REVIEW Real Problems, Reel Presidents BY ANN DALY On Politics and the Art of Acting By Arthur Miller Viking 96 pages, $15. t’s a given these days that the line Ibetween reality and illusion has been smudged, if not altogether erased. We look to politicians for a good performance and to actors for authenticity. When jumbo jets felled the World Trade Center, our immediate frame of reference was the movies. Arthur Miller’s essay On Politics and the Art of Acting comes after a long and successful career as mainstream America’s most political playwright. Before his own encounter with McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller wrote The Crucible, a political parable that, 50 years later, remains a staple of educational and community theatres. McCarthy has been ringing in my ears lately, hearing Attorney General John Ashcroft reviling “the terrorists” as zealously as the senator did “the Communists.” We can easily surmise what Miller would have to say about the current roundup of Muslim citizens and foreign nationals and the proposed incursion into civil rights. In this text, however, originally delivered last spring as the National Endowment for the Humanities’ annual Jefferson Lecture, Miller’s context is the 2000 presidential election. \(That “most hallucinatory” election, he says, was as failed a performance as it was a system failure, because some of the players dropped their roles, as when Dick Armey threatened to boycott any Gore inauguration, even though he was obliged to attend Miller begins by acknowledging the fact, despite its discouraging implica tions, that “acting is inevitable as soon as we walk out our front doors and into society” He goes so far as to suggest that democracy, premised as it is upon dissent, compels its leaders to employ the artifices of theatrical illusion. How else would we ever agree to take action? That said, Miller proceeds to complain that there is too much performing going on: “One of the oddest things about millions of lives now is that ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are so surroundedone might say, besiegedby acting.”The television age \(Miller doesn’t get so far as cominto a 24/7 morass of mediated reality Does it matter? Yes, Miller replies, it does, when the audience is induced to join in the acting, losing the ability to “locate reality.” Point in fact, he says, is the last presidential election, after which we were urged to move on with life to pretend that “nothing in our democratic ways has deteriorated.” problem of postmodern politics. On the one hand, the performative nature of social relations is undeniable. On the other hand, politicsgovernmental or culturalholds material agendas that reach beyond mere appearances. How can we reconcile a postmodern politics that rejects unitary notions of “truth” and “reality” as inherently regressive and at the same time assumes the righteousness of its own goals? But Miller is less interested in political theory than in unraveling the “mystery of the leader-as-performer.” What becomes a president? Relaxation, because it arouses receptivity. Danger, because it provokes desire. Mastery, because it inspires confidence. Vagueness, because it unites a fragmented populace. Miller is at his best when assessing particular politiciansfrom the rise of Huey Long \(“the most impressive victory of sheer acting ability this country Clinton \(“our Eulenspiegel, the mythical arch prankster of fourteenth-century Germany who was a sort of mischievous and lovable folk spirit, half Bush, “now that he is president, [he] seems to have learned not to sneer quite so much, and to cease furtively glancing left and right when leading up to a punch line, followed by a sharp nod to flash that he has successfully delivered it.” JFK is mentioned once, in passing. Reagan makes his expected appearance. It’s FDR who gets top billing, and in explaining why, Miller offers a definitive reason why empathic identification overrides logic in the political arena. For even though Miller vehemently objected to FDR’s nonintervention policy toward the Spanish Civil War, years earlier the president’s Home Owners Loan Corporation had saved Miller’s childhood family from eviction. FDR had “the impact of the star before whom resistance melts away, a phenomenon quite beyond the normal procedures of moral accounting.” So a star is inevitable? A mesmerizing . The presidency is a heroic role. “It is not one for comedians, sleek lover types, or second bananas. In a word, to be credible the man who acts as president must hold in himself an element of potential dangerousness.” Brando is the obvious exemplar: “Brando had not asked the members of the audience to merely love him; that is only charm. He had made them wish that he would deign to love thern.That is a star. Onstage or off, that is power, no different in its 18 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 1/18/02
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