Backstage

She Hopes 'MacBird' Flies in a New Era

The American Century Theater is resurrecting Barbara Garson's
The American Century Theater is resurrecting Barbara Garson's "MacBird." Performing in a scene are Joe Cronin, from left, Theodore M. Snead, Maura Stadem and J.J. Area. (Jeff Bell Photography)

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By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 5, 2006

"MacBird!" playwright Barbara Garson says she never meant to imply 39 years ago in her Shakespearean spoof of American politics that Lyndon Johnson engineered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Given that she used the murder-filled plot of "Macbeth," however, some people took it that way.

Garson's controversial -- in some quarters notorious -- 1967 play is being revived by American Century Theater in Arlington Friday through Oct. 7.

"People used to ask me then, 'Do you really think Johnson killed Kennedy?" Garson, now 65, recalls. "I never took that seriously. I used to say to people, if he did, it's the least of his crimes. . . . It was not what the play was about. The plot was a given."

When the play opened at New York's Village Gate, Garson was in her mid-20s, a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley -- that hotbed of anti-Vietnam War sentiment -- and a founding member of the Free Speech movement there. After "MacBird!" she won a 1976-77 Obie Award for her off-Broadway children's play "The Dinosaur Door," but is more prolific as the author of nonfiction books, including "Money Makes the World Go Round" and "The Electronic Sweatshop: How Computers Are Transforming the Office of the Future." She is working on a new play, titled "Security," about the economic, not the national kind.

MacBird is a larger-than-life Texas politico serving uncomfortably as vice president under the Machiavellian, aristocratic president, John Ken O'Dunc. MacBird and Lady MacBird, as per Shakespeare, engineer Ken O'Dunc's murder. Garson says she feels her spoof was "fair to everybody except Lady Bird," harshly caricatured as "Lady MacBird."

"It wasn't an anti-Johnson play," Garson says, though she did intend it as a broad critique of both Kennedy's and Johnson's approach to politics. "It was the Johnson that Bill Moyers described . . . self-dramatizing, self-pitying, but also a true liberal, and unable to understand why these Kennedys, who did so little, really, were thought of as so beautiful."

Johnson, she says, "was as bad as the other guys in this play . . . but he wasn't worse."

Actors who were then newcomers, but soon made names for themselves -- Stacy Keach, William Devane, Rue McClanahan and Cleavon Little -- played leads in the original production. Legendary New York Times critic Walter Kerr dismissed Garson's satire and wrote that the playwright seemed "like someone who has suddenly thought of something funny to say at a party, who has blurted out the beginning of the joke only to realize that it is hurtling her headlong toward embarrassing consequences, and who has then plunged on anyway."

It's also clear from Kerr's review that Garson's comedic jab at the Kennedy assassination came too soon for him. The play was written before the assassination of Robert Kennedy, who, as Robert Ken O'Dunc in the play, becomes an amalgam of Macduff and Malcolm, defeating MacBird in a convention-floor battle and taking power. Garson's play also preceded LBJ's announcement that he would not seek reelection in 1968.

"What 'MacBird!' was about was asking the political people not just to jump on the Kennedy bandwagon or the Democratic Party thing, but to produce something independent that was worthy of our efforts. And we didn't do that," says Garson of the '60s counterculture. "We influenced the culture immensely . . . but we didn't leave any structure."

The lines in "MacBird!" are borrowed, and in some cases rejiggered, from many of Shakespeare's plays -- whatever worked. Most famously, there was "Bubble and bubble, toil and trouble, Burn baby burn, and cauldron bubble."

"I would just look for anything. I knew what I had to say, but if I could find a half a line or a line in which he said it," that was preferable, Garson says. When watching her play during its long run at the Village Gate, she says, "I'd go, oh my goodness, did I write that? And invariably it would be a line right out of Shakespeare . . . I had taste. He's just good."


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