Written in simple straightforward prose from the perspective of a political scientist, Bruce Altschuler’s thoroughly researched survey focuses on the cultural forces that influenced the creation and reception of 20th century plays about the American presidency. Altschuler suggests throughout that the plays provide a window into the public’s current attitude toward the presidency, simultaneously showing “both our images of presidents and our aspirations for those of the future” (157). Altschuler provides a thorough plot synopsis, contemporary critical reaction and information on revivals of forty plays and musicals spanning both real and fictional presidents, some rather well-known Pulitzer Prize winning plays, and others that have rarely seen the light of day. This approach provides insight into how each president – and the presidency – was viewed by various playwrights over time, and forms the base for further research into individual and collected plays.
Altschuler categorizes his study in four sections: heroic presidents (Chapters 1-2), the president as anti-hero (Ch. 3), fictional presidents (Ch. 4), and presidents as characters in musical theatre (Ch. 5). The organization is clear and for the first three chapters proceeds chronologically. Due to the surprisingly limited number of fictional presidential plays, and musical theatre’s unique evolution in terms of presidents on stage, Altschuler gives each its own chapter. This structure helps to demonstrate how views of the presidency (on and off-stage) changed over time. The author argues that in the late 19th and early 20th century playwrights were afraid to put presidents on stage for fear of alienating audiences. One way they solved this dilemma was by writing mostly one-dimensional heroic presidential characters, and these heroes are the focus of the first two chapters.
In Chapter 1, the only chapter exclusively devoted to one president, Altschuler frames the discussion around dramatic representations of Abraham Lincoln. Despite the large number of stage portrayals, however, Lincoln has not evolved much beyond Benjamin Chapin’s heroic Lincoln at the White House (1906). While Altschuler analyzes Lincoln plays in light of contemporary events because “nearly all of these plays have subtext that, often quite explicitly, uses the events of Lincoln’s life to comment on those of the contemporary world” (3), the significant issue underlying the chapter is Altschuler’s suggestion that playwrights have struggled to bring the full depth of Lincoln to the stage. As the survey demonstrates playwrights haven’t been able to fully capture the man who made white supremacist arguments with the man who signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It is these very contradictions that make Lincoln a great dramatic character, yet as Altschuler points out Lincoln is solely presented heroically. Altschuler expands his discussion in Chapter 2 to include plays about other heroically portrayed presidents, including Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Franklin Roosevelt. While not as decidedly one sided as plays about Lincoln, these plays also tend to mythologize presidents by presenting them as righteous and gallant.
Altschuler argues throughout the first two chapters that changing cultural attitudes toward the presidency greatly affected the heroic depictions of presidents. He argues that the laudable figures found in plays up to 1960 are unfamiliar to modern audiences because of growing skepticism about our presidents and “is a major reason that plays about heroic presidents have become such an endangered species” (55). Altschuler attributes heroic portrayals to early 20th century idealism, an explanation that is a bit unsatisfying. The numerous non-fiction books about Lincoln in recent years have revealed Lincoln as not only a deeply complex character, but also one that is very much in the public consciousness. Why a more complex Lincoln has not appeared on stage seems to be a question worthy of more attention.
Altschuler shifts his focus in Chapter 3 to plays with the president as anti-hero. These plays featuring Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush and Warren Harding began presenting much more complex three-dimensional characters. Altschuler argues that the growing cynicism in America over the Vietnam War, Watergate, and the general corruption of Washington led to an outburst of anti-heroic presidential plays, exemplified by the biting satire MacBird! (1967). As noted in the introduction, “each of these plays reflects the public’s perception of the presidency at the time it was performed,” and throughout the chapter Altschuler does an excellent job positioning the plays within contemporary culture (xii). Perhaps in part due to the generally higher quality of the anti-heroic plays, Altschuler seems more at home in this chapter and his analysis of the four Richard Nixon plays is especially insightful.
Despite the numerous fictional presidents on television and in films, there have been relatively few fictional presidents on stage, which is the focus of Chapter 4. Altschuler does not provide an in-depth hypothesis as to why so few fictional presidents have hit the boards. He does note, however, that the fictional presidents have followed the same evolution as their real counter parts. Earlier plays tend to depict a mostly heroic president or presidential candidate who overcomes the odds and does the right thing in the end, while more recent plays, such as David Mamet’s November, focus on the greed and corruption of politicians.
In his final chapter focusing on musical theatre, Altschuler demonstrates that presidential depictions within this genre have not advanced significantly past the light comedic portrayal of presidential heroism first seen in Of Thee I Sing in 1931. Altschuler devotes most of the chapter to a thoughtful exploration of why musicals have lagged behind straight plays in presidential evolution, concluding that presidential characters in musicals did not evolve past one dimensional heroes “because doing so rejected not merely a traditional perception of politics, but the very essence of American musical comedy” (147). He notes that Assassins, the quintessential anti-heroic musical, was not critically well received until a 2004 revival, and Altschuler remains skeptical that presidential musicals will ever fully evolve the way that straight plays have.
Altschuler dedicates a good deal of space to the plots of numerous plays, in some cases at the expense of a more in-depth examination of the political implications or dramatic merits of the play. However, Altschuler is clearly setting out to survey the century and the great swath of plays covered is valuable, as is the charted evolution of presidential characters from one-dimensional heroes to multi-dimensional anti-heroes. Altschuler’s survey of musical theatre portrayals, the struggle to capture the three dimensionality of Lincoln on stage, presidential actors and several other topics seem ripe for further research, and Acting Presidents provides a rich starting point.