Saturday, June 05, 2004

Ronald Reagan (1911-2004): In Memoriam

My favorite Reagan anecdote, and certainly one of the most revealing, comes from the set of his last film, The Killers. The Gipper didn't much like the movie, which was "Tarantino-esque" a full quarter of a century before anyone had heard of Quentin Tarantino. It was also one of the few times in his career when he played a cold-blooded villain. He did so with sincerity and forthrightness, the same qualities which would later define his public persona as Governor of California, then as US President. For those who consider Reagan a second-rate actor, his performance here is nothing short of a revelation. The guy was good.

Yet as frightening as he was onscreen, Reagan was no ogre on the set. Director Don Siegel noted that he never complained on his own behalf. Instead, he stood up for bit players. Siegel tended to cut away from these actors when they delivered a line of dialogue, a technique that brought the lead actors into the foreground, albeit at the extras' expense. Reagan objected to this, because he knew that bit parts helped young or inexperienced actors break into the business. He wanted them to have their moment on screen, too -- and he did everything in his power to ensure that they got it. I don't know of another actor who claimed that he was getting too much attention, and that the people around him weren't getting enough. All the same, it explains the Gipper's point of view in a nutshell.

It might do Reagan a mild disservice to call him "great," since he advocated nothing so strongly as the individual's right, regardless of class or caste, to determine his or her destiny. Greatness doesn't sit well with individualism; greatness implies hierarchy and control, while individualism rejects them both. The problem of reconciling the two concepts has preoccupied Western thinkers for the past quarter of a millennium.

Ralph Waldo Emerson came as close to success as I suspect anyone could. He reinvented the great man as a "representative man," who fulfills his role in the world so completely that he becomes an example for the rest of us. Plato thus becomes the representative Philosopher, Shakespeare the representative Poet, Goethe the representative Writer, and so forth. Frederick Karl would take Emerson's idea one step further, casting Franz Kafka as a representative Modernist. According to Karl, Kafka's delineation of individual consciousness under the twin terrors of psychoanalysis and totalitarianism cast its long shadow over the entire twentieth century, and made the neurotic Czech writer a "representative man" of his time.

I suggest, then, that if Kafka was representative, Reagan was no less so. He was a representative Modern President, if you will, and certainly a representative Modern American. His self-assurance, his faith in the individual, and his steadfast anti-Communism helped lift the Kafkaesque shadows of Soviet totalitarianism, allowing much of humankind to breathe free air again.

We intellectual types have been trained to operate under an ever-present "hermeneutics of suspicion," accepting nothing and no one at face value. Small wonder, then, that we've been particularly slow to accept Reagan, whose greatest virtue was sincerity: We simply don't know what to do with the idea that at bottom, Reagan might have been precisely what he seemed. Presidential biographer Edmund Morris slowly grew exasperated with his subject's forthrightness, and claimed that "Dutch" was basically a phony, an actor, a facade. Desperate to find some deep-rooted insecurity, or personal trauma -- anything that could explain the roiling sea of emotion which surely lurked beneath the man's infectious optimism -- he finally (and perhaps inevitably) resorted to gimmickry and fiction himself.

Like an ignis fatuus, Reagan's psyche eludes the analyst's grasp. Yet an analyst may not be needed to limn the man's spirit, which was writ large before us throughout his presidency. Reagan claimed that he believed in individualism and the free market because they were common, traditional American values: Do we need an emotionally absent father to explain them? After decades of atomic diplomacy and "Mutually Assured Destruction," Reagan wanted to put an end to the Cold War: Would personal insecurity have made that desire more comprehensible? The Gipper had a drive to excel, and could be highly competitive, but the same can be said of many a red-blooded American male. He had a strong faith in God, and felt that it was an important part of his life: If this is pathology, then hundreds of millions of people throughout the world share the same delusion.

The more we poke and prod, the less we find that seems abnormal or even unusual. There were no outer facades or inner demons, no "house divided" that could not stand. Reagan stood out because he presented himself as one of us, rather than one above us -- and that quality, more than any other, made him representative. His successors in the Oval Office fared well as long as they followed his visionary course; when they deviated, as Bush pere did (and as Bush fils has done), they found their political careers in serious danger.

