” The statement went on to say that while Mr. Trump had pledged in a meeting to “support ICE officers, our nation’s laws and our members,” Hillary Clinton’s immigration plan was “total amnesty plus open borders.”

That everything in that statement except for the reference to Mr. Trump was untrue is not the point. (Far from failing to enforce the law, the Obama administration deported more than 400,000 unauthorized immigrants a year, and Mr. Trump’s Democratic rival endorsed neither total amnesty nor open borders.) Rather, the statement is evidence of how openly these law enforcement officers have been chafing at the bit to do their jobs as they please.

And chafing for a long time: back in 2012, Mr. Crane was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Obama administration’s deferral of deportation for immigrants brought to the United States as children. The claim was that the program put agents in a position of either failing to enforce immigration law as written or suffering reprisals at work for not adhering to the new policy. The plaintiffs were represented by Kris Kobach, the Kansas secretary of state. An anti-immigration activist who joined the Trump transition team as an adviser on immigration, Mr. Kobach is an originator of the false “massive voter fraud” rationale for voter ID requirements and has exported anti-immigrant legislation to states around the country, most notably Arizona.

A federal district judge in Dallas dismissed Mr. Crane’s lawsuit against the deferral program. Mr. Crane also showed his disdain for President Obama by refusing to allow members to participate in a course aimed at training immigration agents in carrying out the Obama administration’s policy that gave priority to deporting high-risk offenders rather than immigrants with clean records and deep roots in the country. Last month, after President Trump issued his immigration orders, Mr. Crane’s union and the union representing Border Patrol officers issued a joint statement declaring that, in case anyone asked, “morale among our agents and officers has increased exponentially” as a result of the president’s promised actions.

Why does any of this matter — aside from the irony of these public employee unions having achieved pride of place in the conservative firmament, while Republican governors and legislatures are moving quickly to disable public employee unions they find troublesome?

It matters because along with entrusting our immigration enforcers to keep us safe, in the president’s often-tweeted phrase, we also entrust them with the responsibility of treating unauthorized immigrants not as prey but as human beings entitled to dignity, even if only minimally to due process.

Not everyone shares that view. I get that, and I’m reminded of it every time I write about immigration. Reader comments on articles about immigration, including the gripping one last week about Guadalupe García de Rayos, the Phoenix woman and mother of two American children who was abruptly deported when she dutifully showed up for her routine check-in at the local ICE office, run to “if she wasn’t illegal in the first place, she wouldn’t have been deported.”

Right. I’d like to think we’re better than that. A month ago, we were.

In what may be an early warning of what’s to come, last Friday immigration agents in Seattle took a 23-year-old Mexican into custody despite his paperwork proving that he had been granted work authorization under the deferred-deportation program, which for now remains in effect.

“It doesn’t matter, because you weren’t born in this country,” one of the immigration enforcement agents told the man, Daniel Ramírez Medina, according to a petition for habeas corpus filed on his behalf in Federal District Court in Seattle. Mr. Ramírez was brought to this country at age 7 and twice qualified for the deferral program, most recently with a renewal last May. On Tuesday, a federal magistrate judge gave the federal government until Thursday to explain the basis for the detention.

This column is usually about the Supreme Court, and this one is, too. Next Tuesday, the justices’ first day back from a monthlong recess, the court will hear an important case on whether a Border Patrol officer can be required to pay damages to the family of a Mexican boy he killed with a bullet fired across the dry bed of the Rio Grande, the international border that separated the two by only yards. The facts of the case, Hernández v. Mesa, sound highly unusual, but they aren’t; there have been 10 cross-border shootings in recent years in addition to several dozen others along the border.

This case raises important questions about the extraterritorial reach both of the Constitution and the damages remedy that is available to United States citizens whose constitutional rights are violated on American soil by a federal official. Sergio Hernández, the unarmed 15-year-old killed seven years ago by the Border Patrol agent, Jesus Mesa Jr., was not an American citizen, and the bullet reached him in Mexico. He and his friends had been playing in a dry culvert, daring each other to run up the opposite bank and touch the barbed-wire fence on the American side. The F.B.I. report initially claimed that the boys were throwing rocks at the agent, but cellphone videos showed Sergio hiding under a railroad trestle in the last minutes of his life. He was shot when he stuck his head out from his hiding place.

