Mystified by US politics? A new play explains the ideological divideby Matthew Wolfson / March 13, 2014 / Leave a comment
“The plot centres on a fictional American family that symbolise the nation’s ideological chasm”
I lived in England during the run-up to the 2012 US presidential election and, as an American, was regularly subject to questions like, “You know, Mitt Romney would get two percent of the vote here, how does half of your country like him?” I never found a way to explain our politics, in part because they’re so difficult to even describe. I know a number of Midwestern Republicans and California Democrats and it’s hard to account for a difference in worldview that broad, much the reasons for it, in a single conversation. But anyone interested in understanding why Americans diverge politically could do much worse than seeing Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz, which opens at the Old Vic on Thursday. The plot centres on a fictional American family that could serve as a symbol for the nation’s ideological chasm.
The father and mother, Lyman and Polly Wyeth, were close friends of the Reagans, Lyman serving at one point as a US ambassador. Lyman’s and Polly’s daughter Brooke is a well-known writer living in Greenwich Village who suffers from depression and pals around with Joan Didion. The family gathers together in Palm Springs for Christmas, where their differences are stoked by a book Brooke has just finished about her deceased brother Henry, who became a radical anti-government activist in the 1960s and eventually committed suicide. Lyman and Polly weathered the scandal and remained prominent in the establishment wing of the Republican Party: in Brooke’s rendering, her parents drove her brother to his death through their ideology. Predictably, Lyman and Polly object strenuously to this portrayal, and the play becomes an exploration of how, and why, some Americans arrive at their political beliefs, and how capable they are of transcending them.
Unusually for an American writing about present day politics—think, for instance, of hyper-idealistic Aaron Sorkin or the overstylised fantasies of’s House of Cards—Baitz treats the subject sociologically. His approach resembles Jean Renoir’s famous line, “The real hell of life is, everyone has his reasons.” For Baitz, social and cultural context, rather than abstract belief systems or clear policy ideas, determine where most people end up politically. Lyman, for instance, was a successful Hollywood actor who didn’t…