Playing With History in One Act

40 years ago today something shocking happened.

Susan Lambert
Jul 4, 2018 · 6 min read

On July 4, 1979, President Carter suddenly cancelled an important energy policy speech and disappeared to Camp David. The press was confused and outraged. Ten days later, the President emerged from his impromptu domestic summit and gave a new speech, the Crisis of Confidence speech, which later became known as the “malaise” speech. The speech garnered overwhelmingly positive responses at first and many now view the speech as unprecedented, farsighted and insightful. Others think that speech — and the aftermath — ultimately cost him the White House.

“This is not a message of happiness or reassurance, but it is the truth and it is a warning.” — President Jimmy Carter, Crisis of Confidence Speech

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I wrote a play about it. It’s called Confidence (and The Speech).

Confidence (and The Speech) is a not-exactly-true perspective of a very true story, wrapped in a fantasy. It’s the play you didn’t know you needed about President Carter’s 1979 Crisis of Confidence speech and women in politics. Wait a second! That sounds crazy. Why would anyone need a play about the Crisis of Confidence speech? I’m glad you asked.

Turns out, this speech comes up a lot. Seriously, a lot (see here, here and here). There’s been an entire book about the speech and it’s written up every few years or July 4th holiday (I’m not kidding, here and here) or when we accidentally or by nefarious purpose elect a terrible, awful no-good President. Excerpts from the Crisis of Confidence speech have appeared in TV shows and movies (Miracle, 20th Century Women). If you want to set the stage for America in 1979 — you use this speech. The speech warns of a growing crisis in our country. Some say that the speech, and the memo which inspired it (of Crisis and Opportunity, by President pollster turned pundit Pat Caddell), predicted the rise of Trump.

I grew up in Georgia, where Jimmy Carter was first our governor and then, our President. As a child, I remember watching him speak thoughtfully and what felt radically for the time.

“As a candidate for President I am fully committed to equality between men and women in every area of government and in every aspect of life.”

— Candidate Jimmy Carter, 1976

It was reading about this speech that sparked my need to write a play about the days leading up to it. I quickly saw how this “malaise” speech and it’s unique story of coming to be was a metaphor for the entire Carter Presidency. It was initially praised and then viciously maligned. Many say his careful and considerate (some might say feminist or nurturing) approach to the Presidency was his downfall. And yet, I felt that truth might be different.

There is enormous chaos happening right now in politics, but it has always been happening. Every moment is a crisis moment, a pivotal moment for us to step back or step forward as citizens. To look back at a moment in politics and say that was a moment when we could have changed our path. That exploration felt important.

But I needed a unique perspective.

I felt I couldn’t spend years (and it takes years) working on a project about a bunch of men in a room. I knew it was wrong. It wasn’t the point of this story. I had something to say about this speech. I had something to say about how we view history. About who tells the story. I knew there were women in Carter’s cabinet. I knew that we were close to electing the first woman President. But I also knew how much of a struggle it was — and is — for women to have a voice in the room. How incredibly challenging it is for any woman to be heard. Heck, it was a struggle in Obama’s administration.

I love America’s political stories — From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Soft Power and everything in between: Hamilton, All The Way, Roe, Frost/Nixon, West Wing, Camp David and Thurgood were all inspiration for Confidence (and The Speech. But so was the idea that men are the only ones in the room when history is being made. I had something to say about the lack of women in politics.

I am fascinated by the confidence it takes to be a person speaking up in a room where your voice is not welcomed or encouraged. And I wanted to explore what it means, what it feels like, and what it looks like to imagine a female president.

We start forty years after the Speech. In 2019, 60-year old college professor Cynthia Cooper is approached by a stranger, a young man. He asks her to recall her time with the Carter Administration during the days before the now unprecedented Crisis of Confidence speech. Professor Cooper decides, if she is going to tell her story of that time — the story told from her perspective — she is going to play the President. And the young man who wants to know her story? Well he is going to play her.

And thus begins my gender-bending play with history about a Presidential speech in 1979, but also about the confidence of a President, a nation in crisis and women in politics — Confidence (and The Speech).

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I started writing this play well before the election. I finished it after the election. The campaign and election of 2016 is infused in this play — and yet, this play was never supposed to be about that election. It was never supposed to be so… political. But everything is political now. Even political plays about something else have entirely new meaning in light of the encroaching destruction of the American presidency.

A new play always requires a lot of exploration and feedback with talented creative folks to get right. I love developing new work. It’s kind of one of my sweet spots. I like breaking ground and then building — sometimes re-building — new plays, musicals, films and television. It’s exciting to create something out of an idea.

It’s also scary and expensive and hard-work. To create a new independent work like this is a Sisyphean task.

I decided I would write about this process because I think playwrights should produce their work more often. I think everyone has a story to tell and I know how hard it can be to get people to pay attention. So, I’m going to open up my development steps as I work to bring Confidence (and The Speech) into the world. I hope this will be a grand success. I have every… confidence.

But when you are starting from scratch to develop a new work and get it out to the world… the odds are never in your favor. I have succeeded and failed a lot.

But you gotta take a shot. So I wrote a play. I like it. It’s a pretty complex piece. But my goals for it are straight-forward.

I want to produce the play. I want to get it published.

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And my strategy: Hone the work in readings. Then produce a workshop production. In play development, you can’t make just one, so I want additional productions — a rolling premiere, if you will. (Shout out to New Play Network for the idea) I want to produce this show in Los Angeles, Charlotte, NC, Atlanta, GA, Washington DC and New York City. Then get it published.

Simple, right? Follow along and let’s see how it goes.

Meanwhile, you can read or watch President Carter’s speech, the speech that could have changed the world, if we had acted on it.

Happy America’s Birthday to all! And as a President said decades ago and I say today, “Let your voice be heard…

We are at a turning point in our history.”

Follow me on Twitter. Find out more about Confidence (and The Speech).

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