It's no small tribute to Reagan's influence that his most successful imitator so far has been a Democrat, the much-reviled (and psychologically haywire) Bill Clinton. Although Clinton may not have embraced limited government voluntarily, the size of our government relative to GDP actually shrank during his two terms in office. Clinton deserves some credit for that reduction, especially considering that Reagan could never pass such an overhaul of federal social programs on his watch. Still, Reagan laid the groundwork for these reforms: Take welfare reform, the single greatest achievement of the Clinton years. Were it not for Reagan's "New Federalism," states like Wisconsin could never have developed a viable alternative to the social-welfare bureaucracy. And were it not for Reagan's passionate defense of limited government, the GOP could never have taken control of Congress, ensuring that Democrats' big-government impulses could remain firmly in check.

Reagan's legacy is unfinished, as all political legacies must be. Yet he offered us a new vision of America, one which gives the "bit players" of this country their due, while keeping the "lead actors" of government in check. Now, the man we called "The Great Communicator" has taken his place among the representative men of history. Luckily, his ideas remain with us.

Enter the Harpies ...

A few hours ago, Ronald Reagan died of pneumonia. But life goes on around Charlottesville, Virginia. In a few minutes, I will see Tony Kushner's Angels in America: Millennium Approaches at LiveArts (one of the best community theaters in the country, by the way). LiveArts was where I saw Kushner's first play, a nasty piece of agitprop entitled Bright Room Called Day, which features a character yelling "Reagan is Hitler!" at the top of her lungs. I've read Millennium, so I expect more Gipper-bashing tonight. Perhaps Kushner's political hackwork will finally receive the reception it deserves. (Update (6/8): Nope. The play got a standing ovation.)

Still, I wonder. Just before 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, ABC News aired a three-minute montage of events from Reagan's presidency. The events they showed were:

1. The air traffic controllers' strike of 1982, in which Reagan fired hundreds of federal employees.
2. US forces stationed in Lebanon (with special emphasis on military casualties).
3. US forces attacking Grenada (again, with emphasis on casualties -- all half-dozen of them).
4. US military planes bombing Libya (again, emphasizing casualties -- this time, Qaddafi's children).

No "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." No mention of the fall of Communism. Not a breath about reduced government, lower taxes, or his understanding of market forces. (Then again, no Iran-Contra, either.) ABC News has come to bury Reagan, not to praise him.

Yet a friend of mine informs me that ABC's coverage was atypical. For the most part, he tells me, the media has elected to bury the hatchet. I am relieved.

Update (6/8): Then again, maybe they're not burying the hatchet after all.

The leftist e-zine Salon has embarked on an orgy of Reagan bashing. They take him to task for cutting taxes, trying to restrain government spending, confronting the Soviet Union, firing striking federal workers, expanding the military, and making Americans feel confident about themselves and their nation. Movie critic Charles Taylor's attack on the Gipper may be my favorite: Taylor argues that because Reagan played a nasty gangster in a movie, he was a bad person in real life. (Oddly enough, his generous behavior on set was directly opposed to the character he portrayed.)

Meanwhile, the Gay magazine The Advocate repeats the old canard that Reagan was responsible for AIDS. But it also mentions that Reagan publicly opposed the Briggs Initiative in California, which would have barred Gays and Lesbians from teaching in public schools. Believe it or not, I'm surprised that The Advocate was bold enough to credit Reagan for supporting Gay issues in the late '70s. In GLBT circles, it's still rank heresy to claim that he was anything but a raving bigot.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Return to Troy

(Caution: Contains "spoilers.")

Most bloggers claim rather ostentatiously that they don't do requests, though I suspect they would do them if they got them. For me, few things are more satisfying than being asked to write on a specific topic. Even if the piece is disappointing, I can be sure that someone, somewhere, will want to read it.

