Politics Again, Politics Otherwise: Lingering Questions from Frost/Nixon

Photos by  John Ulman

Photos by John Ulman


If you stumbled on this review in the hopes of finding the lone, much delayed review that trashes the quality of Strawberry Workshop’s production of Frost/Nixon, you’re out of luck. It was a tight, wonderfully acted production. That, however, is all I’m going to say about it.

This is not to discredit the play and the hard work that came together in the well-crafted acting, design, and direction; rather, I’d like to suggest the success of the production affords the opportunity to interrogate to some very fundamental, and admittedly ambiguous, questions at the heart of doing theater in the first place: why this play, why this way (for this production, why an all-female cast), and why here and now? In this critique, I want to run through these critical questions and struggle with the potential and partial answers that each evokes. In doing so, my hope is to suss out what is both compelling and troubling in this production, meditating not on tight and cohesive answers but the unkempt fragments. So, let’s begin with the most obvious question:

Why This Play?

Yes, I have read the news. I know about #stupidwatergate. Hell, we might be already be in the middle of the Saturday night massacre according to The Atlantic and even Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Pulitzer winners for their coverage of Nixon’s downfall, call our current situation “eerily similar.” We know Nixon claimed Trump would be a successful politician and that “no collusion” is the new “I am not a crook.” The comparison seems unavoidable at this point, especially as the Mueller indictments roll in. But, beyond wishful thinking that the Watergate comparison gives us about how #stupidwatergate will end, how does this comparison actually hold up?

Clearly, Trump parrots Nixon’s paranoid rhetoric of fear and resentment— for example, in the play Nixon blames partisanship and turns the peaceful protests of college students into a national threat—reminding us that Trump, like Nixon, is another of echo of the Goldwater conservatism. Both ran on law and order and set out to revise the judiciary to withdraw human and civil rights advancements. Both were more interested in winning than in particular programs or policies, especially regarding the economy. Both have a wearily similar inhuman affect, recognizable in this tidbit from and interview of Philip Roth in 1974 (see the last paragraph)[1]. Both rode white backlash into the White House. Roger Stone, Trump’s one-time campaign advisor, even has a Nixon tattoo on his back.

So yes, there is a “there” there. But if we’ve been here before, it isn’t news—it’s a nightmare. What do we get in thinking this historical comparison through recurrence, other than that it is recurrence?

The potentially most troubling thing about this play is that, in a way, it does exactly what the main narrator, Reston (played with zeal by Sarah Harlett), hopes to prevent: Nixon’s “exoneration.” This production, even with its 14 live-stream screens, is not the close-up that makes Nixon a failure. It’s theater. Tricky Dick gets his talking points about the success of his administration in one more time. And one more time. And again, with every production of this play that continuously replays sections of his interview. Yes, we know the “crack investigators” are angry and tell us in sporadic interjections why we shouldn’t believe it, but it gets more time and words on stage—and in the program, which includes a little-too-warm biography of Nixon—than any of Nixon’s more heinous policies or acts outside of Watergate. Perhaps this is best illustrated through Reston’s lines explaining his hatred of Nixon, which crescendo not on the idea that Nixon “lost fifteen thousand Americans and a million Indochinese during his administration” but only on the abstract complaint that he “devalued the Presidency” and that “the integrity of our political system, of democracy as an idea, entirely depends on [a conviction].” Though we see some new reels of Cambodia, the body count is never mentioned again.

These absences bother me, things never even alluded to in the play. What about Nixon’s racism revealed in those famous tapes, his war on drugs (whose racial impact, even if not intentional as Ehrlichman would have us believe, is unforgivable), his role in the Red Scare (called here the “kind of clean-cut junior executive of the anti-Communist hard right”), his administration’s meddling that led to Pinochet? Yes, the play points to a racist remark or two (though none so clear as the taped material I’ve noted here), but it gets droned out: Nixon’s other foreign policies successes are mentioned over and over again, as are his justifications for his behavior. The story of that same close-up that sinks Nixon, humanizes him, like a wounded lion who goes down gloriously much to the pleasure of the Coliseum’s crowd. Hate may breed a kind of intimacy, as Reston suggests, but it ought not forget.

