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 like communists and knew “Ronnie.” Polly was an ambitious Jewish girl eager to make it in America, which in the 1940s meant assimilating. Their daughter, born in the early 1960s and a New York writer, is a typical baby boomer in her appreciation of the diversity of American life and the possibilities of radically improving it, as well as in her assumption that widespread prosperity is the norm.
The generational divide also determines, in large measure, the characters’ strengths and weaknesses—and their politics. Brooke, the liberal baby-boomer, is admirably open-minded but she won’t set herself responsible limits. Lyman and Polly, the older conservatives, are tough on themselves but have allowed their reductive, judgmental instincts to narrow the breadth of their experiences. As Polly’s sister puts it about the couples’ political friends: “All those fundraisers you do or go to, all those hopeless squares. You used to be so with it, when we were kids.”
Baitz’s characters might seem like over-determined archetypes, but he allows them to be more than the sum of their political beliefs. Though they speak in predictably broad terms about “upholding the entrepreneurial American spirit,” Lyman and Polly aren’t ideologues. Part of being tough on themselves means that they’re fiercely loyal parents, even to their own detriment: Lyman tells Brooke to publish her book, “Just wait until we’re gone.” (“Which,” Polly adds characteristically, pouring herself a scotch, “should only be a matter of hours the way things are going.”) For her part, Brooke’s active mind consistently refuses to settle for easy answers, however comforting they might be.
That’s not to say that Other Desert Cities sees both political parties as equivalent. Like its author, the play perceives the modern GOP as having been captured by “something profoundly anti-intellectual and profoundly malignant and ahistorical.” But the radicalism of activist party members doesn’t put the people who support them beyond the reach of complex analysis and understanding. Baitz has written a play that does not seek to judge so much as to describe, with the aim of appreciating and understanding multiple points of view. Other Desert Cities, in part, is a testament to drama’s ability to liberate readers and viewers from the limits of a single perspective—precisely the kind of probing, questioning approach that’s lacking in American politics today.
Other Desert Cities runs from 13th March until 24th May, The Old Vic, 103 The Cut, Waterloo Rd, London, SE1 8NB, www.oldvictheatre.com