Well, Bilious Young Fogey, a formidable blogger in his own right, wants me to revisit Wolfgang Peterson's sandal epic Troy. Oh, the irony: After murdering this film in cold blood, I've been invited to assist with the autopsy. To some extent I've brought this unpleasant duty upon myself, by teasing "the Fogey" (as he refers himself) with the following passage:

Movies that go this far wrong usually do so for a reason, and I suspect in this case there's some post-Vietnam nihilism bouncing around in the script. Agammemnon, for example, is depicted as a "chicken hawk," the Greeks as bad guys who launch a territorial war of invasion (though this [theme] is also [present] in Euripides), and the Trojans as noble defenders who fall before an onslaught of coalition forces. The idea of Achilles' love interest screwing him out of his passion for war is straight out of the sixties ...

Andrew Stuttaford at National Review Online has found a marvelous quotation from Peterson himself, which suggests that the film's apparent embrace of left-wing foreign policy is intentional:

Nothing has changed in 3,000 years. People are still using deceit to engage in wars of vengeance. Just as King Agamemnon waged what was essentially a war of conquest on the ruse of trying to rescue the beautiful Helen from the hands of the Trojans, President George W. Bush concealed his true motives for the invasion of Iraq.

Stuttaford dismisses the remark as frivolous, but I think it bears closer scrutiny. It might even account for the film's box-office success in Europe. Frankly, I expected Troy to flop there: With superior public education, surely they would recognize the film for the crass and cretinous spectacle it is. Yet this film has performed more impressively in Europe than in the States; Troy is the rare American blockbuster whose cumulative gross owes more to foreign markets than to domestic theatergoers. Business in Germany, France and Britain has been positively boffo, though the film has since been eclipsed by Roland Emmerich's The Day After Tomorrow. I suppose I shouldn't have been so taken aback at these films' European success, since they both share a hostile anti-American viewpoint -- latent (as it would have to be) in Troy, and chillingly overt in Tomorrow.

So perhaps we should examine what Peterson and his film might have to say on the subject of wars past and present. In Troy, the Greeks are generally the bad guys, and Trojans are generally the good guys -- which means that in this film the bad guys beat the good guys, just as in real life. Achilles, the nominal hero of a film that doesn't, you know, actually believe in heroism per se, begins by fighting for the Greeks, and ends the film fighting his own troops, and devoid of all political allegiances. The film's story, such as it is, involves this soldier's "education for death" at the hands of an anti-war Trojan leftist. In this case, I mean "education for death" quite literally. Achilles progresses from killing machine, to conflicted warrior, to ardent lover, and finally to photogenic corpse. But at least when the man dies, he does so peacefully, more or less.

The Greek king Agammemnon is a depressingly obvious caricature of Bush: As portrayed by Brian Cox, he always seems on the verge of apoplexy. His face twitches violently at any military setback; he grins lasciviously at his armies' success. Most importantly, he wants to build a massive empire with more and more power. His "coalition of the coerced" mounts the fight against Troy; the troops that storm the walled city come in no small part from his conquered territories. One conquered leader presents him with national tokens of esteem, in fawning admiration of his military might. Yet this Agammemnon is unwilling to engage in actual fighting or personal sacrifice, as the film states overtly and frequently. (No mention of Iphigenia or Clytemnestra here, of course.) He is the sort of person left-liberals and anti-war like to call a "chicken hawk."

The Trojan king Priam, on the other hand, wishes nothing more than to be left alone. He is kind, hospitable, even a bit doddering. Surely no one could hold a grudge against such a grandfatherly figure. (Brad Pitt's Achilles certainly can't do it: When Priam visits his tent to beg for Hector's body, Achilles tells him, "I wish you were our king.") But since Peterson seems to view Troy as a simplified one-to-one parallel to current events, in which Agammemnon is Bush, Greeks are Americans, Trojans are Iraqis, and Helen (ludicrously) becomes the missing WMDs, it would only follow that this Grandpa Priam is Uncle Saddam in disguise. This fits in with leftist / anti-war fantasies of Hussein as just another ruler who wants to keep his people and his realm safe, and who doesn't pose any threat to anyone.

