Because I’m a playwright, I was asked to look at the Democratic Convention as a "theatrical event." Let me start as if I were a critic: Hooray! Boffo! I loved it!
The most successful plays are usually about conflict, people in disagreement, the solving of some problem that is difficult. And most plays are written with dialogue. The Democratic Convention was primarily monologues: one person speaking, alone and for a long time. Monologues are usually not that dramatic.
Luckily for the Democrats, the people who performed these monologues were very interesting, and they also had tasks to do that were their subtext. Subtext, of course, is what lies underneath the words in Stanislavskian acting--as in Chekhov plays where they may be talking about tea and the samovar, but actually thinking about how much they’re in love with Nina or Elena, or whether to sell the cherry orchard to pay the mortgage (very current, that), or should they kill themselves.
The first main character to take the stage, Michelle Obama, had the directive to "humanize" herself. She had to tell her story, and in doing so she had to reclaim her and Barack's real Middle America backgrounds (and struggles) from the irritating McCain slur that they were elitist. It's true Michelle and Barack went to fine universities on scholarship and student loan (I learned that last detail in Obama's speech last night), and for some inexplicable reason they speak well. So I guess McCain is right to want us to hate them for having achieved things and for speaking without saying "ain't" and four letter words. Like he and Cindy do.
Sorry, I got distracted.
Michelle was charming and real in her speech. Oh, and the children coming on and their father being on a great big screen (sort of like the Wizard of Oz but friendlier) broke the monologue form, and went into dialogue. Even unscripted dialogue. The children were especially helpful in this.
On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton gave a much anticipated monologue. Her race against Obama was so close that it was hard to know how angry/disappointed/sad she was about not being the nominee. And Lord knows a strong segment of her supporters were still in fury mode. As a Democrat, I wanted her to truly give her support to Obama.
I thought Hillary did a great job. Whatever her Actor’s Studio subtext may have been (it was my time, he pushed in front of the line; he doesn't mention Bill’s presidency enough), I thought she genuinely threw her support to Obama--both as a loyal Democrat and also as a person who believes (as I do) that another four years of Republican rule would sink us. I mean, sink us for real.
I was particularly impressed when Hillary did her on-the-stump variation of the people she had met in her campaign (a Marine, a single mom, etc.), all of whom faced difficulties in Bush America; but then she said to her supporters, "were you in this fight just for me," or were you in it for them?
I thought that was the genuine deal. She could have given the speech without that line, and still have been praised. With that line, I thought she showed real commitment to making sure that her still hurt-and-upset supporters understood the insanity of voting for McCain if they care about her policies.
The next night, Bill Clinton was a bit more of an unknown. Bill, as recently as two weeks ago, had refused to answer directly whether Obama was ready to be commander in chief, saying lamely, "Well, is anybody ready?"
But Clinton, like his wife, gave a great speech--or rather he performed a terrific monologue. And since he has a different style and also has the ex-president stature, it had a wonderful "attack dog" element to it, in which he criticized McCain and Bush in ways the Democrats needed to hear. (I know I did; I'm so traumatized by the Bush years I turn apoplectic at the drop of a hat in some political discussions. You have to be careful about inviting me to dinner.)
And if Hillary's "Were you in it just for me?" line was her most powerful in terms of giving Obama real support, Clinton's reminder that he was also accused of being too inexperienced and not ready to be commander-in-chief was powerful support for Obama. And that Clinton had been even younger at the time than Obama is now.
I thought Clinton did great. I was glad he was there. I went back to liking him. I even liked how much he appreciated and seemed to need the cheers of the crowd. As someone who performs, I know one likes to hear appreciation from the audience. So I give him slack for "needing" to hear that approval. It’s human.
The next scene of the play was the “Joe Biden as Vice President” section. And it was two monologues--the first being Beau Biden’s introduction of his father. (Why couldn’t someone have written a scene for Beau and Joe to act, set in a kitchen, and we could see how they drink their coffee? They could have been in t-shirts and underwear, and they could’ve made small talk about the various grandchildren. No, maybe the monologues are better.)
