For the purest distillation in popular culture these days of Jekyll and Hyde, look not to a character but to a city. ¶ On the one hand, we have President Frank Underwood, who connives in the most sinister ways imaginable — push a pesky reporter in front of a Metro car, why don’t you? — to ascend to the highest office in the land in “House of Cards,” a mesmerizing Netflix series neck-deep in nefarious muck. ¶ And then on the other, there is President Lyndon B. Johnson, the hard-charging hero of the Tony-winning Broadway play “All the Way,” who puts the power of the White House behind an ennobling assault on inequality and strong-arms Congress into passing the Civil Rights Act. ¶ In much the way the nation’s political house seems deeply, maybe irrevocably, divided, the depictions of the federal government — which is pretty much all the country thinks of, when it thinks of Washington — tend to occupy extremes.
To screenwriters and dramatists, it’s a city dominated either by virtue or venality, a place where the political classes operate out of a sense of the greater good — or are just plain operators.
And whether Washington is being put down as craven or held up as reasonably principled, portrayed as a breeding ground for vipers or a watering hole for wonks, stage and screen stories set in the capital are cropping up ever more frequently — and winningly. Whether it is “Homeland,” the addictive cable series on which a story arc had the brutish, warmongering vice president assassinated, or “The City of Conversation,” a lively play at New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in which a Georgetown hostess reflects on her declining White House access, the receptivity to scripts infiltrating halls and neighborhoods of national power appears if anything to be gaining momentum.
It is as though in this era of waning, collective confidence in the traditional work of Washington — building consensus to address big problems — an effort has been kindled in popular entertainment to fill a vacuum. To give us stories that confirm our worst fears about where government is headed, or remind us of what government once was, and perhaps could be again. It’s as though a role is being forged for narrative drama as the outlet for our deepening anxiety about the nature of national leadership.
On “Veep,” the uproarious HBO comedy series, the portrait of a debased Washington plays out as a farce so coarse that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s insecure Selina Meyer, newly installed as president, cares about nothing so much as having her ego stroked or cracking a crude bathroom joke in front of her staff. “Veep’s” writers found an apt metaphor in the season just ended for the shallowness of her concept of leadership. On the stump, an aide places Selina — to her great glee — atop a reinforced box: the campaign’s way of conferring on her some manufactured stature.
The tonal flip side of “Veep” was on view this spring at Arena Stage, where dramatist Lawrence Wright’s “Camp David” received its world premiere. The play, portraying the events of September 1978, when President Jimmy Carter brought Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to Camp David to start peace talks, takes as sacred a view of leadership as “Veep” takes a profane one. It featured Richard Thomas as a Carter so filled with humility he held private sidebars with God over the stalled progress of the negotiations. (One can imagine what sacrilege Louis-Dreyfus’s nihilistic character might have committed in such a scene.)
It’s an indication of the quandary audiences feel nowadays about how to view Washington that these divergent works both garner appreciative ones: HBO renewed the outrageous “Veep” for a fourth season before its third season even finished this month. And despite its somewhat dry, journalistic approach, “Camp David” enjoyed a healthily attended run in Arena’s Kreeger Theater (although future plans for the play remain uncertain).
In some of these plays and programs, too, there seems another thread with special appeal — a nostalgic one — for a time when the chief executive’s sway was a more dynamic instrument than it appears to be these days. That’s certainly the case in the LBJ bio-drama “All the Way,” for which Bryan Cranston deservedly won a Tony this month for best leading actor. Although Robert Schenkkan’s play gives a potty mouth to Johnson second only to Selina Meyer’s, the work’s core is Johnson’s spine, and the earnest application of his power to the cause of civil rights. It is in the end a profile in courage, even if Johnson has to win votes by backing senators’ pork projects.
The contemporary pleasure in bold action extends to a president with darker intentions. Kevin Spacey’s diabolical turn as the president in “House of Cards” puts a viewer in mind of no villain less pathologically evil than “Othello’s” Iago. As with Shakespeare’s most potent schemer, you have to admire Spacey’s Underwood, at least a little. There’s something thrilling in a gamer of the system so breathtakingly successful — so supremely confident in what he sets out to achieve.
The city always has been a fertile backdrop for the drama of ethical dilemma, but the heavy concentration on the people at the top of the pyramid feels like a shift. Decades ago, the focus was more likely to be on the little guy, in his confrontation with the hypocritical establishment. The epitome of this approach was “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the 1939 Frank Capra-directed movie in which Jimmy Stewart portrayed a Boy Scout leader selected to fill a vacant Senate seat. The film is no less jaundiced about Washington corruption than, say, “Farragut North,” playwright (and “House of Cards” creator) Beau Willimon’s 2008 play about the transgressions of a young campaign operative.
But like other earlier works focusing on Washington’s elite, “Mr. Smith” tells it from the perspective of an outsider, a naïf — one of us. In another play in this vein, Garson Kanin’s 1946 stage comedy, “Born Yesterday,” Billie Dawn is a chorus girl who thwarts the brute with whom she comes to Washington, a junkyard baron in town to bribe Congress. Half a century later, “An American Daughter,” Wendy Wasserstein’s 1997 political comedy-drama, was still using this template, with the story of a sincere nominee for surgeon general plunged into a ludicrous media storm up by an admission that she’d skipped jury duty.
The success of Aaron Sorkin’s sophisticated “The West Wing” (1999-2006) revealed that the White House’s inner circle could make for compulsively watchable television. (The series came a few years after the presidential movie comedy “Dave,” and Sorkin’s Oval Office romantic movie comedy, “The American President.”) The floodgates opened in “The West Wing’s” wake, with a clear tilt away from the little guy. An idealist from the sticks would find no toehold on “Scandal,” a series built around the crisis management office of an ultimate insider, a former White House communications officer. And he would look like nothing but a dupe on “The Americans,” the FX channel’s tale of KGB moles ferreting out Pentagon secrets while living outwardly middle-class lives in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, popular Washington-centric TV shows and plays tend not to espouse much in the way of ideology; as ridden with partisanship as are the cable news channels, cable and network drama remains neutral territory. There’s little patience in the theater anymore, either, for the kind of agitprop spawned during the Vietnam War. Several Washington-themed plays have made it to the American stage in reaction to the war in Iraq, most notably David Hare’s 2004 “Stuff Happens,” a reconstruction of geopolitical events leading up to the U.S.-led invasion.
In a political landscape in which there’s little hope of finding common ground, drama about Washington seems to be looking past ideology, to history, intrigue and satire, to stories that lionize people who get the job done — for good or ill — and make fun of those who don’t. That work is bound to continue: Arena Stage’s agenda for next season, for instance, includes “The Originalist,” a play by John Strand set in the chambers of one of the capital’s most polarizing figures, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
And so, it seems, the source material for drama is being minted in these parts all the time. The latest in a Shakespearean vein may have been hatched, in fact, this month. As writer and consultant Brian Umana laid it out in his first-person account on the PostEverything blog, activists on the left and the right banded together cannily to plot out a path to defeat Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.). How these strangest of bedfellows pulled this off, in this time of the hardest of hardened positions, is the stuff of a drama I would gladly pay to see.