To his credit, Peterson can't bring himself to go quite that far on his own, but for my own part I sense some wishful thinking at work in his geopolitical understanding. If only Hussein could only have refrained from the torture, the mass murder and the state-supported terrorism, the anti-war left's case would have been as clear-cut and morally unambiguous in real life as it is in this film. Peterson's Priam is the sort of leader many left-liberals wish Saddam had been, rather than the leader he actually was.

Troy leaves out several major characters in the Iliad -- including all, or nearly all, the Greek gods and goddesses. But it adds one important new character: Briseus, daughter of Priam. Achilles encounters this woman in the sickest "meet cute" imaginable: While his Myrmidons pillage Apollo's temple, raping and killing the various priests and priestesses, he grows so smitten with her beauty that he offers her safety in his tent (and his bed). Although like any respectable twelfth-century-B.C. feminist she would prefer a life of chastity and public service to constant hot sex with USDA prime beef like Achilles, she consents after a fashion. Alas, her attempts at sex come off as a bit schoolmarmish; she teaches Achilles to "make love, not war" in very literal terms. She also receives the lion's share of anti-war remarks, noting that Agammemnon is bleeding his empire for more power and territory. Since she obviously can't love a brute like Achilles, when Priam takes Hector's body back to Troy, she decides to go as well. Luckily for us, Briseus never asks Achilles if they can't just be friends.

For the film's finale, Briseus slays the imperialist Agammemnon/Bush (thus saving Clytemnestra a lot of bother). This scene is more wishful thinking: The Left wants to see Bush destroyed by any means necessary, and it would be only too rich if an anti-war activist were to do the deed. One would think Achilles would be the ideal man to kill Agammemnon, since killing is his strong suit. But Achilles has been rendered strangely impotent: He doesn't kill many Trojans as he combs the city for his lady-love, but he kills more than his share of Greeks who get in his way. The film's stance toward Homer's swift runner begins to echo a chilling anti-war slogan from the 1960s: "We support our troops ... when they kill their officers."

Clearly Briseus's rhetoric has taken hold. When the weakling Paris lets fly his arrows -- the first of which hits Achilles in the ankle, and the next several of which bury themselves in his chest -- it's an anticlimactic death. Achilles is no longer a threat to anyone, and seems to bear Paris no ill will for sending him packing to the House of Hades. Poor Achilles isn't even able to attack his assassin as the guy shoots him down. Perhaps, like British journalist Robert Fisk, he has come to understand the good people who want to kill him: "My Death at the Hands of Paris Is a Symbol of the Hatred and Fury of This Filthy War." (With Pitt's blank acting, it's ultimately impossible to tell.) Under the tutelage of the anti-war movement, Achilles has become a true hero of the Left: If all the Greeks were like him, Troy would never have fallen. Plus, with all those arrows sticking out of his chest he makes a terrific pincushion.

Ultimately, Peterson's film ignores the central fact of Homer's Trojan War: Troy falls because King Priam is too proud. When the Greeks besiege the city, the king thinks his high walls will guard against any attack; when the Greeks make a feint of leaving, he believes the war is suddenly over. On both counts he is tragically mistaken. Priam's hubris even leads him to bring the famous "Trojan horse" inside the city walls, a rash act which allows the Greeks to make a sneak attack (one might even say a terrorist attack) against the Trojan people. In this respect at least, Priam resembles not some leftist fantasy of benign Oriental despotism, but our very own Bill Clinton, who ignored the threat of global terrorism because he believed America's inaccessibility would prevent a major attack on our home soil. (Clinton was also mistaken.)

However, the idea that Troy fell because it neglected its own "homeland security" wouldn't serve Peterson very well, regardless of how important it might be to his epic source. Such a statement might support a pro-war rather than an anti-war agenda, and Troy can't be troubled with such technicalities. Here, Priam admits the Trojan horse into the city not because he's proud, but because he's too decent and devout a guy to leave the thing sitting on the beach. Thus the Trojan king loses the war out of the goodness of his heart. Near-Eastern music -- borrowed from Passion of the Christ, I suspect -- blares on the soundtrack as Priam dies and his city burns.

