Obama Drama

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Western Theater and Western Democracy, it is often pointed out, are inseparable. Both were invented in the same city, Athens, within 30 years of each other, back in the early fifth century B.C. And last week — as it is every four years in America — this comparison, regardless of how well worn, was unavoidable...

The transition of power is the backbone of our dramatic canon, whether we speak of Sophocles' Oedipus slaying his father or Shakespeare's Lear trying to hand off the reigns of power to his daughters.

If future dramatists are to immortalize our era in verse or prose, the climax of such a work play take place on November 4 of last year. Instead of the guillotine, the duel, or the battlefield — American political drama is determined at the ballot box. The inauguration then is the denouement —  the equivalent of Fortinbras showing up at the end of Hamlet. Yes, the play can't end without it, but the real meat of the drama is long since past by the time he clears his throat.

So why then was last week's inauguration of President Obama the biggest theatrical event in American history? The National Park Service and the Washington Post are saying attendance was 1.8 million people. To put that in perspective — that's 24 times more people than will attend the SuperBowl this weekend (where there is genuine suspense as to the outcome).

It also outnumbers the total audience that has attended Wicked at the Pantages theater over the past four years — a popular show that features singing, dancing and expensive stage effects.

lincoln.jpg As part of the audience who experienced the Inauguration live last week, I have to say I was underwhelmed at the spectacle. There were no fireworks, no fighter planes streaking over the capital perfectly timed to the crescendo of poetic soliloquy. There wasn't even any snow.

Reagan's funeral supposedly had a script that was 300 pages long, Clinton's entrance at the 2000 Democratic Convention was modeled on his favorite movies — and we won't even mention Bush's landing on an aircraft carrier at sunset to say “Mission Accomplished.”

flags.jpg The closest thing to old-fashioned stagecraft at the Obama inauguration were the countless individual flags that people waved like crazy on the mall. Waving flags, like fake snow or dry ice are an easy way for a director to make a dull stage seem busy. It may seem easy but it is effective.

Other than that flourish, though, every decision seemed to be (echoing the musical choice of “simple gifts”) understatement. Those who came to Washington to experience a Blockbuster — grand, visual flourishes and long, emotional monologues — must have felt quietly disappointed. Unless, of course, they turned their eyes to the crowd.

metro.jpg As a theater critic, this was the only part of the inauguration where there was suspense, spontaneity, or drama. Simple events, such as queuing up in line, getting on a Metro train, or even walking across a street became epic stages. Some of the spectators were dressed in their best clothes, which added to the pageantry.

The underlying tension to all this was: would the people erupt, would the stress of so many bodies, with so many hopes and expectations for this day, boil over and become conflict, strife or a violent — or even tragic — scene?

At one point late in the day, a large woman dressed to the nines tripped and knocked over four other inaugural revelers. And none so much as demanded an apology.

party.jpg It is usually a mistake for a drama critic to review the audience as opposed to focusing on the words and actions on stage. But at this great, strange and historic performance last week, the real drama, the real change, the real catharsis took place in the crowds. Democracy, like theater, requires ceremony and stagecraft, yet the true magic of both these traditions is found in the people whose belief and engagement with the process gives weight and meaning to what takes place on stage.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.

All images: James C. Taylor