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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Continental Divide: Mothers Against & Daughters of the Revolution
Barbican Theatre, Spring 2004

British playwright David Edgar looks at American politics in these two related but independent plays, and his perspective allows a clarity and optimism an American might not have managed. Both plays are good, and one is very good.

The more successful, Daughters of the Revolution, asks what happened to the political idealism and fervour of the 1960s now that its adherents have moved well into middle age. An American writer, I'm certain, would have taken a cynical view of radicals-turned-Republicans, but Edgar, while acknowledging some ironies of the sort, sees past them.

His central figure is a college professor whose radical youth has returned to endanger his chances at a government job in which he could do real good (and make real money). There was an FBI informant in his circle thirty years ago, and that person might resurface to scuttle his appointment.

As he searches out the comrades of his youth to identify the snitch, he discovers that each of them has made compromises to age, prosperity and reality. One is the cynical campaign manager for a political candidate, one is reduced to ineffectual voter registration drives, one stayed with the Movement while it turned fascist and devoured itself, one is a complacent conservative, and he himself teaches in a backwater college to students who couldn't care less.

But at the same time he discovers that each of them, including the snitch, has retained a core of integrity that is legitimately admirable and that is the direct legacy of their youth, so that all levels of society and all parts of the political spectrum remain coloured by the idealism they once shared.

The play is not nearly as soppy as I may have made it sound. The questions it raises are very real ones, especially to Americans and especially to Americans of that generation. They are addressed with honesty and clarity, and answered convincingly and realistically. And the professor's quest gives the play a forward movement and dramatic energy that keeps it from lapsing into static debate.

If Mothers Against is a weaker play, it is only because it lacks that plot energy, so that its treatment of the issues is more like a Shavian debate. This play focusses on the election that was peripheral to the other, and on the preparations of the Republican candidate for state governor for a televised debate with his opponent.

And so we get, among others, the candidate, a thoughtful and idealistic man committed to the core values of Republicanism (and not least of the play's virtues is that it reminds us that America's conservative party does have some core values); his more practical and cynical campaign manager; a pollster prepared to take the candidate wherever the political winds blow; and a black man who must always defend his choice to be a Republican and who must inevitably face the fact that he'll never be fully admitted into the club.

As they prepare for the debate they debate among themselves about what the candidate should say. How far must he temper or even disguise his beliefs to avoid alienating voters? How does a reasoned response to a complex issue get reduced to a TV sound bite?  Can principles actually get in the way of electability?

That last question may raise memories of David Hare's 1993 play The Absence of War, which covered many of the same questions in British terms, and many will find  Mothers Against little more than a retread of Hare's play with an American accent.

While Hare's is probably the better play, the comparison is a bit unfair. Hare was looking at the process, the why and how of compromise, while Edgar is really interested in discovering what these people believe. The candidate is as much a product of the 1960s as his left-wing opponent, and Hare shows us that his Libertarian values come from the same roots and are as honourably held as those of the former radicals in the other play.

I should note that almost every British person I spoke with disliked this play, mainly because it is essentially a series of debates on subjects that didn't interest them. But as an expat American of the same generation as the play's characters, I found the debates exciting, insightful and important.

The plays were a coproduction of two American regional theatres and the large American cast bring an authenticity and immediacy to their roles. Bill Geisslinger as the candidate and Terry Layman as the professor each dominate their respective plays, but strong support - sometimes playing the same character in both, sometimes in multiple roles - is provided by Derrick Lee Weeden, Lorri Holt, Robin Rodriguez, Tony DeBruno and Melissa Smith among others.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Continental Divide - Barbican 2004