According to Peterson's left-wing take on the Trojan War, King Priam and his city were just too darned good to live. Don't you wish America could be like that, too?

Me neither. But trust me, gentle reader: They love this movie in France.

Go Ahead, Drink That Kool-Aid ...

According to the New York Times, the Bush campaign wants churches and other religious organizations to distribute campaign literature. Left-liberals are crying foul, and for once they're absolutely, unquestionably in the right.

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt wants to frame this issue in terms of religious discrimination, of course. He claims that "people of faith have as much right to participate in the political process as any other community ...." I don't dispute this statement. But since nobody has seriously suggested that we remove the franchise from individual citizens on grounds of their religious belief, or curtail their rights to free assembly or petition, I don't think Schmidt's remark is especially relevant here. This isn't about people of faith; it's about churches.

Specifically, it's about tax-exempt churches. Churches that pay taxes engage in partisan politics, just like corporations and special-interest groups. They donate to parties; they endorse candidates; they can even run advertisements for or against a political candidate (as long as they obey campaign finance laws). But when an organization accepts tax-exempt status from our government, it agrees to certain rules -- among them, that it will refrain from political partisanship. If it accepts tax-deductible status, it must stay out of politics altogether.

Most churches have chosen to accept this bargain with the government, believing that an increased capacity for apolitical "charity work" is more important than partisan politics. Tax deductions give individuals and corporations a powerful incentive to contribute to churches and other nonprofit charities, and tax exemptions allow these organizations to spend more of their resources on food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, clothing drives, youth programs, and evangelical outreach. By and large, churches regard a decorous institutional silence on political parties and specific candidates as a small price to pay for such substantial benefits. More important, it's part of the deal.

Still, churches and nonprofits that wish to become overtly political can do so at any time. They need only "render unto Caesar."

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan.

Tuesday, June 01, 2004


Shrek 2: This movie has everything the first Shrek had -- except for a story. Lovely CGI animation, silly movie in-jokes, witty writing and solid voice talent help the film sputter along for a pleasant if derivative ninety-odd minutes. Alas, they can't disguise the sad fact that the characters have nothing to do besides bump into each other. Shrek 2 fits Roger Ebert's definition of a sequel as "a filmed deal."

Mean Girls: What begins as a black comedy on the order of Heathers or Lord Love a Duck turns unexpectedly sweet and humane in the final fifteen minutes. Most critics have deplored the shift in tone, preferring to watch the little lemmings jump the cliff. But I felt the film's happy ending was honestly earned. Exploitative "doomed-teen" dramas like Gus Van Sant's Elephant (an artsy-fartsy version of Bowling for Columbine) have become too commonplace, even cliched. Instead, Mean Girls shows a sensible teenager first succumbing to the problems of adolescence, then surviving them with the help of supportive teachers and loving parents. (At long last, a Hollywood movie that's pro-adult!) It doesn't hurt that writer Tina Fey draws her characters with uncommon skill. Her supporting performance as a smart, sardonic calculus teacher deserves an Oscar nod, but probably won't get one.

Bon Voyage: This French movie about the Nazi occupation may be Jean-Paul Rappenau's most deliberately old-fashioned effort yet. Granted, the first act is a bit slow, and the denouement drags, but on the whole this film plays like the second coming of Ernst Lubitsch. In its subject matter, as well as its blend of screwball comedy and adventure, it reminded me specifically of To Be Or Not To Be, from 1942. Unfortunately, what was daring and anxious back then is borderline-nostalgic today; Bon Voyage is much too safe and historically distanced for the comedy or the adventure to click. I should add that I saw this film with several loud, rowdy cinemagoers who hissed the villain, cheered the hero, and hurled insults at a woman character of easy virtue. Most people don't care much for rude behavior, but I happen to enjoy it: I often wish movie audiences were less docile, and this one was as active and engaged as anyone could possibly desire.

