Today’s election will bring to a close a rather melodramatic presidential campaign. There is of course much that could be said about stagecraft and performance in presidential politics. Ronald Reagan, most notably, was a professional actor before becoming a politician. But our concern here is with theatergoing rather than the performative aspects of the American presidency. For those interested in the latter, we can recommend Jodi Kanter’s new book Presidential Libraries as Performance, which is everything a politically-inclined performing arts librarian could ask for.
In the fall of 1774, the articles of association put forth by the Continental Congress formalized the idea of an independent American government. It also included a clause that the Congress would “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.” Although theater was clearly seen as a distraction by the political arm of the American Revolution, its military leadership felt rather differently. George Washington, for one, was an avid theatergoer, and famously countenanced performances during the long winter in Valley Forge to keep up his army’s declining morale. While remonstrances from the Continental Congress led Washington to become more circumspect, his love for theater never faded. It is also of course with Washington that the proper history of presidential theatergoing begins.
Just days after he was inaugurated in New York City as the first president under the newly ratified Constitution, Washington attended a performance of The School for Scandal at the John Street Theatre on May 11, 1789. The appearance of the phrase “by particular desire” in the theatre’s advertisement has been taken by some as an indication that Washington himself chose the bill for the evening. Sheridan’s celebrated satire was supplemented with the musical comedy The Poor Soldier, which centered on Irish troops returning home after the Revolutionary War. When the capital moved to Philadelphia in 1790, Washington took advantage of that city’s comparatively greater range of entertainment options. His patronage of equestrian shows performed by John Bill Ricketts in the spring of 1793 helped establish the circus as a legitimate form of entertainment in the United States.
While Washington was undoubtedly the biggest booster of American theater amongst the early presidents, the religiously-minded James K. Polk was just as clearly its greatest detractor. Indeed, the only time that Polk set foot in a theater during his presidency (and perhaps ever) was on March 19, 1849. That evening a crowd of well-wishers in Mobile, Alabama, somehow convinced the ascetic President to visit the local theater, where a touring French ballet company led by Hippolyte Monplaisir was performing. According to Polk’s diary, he “remained but a half hour” at the crowded theater before retiring.
Although he was only introduced to theater late in life, Abraham Lincoln became an enthusiastic patron of the stage during his time in Washington. Many biographers have suggested that his frequent theatergoing gave relief from the burdens and sorrows attendant on the ongoing war. On the fateful day of April 14, 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln decided that she would rather attend Laura Keene’s benefit performance of Our American Cousin than a pantomime at Grover’s Theatre to which they already had tickets. John Wilkes Booth happened to be at Ford’s Theatre picking up his mail when the news that the president would attend filtered through. A new playbill announcing Lincoln’s presence was duly printed. That evening as actor Howard Hawk delivered a laughable line describing a departed gadfly as a “sockdologizing old man-trap,” Booth shot the President at point-blank range.
The shock of the assassination and its setting reinforced lingering prejudices about the supposed perils of popular entertainment. It was not until the 1880s that first Chester Arthur and then Grover Cleveland (who arrived at the White House a bachelor, but patronized the theatre at the behest of his young wife) that regular nights out were again part and parcel of the office. As the range of entertainments available expanded in the twentieth century, so did the presidential palate. Woodrow Wilson, for one, was a fan of vaudevillle and spent many Saturdays at B. F. Keith’s Theatre. In an interview with the Saturday Evening Post, Wilson sardonically remarked that while a bad vaudeville act was unfortunate, it was also soon over, “but from a bad play there was no escape.”
Although it was not necessarily a bad play, president-elect John F. Kennedy spent a somewhat uncomfortable evening in December 1960 at a performance of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (find drafts of that work here). The play was an only somewhat veiled and at times unflattering portrait of the politicking involved in that year’s election, with a philandering and amoral candidate named Joseph Cantwell as the villain. The character ostensibly draws on both Kennedy and Nixon, although it was a subject that Vidal was demure about. Whatever JFK’s thoughts on the performance, it did not seem to dampen the enthusiasm for the arts that suffused the White House during the next few years, though much of this might more properly attributed to Jackie Kennedy. Whatever the case, the Kennedy years represented something of a high-water mark for presidential patronage and regard for American theater, which JFK at least also saw as an asset to the United States in the “cultural Cold War.”
Fast forwarding to the twenty-first century, a combination demands and security concerns have undoubtedly hampered the president’s ability to attend the theater regularly in person, whatever their individual inclinations. And although George W. Bush was no great theatergoer, it must be said that he did rather charmingly attend several local community theater productions in which his sister-in-law Margaret performed. The Obamas brought a renewed enthusiasm for the arts with them to Washington, although Michelle, Malia, and Sasha have been much more active than the President in actually attending outside performances. One of the signatures of the Obama administration has been the hosting a series of star-studded literary, musical and theatrical evenings at the White House.
In retrospect, perhaps the most culturally significant of these was a 2009 performance by Lin-Manuel Miranda of the song that would eventually lead off the theatrical phenomenon Hamilton. And it seems appropriate to end the Obama era with a song from the musical that reflects King George’s limited understanding of American democracy (“I Know Him“):
They say George Washington’s yielding his power and stepping away.
I wasn’t aware that was something a person could do.
Are they gonna keep on replacing whoever’s in charge?
If so, who’s next?
There’s nobody else in their country who looms quite as large…