Professor's new book examines portrayal of presidents on stage

Dr. Bruce Altschuler exhaustively researched 100 performances of about 50 plays—from obscure to wildly successful—for a recently published book devoted to depictions of U.S. presidents in the theatre.

Bruce Altschuler.Palgrave Macmillan last month published “Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency” as part of The Evolving American Presidency series.

The book describes and analyzes plays about dozens of presidents, from Washington to Obama, from farce to paean. Its particular focus is the shift from plays that idealize the office and the man to theatre more concerned with the president as antihero.

“I have always loved the theatre,” said Altschuler, professor of political science and an expert on presidential polling. “I go to a lot of plays in the course of a year.” The professor had thought of doing a book about the presidency in film—indeed, he taught such a course last semester—but “I realized there was nothing on plays.”

Some of the plays’ titles are head-scratchers: “What If Booth Had Missed?” “First Lady Suite.” “Teddy and Alice.” “The Madness of George Dubya.” Others may ring a bell: “Sunrise at Campobello.” “Of Thee I Sing.” “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.”

Cooperative archivists

Altschuler, who has published four previous books, set to work about two and a half years ago, starting with a research letter to scholars on a presidential listserv and moving on to avid assistance from Penfield Library staff at SUNY Oswego and many other librarians and archivists around the country, including the Library of Congress.

The author brought to light not only the more than four dozen plays written in the last century about fictional or actual presidents, but nearly all of the scripts. And, thanks to live contemporary productions and the New York Public Library beginning to film plays 35 years ago, he got to see lots of plays.

“It was a lot of fun to write,” said Altschuler, who received his Ph.D. from City University of New York, whose Graduate Center is near the Theater District that sparked his love of live performance.

Well-known authors, playwrights, novelists and musicians, from Irving Berlin to Alan J. Lerner and Leonard Bernstein, from John Updike to Gore Vidal, have been swept up in theatrical projects about the presidency. The titles of their works often don’t resonate: “Mr. President.” “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” “Buchanan Dying.” “The Best Man.”

Altschuler found that many of the works fell flat on stage, though George and Ira Gershwin’s “Of Thee I Sing” became the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize, as did Robert Sherwood’s drama “Abe Lincoln in Illinois.” (A 1952 staging of the latter on Oswego’s campus was billed “the most exciting and theatrical venture of the college’s group to date.”)

As an example of mixed success, he said, Berlin’s “Mr. President” in 1962 was the Broadway legend’s last play, and had a large advance sale because Berlin, then 74, hadn’t written for the stage for 12 years. Though critics savaged it as old-fashioned and worse, Altschuler said, “It had a somewhat decent run of 265 performances.”

Rise of the antihero

Yet Altschuler’s main theme deals not with box-office success, but with the transition in theater—as in other arts—from depicting the president as an often blameless mythical figure to the antiheroic tradition of the later 20th century.

“One of the reasons playwrights have gone to the antihero is they (modern presidents) are more complicated characters,” Altschuler said.

“Teapot Scandals.” “President Harding Is a Rock Star.” “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.” “Hope—The Obama Musical Story.” From the low comedy of the “Saturday Night Live” era to complex portrayals of antiheroes Richard M. Nixon and Warren G. Harding, recent and perhaps deservedly obscure efforts prompt Altschuler to ask rhetorically, “Are there great plays about presidents waiting to be written? Will producers risk their money to put them on?”

“Theatrical presidents are important,” Altschuler writes in the book’s conclusion, “because they simultaneously show both our images of presidents and our aspirations for those of the future. Where once we hoped to elect presidents as great as the theatrical versions of Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt, today we fear ourselves unable to choose anyone better than an antihero.”

- 30 -

PHOTO CAPTION: SUNY Oswego’s Bruce Altschuler, professor of political science, shows a copy of his book “Acting Presidents: 100 Years of Plays About the Presidency,” published in December by Palgrave Macmillan—the first book to deal entirely with portrayals of the presidents on stage.

(Posted: Jan 19, 2011)

Tags: theatre, research news: books and publications, political science