The Huntington Theatre’s God of Carnage is a hilarious deconstruction of sophisticated social interaction and marital relationships. Two urbane and successful New York couples get together in the wake of a playground incident in which one couple’s son has hit the other couple’s son with a stick and knocked out two of his teeth. Their discussion of how best to help their sons work through their differences and learn from the experience devolves into an expletive-laced, vicious attack by one couple on the other, then husband against wife, women against each other, men too. As their refined veneer is stripped away, their repressed rage boils to the surface and overflows, with stinging verbal attacks and physical outbursts, leaving the audience howling in uncomfortable laughter.
We saw the play the same day as the Republican primary process was continuing deeper into anger, savagery, marital accusations, challenges to financial success, charges of hypocrisy, and more. Art imitating life? So far, we have had 17 debates among the GOP contenders, a process that has led to the winnowing of the field, and we’ve learned a lot. But the intensity of the scrapping – and the distortions and obfuscations – have a playground quality to them, while the stakes are much higher.
The candidates are all twisting the truth, not quite at a so’s-your-mother level, but we’re getting there. Certainly, the over the-top rhetoric appeals to long festering resentments among the electorate, which helps to explain why Newt Gingrich’s piercing attacks on the media (Juan Williams on Monday, John King on Thursday) resonate so well with the crowd. Each of the candidates, in his turn, had said something biting enough to elicit cheers from the audience.
So, too, with God of Carnage. On its surface, it is a comedy, but playwright Yasmina Reza views her plays (including the brilliant send-up “Art”) as tragedy. “They are funny tragedy, but they are tragedy,” she says in the program notes. She also calls her genre “theatre of nerves.” So, too, with the political drama playing out again this week.
The "funny tragedy" and "theatre of nerves" is on display in South Carolina. Mitt Romney tries to be cute about when he’ll make his tax returns public, how many he’ll provide and which years. But his nervous laugh reveals underlying discomfort talking about his significant wealth and how he earned it. How he handles this matters, not just for how voters will react but what it says about his values, his policies, perspectives on societal divisions, the "politics of envy" and the appropriate boundaries of “creative destruction.”
Newt Gingrich’s well-planned attack on the media for looking at his personal life reveals a streak of overweening hypocrisy (remember his leadership on the Clinton impeachment). His calling Obama the “food stamp President” suggests if not the vicious racism that some have charged, then most definitely a willingness to play to lingering racism in South Carolina. For a self styled historian and scholar, his serial distortions of the truth are mind-boggling and laughable. ... and tragic when considering he could be a major party nominee. [Thank goodness for the fact checkers .]
The oft rehearsed, canned answers and policy sound bites have already begun to sound like elevator music. We yearn for unguarded moments, or revealed truths, when insights into character can be gleaned. Does Romney’s having strapped his dog, (in a crate with a hand-made windshield ) on the roof of his car on a long-distance trip to Canada, tell us more about him than the evolution of his policy positions? The image might be good for a laugh line in a sitcom, but it carries with it an uncomfortable touch of horror.
It’s easy to complain about our long drawn out Presidential campaign process. Still, it seems a year well spent as we peel the onion, getting to know the core of these characters, as they can’t help revealing themselves and their fitness to become the leader of the free world.
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