With any show we work on, we will always find parallels to our world today -- our politics, our social issues, our culture. That's what good art does. In The Wild Party, we can see both rabid, self-involved consumption, which mirrors our very recent fiscal and political history; and we can also see a stark morality tale about the dangers of allowing the death of civility in our society, which again mirrors these crazy combative times in America. When Burrs calls Queenie a lazy slut, it's not hard to also hear Glenn Beck calling Obama a racist or Sarah Palin declaring that Obama "pals around with terrorists. "
I was watching the Southern Republican Leadership Conference over the weekend, and with The Wild Party swimming around in my head 24-7, I saw new parallels. I had talked to the cast earlier in our process about the weird acting tightrope the show requires of them -- these characters are very real, not cartoons, not caricatures; but at the same time, they are people who "perform" much of their daily lives. They are the kind of people who wear a conscious persona, who show us a personality that is not their real self. We all know people like that. People who "perform" being artsy and colorful, who "perform" being sophisticated or worldly wise, who "perform" being outrageous. It's an act, designed to leave a particular impression or elicit a particular response.
And some of the speakers at the Republican conference were very much like that. It's always been so fascinating to me that the people who love Sarah Palin primarily love her because she's so "authentic." And yet the people who hate Sarah Palin (and I admit to being in that group) primarily hate her because she's such a phony, dropping her G's, sprinkling her speeches with "you betchas," lies, and winks. How can there be such completely opposite perceptions of one woman?
I think it all goes back to my long-held and still developing theory that all American politics are about the 1950s versus the 1960s. Republicans want to return to the entirely fictional America of 1950s television, which they seem to remember as real even though it isn't (maybe because their real lives are performances as much as anything on TV is); and Democrats want to finish the work begun in the 1960s in the realm of social justice (work that is far more in line with the teachings of Jesus Christ than any position the supposedly Christian Republicans hold).
Thinking back to my childhood (I was born in 1964), I remember that almost all social interaction was a performance back then. There was always a layer of polite bullshit on top of everything. People rarely said what they meant. People were afraid to talk about sex, politics, religion. There was this overlay of civility but that overlay was largely bullshit, and it prevented real communication between people. (If you're younger than me, watch Mad Men for a really good look at what I'm talking about.)
And because the price tag for success in the 50s (in business, politics, and social circles) pretty much required that layer of performance, and because the Republicans fetishize the 50s, I think many conservatives today wish that protective layer of bullshit would return -- so we'd never again have to talk about sex, about gays, about women's rights, about the poor, about the morality of torture, about the priest abuse scandals, about America's flaws...
And because Palin demonstrates that retro kind of performance in everything she says and does, the Right fetishizes her and the Left finds her intolerable. The Right loves that she talks in the vaguest possible terms about "values" (because much of the Right also prefers big, abstract sound bites to actual issues), and the Left hears nothing from her but smarmy bullshit. In her speech this weekend, she repeated that her ideal foreign policy is "We win, you lose." That's a policy? She thinks a really potent political argument is "How's that hopey changey thing workin' out for ya?" (Actually, Sister Sarah, it's workin' out pretty good so far.) And before you have to ask, the answer is No. Sarah Palin is not smarter than a fifth grader.
But the content of what Palin says is not what matters to her legions of fans. It's her manner, her folksiness, her need to write notes on her hand to remember her central beliefs, her catch-phrases that they love. Her speeches don't require anything of her audience; they just reinforce and comfort. Because the 1950s weren't about content; they were about performance, about fitting in, about being "an organization man."
Many of the characters in The Wild Party are similar to Palin, Beck, et al. in that they perform themselves for the world. Though in the Manhattan demi-monde of 1928, it's for different reasons. In this context, it's about being colorful, about being more daring than the next guy, about being a social and moral adventurer, about being "thoroughly modern." But just as it does now, that constant performing can be destructive. It treats truth and reality as lesser values. It doesn't matter to Sarah Palin that President Obama didn't actually "pal around with terrorists" -- the impact of the statement was more important than its content. Likewise, it doesn't matter to Queenie (until it's too late) that she is destroying the man she supposedly loves.
While most of America now prizes authenticity above almost anything else (thanks to the 60s and rock & roll), a small slice of Americans are so terrified of no longer controlling our culture that they have retreated to the social performance and bullshit of their beloved 1950s. And perhaps more than the disagreement over actual issues, it's this cultural divide over the basic idea of how we talk to each other that seems most dangerous. If the people with the two competing visions for our country can't talk to each other, then where do we go from here?
We see in The Wild Party what happens when two people who have had an emotional commitment to each other can no longer talk to each other or even hear each other.
And even though Andrew Lippa wrote The Wild Party in the late 1990s, his work is truthful enough and universal enough to offer us a lesson for these times -- a complete breakdown in communication leads to nothing but darkness.
"How did we come to this?"
Long Live the Musical!