The Fall of Authenticity

By Sullivan, John | American Theatre, November 1996 | Go to article overview

The Fall of Authenticity


Sullivan, John, American Theatre


As a Californian suspiciously awaiting my second winter in the East, I hesitate to fully embrace autumn in New York. Last year, two blizzards and a prolonged cold spell taught me that New York demands your full attention all the time. Hailing a cab in a snowstorm, negotiating the crosstown shuttle at 8 a.m., catching the screaming headlines of the New York Post ("HILLARY'S NEW HEIST") out of the comer of an eye - it's all fairly intense. But then so are the leaves in Central Park as they perform their glorious death scene - and who can resist?

As I write this column, we are three weeks away from the November presidential elections, and if anybody's got a denouement, this is the time to play it. Ultimate power is probably the ultimate inspiration for one more rewrite; no one knows what twists of plot may yet confound expectations.

At this point, I will venture to say that the 1996 campaign is producing an odd sense of dispassion, if not total disconnect. Other than the nasty sting of character assassination - the most dependable trope of contemporary political scenario-writing - this election year has generated little heat. Perhaps the theatricalization of politics that took off with Joseph Kennedy's brilliant packaging of his handsome family has now reached its apotheosis. In the nine presidential elections since 1960, the repertoire has become predictable, the subtext obvious, the applause completely canned. Voters across the political spectrum are beginning to sense that this show is worn out.

The young political directors who got their breaks with the great leading men like Kennedy and Reagan have fully exploited the limits of the consumerized political stage. Having absorbed the techniques of Hollywood film making, market research and the quick-response media lessons of Operation Desert Storm, this cadre of campaign professionals has finally produced the zipless vote.

Since the August conventions, the repetition of engineered rhetoric has dominated all channels of political entertainment. Irrelevant discussion about who should be trusted to tuck our children in at night are punctuated by focus-group mantras: 15 percent tax cut; Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment; 15 percent tax cut; Medicare, Medicaid, education and the environment.

Acerbic political pundits who sound like world-weary theatre critics gamely try to sustain the drama and justify the ad rates of their media outlets. As political handlers become media celebrities, their own corny stories are mixed into the narrative, and content is devoured by form. If you're a campaign guru, it's a win/win situation: First you get paid a lot of money to run the campaign, then you can get paid a lot more money if you embarrass yourself enough to publicly repent and write a book about it.

Senator Bill Bradley recently commented on the distorting effect money has on democracy: "If you've got a good idea and $10,000 and I've got a terrible idea and $1 million, I can convince people that the terrible idea is a good one." So disembodied fragments of political thought now float randomly in our virtual reality, waiting for the latest tracking polls and the magnets of money to realign the issues for the morning headlines. …

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