The Justice Department investigated but declined to prosecute Mr. Mesa. Mexico charged the agent with murder, but the United States refused to extradite him. Sergio’s parents sued for damages, but lost when the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that even if Sergio had constitutional rights that were violated by the shooting, the existence of any right was sufficiently unclear as to entitle Mr. Mesa to “qualified immunity,” a legal shield extended to official defendants when the relevant law is deemed uncertain. Because the case has never gone to trial, the eventual Supreme Court decision won’t resolve the conflicting accounts or establish the motive for the agent’s fatal shot. But presumably the law will be clear, one way or another, the next time such an incident occurs.

On the chaotic night last month when Mr. Trump fired the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, for refusing to defend his immigration order, he made another personnel change that got less attention. Without explanation, he replaced the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Daniel Ragsdale, with Thomas Homan, a career employee who had been serving in the agency’s top enforcement position. Last April, when Mr. Homan received the government’s highest Civil Service award, a profile in The Washington Post began: “Thomas Homan deports people. And he’s really good at it.”

In the Post profile, Mr. Homan declined to answer questions about policy, or whether he might be supporting Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy. “Sorry, I can’t say what I think,” he told the reporter.

The Roman poet Juvenal asked: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Who will guard the guardians? We need to ask that question now, urgently. I fear the answer.

 Why Thornton Wilder Matters — Laura Collins Hughes on the revival of “The Skin of Our Teeth.”

Thornton Wilder

When Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth” had its Broadway premiere in 1942, directed by Elia Kazan and starring a dream cast led by Tallulah Bankhead and Fredric March, the critic Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it “one of the wisest and friskiest comedies written in a long time.” When it returned in 1955, with Helen Hayes and Mary Martin, Mr. Atkinson deemed it simply “perfect.”

After that, though, the play’s fortunes fell. On its third and most recent Broadway outing, José Quintero’s 1975 revival starring Elizabeth Ashley, the Times critic Mel Gussow dismissed it as “simplistic.” Boundary-breaking in its day, it has long been scarce on professional stages.

So Arin Arbus’s new Off Broadway production for Theater for a New Audience, in previews at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn, is a rare chance for re-evaluation. With a cast of 35 (!) and original music by César Alvarez (“Futurity”), it follows the members of the Antrobus family of suburban New Jersey through the ice age in Act I (their pets are a mammoth and a dinosaur; freezing refugees clamor at the door) and into a great flood in Act II. The third act opens amid the ruins of a war. With each calamity, the Antrobuses have to figure out whether and how to survive.

Jeffrey Horowitz, the founding artistic director of Theater for a New Audience, said he didn’t choose the play with topicality in mind. But Wilder had his own suspicions about when it resounds most powerfully. As he explained in the 1950s, in a preface to his collection “Three Plays”: “It was written on the eve of our entrance into the war and under strong emotion, and I think it mostly comes alive under conditions of crisis.”

Several admirers of the play spoke recently about why “The Skin of Our Teeth” endures, what makes it problematic and why this could be a ripe time for its resurgence. Here are edited excerpts from those interviews.

Carey Perloff

The artistic director of American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco directed “The Skin of Our Teeth” at Classic Stage Company in New York in 1986 — a production that, according to Mr. Gussow’s review in The Times, included the refugees in Act I singing a chorus of “Tomorrow,” from “Annie.” Ms. Perloff laughed as she said she didn’t recall much about that long-ago detail, but she was very clear on the play’s current resonance.

All of us who are running theaters now are in this strange position of thinking: What is the appropriate response to the chaos and uncertainty of this moment, and how do you think about that theatrically? It was very prescient of Jeffrey to program this.

I think the reason this one keeps coming back is that it is an allegory, so it has those deep biblical roots and kind of archaeological references. It’s a very profound play to rehearse, because those epic questions come up as you work: Is humanity resilient? It’s a really dystopian look at the American experiment, and I think that’s what we’re all kind of waking up to. We assumed we would be inheritors of this great ideal, and now we realize how completely fragile it is.

There are great things in the play, and there are really frustrating things in the play. As with many great theatrical artifacts, you sort of wish you could take it apart and recombine it somehow. Sometimes I think we should give ourselves permission to do important plays even if they don’t really work.

