Is this a dagger which I see before me?
MacBird, by Barbara Garson,
Performed by the American Century Theater
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
MacBird is agitprop. It cannot be usefully reviewed as though it was a piece of conventional theater, since its objectives are different. Moreover, in keeping with the American Century Theater’s mission of reexamining forgotten American plays of the twentieth century, it is forty-year-old agitprop. It’s history as well as politics. Let’s get to it, then. (Reviewer’s note: if you’re familiar with, or disinterested in, the politics of the time ignore the blue text)
In 1960, Jack Kennedy, a Senate back-bencher, outmaneuvered Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson to secure the Democratic Party’s nomination to the presidency at the incredibly young age of forty-three. Against the vehement objections of his brother Bobby, he then offered Johnson the Vice-Presidential slot. Johnson, a brilliant, deeply insecure man whose accomplishments to that point had significantly outweighed Kennedy’s, accepted the post but never fully accepted the reversal in their relationship. The Kennedy clan, wealthy, eastern and classically educated, never fully accepted the self-made Johnson. Deep into the Kennedy administration, many thought that JFK would find another running-mate in 1964.
Despite Democratic control of both houses of Congress, Kennedy was unable to enact much of a legislative program. He did run a highly aggressive foreign policy, however, and he projected a vigorous, fearless, optimistic persona which made him one of the most popular presidents in history.
On November 22, 1963, a gunman, generally thought to be Lee Oswald, assassinated Kennedy and Johnson assumed the presidency. Johnson succeeded where Kennedy had failed, securing passage of a Civil Rights Act, a Voting Rights Act, a Constitutional amendment banning the poll tax, and an investment in America’s poor and suffering the equal of anything Roosevelt had done thirty years previous. Johnson also failed where Kennedy had succeeded, in that LBJ’s mournful personality and tedious public language won him little personal following apart from his programs.
Johnson was the most liberal president in American history, but his prosecution of a failed war in what was then known as South Viet Nam eventually resulted in the left’s repudiation of him and, ultimately, his political downfall. Johnson inherited this war from Kennedy, and – as he confided to Sen. Richard Russell in recently released White House tapes – he had no stomach for it. But he thought that if he withdrew from the war, it would weaken the presidency and strengthen the hand of his right-wing opponents.
He may have been right. The early Johnson years were a high point in American faith in the power of its government to do good. The sense that the Federal government could end poverty or racism by legislative fiat and the police power of the state stood on the same ground as the belief that it could bring freedom and democracy to third world countries through military power.
The Kennedy family, led by Bobby, sought to discredit Johnson, who they considered an interloper. By 1967, Bobby was testing the waters for his own Presidential run, with the unpopularity of the Viet Nam war as his instrument.
It was at this point – early 1967 – that MacBird entered the culture. Playwright Barbara Garson’s audacious premise was that Shakespeare’s MacBeth provided a way of understanding the current political situation. The centerpiece of the play is that MacBird (played by Joe Cronin in this production) – a barely disguised LBJ – plotted and effectuated the assassination of the King, John Ken O’Dunc (Robert Rector). There is, of course, no evidence that Johnson had ordered Kennedy’s assassination, and Garson, forty years after the play, denies that she ever intended to suggest that he had. Following the enigmatic advice of three prophesying stoners (Maura Stadem, Theodore M. Snead, and a very effective J.J. Area), MacBird rampages through the country like a bourbon-soaked Brahma bull, securely believing in his invincibility. His response to troubles in “Viet Land” and demonstrations at home is the same: send in the troops.
