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Politics Unusual 

A Brit takes on the American system

Wednesday, Nov 26 2003
The London critic Michael Billington once compared playwright David Edgar, flatteringly, to Balzac. He saw Edgar as "a secretary for our times," recording each detail of modern experience in his enormous plays the way Balzac registered every nuance of 19th-century Paris in his enormous novels. The description fits. Edgar couldn't write short to save his life. Unlike Balzac, though, the British dramatist lacks the modesty in his major work to stick to his own time and place. He filled a whole season at the Royal Shakespeare Company in the early '80s by adapting Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby in four installments – for a total of 8 1/2 hours of theater – and wrestled with post-Soviet Eastern Europe in Pentecost (three hours). His new two-play epic about American politics on now at Berkeley Rep, Continental Divide, clocks in at a challenging, ambitious, thorough, but not-quite-incisive six hours. I hear die-hard fans have organized chardonnay-and-brie tailgate parties on the sidewalk outside the theater.


The two plays in Continental Divide show the decline of idealism in American politics since the 1960s, and the rise, in its place, of bitter partisanship and Machiavellian power-brokering. Mothers Against (play No. 1) is a dissection of a campaign for governor in "an unnamed western state"; a libertarian candidate named Sheldon Vine is advised by attack dogs of the right on how to smother his paleo-liberal opponent, Rebecca McKeene. Daughters of the Revolution (play No. 2) tells a related story from the Democratic side: A former '60s radical named Michael Bern goes on a quest to learn who ratted him out to the FBI 20 years ago (and scuttled his academic career); he winds up influencing the campaign of his repackaged radical friend, McKeene.

The plays are related but independent. You can see Mothers without Daughters or the other way around; you can see both in either order. Conventional wisdom calls Mothers a stronger play, and I suppose it is, technically. But Daughters has a broader sweep. For all its flaws, it captures the essence of American politics in a way that Mothers can't.

Sheldon Vine, in Mothers, is the spry middle-aged underdog in a close gubernatorial race. It's a day or two before a debate with McKeene, and Vine's advisers have gathered in his expensive redwood-shaded home to coach him on the issues. Deb Vine, Sheldon's dreadlocked daughter, tramps in and out; she's an environmentalist tree-sitter who doesn't trust her father's campaign. (She's also full of clichés: "I've been trying to, like, protect the planet from the armed might of the fascist state.") Vine defends his libertarian convictions against counselors who want him to tack right and bash Rebecca McKeene for her oatmeal liberalism. He gives a passionate speech about the way lefties like McKeene have aged from idealists into tiresome scolds – "mothers against" – while socially liberal free-market types like him look to the future. "The real divide," he tells his managers, is "not left or right, or coast or center, free or good, but between the people who stay home and the people who break free."

From its opening scene, Mothers is dense with political-insidery jabber, and the drama reduces, dryly, to whether Vine will support an "allegiance oath" law called Proposition 92. In a way the whole point of Continental Divide is to show how a Republican might oppose Prop. 92 – a piece of neo-McCarthyism, asking candidates to swear they've never plotted against the United States – while a Democrat might support it.

A play about debate prep, in the end, can't cut very deep. Bill Geisslinger does an outstanding job as Vine: He's got that pumped-up, boyish bluster of a middle-aged guy who thinks he can outsmart critics on the right and left, but his confidence is visibly fragile; Vine turns out to be not that strong. Susannah Schulman performs a slick and worldly Lorianne Weiner, a pretty conservative columnist (imagine Ann Coulter if she were smart), and Robynn Rodriguez plays a tart and long-suffering Connie Vine, Sheldon's patrician wife. The trouble is that Mothers is all too topical: It captures the current scene but somehow misses the core of American political life.

In that sense, I think, Daughters works better. It's messy and maddening, but it also shows a man in conflict with himself, rather than a man in conflict with his advisers.

Michael Bern is an old friend of McKeene who sat in on a plot during the '60s to kidnap the daughter of a Republican senator – Sen. Vine, in fact (Sheldon's father). The plot fizzled, but when Bern learns from his own FBI file that a former comrade named him to the authorities, he also realizes why he lost a tenure-track university job in the '80s and why, for 20 years, he's had to work at a community college. Now he's in line for a state-level job, and he wants to ensure that this muck from his past won't resurface.

His quest for the turncoat feels forced; Bern seems a bit paranoid to believe his past will haunt him. But his political arc makes a better story than Vine's. He meets a former collaborator named Ira Kirschenbaum in a well-appointed living room, where Kirschenbaum and Lorianne Weiner (the columnist) light candles for Rosh Hashana. Kirschenbaum has moved from the left to the radical right, like Norman Podhoretz; he gives a bracing speech about abandoning "the politics of 'Puff the Magic Dragon,'" but lives in a planned community, behind walls topped with razor wire. He's evolved into a conservative observant Jew, but receded from the world. Another former comrade named Claudia lives in the redwoods with Vine's daughter Rebecca and other Earth First! types; Bern meets her and faces the New Age-y inheritors of his own idealism. Everyone Bern meets (like everyone Peer Gynt meets) might be an aspect of himself. At the end of his quest he rushes back to McKeene's headquarters to urge his dressed-up, centrist liberal friend to oppose Prop. 92 – for convoluted reasons – even though such a position might expose her radical background and wreck her bid for governor.

The sheer size of the cast keeps Daughters from flowing well; actors double up roles and the audience has to squint at the program to understand if they're meant to be new characters or not. Terry Layman, though, does a strong, energetic job as Bern. His trimmed beard, wavy white hair, and loose clothes make him look relaxed and edgy – a bit like Pete Townshend – and his speeches form the heart of Continental Divide. Bern laments the loss of public idealism; he's not in love with his old radical self, but he does want to know why no one aspires to greatness anymore, and why liberals turn out to be so good at self-destruction.

Continental Divide is cluttered and shameless; Edgar overworks his subject like an ambitious high school student, as if he wants to convince somebody that he's done his homework. Well, he has. In fact, he writes about America with more energy than most Americans. He's also a socialist, and conjuring powerful speeches from every point along the political spectrum took a curiosity and a suspension of personal views that Tony Kushner, for example, could never manage. But he's not Balzac. Edgar's great achievement – a detailed snapshot of American politics – is too labored. He hasn't quite mastered his material, and the exciting sweep of Continental Divide comes at the expense of a trenchant, poetic simplicity that might preserve it for a future generation.


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