Monday, May 31, 2004

HB 751 ... again

Gay conservatives have been wondering what National Review might say about Virginia's HB 751. Would it condemn this radical assault on individual liberty and contract law? Would it state that individuals should have an indisputable right to private contract, as guaranteed in the Constitution? Would it lament the costly litigation such a law would produce, not only for Gay and Lesbian Virginians, but for the cash-strapped Commonwealth?


Ramesh Ponnuru doesn't see what the big deal is all about. He writes that "the law is a way for Virginia to block recognition of civil unions from other states without blocking purely private arrangements." Yet as Ponnuru notes, the law explicitly voids not only civil unions, but "partnership contract[s] or other arrangement[s] between persons of the same sex." Since the text of the law explicitly blocks private contractual arrangements (which would qualify as an "other arrangement" under this law), it seems odd for Ponnuru to claim that it will only affect out-of-state civil unions -- the recognition of which is already prohibited under Virginia law.

There's another major problem with Ponnuru's argument. Governor Mark Warner submitted an amendment to HB 751 which would have eliminated the bill's overbroad language. Warner's version of HB 751 would have voided civil unions while leaving private contracts alone. A veto-proof majority of Republicans and Democrats railed against this change, claiming that it "watered down" the bill. So when Virginia legislators debated this bill, they rejected a version that would have affected only out-of-state civil unions, and passed a version that included "other," private contractual arrangements in the ban. Invalidating private contracts between same-sex partners was clearly part of the legislature's intent when it passed HB 751 into law. At this point, we don't know whether Virginia judges will enforce the law according to its letter and intent.

But if they do, any same-sex couple with living wills, custody agreements, homeowner agreements, or a legal document granting powers of attorney could see their contracts automatically invalidated (or at the very least, thrown into endless, costly litigation). The redoubtable Walter Olson writes: For example, some persons with interests adverse to the couple (relatives pursuing will disputes, for example) may urge an "intent to evade" standard: even if one or another contractual device might count as innocent taken singly, they will say, in the aggregate the dealings add up to an attempt to "bestow the privileges or obligations of marriage" on a relationship disfavored by the state of Virginia, just as a series of otherwise lawful financial steps when combined with ill intent may amount to money laundering.

Comparing same-sex marriage to money laundering might seem far-fetched, but HB 751 author Robert Marshall (R-Manassas) has made a few comments to the press suggesting that the bill was designed specifically for such "intent to evade" suits. In the Virginian-Pilot, he has claimed that "You’ve got to cover all these bases, or they’ll find a loophole. That’s why this law is very thorough. ... They want to eradicate any institution that says what they are doing is immoral." By "they," one assumes Marshall means Gays and Lesbians: Since he disapproves so strongly of "them," he wants to ensure the government will do likewise. Again Olson writes, "It appears that Marshall -- contra Ponnuru's thesis -- hopes the law will empower courts to undo private legal arrangements which are routinely upheld as valid when carried on between other unrelated persons, on the grounds that they arise from a same-sex relationship."

If the law is interpreted as Marshall intends, children in same-sex households could be first to feel the fury and disapproval of the Almighty State: Marshall himself has claimed that HB 751 would invalidate adoption and custody agreements (though at the moment we don't know whether it will). Yet according to University of Richmond legal scholar John R. Pagan, out-of-state Gays and Lesbians who choose to spend their vacations in Virginia might bear the brunt of this ill-conceived law. Even a simple traffic accident could result in crippling legal expenses for same-sex couples and their children, as all contracts of guardianship, visitation rights and powers of attorney suddenly fall into a litigious no-man's-land.

Moral of the story: Boycott Virginia tourism.

(Post revised: 6/2/04)

Sam Fuller alert!

If you get the Fox Movie Channel, you're in for a treat: As part of its Memorial Day war-movie marathon, this station is showing two classic Sam Fuller films: Fixed Bayonets, a wacked-out Korean War movie with a sizable cult following, and Hell and High Water, the first widescreen submarine picture. Alas, neither film is available on video or DVD.