His only effective opposition is Bobby Ken O’Dunc (Joshua Drew), a ruthless and oily conspirator motivated principally by his disturbed sense of regal entitlement. Aided by his moronic brother Teddy (Steve McWilliams) and the blowhard Wayne of Morse (Jay Tilley), Bobby seeks to enlist the equivocating Egg of Head (Brian Crane; the reference is to US Representative to the UN and failed Presidential candidate Adeli Stevenson) and to subvert the three hippie prophets. Bobby’s plans fail – Egg of Head dies under mysterious circumstances (Stevenson’s death was unquestionably from natural causes) and the hippies insist on running their own show. But he ultimately succeeds – in both senses of the word – when MacBird, in mortal combat, dies of heart failure (as LBJ actually did, six years later). Chillingly, the original ending called for Bobby Ken O’Dunc to be shot as he took the crown from MacBird; the original director insisted the scene be cut.
It is at once clear that Garson’s target is appreciably broader, and deeper, than Lyndon Johnson and his unpopular war. MacBird means to stab at American democracy. Her venomous feelings towards the Kennedys are palpable; JFK’s classical call to service is parodied thusly: “Ask not how you can make your family prosper…But ask what you can give to serve the state.” Bobby is made as attractive as a cobra; this production gives him an additional dalliance with an uncredited Marilyn Monroe. Teddy is a brain-damaged simpleton; this production also cruelly underscores Sen. Edward Kennedy’s drinking problem. Garson’s Sen. Wayne Morse – one of two Senators who voted against the Gulf of Tonkin resolution – reeks of self-importance; this production makes him ridiculous by putting him in kilts and having him carry a golf club. Chief Justice Earl Warren (Tilley again) – the man who ended school segregation forever – is in Garson’s version a harrumphing weakling. Aside from the hippie prophets (it was the production’s decision to make them stoners; Garson says she is against drugs); all of the characters are evil or buffoonish or both.
“We were against the cult of personality,” Garson explained after the production. She is sixty-five now – a year older than Johnson was when he died – and has given her life over principally to politics. She has written a couple of non-fiction books, and a play she wrote for children won an Obie, but it is politics that makes her motor run. “We hoped to start a third force” in American politics, she said. Garson, the Socialist Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1992, has not yet succeeded.
She insists that she meant to make MacBird – and Johnson – a sympathetic character, and that her primary objective was to stop people from jumping on the Kennedy bandwagon. Then why accuse him of causing Kennedy’s assassination? Garson avers that it was only the need to parallel the plot of Macbeth (in which Macbeth murders King Duncan) which motivated this sensational accusation. This, it seems, begs the question: if she did not mean to suggest that Johnson killed Kennedy, why use Macbeth as a template at all?
Director Ellen Dempsey and a generally strong cast do this play justice, which is to say, they treat it as agitprop. With the exception of Area’s hippie and, intermittently, Drew’s Bobby, none of these characters have depth or complexity. Garson does not mean for us to understand these characters or – notwithstanding her comments last night – make them sympathetic. The play’s objective is clearly and wholly political. American Century’s production was sufficient to rouse the caring heart of anyone who actually, at this point in time, still cared about the Viet Nam war.
Ultimately, the measure of agitprop’s success – and here I mean Garson’s play, not American Century’s production – is whether it achieves its political mission. If Garson truly intended to discourage the Bobby Kennedy bandwagon, this play was probably a failure. Garson’s fellow lefties flocked to Bobby Kennedy’s campaign once it became serious, and had Sirhan Sirhan not brought him down there was a chance he could have become President – if not in 1968, then in 1972. However, Garson’s play, and other efforts like it, did succeed in driving Lyndon Johnson from the White House. Here’s what happened next: Richard Nixon became President. Republicans won seven of the next ten presidential elections. The third force never materialized, and the anti-war candidate in ‘72 barely won 40% of the vote. After Nixon, there was Ford, and Reagan, and the two Bushes. There is something to be said for leaving things alone, eh, Ms. Garson?
MacBird plays at the Gunston Arts Center (2700 South Lang Street, Arlington) Wednesdays through Sundays until October 7. 2.30 matinees on September 10, 17, 24, and 30 and October 7; all other shows are at 8. Tickets are $23-29 and may be had at 703.553.8782 or www.americancentury.org.