Current Event to Theater, via History

When do current events become history? When does history become theater?

I am sitting at home after reading multiple books on the Frost/Nixon interviews, having watched the interviews and documentaries on the Nixon presidency and read biographies of Nixon and Frost. I am trying to figure out how I begin to summarize key information for the TimeLine Backstory (our program notes and audience guide). How to do justice to the sweep of history that many of our audience members will have lived through? I decided to take a moment to analyze the issues that I have been struggling with surrounding how one writes about the Nixon era as a means to clear them from my head.

For me, the Nixon era is already history, and although tomes have been devoted to the Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal, and although there is ample television and recorded footage, my perspective will always be looking back through secondhand sources and not through the memory of those events unfolding. I cannot know whether it is helpful to my Frost/Nixon research or not that I was not alive during the Nixon administration. Living through an event is completely different from reading about it and yet, it also can be difficult for those who lived through an event to gain a perspective that is outside that initial experience. Our American experience now can only be post-Nixon. I was born after assumed respect for public officials was past, and mistrust of government officials will always be part of my understanding of American government.

What interests me about a project like Frost/Nixon, and what constitutes part of the TimeLine mission, is trying to understand the interplay of the past and the present and to use an understanding of historical events to reflect on our current events. To trace a thread like Ariadne through the maze of history.

A Greek metaphor is not inappropriate for thinking about the drama of historical events. James Reston, Jr., in his book The Conviction of Richard Nixon, his account of the events surrounding the Frost/Nixon intervews, starts with a quote from Book IV of The Odyssey. He likens their interview of President Richard Nixon to Odysseus and his men wrestling with the sea god Proteus:

Pick out the three best men you have in your fleet, and I will tell you all the tricks that the old man will play on you. The moment you see that he is asleep, seize him. Put forth all your strength and hold him fast, for he will do his very utmost to get away from you. He will turn himself into every kind of creature that goes upon the earth and will become also water and wondrous blazing fire. But you must hold him fast and grip him tighter and tighter, until he begins to talk to you. When at length of his own will he speaks, then, hero, stay thy might, and set the old man free.

Peter Morgan has said that he thought of the play as a boxing match. Whether wrestling with a god or fighting a prizefight, the language that was used almost immediately to describe the Watergate scandal and the end of the Nixon presidency is that of an epic battle. It is as though the nation was aware that the events unfolding were changing how the nation would view the highest office. Many studiers of Nixon, including Reston, have devoted ink to the issue of whether Nixon was a tragic figure in the Greek sense that Aristotle describes in the Poetics:

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude; in language embellished with each kind of artistic ornament, the several kinds being found in separate parts of the play; in the form of action, not of narrative; with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions. (H.S. Butcher Translation)

Reston argues that Nixon does not accomplish catharsis because he fails to reach understanding after his fall and so cannot truly be tragic. Others have certainly pointed out Nixon fits the role of a tragic figure; he is an individual in a position of power falling from that great height through his blindness or hubris.

Similarly, numerous biographers and commentators have attempted to analyze the psychology of Nixon as a way of explaining his behavior. Nixon’s parents, his lies, his father’s work as a butcher and his own description in the Frost interview of cutting off “one arm and then the other” and not being a “good butcher” have been analyzed. I supposed that analysis is an attempt to get to an understanding of behavior that seemed unfathomable in the role of a president.

Frost’s interviews satisfied that same public impulse, the need to understand. Audiences wanted to see Nixon explain.

So what draws us to this play — this historical moment that mesmerized and horrified a nation? A play lets us be observers again. It lets us look at a moment that is past. We were not in the room for the Frost/Nixon interviews, so even the televised interviews are in some way theater. The interviews are edited; they are produced; each side has prepared questions and replies. Watching the play is to watch actors reenacting the roles of the historical figures.

The language of politics often co-opts the language of theater. We talk about the world stage or a theater of war, or the role of the president. In some sense our language has always acknowledged that the world of politics, like the world of television, is a stage for a performance. But at the same time we believe we can get at something true through those performances. Perhaps that gets at the crux of what makes a play like Frost/Nixon so interesting — we know that they are competitors, each in an assigned role. In this case, we know they are actors playing those competitors. In the midst of layers of falsehood we still expect to get to the truth.

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  1. Terry Hamilton

    An excellent analogy of the interviews Maren.

    Nixon refers to the “butcher” analogy in the actual interviews while talking about the firing of Halderman and Ehrlichman, he says, “It was late but I did it. I cut off one arm and then I cut off the other arm.” Nixon then goes on to credit British Prime Minister Gladstone as saying, “The first requirement of a Prime Minister is to be a good butcher.” Then Nixon follows up with, “I wasn’t a good butcher.”

    Thank you Maren for diving into this mountainous pile of material and serving up to the actors, great tools and information that will not only help to enhance our story telling but help to make TimeLine audiences one of the smartest audiences in Chicago.

  2. Bernie Holicky

    Richard Nixon as tragic hero…not in my estimation. The 1960’s and 70’s, living history for me; a tragic hero’s downfall is not brought about by vice and depravity.

    Of the presidents in my life time, Lyndon Johnson is my tragic hero. Mired in Vietnam, and only decades after Johnson’s death, as biographer Robert Caro says, “Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who let them into the voting booths.”

  3. Gloria Friedman

    I agree with Bernie that Nixon was definitely NOT a tragic figure. For me, Watergate and the Nixon presidency was the beginning of the country’s loss of hope and loss of trust in the government, and now business. It began the decades of watching people do whatever it takes to get ahead with little or no regard to who or what it hurts. It began the endless lies and coverups. It’s true that Nixon did good things as President, and by today’s standard was quite moderate and even left leaning in some policies. I am perfectly ready to give him credit for those achievements, but basically I loathe him and what he did to this country.