Theatre yesterday and today

 

 

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THE WORST PRESIDENT

No, that’s not who I mean.


When Warren G. Harding, the nation’s twenty-ninth President, died in office in 1923, he was already climbing the list as one of the worst Commander in Chief’s to occupy the White House. Like one or two who came before him (and one or two who came after), Harding’s administration stunk from the top down. After his death, a member of his Cabinet, Interior Secretary Albert Fall, was tried, convicted and served nine months. It wasn’t until the Nixon presidency when the second Cabinet member to go to prison, John Mitchell, the former Attorney General, ended up serving nineteen months (a long sentence for someone who was once the highest-ranking law enforcement figure in the country). Now with the possibility of jail time hanging over Donald Trump’s head, Harding’s shenanigans might one day look positively quaint.


Warren G. Harding, the nation’s 29th President.


Sixty-two years ago, The Gang’s All Here used the drama of the Harding administration to create a thinly veiled portrait of All the President’s Men and, though unsuccessful, might be a hell of a lot of fun to see staged today in light of all that’s transpired since. Written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the authors of one of the biggest hits of 1955, Inherit the Wind, based their 1959 play on Warren Harding and his inept White House cronies who produced the Teapot Dome Scandal. The play proved little more than a curiosity, eking out 132 performances. Still, I happen to own a copy of a hardbound published edition of it (yes, that was a thing back in the day).


I first read it when I was a teenager from a copy I borrowed from my local library. I was fascinated with politics at the time (I still am), and with Watergate raging between 1972 and 1974, I even tried to write my own political drama. I called it The Web We Weave (yes, by way of the Walter Scott poem “Marmion” and its quote: “Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”). Please — I was fourteen. I think I got about fifteen typewritten pages into it before wisely abandoning it.


As for The Gang’s All Here, it was fascinating to reacquaint myself with it, particularly with regard to what is going on in the White House today. Some of the parallels are eerie. For instance, this is from the “Forward” Lawrence and Lee wrote for the printed edition: “If the man we fondly X’d in a voting booth turns out to be a struggling incompetent, whose fault is it?” And another example feels particularly fresh, as when President Griffith P. Hastings (played on Broadway by the great Melvyn Douglas) is asked to go over an important document for signing with his top aide:


HASTINGS: Don’t they have a digest, a condensation of these things?


ANDERSON: These are the condensations, Mr. President.


He is a painfully slow reader, and digesting a typewritten page is agony for him.


And how about the last line of Act One when, as the President is exiting, he turns and says to that same aide, “Would you read through these things and tell me what to do?”


Hirschfeld’s depiction of “The Gang’s All Here” (Arthur Hill, Fred Stewart,

Bernard Lenrow, E.G. Marshall, Yvette Vickers, Melvyn Dougla

Bert Wheeler and unidentified.