"The two omnipresent parties of history," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841, are "the party of the Past and the party of the Future." The problem, now as then, is knowing which political party -- Republican or Democrat -- is which. Continental Divide, a fascinating linked pair of plays by British playwright David Edgar that had its world premiere in Ashland, Ore. on March 1 -- and is slated to open in Berkeley, Calif. later this year -- poses that question for Americans with unusual poignancy.
Edgar, who teaches playwriting at the University of Birmingham in England, has been a prolific and successful political playwright for more than a quarter-century. His biggest commercial success was his hilarious and moving dramatization of Nicholas Nickleby (made into a popular public-TV special), but his other work, particularly Destiny, a prescient drama about the rise of neo-fascism in Britain, has been consistently interesting. He drew the inspiration for Continental Divide from the famous nationwide precinct-by-precinct map of the 2000 presidential results, which showed Al Gore carrying solid bands down the two coasts and the Mississippi Valley and George W. Bush carrying vast unbroken areas between. The map made for a striking visual, and also a kind of political Rorschach test, which each viewer could interpret in a different way. (My own reaction was that the map showed that the Democrats are in fact the party of the future, owning the growing areas of cosmopolitan urban and suburban culture. Not long after I saw it, though, I met a Republican who scornfully said it proved, "Democrats can only carry ghetto cities.")
Edgar explores the gap between the sections by offering both sides of one fictional election. (In its early stages it was a presidential election, but the final production restricts itself to the governorship of an unnamed state that is plainly California.) Daughters of the Revolution tells the story of the Democratic campaign; Mothers Against explores the Republican side. The result is only partially successful as political analysis; as drama, however, it provides more than enough pleasure to fill two evenings. As the dramatizer of Nicholas Nickleby, Edgar knows enough about high theatricality to equal the insight of three ordinary contemporary playwrights. He has also studied American language with a precision usually lacking in British writers, and he knows a lot of American political history as well. Using these tools, he clearly made a conscious decision to shape formally contrasting plays: Daughters is a vast ensemble drama, a contemporary version of a Shakespeare history; Mothers is a tight family drama that observes the unities of time and place.
Edgar's own background lies in the semi-revolutionary left of the late 1960s and early '70s, and he sees today's politics as a natural outgrowth of those struggles. His Democrats are still atoning for the errors of the anti-war movement while his Republicans are adults who first entered politics in the Goldwater era as Teen-Age Republicans or Young Americans for Freedom. Daughters explores today's fractured progressive scene with a Magoffin as old as Oedipus. His hero, Mark Murphy (Michael Bern), receives a copy of his old FBI file. He discovers in it that someone he trusted during the Movement days was actually an FBI informant whose betrayal cost him his tenure-track university post and doomed him to a dead-end career as a community college administrator. But the name of the snitch is blacked out. Was it the naive college girl who has blossomed into a smooth-talking political fixer? The Black Panther who has morphed into a nonviolent community organizer? Or perhaps the blond firebrand who disappeared into the Weather Underground and still has not come in from the cold?
Mark's quest to know takes him to the ready room of the gubernatorial debate (an old girlfriend and a former Vietcong booster is now a Hillary-smooth gubernatorial candidate) and up into the hidden platforms where environmental crusaders squat in trees to prevent old-growth logging. In each location he discovers a new variety of betrayal, until the question of the informant comes to seem like only a minor part of the moral unraveling of the now-old New Left.
Mothers Against examines the same gubernatorial debate through the eyes of the Republican candidate and his family, which gathers at its Bush-style dynastic manse for a weekend of debate prep and catharsis. Daughters is about a man who wants to know; Mothers, like most intimate family dramas (think The Lion in Winter) is about family secrets the characters would prefer not to know about. The cascade of family political revelations lead Republican nominee Sheldon Vine (Bill Geisslinger), a millionaire free-market libertarian, up to what Edgar clearly sees as the great temptation for a conscientious conservative: to gain a soulless victory by invoking the homophobia, sexism, racism, authoritarianism and cultural intolerance that can energize that part of the Republican base that Vine himself dismisses as "Mothers Against."
Both dramas are entertaining and energetically staged. If they have a literary flaw, it lies in the gimmick that ties the two casts together -- the sort of hoary, last-minute political blackmail that occurs often in fiction and much less often in reality (not because real pols have better morals but because it's just so damned hard to pull off and keep quiet). Of the two plays, Mothers Against is probably the more successful as drama. Its power stems partly from its tighter form but also from the energy and optimism its characters retain and their Democratic counterparts have lost. Geisslinger's Sheldon Vine is an engaging on-stage presence, all wacky neoliberal hubris and hey-let's-put-on-a-show enthusiasm. And as slinky conservative radio host Lorianne Weiner, Susannah Schulman creates a man-eater who makes Laura Ingraham look like Shari Lewis. By contrast, the Democrats of Daughters of the Revolution are burned out cases, numbed by their massive failure and the myriad tiny compromises they have wrought in response to it. Whatever portents I read in the 2000 election map, to Edgar, the future clearly belongs to the American right.
I can't dismiss that conclusion, especially when drawn by such a keen observer. But Edgar's portrait of contemporary U.S. politics may be constricted by the frame he has chosen. The upheavals of the 1960s are still influential today for many individuals, left and right. But were they apocalyptic or epiphenomenal? Many of our major political players were not forged in that white-hot fury, and they aren't depicted in Continental Divide. This omission is most glaring in Mothers Against, which dramatizes the struggle against the religious right without providing it a suitable onstage avatar. Yet that strain of conservatism is more influential today than the socially liberal economic rightists who, Edgar tells us, were dismissed by the early YAFers as "Laissez Fairies." The "Mothers Against" pretty much run the Oval Office, and they have a literal death grip on the Department of Justice; they are also well entrenched in both national and state Republican Party power structures, and on right-wing radio and TV.
I have no doubt that, say, John Ashcroft sees himself as a leader of the party of the future. What I have more trouble understanding (and I admit that the psychic failure is my own) is why he feels that way, and what his imagined future really would look like. It would be a superb work of dramaturgy -- and a signal public service --to bring that vision to the stage as well. Continental Divide is entertaining, skillful and sometimes wise. It may also be about one character short of a tectonic plate.
Garrett Epps writes regularly about popular culture for TAP Online.