The Republican Comedy

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

With the Senate hearings for Secretary of State earlier this week and today's inauguration, our nation's capital is currently staging Political Theatre on a grand scale. You can be sure that Ms. Rice and Mr. Bush have been through more rehearsals than any production at the Kennedy Center, smoothing their lines and shaping their performances, both for the crowds in Washington and, of course, for the friendly eye of the television cameras.

This week's production is costing upwards of $50 million --well more than even the most flamboyant Broadway spectacle--putting the inauguration's budget on the scale of a mid-sized Hollywood movie (not counting special effects). Instead of digital wizardry, the inauguration boasts no less than 21 marching bands, 9 gala, black-tie balls, and of course a musical performance of Let the Eagle Soar, written for outgoing Attorney General John Ashcroft and sung by Guy Hovis a former guest on the Lawrence Welk Show. All of which suggests that the inauguration will resemble a really expensive production of The Music Man, the 1950's musical about a two-bit, con-man who reforms his swindling ways--only after falling for the local librarian.

Despite this administration's love of theatrics, current Republican Party politics show very little love for the arts and the theater itself. Yet, strangely enough, the most notable person of the American stage to become a politician was a Republican, and a very conservative one at that. Clare Booth Luce, after writing a number of hit plays--such as The Women and Margin of Error--in the 1930's, went on to become a member of the House of Representatives, serving the fourth district of Connecticut for two terms.

It even can be said that the most famous politician/playwright in the English language was a Republican...or at least a Whig, which was the political party that the GOP grew out of. (If you remember, Abraham Lincoln--a Republican who did, tragically, go to the theater--was a Whig for much of his political life.)

Richard Brinsley Sheridan served the British Whig Party in Parliament from 1780 until 1812. History probably would have forgotten Sheridan, the politician, except that before seeking office, the Irish-born orator had written two plays that were huge successes on the London boards. One of them, The Rivals, is famous primarily for the character of Mrs. Malaprop, a batty, society woman who mangles expressions and is the basis of the word -malapropism.- A current Broadway revival of The Rivals starring the wonderful Dana Ivey as Mrs. Malaprop, shows that Mr. Sheridan's first play is a fun, if somewhat long-winded, romp.

But it is his second play, The School for Scandal, which is why Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered. This 1777 comedy of manners is often called a masterpiece, and W.A. Darlington, the longtime critic for the Daily Telegraph, called the play's Act Two, Screen Scene -the most famous scene in English drama except for the Balcony Scene in Romeo and Juliet.-

This is proven true in the current production of The School for Scandal at the Mark Taper Forum. Actor/director Brian Bedford makes the -Screen Scene- alone worth the price of admission--and indeed one of the real highlights of the season. The farce is both graceful and laugh-out-loud funny, but Bedford's performance as Sir Peter Teazle gives the scene--and the whole play--an undercurrent of quiet pathos.

Sheridan's piety-puncturing play about the politics of scandal is a perfect anecdote to the pomp and pageantry of the inauguration...and a reminder that most politicians--even eloquent ones like Richard Brinsley Sheridan--are soon forgotten, whereas good plays can be remembered for centuries.

The School for Scandal runs through this Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.