Politics corrupts. It is a natural process – just as expectable as a jilted woman murdering her lover or the naïve being taken in by a con. This, it seems, is one of the inevitable conclusions of All the King’s Men, currently playing at the INTIMAN Theatre.
The play is set in Jim Crow Louisiana. Written in 1947, its plot is loosely based upon the life of Louisiana Governor Huey P. Long. The play centers on the life of Jack Burden (Leo Marks), who lives his life hanging around the line between legitimacy and corruption. He begins his career as a journalist with a pushy reputation, and eventually manages to become the shadowy employee of the Democratic Governor of Louisiana, Willie Starks. He knows how to empathize with and manipulate almost everyone around him. But who he is, what he values, and why he does what he does – these things the audience is never privileged to know. Jack spends the play alternatively in a state of cynical detachment or in soul-wracking conflict with himself. But why? What are the exact forces pulling him? After watching for three hours, I still could not say that I know much about Jack Burden.
The play opens with the ensemble coming out and singing about a metaphorical/physical flood: “They’re trying to wash us away” is the refrain. Like a Greek chorus, throughout the play the ensemble will come together and sing the inner thoughts or general feelings of “the common people.” This was a common device in ancient Greek theatre, and to heighten the connection between the two eras the foreground of the stage is set with Greek columns. This implies that the events portrayed in the play are as ancient as, well, the ancients, though of course the modern theatrical form is not a copy of past form. Sometimes the chorus device works and sometimes it doesn’t. At one point the ensemble sings about how they are all rednecks who are proud of it, but the kinds of things they say are so insulting that no actual “proud redneck” would say them. The intrusion of the urban intellectual playwright’s opinion is rather obvious.
The chorus also provides an eye-rollingly obvious justification for playwright Robert Penn Warren to ignore black experiences. “See?” he says, “These characters are racist! They’re ‘keepin’ the niggers down!’ Therefore I don’t have to include black people in my play about Jim Crow Louisiana, not even as ensemble characters with no lines!” Other than that one song, an epithet-loaded exchange between some “hicks,” and a line or two about how in Baton Rouge “everyone looks like me,” the issue of race never comes up in the play. The main characters don’t give their opinions on race or interact with black people because then we as the modern liberal audience would be forced to dislike them. The playwright clearly sees racism as a side issue to whatever he wants to talk about, and director Pam MacKinnon went along with it. Perhaps it is simply that neither of them are skilled enough to address race without distracting from the play’s main themes.
We first meet politician Willie Stark (John Procaccino) as small-town player trying to prevent the local school board from selling a contract for a new schoolhouse to their relatives. He fails, and two years later the school falls down and kills and injures students. Willie is recognized as the one who stood against the corruption, and off the momentum of good public opinion he is eventually elected as governor.
Willie Stark in the first half of the play is almost as intriguing as Jack. Unlike Jack, his struggles are obvious. He tries to stay true to his values while jumping into the deceitful world of politics for the first time. He learns to abandon naïveté, but disturbingly, he concludes as part of this (as so many politicians do) that voters are stupid and there is no place for transparent discussion of issues. He morphs from a relatively bumbling, kind-hearted and principled man to a suave politician. Willie in the second half of the play is so different that he bears only passing resemblance to the man he once was. Yet the moment he crosses the line from his past self to his present takes place offstage. I can only conclude that Willie’s fall was considered an inevitable result. Watching the process is not important, except to the extent that Jack is caught up in it. In this play, all the characters lack free will – one cannot imagine them making different choices if Jack were not there. The question, then, is why Jack makes the choices he does.
This is the only way I can think about Jack in a way that makes sense: in his cynical youth, he decided that there was no such thing as consistent “higher values” or “morality,” and so he became comfortable with doing the dirty work of others. But as time went on, he came to realize that there were limits and objective standards, lines that he deeply feels he should not have crossed. Yet he did, in part because he had such a stake in seeing himself as “the one who really knows what is going on,” though he seems to have a fantasy about the depths of Willie’s corruption. Visiting his mother and childhood friends reveals the essential conflict between the way they see him and the way he sees himself, which makes him so uncomfortable that he pushes them away. But eventually, he is forced by circumstance to resolve the division within himself.
This interpretation is extremely tentative. I do not know if I would come to the same conclusion upon seeing the play a second time. Those who know about the life of Huey P. Long would certainly bring a different perspective to the play. But the value of it is that it is so opaque. How I interpret the sources of Jack’s struggles says more about me than about the truth of his situation.
Despite its flaws, the worldview of All the King’s Men and Jack’s psychological conflict deeply impressed me. My theatre-major housemate, however, was less impressed. “This should have been a TV miniseries,” she said as we left. The play is long, I grant, but the second half in particular went quickly due to the intense emotional action onstage.
But she had another reason to be unimpressed, and I cannot state that better than in her own words, so: “What is it about male playwrights and feminism? It seems like they listen to us on everything except the sexual relationship thing. They get the intelligence, they get the spunkiness, but when it comes to sex the whole thing is as traditional as ever! I sat through this play and watched Sadie [Burke, Willie Stark’s publicist, played by Deirdre Madigan] turn from a strong character into a weak one because of a sexual relationship. I believe she was a good publicist who made Willie what he was, who was willing to speak the truth when none of the other characters were, and yet she becomes mentally unbalanced because she was dumped! What the hell!”
Clearly we feminists must be underestimating the power of the man juice.
All the King’s Men runs until November 8, 2008.