Political Theater Comes to Richmond

I came to the world of politics through theatre. I have studied the farces of Molière, the absurdism of Ionesco, the comedy of Simon, the great ancient plays of Sophocles, and I have always had a weak spot for the Bard, Mr. William Shakespeare. I know it is cliche, but coming back to these plays is like meeting up with an old friend.

We all know that at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy the stage will be littered with bodies and that at the end of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical boy will get the girl.  There is comfort in knowing the end before sitting down in the theater; emotionally, it costs us less when we know what will be lost and won, freeing us to simply enjoy the spectacle of the production.

On July 9th, Virginia got front row seats to the best show in town: the General Assembly Special Session. Tickets to this show were hotter than Hamilton, even though the end scene was as preordained as the result of the duel at Weehawken. The only thing left was the spectacle: mothers in red shirts, men in camouflage, shouting from the gallery, photo ops, and press releases. As much as they may protest the truth, for this farce to work the Democrats and Republicans needed each other as much as Felix and Oscar; they needed the other to justify their strutting and fretting upon the stage filled with sound and fury signifying nothing.

Embattled Governor Ralph Northam called the session ostensibly to debate gun control legislation, but his true motivation was not well hidden. Like Hamlet who cried “the play’s the thing,” the Democrats knew “that guilty creatures, sitting at a play, have by the very cunning of the scene been struck so to the soul that presently they have proclaimed their malefactions.”

Basically, the Democrats wanted to force the Republicans into making speeches stating their opposition to gun control so that their words could be used in campaign literature and commercials. But, like the witch who sent the Baker and his Wife into the woods to gather the ingredients she needed to restore her youth, when the Democrats got what they wanted, they found that it had cost them their power. There were no speeches or soundbites to use, but nonetheless they told their base that come November it would still be boom, squish.

Republicans needed the Special Session to tell their base that we got trouble with a capital T, that rhymes with C, and that stands for Control, Gun Control. However, like Harold Hill, they had no real trombones or real legislative alternatives to sell, just a lot of slick showmanship. They were there to tell the mothers of Richmond City to heed their warning before it was too late.

When they adjourned without action, Republicans rejoiced, because seemingly they’d solved the Democratic Sphinx’s riddle and escaped the fate that had cost others their political lives. Of course, the last guy to solve the Sphinx’s riddle ended up marrying his mother and bringing a plague upon his kingdom, so that celebration only lasted until the next act of the play.

Each party made a Faustian deal to appeal to their base. When Gov. Northam was pressed by students during his visit to Boys State at Radford University, he was compelled to admit that his proposed legislation would have done little to avert the mass shooting that occurred on May 31st in Virginia Beach, even though that incident was the impetus for calling the Special Session. Likewise, Republicans planned the quick adjournment without informing citizens who made the trek to Richmond that their travel would be for naught. But then again, if there’s no audience, can there be a show?

Theatre is one of the few truly collaborative arts; even a one man show has a crew working behind the scenes. In fact, almost all of the work occurs far beyond the view of the audience. There are creative meetings between the director and his design teams, rehearsals with the actors, set construction, fittings, marketing plans, ticket printing, the list goes on and on. Despite what golden age musicals would have us believe, acting troupes never show up at an old barn and just decide to put on a show. If they did, it would look less like Cats and more like a pack of feral cats fighting on stage while music played.

But that is what Virginia’s government tried to do with their all-show-with-no-prep review. Were solutions instead of showmanship the scene they wished to play out, then, like in any good production, the work should have been completed off stage away from the view of the audience. Bipartisan collaboration, cooperation, and compromise would have led to legislation that had a chance of passing, but nothing can kill a show like too much exposition. Election years are no time for bipartisanship; election years are for showmanship and proving that anything you can do I can do better. Even if it’s doing nothing at all.

Both political parties got what they wanted from their night of bad dreams and ambiguous visions: talking points for their campaigns. They didn’t need debate, because politicians are party members and party members just believe. For the rest of us, we would like to keep our theatre in the playhouses and see some solutions come out of Richmond to deal with the fact that over a thousand people in Virginia die each year from firearms.

Spectacle will not make us forget that our Commonwealth has been the site of numerous mass shootings including at Virginia Tech, Virginia Beach, and the 2017 Congressional baseball game in Alexandria. Calling legislators to Richmond to propose legislation that is destined to fail is not finding solutions. Adjourning to avoid political missteps is not finding solutions. Solutions are found when we throw away the script, turn off the footlights, and work on the production in rehearsal.

Instead, like actors waiting by the newsstand for the reviews the next day, our legislators were more interested in what was said about them than what they said themselves. To that Virginians have a right to wish a plague on both their houses.

Allusions and quotations were taken from the following plays: Hamilton, The Odd Couple, Macbeth, Hamlet, Into the Woods, The Music Man, Oedipus Rex, Doctor Faustus, Cats, Urinetown, Annie Get Your Gun, Electra, The Book of Mormon, and Romeo and Juliet.

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