The Playgoing Experiences of Each Chief Executive
Paul Bogar, a professor at Hood College in Frederick Maryland, was hit by a question from one of his students. It was a question that may have occurred to many a theater lover: Did any other presidents go to the theater as often as Lincoln?
To Bogar’s surprise, the answer wasn’t something that could be looked up at the local library (or discovered through a Google search). His search for an answer became a three year voyage of discovery.
In the hands of a lesser scholar/author, the result could have been a dull, plodding and all-too-narrowly focused book. Instead, we got this highly readable, frequently fascinating and always interesting book. It was released in 2006 in a pretty expensive ($75) hardback but is now available in a somewhat less costly ($49.95) paperback.
The delight Bogar felt over each new research discovery as he dug through a wide range of sources comes through on each of his 362 pages of text and in his well constructed index, chapter notes, bibliography and even his afterword in which he calculates the relative frequency of theatergoing among our nation’s chief executives.
In 31 chapters, the theater going habits of everyone who ever served as President of the United States up through George W. Bush is described in bright and breezy detail. This includes the shows they attended before, during and after their Presidencies. The theaters they frequented, the shows they saw and their attitudes toward the experience are blended with a general history of the country and of the Presidency itself. The result is a surprisingly enlightening history of the development of the American theater. Each element puts the others in perspective.
Bogar starts with a young George Washington attending his very first theatrical performance as a nineteen year-old visitor to Bridgetown, Barbados. In a style that becomes a hallmark for the entire book, Bogar quickly gives a glimpse of the setting as well as of the production, including the facts that it was a “balmy November evening,” the audience sat on backless benches and the play was The London Merchant by George Lillo.
Often, in the pages that follow, Bogar summarizes the plot of the play or assesses the strengths and/or weaknesses of the performance being discussed and its place in the tradition of theater of the day. (The London Merchant; or, The History of George Barnwell is a cautionary tale. It chronicles the tragic ruination of an innocent eighteen-year-old apprentice entangled in the seductive wiles of a courtesan who neglects his duties, embezzles from his employer and murders his uncle.)
The portraits of the presidents that emerge from these pages are as fascinating as are the descriptions of the theaters in Washington and those the Presidents attended elsewhere. He covers the evolution of today’s National Theatre (where JFK arrived late for the opening night of Irving Berlin’s Mr. President in 1962 because he was in the White House watching the Floyd Patterson – Sonny Liston heavyweight boxing match on TV.)
He gives glimpses of the old Belasco on Lafayette Square where Woodrow Wilson attended Jerome Kern’s Very Good Eddie on the night Congress declared war on Germany to mark America’s entrance into World War I. He even provides the fascinating image of the secret service agent asking Ford’s Theatre’s Artistic Director Frankie Hewitt about prior visits by a President to her theater in preparation for Gerald Ford’s attendance at James Whitmore’s Give ‘Em Hell, Harry, the first time a President entered that hall since the night Lincoln was shot.
Performances inside the White House are covered as well, including the night that Ted van Griethuysen played Troilus before the Kennedys and the Johnsons in the East Room.
The personalities of the Presidents emerge as well. It seems from Bogar’s chapter on William Howard Taft that any modern day theatergoer would enjoy his company and would love to be in the theater party that included both Taft and Theodore Roosevelt (before their falling out, that is.)
Presidents ranged from those with little or no interest in theater such as Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson and George W. Bush, to well-informed enthusiasts like John Quincy Adams, Lincoln and Jimmy Carter, who had an impressive knowledge of drama. (Carter even spotted a one-word insertion into the text of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. Of course, the fact that the insertion was a reference to peanuts added specifically for his attendance might have alerted him, but he told the actor, John Lithgow, after the show that he had re-read the play before attending and didn’t remember peanuts in the phrase “stinking of pigs and peanuts and dung.”)
As you might expect, since the Presidency has been housed in the Potomac Region lo these two hundred plus years, the book is filled with local theater lore. George W. Bush’s attendance at The Little Theatre of Alexandria when his sister-in-law Margaret appeared in Proposals is here. So is Harry and Bess Truman attending that community theater’s production of Farquhar’s The Beax’ Stratagem in Gadsby’s Tavern in Virginia.
Truman also traveled to Maryland to attend the pre-Broadway tryout of An Evening with Bea Lillie at the Olney Theater. Bogar reports that the performance happened to be on the very day that Lillie’s good friend Gertrude Lawrence had died and that the Trumans helped keep the death a secret from the star when they visited backstage during intermission.
Such details are studded throughout the volume, making each page an adventure.