Fixed Bayonets airs at 10 a.m. today and midnight tonight, while Hell and High Water airs letterboxed at 2 p.m. today and 4 a.m. tomorrow. Since I can't get the Fox Movie Channel in Charlottesville, I'll just have to wait.

Outdoor Drama Alert: The Lost Colony

Over the summer, I'll be writing off and on about American outdoor dramas. Go see one of these shows if you can; heck, go see two or three. They're as close as America has come to a self-sustaining "people's theater." The Outdoor Drama Institute at the University of North Carolina offers a list of more than one hundred outdoor theaters across the United States, which offer everything from lowbrow religious plays to highfalutin' Shakespeare. My focus, however, will lie more on outdoor history plays -- original works written for specific theaters, most of which have remained in business for decades.

As America's longest-running professional outdoor drama, Paul Green's The Lost Colony opens tonight for its 67th season on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Except for World War Two, when coastal blackouts made performances impossible, this show has been a mainstay of the Carolina economy. Each summer evening, it brings throngs of tourists to Fort Raleigh National Historic Site.

Over all this time, the play itself has undergone mostly cosmetic changes. The character of "The Historian," who handles the drama's exposition, lost his original speaking booth in the early 1960s, and now roams freely about the stage. A brief encounter in Act I between William Shakespeare and Sir Walter Raleigh has been excised. A few lines from clownish Old Tom have been trimmed for time constraints. One character who died offstage in 1937, now dies onstage (a change Green made shortly after the play's premiere to alleviate audience confusion). Finally, in the play's sole concession to political correctness, the Native Americans have abandoned Tonto-esque dialect, and express themselves in stilted English.

Audiences have accepted minor changes, but they are notoriously resistant to major ones. In the late 1990s, when the show's director replaced the Historian with a Greek chorus, patrons were confused and offended by the avant-garde staging. A few seasons later the Historian had made a triumphant return -- along with a veiled promise from the show's producers that they'd never try anything like that again.

I've written about Green's populist, Old Left aesthetic here, but some of it bears repeating (and re-editing):

Although critics have seldom given outdoor drama its due, it may be as close as America has come to a self-supporting "people's theater." Families with small children, elderly philistines, and people who generally wouldn't be caught dead walking into a local playhouse, willingly attend an outdoor drama or two on vacation. ... Productions based on local history are often performed (as is true for The Lost Colony) a stone's throw from where these historical events took place. Even when this history involves warfare, racism or governmental oppression, outdoor dramas manage to affirm traditional American values. They embrace all the vulgar values modern theater has abandoned -- corny humor, family-friendly sentimentality, spectacle, traditional songs and dances, melodrama and ardent patriotism -- which may well account for their ongoing popularity.

Paul Green meant to affirm common patriotic values when he developed the American outdoor drama. He saw the nation as part of a great democratic tradition in which individuals could work together to form functional collectives, and his "symphonic dramas" hammer home the point that, unlike England with its rigidly stratified class codes, the American wilderness placed beggars and kings on perfectly equal footing. Here, the people would have to take care of each other, regardless of rank or station.

Although Green despised Communism (an uncommon stance within the Federal Theater Project), he was a social reformer and a New Deal Democrat. His politics would prove a natural fit for outdoor drama. Green's plays (even the ones produced indoors, such as the Pulitzer Prize winner In Abraham's Bosom) feature large crowds but very few major characters; they tell stories about societies rather than individuals. Central scenes focus on community rituals -- funeral processions, christenings, religious worship. When a distinct voice emerges, it represents a "social type" rather than a psychologically developed individual. Characters achieve significance only inasmuch as they relate to each other.

The Lost Colony may sound hokey and two-dimensional as I've described. Yet its effect on audiences -- including the loyalty it inspires among its fans -- is not easily dismissed. This year, barring calamity or catastrophe, The Lost Colony will run six nights a week (no Sunday shows) through August 20. All performances begin promptly at 8:30, weather permitting.

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