Back to Beau Biden. Wow, he's a charismatic and personable speaker. I had heard about the early tragedy of Joe Biden's wife and daughter dying in a car crash. But to hear the details from Beau was extremely interesting and moving. When Beau said that, five years after the accident, "We married Jill" (meaning he and his brother joined in the need for her in the family), it was deeply charming.
Then Joe Biden came out. I've always liked him. I saw Biden in action when I watched the entirety of the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Samuel "I never met an authority figure I didn't like" Alito. (He didn’t say that sentence. I’m saying it for him, having heard the hearings.) In those hearings, Biden was smart and unrelenting and very well prepared in discussing and challenging Alito’s written judicial opinions, where he often voted in the minority opinion, almost always ruling in favor of the corporate or the C.E.O. or the government. Biden was a first-rate senator that day, and if the Republicans hadn’t been in the majority,* maybe Alito could have been kept off the Supreme Court.
Biden and Bill Clinton--both on the same night--finally got into giving the specifics of what's wrong with McCain's policies, and the fact that he voted 95 percent of the time with Bush. Biden’s best moment though was when he was speaking about McCain and called him George for a second, by mistake. He noted the error--and said, "Sorry, Freudian slip."
Joe Biden’s mother had a positively riveting cameo. The camera kept cutting to her, and she would nod in agreement. And when he told of being beat up by some kids because of his stutter, she would tell him he had to go punch them in the nose so he could walk down the street proudly. And she nodded again. I’m not normally a fan of punching people in the nose, yet it’s good advice when you’re dealing with bullies and the need to stand up for yourself. It was ... well, it was charming.
At the end of Biden's speech, Obama made a surprise appearance to greet the crowd and hug and congratulate Biden. They seem totally comfortable with one another, and Biden is a person and politician of real substance. So the monologue got broken up at the end--which was a welcome variation.
Then last night was Obama's speech. If the Republicans continue to focus on the setting of the speech, the columns in the background, it will only go to prove how they focus on itty-bitty stupid stuff because they have nothing of actual content to offer. Obama lived up to the moment, and nobody thought about the columns. (Right wing radio thought the columns meant that Obama thought he was a god, and they thought that Hillary’s orange pant suit was a signal from her that she was a “prisoner being forced to do something she didn’t want to.” For real, I’m told, that’s what they thought. Sets and costumes are important in a theatrical production, but this one was meant especially for television. Hillary looked good in the orange, and against the blue backdrop. And the red-white-and-blue streamers that fell at the end of Obama’s speech looked a little rinky-dink when briefly shot from a distance. But they looked glorious and joyful when shot in close up on the candidates--splashes of wonderful color while the crowds cheered.)
Obama has been inspiring in a number of his speeches. He was inspiring again. But he also had an energy of controlled anger and impatience. In listing the failures of the Bush administration, he ended it with “Enough!” He still had his cool, “I won’t fly off the handle” attitude, but he had passion in what he said. And he--like Bill Clinton and Joe Biden (and John Kerry too, in a good speech)--got specific about what was wrong with John McCain. He said if McCain wanted to debate who had the right temperament and judgment to be Commander in Chief, he was ready to have that debate.
Watching the speech, I had my own subtext. I had started to worry that Obama didn’t have the passion to grab the remaining votes he needs. That he was smart and our best bet for president, but he might be defeated by the Rove-Bush-now-McCain smearing campaigns and Swift Boating nonsense. (It was more than nonsense, it was vile. And the media kept repeating it, without addressing whether it was truthful.) But I saw Obama’s ability to fight back. He needs to have that strength, and he showed it. As long as that same persona shows up at the debates, I think he’ll win.
So while monologues are a bit hard to sit through, the Democratic convention was actually very good drama.
Christopher Durang is a playwright whose new play Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them will premiere this spring at the Public Theatre in New York.
By Christopher Durang