This for me, both as absence and presence, is the most powerful reminder this play dredges up for our current moment: even if there is a resignation or impeachment (and don’t get your hopes up until the midterms give up the opportunity to even imagine otherwise) or even apology, we’re all still swimming in Nixon’s legacies (from his foreign policy decisions to the latest politicization of racial resentment to the ongoing consequences of his wars) and the same will be true of Trump (take the evacuation of the State Department or the fearsome quickness in filling out the judiciary). The echoes of Goldwater keep reverberating.

Why Women?

This question has the most temptingly obvious answer that of course is also correct: the National Womxn’s March and the #metoo movement. Though the decision to cast all women was in the books well before the latter came into being, both prove to be useful frameworks for thinking what is valuable about this choice. It’s not just that Strawshop’s all-female cast flips a nearly all male script and brings awesome female talent into one room (filling up a theater in the same way the National Womxn’s March wants to fill up political space), nor imagining women inhabiting that historical space (filling up rooms and rewriting the masculine history of politics). Nor is it simply about the masculinity central to much of the play (boxing and combat metaphors dominate the narrative, warlike drums beat during scene changes, and each of Nixon’s pre-interview psych-outs are stabs at Frost’s gender and sexual performance) being occupied by those whose exclusions afford such rhetoric. It’s seeing this kind of swaggering masculinity otherwise, that is, as the possibility to be different. Sure, women can play and inhabit that form of masculinity in the exact same kind of zero-sum dominance, but they can also perform that same form of masculinity as something else entirely. Strawshop gave us dick-measuring without the dicks; it’s something else.

This element, rather than the political contents of the play, to me best reflected Strawshop’s self-described activist intentions. Women took up space, most importantly an imaginative one. We can argue how meaningful that truly is, but to me, this is what the very beginning of difference looks like: transformed politic imaginaries, new histories, the possibility of different worlds.

There remains, for me, however, a small caution within the play about the history always still at stake, and its gendered significance: she, he, or they who speaks the most—and interrupts—wins. Sure, history is written by the victor, but it’s also about time. And while I find it encouraging to see women taking up this fight and this time, part of me still wonders at this—must it, too, always be the case? In the wake of the hopefulness above, I’m tempted to wonder if we can push that otherwise further. Must political power always be fisticuffs for narrative dominance?

Why Here and Now?

While my answers to the first two questions certainly touch on this, it too can be further untangled. This is admittedly where this review gets ugly—not for the production, mind you, but for the optimistic Seattlite likely to attend this production, hoping to better understand our current political situation. It’s why this play both works and doesn’t, right here, right now: we didn’t get him.

Yes, as the play rejoices, they got that sorrowful close-up of Nixon and something like an apology. But that’s it. No convictions, no trial, no punitive consequences, no real apology. If we really, truly “got” Nixon, would we then have Trump?

In some ways, Frost/Nixon is the journalism story we, particularly here in Seattle in 2018, deserve. The press-film zeitgeist exemplified in such works as The Post feed us a steady diet of triumphant journalism holding a dishonest government accountable (and admittedly for relatively good reason—the media is undeniably under attack, even if we disagree about when it’s been worse).  This play, however, only points out how both dirtily untenable this relationship is; the integrity of the journalistic endeavor, precariously resting on various advertisers’ interest and the gambit of Alexandra Tavares’s relatively aloof Frost, is only a drunken phone call away from disaster. Frost/Nixon instead ends on what we in 2018 know all too well: that entertainment and politics are one and the same.

Trump is not Nixon, nor is he Frost; he’s of course both, politician and entertainer. As Strawshop’s live feed and various screens on stage remind us, we have endless tape of Trump’s various mistakes, failures, lies, goofs, and even blatant defense of Nazis. It’s a constant stream. It just doesn’t matter. This production, in muddying the waters between politics and entertainment and catching it all live, only reminds us that we live in a post-close-up world. A single image may reduce great idea “to a snapshot,” but it is one among many and easily forgotten. Even if Mueller’s investigation fully succeeds and procures not only indictments but convictions, Trump can’t be “got,” just as Nixon isn’t—at least not in any truly terminal, consequential way. Early in the play, Frost/Nixon invokes ancient Greek theater’s notion of hubris, suggesting now we call it “self-destruction.” The problem with squeezing some kind of justice into this tragic structure, however, is that for there to be catharsis, there must be anagnorisis—a recognition. And to that I say, “good luck.”

That said, there is one final nugget of truth I hope everyone takes away from this play, namely that a “golf outfit” is unmistakably “the official uniform of the retired.”

[1] See Conversations with Philip Roth edited by George J. Searles for the entire interview