Paula Vogel

“The Skin of Our Teeth” is the first play that the playwright (“Indecent”) ever saw, at her public high school in Maryland in the 1960s. A self-described “huge fanatic about Thornton Wilder,” she regards it as an example of near perfection and said it has been deeply influential on emerging writers over the past 40 years. Ms. Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, considers the play — with its reverence for books and great thinkers, represented by Mr. Antrobus’s cherished personal library — a defense of Western humanism.

In my life, I’ve only seen two productions of it. One of the difficulties is that commercial and mainstream American drama has eschewed Wilder’s more global, abstract, philosophical voice for a kind of nitty-gritty naturalism, which doesn’t critique American society the same way that Wilder does. What I think happens is that there is a critical reprimand for choosing mythic elements and allegorical elements in American theater.

It’s an extraordinary time to be producing this play. We’re in this moment in time where we are thinking again very apocalyptically. A, we’re having extreme climate change; B, we’re having floods; C, we’re having refugees; and D, we’re actually facing the extinction of animals on our planet, and then hanging over us is the perpetual warfare. Everything in the play is pretty much upon us.

Obviously he’s writing on the brink of huge apocalypse, of World War II and Hitler, and he’s saying: “Let’s look at the resistance. Let’s look at the fact that we are going to get through this, and let’s look at what we need to get through it. What we need are our books.”

Arin Arbus

Ms. Arbus first encountered “The Skin of Our Teeth” in 2002, when the nation was still reeling from 9/11, and immediately wanted to direct it. “I thought, If I don’t do it soon, it just won’t be relevant anymore,” she said, and laughed with what sounded like ruefulness. She agrees with Wilder that the play comes alive in times of crisis, but she believes it is staged as rarely as it is partly because of its complex requirements, including a large cast and the need to balance multiple theatrical styles while leaving room for Wilder’s humor.

One of the challenges and the thrills of it is the slippery style of the play: We go kind of without transition from a Brechtian theater, in which the emotional climax of the scene is broken and commented upon, into absurdist drama with lines like “Have you milked the mammoth?” into this dark domestic family tragedy. Unlocking that is hard.

He was writing it as the world was descending into chaos. I think everybody was wondering: “Will we get through this? And if we do, what then? Will we learn anything? Will we grow or change or do it better the next time?” Although the characters do grow and they survive, they are not transformed. Evil — quote-unquote evil — remains within the nation and within the family and within the home.

Things keep falling apart, and these characters have to go through it over and over and over and over again. That’s what it’s about. The characters are continually hitting rock bottom and then finding a way — and it’s usually with the help of other people — to have the hope to move forward, despite the catastrophic situation that is facing them in that immediate moment.

Bartlett Sher

The Tony-winning director, whose “Oslo” opens on Broadway this spring, has immersed himself twice in the Wilder play: first as an assistant to the director Robert Woodruff on a Guthrie Theater production in Minneapolis in 1990, then on his own Intiman Theater staging in Seattle in 2007. He cast the deaf actor Howie Seago in the role of Mr. Antrobus — in part, Mr. Sher said, to add “another layer of Joycean logic” to the play. He has great affection for Wilder, for both his experimental nature and his capacious heart, but that didn’t make staging the play any easier.

It’s a hard, hard, hard, hard show. It’s all based on “Finnegans Wake.” He was reaching for a kind of narrative in the structure that he put together that’s incredibly interesting but which I’m not sure he was totally successful at accomplishing. It’s one of those things that everybody’s really drawn to, how much they can’t wait to do it, and then they find out how hard it’s going to be.

It has a comforting and profound view of time. It makes you think of time over a very long arc. Right now we’re all freaking out and exploding over the particular kind of time that 2017 appears to be. But if you cycle way back, you think: “Well, yes, we’re going through an incredibly bumpy period in the republic, but it’s not impossible that the institutions will survive and come out reinvigorated.”

The primary job of interpreting the classics — absolutely primary job — is to discover the immediate significance of the work in the time you’re doing it. It’s interesting that Arin is doing it now, because I tend to think these works come around when you need them. It may be one of those things where this particular time requires a good “Skin of Our Teeth” to help make sense of it.

Doonesbury — Kids these days.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Tuesday, November 29, 2016