The Theatre of the State of the Union Address

by Kitty Felde

Talk about great set design!

Talk about great set design!

I’ve been thinking a lot about spectacle.

Aristotle included spectacle – or opsis – as one of the requirements of tragedy. Of course, his description of tragedy includes the physical elements of theatre: the set, the costumes, music and sound effects, and the physical and vocal performance of actors. (It should be noted that Aristotle lists “spectacle” last, believing that a truly good tragedy doesn’t require a stage experience; he believed that a tragedy can create a catharsis in a reader – even from the written page.)

I think of spectacle in terms of a high wire act at the circus, fireworks over the Washington Monument, a three year old throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of the grocery store. Leslie Kan at the University of Chicago says, “much of the spectacle’s appeal (or repugnance) derives from its visual power and ability to hold the gaze of the viewer.” In other words, made you look.

Last night, I covered the State of the Union address for public radio. It was my seventh SOTU, and I found myself looking at it analytically, as though I was an anthropologist. Or a theatre historian. The event was full of spectacle.

There is no more monumental setting in Washington. The U.S. Capitol is an architectural marvel that never fails to fill me with awe whenever I walk on those marble floors or look up at a magnificent chandelier or the miles of murals and friezes on the walls.

Costume design may seem tame most of the time in Congress, but on the night of the SOTU, the brightest jackets come out of the closets for the lady lawmakers: reds, purples, a neon orange sherbet, turquoise – anything that might catch the eye of the cameras or the President as he makes his long walk down the center aisle, shaking hands every step of the way. Supreme Court justices also parade in, looking like they’re going to a graduation ceremony in their ceremonial black robes. The First Lady reminds the audience that she is the leading lady, wearing a fluorescent banana yellow dress and false eyelashes that can be seen a mile away. She’s also the only woman allowed to bare her arms in that House Chamber. And she does.

There’s the sound effect of House Speaker Paul Ryan, tapping his oversized mallet to announce the impending entrance of the President to the House floor.

The President’s performance was relaxed, almost a little too casual at times, as he paused for the expected applause or laughter from the Democratic side of the House and ignored the folks seated on their hands on the GOP side. (He had a tough act to follow. The last time all of Congress gathered to hear a speaker was this summer when Pope Francis was in town. His performance so-moved John Boehner that he turned in his gavel as Speaker.)
What will I remember of that speech, that evening, after I move from Washington? Not much.

Think back to your strongest memories of an evening in the theatre. What was the show? I’ll bet it was some element of spectacle that imprinted that performance in your memory.

For me, it was a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Henry V” with Kevin Kline as the (then) young monarch. It was a hot, humid evening performance that was interrupted frequently by rain. The show would stop, and everyone would run for cover. When it was over, lackies would descend upon the stage to mop up with what looked like old tee shirts and the show would continue. When it came time for the St. Crispin speech –

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The skies opened up again, accompanied by fierce winds, lightening, thunder, and sheets of rain. Kline lifted his head, raised his fist to the heavens and dared the elements to defeat him. Talk about spectacle!

It was Kline’s physical and vocal performance, the sound effects and lighting show provided by nature, that transported all of us sitting on our soaking wet picnic blankets in Central Park to that battleground.

So many playwrights are again turning to spectacle in their plays.

Lucas Hnath takes us to a Sunday service in a modern mega-church. Church and theatre have long borrowed from each other in all the elements of spectacle – from architecture to music to monologues, er, sermons. And with theatre’s reputation as a place filled with refugees from religion, a safe, theatrical trip to a place many hadn’t stepped inside of for years gave audiences the theatricality without the guilt.

Rajiv Joseph takes us to one of the most spectacular pieces of architecture in the world – the Taj Mahal – in his “Guards at the Taj.” He’s not content to rely on someone else’s theatrical spectacle for his play. He adds his own with a most bloody scene of cutting off limbs and cleaning up blood.

Lauren Yee calls upon ghosts to create the spectacle in her play “The Tiger Among Us.” Charise Castro Smith also goes the monster route in “Feathers and Teeth.” She creates a flesh-eating monster in a saucepan. And Matthew Lopez takes us to a Florida drag show in “The Legend of Georgia McBride.” Talk about use of costumes and music.

I know budgets are small. And as playwrights, we have to mindful of cast size, stage space, and other practicalities if we want our work to get produced.

But we can dream, can’t we? Why not create something larger than life? A play that makes a set designer’s mouth water, that leaves an audience saying “wow”, that creates a memory of a theatrical spectacle as fresh today as it was that hot and stormy evening in Central Park with Shakespeare.

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