Most of us are uncompromising in our youth, and, buffeted by the winds of time and experience, grow smooth and mellow in our old age. In that sense, John Quincy Adams lived his life backward.
As a young man, he was a prodigiously gifted diplomat, serving as ambassador to the Netherlands (at 26!), Prussia, Russia, England and finally as Secretary of State. He was a notoriously stiffbacked Congressman in his latter years, inviting the rage and contempt of his peers as he insisted, in violation of House rules, of speaking against slavery from the Floor. In the middle, he was President of the United States — to that point, the family business. It was the least interesting work he ever did.
How does an artist approach such a life, and such a man? Probably not straightforwardly; Adams already documented his life to the tune of a fifteen-thousand-page diary, and there are dozens of biographies and at least one movie (by Steven Spielberg, about the time Adams defended Africans who had overpowered the slave trading ship Amistad, before the Supreme Court). Certainly playwright-director Aaron Posner did not set out to do a historical drama. “While this play is inspired by history and the characters are in keeping with the traits and beliefs of their real-life counterparts, this play is NOT historically accurate,” he says in his program notes with Adams-like clarity. “The language is fanciful and nearly entirely my own….this play is not to be trusted as accurate in any way!” (emphasis in original).
closes April 14, 2019
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Thus understood, JQA is less a story about John Quincy Adam and more a story about the idea of John Quincy Adams, which is, in striking ways, the idea of American political life, even today. Posner makes this clear in his staging, in which all four principal actors play Adams at one stage in his life or another, and in his characterization, in which three colossal figures from history — Henry Clay, Andrew Jackson and Frederick Douglass — manage to embrace three important strains of thought while being at every moment themselves on stage.
Posner also tackles Adams’ less-than-successful performance as a father (two of his sons died young, under murky circumstances; in JQA, one is a suicide, and the other dies from drink.) Here, particularly in underscoring the rage of Adams’ wife at his indifference to the duties of parenthood, Posner is a little more fanciful than he is elsewhere. An emotionally engaged fatherhood is essentially a twentieth-century invention; in Adams’ time, parents were more stern taskmasters than loving guides. However, these passages allow us to consider the problem in our own life: is the work we do so significant that it permits — or compels — us to ignore the needs of our families? The answer is almost always no. But what if the answer is yes?
We begin with our protagonist at age 9 (Jacqueline Correa), learning from his father (Eric Hissom), who in time will become the second President, about the principals of self-government, the rule of law, and why not to put the cat on fire. Seventeen years later, he receives a commission as Ambassador to the Netherlands from President Washington (Phyllis Kay). A few years later, Adams, now played by Joshua David Robinson, marries an Englishwoman, Louisa Johnson (Correa). Later, they squabble over the hardships his ambitions have caused his young family — and particularly the misery his imminent appointment as Ambassador to Russia will cause.
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We move forward a few years, and now Adams is having tea with his tart-tongued mother, Abigail (Kay). She is attempting to apologize, as best she can, for leading Adams away from a potential career as a scholar, or from a literary career, in order for him to assume a role in America’s leadership. In fact¸ though Adams was an accomplished scholar, linguist, poet…and theater critic, for that matter, there was never any indication that he seriously considered any career other than the one he had. Nonetheless, this scene, though ahistorical, may have meaning for the young lawyer in the audience who, charged with drafting cherry pit regulations, has thought of the half-completed novel sitting on her hard drive.
Up to this point Adams, and JQA, have served as devices by which we can reflect on our own lives and priorities, but does not serve a larger purpose. Don’t get me wrong: it is beautifully written — Posner is a gorgeous craftsman — and well-acted by a first-rate cast. And art could do worse than induce us to reflect on our own priorities. But it is after Adams is elected President that JQA really takes off. It is at this point that we understand, through three great scenes, how Adams, and his life, illuminate what governance — as Adams’ father explained it to him — really means.
We begin with Adams and his Secretary of State, Henry Clay (Hissom) drinking whiskey and talking about the unraveling of the Adams Administration, weeks into its inception. Adams is the last of the Hamiltonians (at least, until Roosevelt); he means to establish a national observatory, a mandatory educational system, a naval academy and a national university. Congress is having none of it. Clay urges compromise, but Adams, seeing the ruin of all of his ideas in the modification of any of them, won’t do it. His administration is a failure, and he is defeated for a second term. Adams seems like a stubborn fool, but we will have cause to reconsider the question later.
This brings us to the second great scene, in which Adams, now played by Hissom, confronts his successor, Andrew Jackson, now played by Robinson. Adams sees greatness for America, if she will allow her government to act to her benefit, but Jackson is as small-government advocate, who sees no function for government beyond keeping the peace, and killing the native population. In having Jackson and Adams fire these arguments at each other, Posner invokes a conflict which is alive at this present day; but was also alive at the first cabinet meeting, when Hamilton confronted Jefferson; and which resonates through our history.
The final great scene is years into Adams’ post-presidential career. He is now in the House of Representatives and an uncompromising foe of slavery. But is he uncompromising enough? He receives a visit from Frederick Douglass (Robinson), who urges him to cross the one line that neither Adams nor any other abolitionist has dared to cross — to reject slavery even if it means the dissolution of the United States. And suddenly Clay, who had seemed so wise a few scenes ago (and who was personally responsible for several of the compromises that kept America half-slave, half-free) now seems on shakier ground. Douglass, offering Adams the unfamiliar gift of empathy, invites him to a place where righteousness trumps accommodation.
JQA is rather uncompromising itself, in attacking one of liberal democracy’s prime shibboleths — the reflexive use of compromise to engage all of the governed in our more perfect union. And in selecting that imperfectly successful man, John Quincy Adams, as the vehicle for that assault, Posner shows canny judgment, and buttresses it with good art.
Like Adams himself, JQA ha some flaws (a scene between Adams and a young Abraham Lincoln seemed unconvincing to me) but it is poetic, gorgeously lucid, provocative and outrageously funny in unexpected ways. The cast are the equal to the superb writing; Kay in particular is magnificent in four very distinct roles. The staging is bold — all actors are on Meghan Raham’s set throughout — and sound designer Karin Graybash has graced us with gorgeous period music, regrettably unidentified — throughout the production. In short, JQA is uncompromising in its inception and its substance, and smooth and mellow in its execution.
JQA, written and directed by Aaron Posner, featuring Jacqueline Correa, Eric Hissom, Phyllis Kay, Joshua David Robinson, Jordan Lee and Jake Owen . Set design by Meghan Raham. Costume design by Helen Huang . Lighting design by Jesse Belsky . Sound design by Karin Graybash . Lisa Nathans is the dialect and vocal coach. Jocelyn Clarke is the dramaturg . Hethyr (Red) Verhoef, assisted by Emily Ann Mellon, is the stage manager . Produced by Arena Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.