THE GANG’S ALL HERE
May 12, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
In 1959, Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, the authors of Inherit the Wind, wrote The Gang’s All Here, loosely based on Warren Harding and his inept White House cronies who produced the Teapot Dome Scandal. With all that’s happening in the current White House, I thought it was time to revisit this play by way of reading it. Yeah, I just happen to own a copy of something that ran 132 performances nearly sixty years ago.
I first read it when I was a teenager from an edition I borrowed from my local library. I was fascinated with politics at the time (I still am), and with Watergate raging, I even tried to write my own political drama. I called it The Web We Weave (yes, by way of the Walter Scott poem “Marmion” and its quote: “Oh! What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive.”). Please — I was fourteen. I think I got about fifteen typewritten pages into it before wisely abandoning it.
As for The Gang’s All Here, I found it fascinating reacquainting myself with it, particularly with regard to what is going on in the White House today. Some of the parallels were eerie. For instance this is from the Forward that Lawrence and Lee wrote for the printed edition: “If the man we fondly X’d in a voting booth turns out to be a struggling incompetent, whose fault is it?” And another example feels particularly fresh, as when President Griffith P. Hastings (played on Broadway by the great Melvyn Douglas) is asked to go over an important document for signing with his top aide:
HASTINGS: Don’t they have a digest, a condensation of these things?
ANDERSON: These are the condensations, Mr. President.
He is a painfully slow reader, and digesting a typewritten page is agony for him.
And how about the last line of Act One when, as the President is exiting, he turns and says to that same aide, “Would you read through these things and tell me what to do?”
Whereas our current President aggressively sought the office, the one depicted in The Gang’s All Here does not. Nor does he have an oversized ego believing that only “he, and he alone,” can solve all the country’s problems. Hell, the man doesn’t even want to be President. First he vacillates, then he acquiesces, allowing himself to be drafted at a brokered convention literally in a smoke-filled hotel room. The play is not shy on cliches.
While reading, I momentarily hit on the Shakespeare quote “Some men are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon him,” but it was only a fleeting thought. Griffith P. Hastings is by no means a great man. His Achilles Heel is the same as Warren G. Harding’s; someone who surrounded himself with lackeys who took their closeness to the President for an open invitation to line their pockets. And all that exposition about his not reading is a set up with the play hinging as it does on Hastings signing an Executive Order he doesn’t bother to read, implicating him in the scandal that brings down his presidency. Again, sound familiar?
The main problem though, and why the show was not a success, is that Hastings is more a gullible patsy than anything else, which does not make for a heroic character. The playwrights should have gone the Shakespeare route where kings fell from great heights. We are asked to care about someone who becomes President who claims to not really wanting to be President. It’s not the stuff of kings. And let’s face it: an outsized ego is a requirement for anyone who wants to put themselves through the brutality of a campaign, and then serve in such an outrageously difficult job for which they are criticized daily. It’s really not for anyone thin-skinned … oh, wait. I guess there are always exceptions to the rule.
As the play draws to a close, Hastings finally stands up and does the right thing when he sets in motion a series of firings that will certainly end with his impeachment once his cronies all start singing their songs to the authorities. But it hasn’t been earned. His seeing the light is entirely manufactured… and if we can believe the history books, this is where Hastings and Harding significantly diverge. Harding kept digging himself in deeper, though his eventual fate can never be known since he succumbed to illness, dying in office. There were conspiracy theorists who believe he may have been poisoned, which had to have been on the minds of Lawrence and Lee when they came up with their ending, which was to have Hastings poison himself. Again, it could have come off Shakespearean with a better set up, but it doesn’t come close. And it isn’t believable at all.
Although … if the current President continues to keep getting himself into the jams that seem entirely of his own doing, I may just look into lending him my copy of The Gang’s All Here.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book