TEMPE, Ariz. — She enters in an ordinary blouse and slacks, not a toga. And yet, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren takes the stage of a music hall in this sweltering Sun Belt city, it is with a command of the occasion that might have “Julius Caesar’s” Marc Antony taking notes.
The vocal modulation. The oratorical rhythm. The instinct for a good story: She’s got the ingredients for a magnetic performance. And she delivers. When Warren speaks, you lean in.
“Friends, Romans, countrymen” is not exactly where the talk goes in her 45-minute strut upon the Tempe stage on this August evening in the Marquee Theatre, capacity 2,500. It is so packed, some of the crowd must remain outside in the 100-degree heat. Still, the sense of drama Warren radiates replicates the momentum of an actor at the climactic point of a play. Her speech may not convey the compact lyrical eloquence of Marc Antony, but the sights and sounds of her presentation deliver the centrifugal emotional force of a potent soliloquy.
Just as Antony fashioned an address to provoke a passionate response, in which “every wound of Caesar” should “move the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny,” Warren has a gift for infusing a call to action with raw, clarifying emotionality. Antony appeals to the crowd’s desire to control its destiny. So does Warren.
“This is our moment in American history,” she exclaims, her voice catching. “Dream big! Fight hard!”
The audience response is so high-decibel, her signature closing line is all but drowned out.
Warren’s Tempe appearance was the first time in my travels as a theater critic on the 2020 campaign trail in which I was moved by a politician’s oratory, and I could feel that I wasn’t the only one. Warren’s team seated about 120 people on the venue’s stage to cheer her on, and one exuberant young man in the first row was clapping so ferociously, I thought his hands would bleed.
That kind of enthusiasm is difficult to manufacture. In this hall, it came across as genuine, in part because the speaker seemed to be seeking that kind of intensity. One of the most seductive attributes of great actors is that they create the impression they are giving you more of themselves — and asking you, as an audience, to give them more in return.
A Warren performance is a polished act of seduction. As the candidate makes plain — and even makes fun of herself for — she’s got a plan for everything, except maybe what you should have for dinner. But I’m drawn to something more elemental and just as vital for someone auditioning for the role of communicator in chief: How does a politician convince you that she understands the way you think? How does she share enough of herself for you to not only imagine you know her, but also to want to side with her?
With Warren, this seems to be a holistic mission, one in which she skillfully integrates who she is with how she reveals to you who she is. Her résumé certainly offers some clues to her deftness with an audience: Her commercial law and bankruptcy courses at Harvard Law School, where she was a full professor before being elected in 2012 to the U.S. Senate from Massachusetts, were routinely SRO. But work history doesn’t fully explain it. Anyone who has been to college can attest to the wide range — from A to Zzzzzzz — of performative abilities of the teaching staff. And if you’ve ever listened to some of the desultory rhetoric from the well of the Senate, you know that American politics has not exactly built an assembly line of Ciceros.
This particular Democratic senator not only appears to enjoy the spotlight, she also knows how to bring you into hers — even when the focus remains entirely on her. And in Tempe, Warren found an exemplary format, one that perhaps showcased her more effectively than in her televised appearances and debates, when she’s not given the opportunity to construct a narrative as complex and compelling. In rapid-fire exchanges with other candidates, for example, she can come across as a bit wired — like the local gadfly who shows up at town meetings with overstuffed loose-leaf notebooks filled with dog-eared documents.
At other times, Warren can summon a bit too fiercely — almost comically — her disapproving inner schoolmarm. But unlike former vice president Joe Biden and Sen. Kamala D. Harris, the subjects of my previous campaign trail “reviews,” Warren has a fully evolved performance style, one that binds her roll-up-her-sleeves biography powerfully and fluidly to her average, working person’s philosophy. In a grittily poetic way, her spiel is akin to that of a folksy troubadour: She is the Springsteen of campaign 2020.
The Marquee, a venue that books supergroups like Angels & Airwaves and tribute bands such as the Iron Maidens, seemed an ideal place for this other brand of rock star. A vast throng of onlookers, young and old, stood shoulder to shoulder on the theater’s floor level; seating was provided in the balcony, where I perched. Before Warren was introduced, by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a red curtain was pulled back to reveal the evening’s diverse human backdrop, bathed in bright light. When Warren emerged waving and beaming, the applause sounded as if it enveloped her in a 360-degree embrace.
A standing audience gazing up at the stage from the dark is an especially effective conductor of electricity. I was reminded of this at a town hall the next evening in a high school in Henderson, Nev. There, with the audience seated in front of Warren in long rows rather than standing in a wide all-purpose room, some of the power of her delivery felt diluted.
In Tempe, Warren provided a master class in the art of drawing on the specific challenges in one’s own life, then making those challenges seem universal and then applying lessons learned to a goal that a president could achieve. She’s gesturally graceful, too. It sounds like such a basic formula for public-speaking success, but it is not all that easy to execute.
As in Shakespeare’s famous address for Marc Antony, a great speech is optimally delivered if there are layers of evocative language and a clear and direct sense of where the themes it embodies are headed. Nothing is so tricky, and honors an audience so much, as the laying out of a careful, intelligent design.
You do worry about Warren’s vocal exertions, speaking so often with her head voice; hoarseness suggests fatigue (and on that second evening in Henderson, she began to display some). But talking at length extemporaneously, without ever losing her place or lapsing into “ums” or “you knows,” she never let her hold on the room slip. One extended anecdote she told, about growing up in a family of modest means in Oklahoma, keenly illuminated the dexterity of her monologizing. It took place on a day when she had wandered into her mother’s bedroom, after her father got sick and her mother had to go to work for the first time.
“And there’s my mother,” the 70-year-old Warren said, “she is in her slip and her stocking feet and she is saying, ‘We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.’ ”
The senator had the audience quiet now, and the hint of a choking up in her voice intimated she was confiding this story for the first time, to just one person: you. The repetition of her mother’s words is a device as old as Shakespeare: “And Brutus is an honorable man,” Marc Antony reminds the crowd, sarcastically, over and over. The variety in how Warren repeated her phrases made the feelings they aroused all the more visceral.
Warren went on:
“Finally, she takes one look at me, she dried her eyes, pulled on that dress, put on her high heels and walked to the Sears, and got a minimum-wage job full time, answering phones. That minimum-wage job saved our house, and more importantly, saved our family.”
You could hear how surgically the story was crafted, via its resonant, emotional hooks and the larger issue — minimum wage — it referenced.
“For many years,” she added, “I felt that is the lesson my mama taught me, and that is: No matter how hard it looks, no matter how scared you are, what it comes down to is, you reach down deep, you find what you have to find, you pull it up, and you take care of the people you love.”
The last several words were delivered staccato, every word drenched in pathos, and as a result, a natural cue to the audience that they might want to start clapping. (They did.)
“And here’s the part I came to understand years later,” Warren said, her voice becoming more urgent — it was time, it seemed, to take up rhetorical arms. “That same story is a story about government. Because when I was a girl, a full-time minimum-wage job in America would support a family of three. Today a minimum-wage job in America will not keep a mama and a baby out of poverty. That is wrong, and that is why I’m …”
You couldn’t hear the rest of her words, the cheers were so loud. But you didn’t have to hear them because the candidate and her audience were as one.
Most had come, after all, not to bury Warren, but to praise her.
“Methinks there is much reason in his sayings,” one of the throng in “Julius Caesar” declares, after hearing Antony speak. In Tempe, the roaring crowd seemed convinced.