Thursday night in Southwest Washington, former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, will file through security checks and take their seats at Arena Stage for the red-carpet world premiere of a new play, “Camp David.” For Washingtonians who have become accustomed to presidential theatergoing amounting to the Kennedy Center Honors and an occasional date night in New York, seeing a president at a local theater may come as something of a shock.
But those who remember the Carter administration will smile knowingly and nod. Of course President Carter is going to Arena Stage. President Carter was a theater guy. He wouldn’t miss this premiere for the world, although maybe for world peace.
Although he was in office for just four years, Carter holds the record for the most trips to the Kennedy Center by a sitting president, with 28. He remains the only president to ever attend a play by Eugene O’Neill, and his idea of entertaining foreign dignitaries was inviting everyone from opera star Beverly Sills to a children’s theater troupe to come sing show tunes at the White House.
“Carter is easily in the top six or seven of the theatergoing presidents,” said Thomas A. Bogar, a retired history professor based in Silver Spring who wrote the 2006 book “American Presidents Attend the Theatre.”
Not since Woodrow Wilson had an American president gone to the theater so regularly — once a month his first year in office.
“Carter, compared to many other presidents, went to the theater more for genuine appreciation and intellectual stimulation,” Bogar said. “He had eclectic taste, and such a wide appreciation for all the different genres of theater.”
Less than a month after the Carters moved to Washington, the peanut-farmer-in-chief made a spur-of-the-moment decision to catch “Madame Butterfly” at the Kennedy Center one day after church. He caused a commotion when he and Rosalynn showed up in the presidential box with their pastor, daughter Amy and several other friends in tow. They stayed for all three hours and headed backstage afterward.
By contrast, Gerald Ford’s last operatic outing ended with the president and his entourage leaving the Metropolitan Opera’s production of “La Boheme” at intermission. Carter’s enthusiasm caught the press corps off guard, but soon photographers realized they were tailing a president who relished a weekend matinee or a night on the town.
As he did research, Bogar exchanged letters with Carter several times. “I am usually overwhelmed by a great performance,” Carter wrote in one note to Bogar, “and I consider it an honor to meet the artists.”
Carter made a point of seeing nearly every pre-Broadway tryout that came through Washington, and the District’s theaters hosted several during his term. Of the musical “Annie,” Carter said, “There’s no doubt in my mind that it will be completely successful.” But his taste ran the gamut, and when he went backstage to meet John Lithgow after a performance of O’Neill’s drama “Anna Christie,” the president informed the actor he had read the script in advance and accused Lithgow of ad-libbing a peanut joke.
Liv Ullmann, Lithgow’s co-star, was one of many actors who was invited to the White House after receiving a backstage handshake. Another was the British actor Ian McKellen, who came to Washington as the star of a pre-Broadway tuneup for Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus.” The dark comedy about Mozart and his rival Antonio Salieri was the first show the Carters saw after he lost the election to Ronald Reagan, an actor who wouldn’t venture out to the theater nearly as often.
McKellen said Carter’s loss cast a pall over the production, which began previews at the National Theatre on election night. “Washington was rather distraught,” the actor said. (McKellen shared this story with The Washington Post in January, after he recorded voice-overs for the Olney Theatre’s production of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”)
Carter “came backstage afterwards, and he asked me if I thought ‘Amadeus’ would be suitable for his young daughter, and I said, ‘I don’t know, you should judge that, but I think people should go to the theater at as early an age as possible,’ ” McKellen recalled. Amy Carter, 13 at the time, came a few nights later and enjoyed the show. McKellen was then invited to the White House, along with his friend Angela Lansbury, who was in town starring as Mrs. Lovett in “Sweeney Todd.”
“So the two of us had the tour. It didn’t end in the Oval Office — it began in the Oval Office, and then it went to even more special places,” McKellen said. The president did “his work in a little office down the corridor. It had a real log fire burning, and a view of the Washington Monument. . . . He had three books on his desk: one was the Bible, one was a biography of the current pope, and one was collected poetry of Dylan Thomas.”
Carter’s visit to Arena Stage to see “Camp David” will be a first by any president. Other local theaters, including Ford’s and Shakespeare, have hosted presidents in the past, and one possible — yet unconfirmed — explanation is that before the renovation, Arena Stage had too many entrances to be properly secured. The new play by Lawrence Wright stars Richard Thomas as Carter, Hallie Foote as Rosalynn and Ron Rifkin as Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
“It is going to be interesting what Carter’s perception of Richard Thomas is. The resemblance is so striking, the youth and the energy is there,” Bogar said.
One critical matter that’s far easier to speculate on: that Carter will probably want to meet the actors, because of all recent presidents, Bogar says, it is Carter who best understands the very fine line between acting as a president and playing the role of commander in chief on the world’s stage.
Ritzel is a freelance writer.
by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Molly Smith. Through May 4 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Tickets, $75-$120. Visit arenastage.org or call 202-488-3300.