There’s a tsunami of political-themed shows on Broadway this season. ‘Newsies,’ ’The Best Man,’ and ‘Blood and Gifts’ bring theater-goers fascinating stories of the 1899 Newsboy Strike, the 1960s presidential convention, and the CIA’s 1980s involvement in undermining the Soviet Union’s nine-year proxy war in Afghanistan, respectively,
But none is more intriguing than David Auburn’s ‘The Columnist’ which premiered April 25 at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre.
The play stars John Lithgow as Joseph Alsop, a powerful anti-Communist journalist whose punditry held great sway over the direction of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Alsop was a vocal proponent of the Korean and Vietnam wars, and coined the term Domino Theory: the idea that if one country falls to Communism, eventually so does its neighbors.
For much of the post-war period, Alsop’s columns appeared in 300 newspapers and were read widely by D.C. elites. He was a rare thinker from a bygone area. Few modern ink-slingers approach Alsop’s intellectual and social reach.
He had the ear of prominent Washingtonians, dazzling them both with his dinner parties and words. Indeed, President John F. Kennedy, a long-time friend, visited Alsop’s home late on inaugural night to escape the hubbub of festivities.
President Lyndon Johnson was reported to have said “[this] should keep Joe Alsop quiet for a while” when he ramped up the Vietnam War in 1966. Alsop didn’t just write the news; he made it.
The outstanding performances of Lithgow, Boyd Gaines, who plays Joseph’s brother Stewart, and Margaret Colin, Alsop’s bereft wife Susan Mary Jay Patten have drawn much press.
But I focus here on two relatively new and exceptionally talented actors: Brian J. Smith, and Grace Gummer. Their performances not only impress, but also spark much thought about the play’s secondary messages on youth and politics.
As a professor, I’m drawn to material that helps me think of ways I can inspire my students to think about their place in American politics.
Smith, 30, plays Andrei, a Russian paid by the KGB to ensnare Alsop into a December 1957 night of passion in a Moscow hotel room. Smith is a 2007 graduate of The Julliard School in New York City, and one of the stars of SyFy channel’s ‘Stargate Universe’ and A&E’s upcoming remake of Michael Crichton’s 1979 film ‘Coma.’
Smith gives early indication that he’ll join a rare group of actors of the caliber of Colin Firth, Jean Dujardin, and Matt Damon -- actors recognized for their sagacious ability to draw deep emotional responses from their audiences.
Smith has that rare quality of portraying a vulnerable masculinity while commanding a complex character with a thick Russian accent and Soviet mannerisms. He put great effort in preparing for this role, reading much about mid-century Soviet youth culture.
Gummer, 26, plays Alsop’s stepdaughter Abigail. Gummer is a 2008 graduate of Vassar College and majored in Art History and Italian. Gummer found acting after a circuitous route as a costume designer and intern for fashion designer Zac Posen. She emanates a preternatural lightness on stage.
Her visage shines optimistic rays over the course of her evolution from an innocent teen awe-struck by Kennedy’s visit to Alsop’s home in 1961 to her committed anti-establishment activism by the end of the play in 1968.
Like Smith, Gummer is another actor whose name must be appended to a short list of performers most likely to etch an indelible mark on the entertainment industry.
Abigail’s embrace of the 1960s protest movement, and Andrei’s evolution from a young Soviet operative into a svelte diplomatic attaché shows the benefit of encouraging young adults to follow their own path of political self-discovery -- a path free of the ideological and partisan encumbrances left in the wake of their elders.
Positive political socialization is critical to encouraging participation and cultivating a healthy democracy. But this point has been lost over the past few decades as voter turnout among 18-to-30 year olds averages 17 percent, and politicians half-heartedly court them. Andrei and Abigail show that it’s the younger generations who will eventually transform politics; they are just as important as the Baby Boomers.
One of the most compelling and final scenes of the play is when Andrei thanks Alsop for inspiring him to think large about his life goals, which influenced his decision to become a diplomat.
Both the Democrats and Republicans spend too much time promoting indoctrination programs that give students ideological, not civic, perspectives on politics. U.S. school boards are particularly guilty of this, and the Texas Board of Education is a good example. Staunch conservatives have won curriculum changes that stress the superiority of American capitalism, question the founding father’s commitment to a secular government, and present Republican philosophies as the only way to achieve good government. The board has pushed textbook editors to re-frame the term slavery as the Atlantic Triangle Trade system, and emphasize a Christian-only perspective.
Texas is the largest purchaser of textbooks. Their decisions have a far-reaching effect on the material that gets disseminated across the nation’s student body.
Teachers’ unions are also guilty, oftentimes stressing the pre-eminence of liberal ideology.
I don’t seek to negate the many valid arguments that liberals and conservatives offer, nor diminish the important role religion plays in American politics. Houses of worship have been a strong mobilizing force since the nation’s founding. The American Revolution, Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights movement all found their footing in churches.
But it’s important to give students a multi-dimensional perspective on the American system. This encourages critical thinking skills that question the status quo. We see how the status quo has brought the U.S. Congress to a standstill: partisanship and acrimony are norms that govern congressional behavior.
Alsop puts respect for differences forward at the end of play. He embraces Abigail and tells her he’s proud of her activism, despite the fact that it goes against his ideology.
Andrei’s and Abigail’s political views give clues to how politics changed after the 1960s. Andrei’s adoption of western culture predicts how the youths ultimately drove the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1991.
We can also look to Ron Paul’s candidacy as evidence. His majority 18-to-30-year-old supporters have fueled his campaign since its inception. His legacy will last beyond his career. We see this now as young, ambitious libertarians campaign for state and federal offices.
Mitt Romney and President Obama are also actively courting 18-to-30-year-old voters. For example, during Romney’s post-primary victory speech last week, he spoke of the deleterious impact high unemployment rates have on recent college graduates and the great burden they face from student loan debt.
I highly recommend ‘The Columnist.’ Smith and Gummer’s performances spark one to think how your young will bring about great change in the future.
Jamie Chandler is a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City. You can follow his political commentary on his twitter account @jamie_chandler.