Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sunday Reading

Size Matters: Charles Isherwood looks at the trend towards large-cast (and thereby very expensive) plays on Broadway, such as “August: Osage County.”

Intriguingly, should it win, “August” will become the third large-scale play in as many seasons to take home the top Tony award while appealing to wide audiences, suggesting that bigger often is better — or at least better liked. Last year Tom Stoppard’s three-part disquisition on 19th-century Russian thought and literature, “The Coast of Utopia,” scored both a hit with audiences and took the top Tony. The year before, the prize went to Alan Bennett’s “History Boys,” an expansive comedy-drama about a class of British schoolboys, which also proved to be an unexpected hit with audiences. Neither of these shows’ subject matter was of natural interest to a wide American audience. They became draws because they were events — big, bold plays, impressive and capacious.

It is telling that both came from Britain, specifically from the National Theater in London. Mr. Stoppard and Mr. Bennett have the luxury of writing for a robust industry that gets significant support from the government, despite recent cutbacks. Expense is not a consideration when their imaginations take fire. Mr. Stoppard could write a nine-part saga mixing Norse legends with a contemporary drama about nuclear proliferation (cast of 196), and the National Theater would proudly put it onstage.

The prospects for production are far different for American playwrights, writing for a constellation of not-for-profit theaters that are continually scrambling to raise funds as corporate giving dries up and subscribers drain away. Submit a drama with an ample cast to a regional theater’s literary department, and you’ll probably be asked to cut characters. Mr. Letts’s freedom to think big was surely a result of his status as a member of Steppenwolf, one of the few real theatrical troupes left of any size and stature.

A true artist, some might argue, can never let canny considerations of production influence his vision. Art must be its own imperative. A high-minded thought, but artists also hunger for their work to be known. A play that is never staged may be a work of genius, sure, but its genius is likely to leave no footprint on the world unless it is produced.

Don’t Do It, Charlie: Carl Hiaasen has some advice for the governor of Florida.

Despite his coy avoidance of the topic, Gov. Charlie Crist is acting like he’d love to be vice president of the United States.

Last weekend he attended a select but highly publicized gathering in Arizona hosted by Sen. John McCain, who will be heading the Republican ticket.

Appearing at the barbecue with Crist were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, both of whom are also salivating at the prospect of reupholstering Dick Cheney’s Barcalounger.

It’s no sin to be ambitious, and it’s flattering to be courted by your party’s presidential nominee. But if Crist cares as much about Florida as he says, he should graciously excuse himself from the vice-presidential sweepstakes.

He’s been governor for only 17 months, and it’s fair to say that the lives of most Floridians — workers, retirees, students — have not improved even slightly.

If Crist were to become vice president, he’d leave Tallahassee with virtually no footprints. He would be remembered more for his tan than for his leadership.

Run DNC: Walter Shapiro in Salon reports on yesterday’s Democratic National Committee meeting on the seating of the Florida and Michigan delegation.

Even by Parisian standards, it was a late and long lunch break, ending after 6 p.m. Saturday. But during this closed-door, three-hour interlude in their all-day meeting, the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic Party finally agreed on a compromise for seating the Michigan and Florida delegations at the Denver convention. Both states lost half their convention votes as punishment for holding queue-jumping January primaries in defiance of party dictates. But Saturday’s accord ending the Florida dispute was approved by the 30-member committee unanimously, while only eight Hillary Clinton die-hards opposed the intellectually ungainly, but politically astute, Michigan settlement.

If there was a winner, it was probably the Democratic Party, which can now concentrate on winning Florida and Michigan (44 electoral votes between them) in November without worrying unduly about lasting scars from the primary fight. Seating Michigan and Florida allowed Clinton to cut Barack Obama’s still substantial national delegate lead by 24 votes, while slightly moving the goal posts by raising the number of delegates needed for a confetti-drop convention majority to 2,118. As for Obama — the cusp-of-victory candidate — 24 convention votes seemed an affordable price to pay for party harmony, especially since Clinton had won the outlaw Jan. 29 Florida primary in a 50-to-33 percent landslide.

A compromise means nobody gets everything they want, and people on both sides are not happy. Sic semper cum Democrats. My advice to both sides is to cool it, remember that it’s not about you, and the person you’re running against is John McCain.

Frank Rich: What Scott McClellan will do to John McCain.

Americans don’t like being lied to by their leaders, especially if there are casualties involved and especially if there’s no accountability. We view it as a crime story, and we won’t be satisfied until there’s a resolution.

That’s why the original sin of the war’s conception remains a political flash point, however much we tune out Iraq as it grinds on today. Even a figure as puny as Mr. McClellan can ignite it. The Democrats portray Mr. McCain as offering a third Bush term, but it’s a third term of the war that’s his bigger problem. Even if he locks the president away in a private home, the war will keep seeping under the door, like the blood in “Sweeney Todd.”

Mr. McCain and his party are in denial about this. “Elections are about the future” is their mantra. On “Hardball” in April, Mr. McCain pooh-poohed debate about “whether we should have invaded or not” as merely “a good academic argument.” We should focus on the “victory” he magically foresees instead.

But the large American majority that judges the war a mistake remains constant (more than 60 percent). For all the talk of the surge’s “success,” the number of Americans who think the country is making progress in Iraq is down nine percentage points since February (to 37 percent) in the latest Pew survey. The number favoring a “quick withdrawal” is up by seven percentage points (to 56 percent).

It’s extremely telling that when Gen. David Petraeus gave his latest progress report before the Senate 10 days ago, his testimony aroused so little coverage and public interest that few even noticed his admission that those much-hyped October provincial elections in Iraq would probably not happen before November (after our Election Day, wanna bet?). Contrast the minimal attention General Petraeus received for his current news from Iraq with the rapt attention Mr. McClellan is receiving for his rehash of the war’s genesis circa 2002-3, and you can see what has traction this election year.


The McCain campaign may have no choice but to double down on Iraq — what other issue does the candidate have? — but it can’t count on smear tactics or journalistic and public amnesia to indefinitely enforce the McCain narrative. As the McClellan circus shows, unexpected bombshells will keeping intervening — detonating not only on the ground in Iraq but also in Washington, where more Bush alumni with reputations to salvage may yet run for cover about what went down in 2002-3.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald would have it, we will be borne back ceaselessly into the past. Or so we will be as long as Americans continue to die in Iraq and as long as politicians like Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain and Mrs. Clinton refuse to accept responsibility for their roles, major and minor, in abetting this national tragedy.

Speaking of the past, twenty years ago William Safire had some reflections on former White House officials who were writing tell-all memoirs:

The memoir-selling aide has already paid the price in his reputation and in the loss of his post-White House job, and deserves some credit for confessing and correcting the record; but the confession was less out of remorse than out of an attempt to show how smart and powerful he had been when his boss was inadequate to the moment.

Doonesbury: Hanging out in the lobby.

Opus: Baa.