On Its Own Terms? Very Bloody Indeed…
Last week, and friend and I saw “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,” at the Public Theater here in New York. The play is a Rock Musical based on the events of Andrew Jackson’s life, especially his fiery brand of frontier populism and, as demonstrated by his acts as president toward Native Americans, his rather unilateral and at times constitutionally questionable expansion of presidential power. Specifically, we learn about Jackson’s war with the Supreme Court over Cherokee removal (which produced my favorite Jackson quote: “the decision of the supreme court has fell still born.” Now that’s an image! Alas, the play didn’t use it.).
At lunch the day after, someone asked me what “as a historian,” I thought of the play. Immediately I began to worry, I’m pedantic enough as it is (this blog is evidence!), and I hate historians who criticize historical movies for their inaccuracies. I’m uncomfortable with this for a few reasons. First, it is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel (or, as Bart Simpson said on the Homerpalooza episode, “kind of like making teenagers depressed”). But that’s because historical movies are rarely trying to be History (and here I’ll pause to ask the question what is History, capital “H”? presentations of the past that seek to inform an audience about history, teach people about the past, the past’s relationship to the present, and the like). Thus, why should we judge them as such? Outright and intentional lies aside, what’s more interesting to me, I suppose, is why a historical story resonates. Or, why it doesn’t; on this note, see the epic failure, Amazing Grace, the movie (note to self, what is the deal with explicitly historical movies? That post is surely on its way). And pardon me for being a bit of a partisan of my discipline, but one of the thing that History, as a habit of mind, teaches us, is to take things on their own terms. I suppose my irritation at persnickety or curmudgeonly historians who criticize popular culture’s take on the past is that they fail to take those texts (or artifacts, or cultural productions, or what have you) on their own terms. In other words, those criticisms to my ears sound like undergraduate sniping at best, or antiquarian tut-tutting at worst (in the words of one historian, Civil War reenactors are often less concerned with the causes and consequences of the war than they are with the number of buttons on a soldier’s blouse).
So if I’m going to take my own advice, I have to think about the play “on its own terms.” What are its terms? Political Theater. One of my colleagues at the Museum of the City of New York asked does the play’s celebrity rock star status work with Andrew Jackson? Who knows, I replied. The market revolution didn’t have a recording industry, much less rock and roll and the consumer society that spawned it. In other words, the question that her question made me ask is, what is the play saying about politics that it makes Andrew Jackson a rock star?
All right, I admit it, I’m not sure I know what Marx meant when he said that history comes around twice, first as tragedy then the second time as farce. An easy read of that is that the references to the past made by politicians and political and economic elite don’t really have the nuance and complexity of the actual past (surprise, surprise). Rather, the past gets thrown around, ultimately ripping the facts from the historical context that created them (Bush’s “there’s an old poster out west, that I recall, that said, “Wanted, Dead or Alive.”)
But the whole thing here seems to me pretty farcical from our common definition of the term. And so too is the political theater that is present-day politics, be it George W. Bush or Barak Obama. On the one hand we have Bush’s self-styled populism: man of the people cuttin’ brush on the ranch in Crawford, Tex.; man of the people railing against Washington insiders even though his father was head of the CIA, Vice President and President of the U.S., and Bush presumably has some relationship to the thing which he professes to abhor — Washington, D.C. On the other is the very real rock-star status of Obama, especially at the moment of campaign and inauguration: empty figurehead who unites empty-headed people based on their blind devotion (the scene in the play where two starry-eyed kids explain that they met at a Jackson campaign rally could have come straight from a fawning NPR human interest story about the eager earnestness of Obama’s “grassroots” supporters).
To me, this is the genius of the play. By drawing explicit comparisons to George Bush and Barak Obama, it seems to be saying that our current politics is high theater. There is nothing new, to be sure, about this critique in the abstract. However, in our current moment of punditry posing as news and the empty shouting and uncivil discourse of the Tea Party right and the 9-11 truther left (a point made brilliantly in the New Yorker recently), I’d argue that we might want to come back to this old critique given our new situation.