THE BLOG
01/02/2006 11:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush as Bad Theatre

I doubt that there will ever be a great play called "The Tragedy of George Bush." As a playwright, I find a problem with Bush as a dramatic character in a serious drama. Although he is perfectly suited for satire, he is now caught up in a tragic national drama, the Iraq war, and it is as if Shakespeare's Bottom had stumbled into Hamlet by mistake and taken over the stage. Comedy is filled with amusing hypocrites, the snobs, fools, and pretenders who get their comeuppance before the curtain falls, men and women who cannot learn from experience, flat characters notable for their foolish single-minded response to all circumstances. Bush is our own Tartuffe, Molière's insufferable pseudo-religious comedic character who uses his so called piety to gain power over the lives of others. Although Tartuffe takes place in seventeenth-century France, it is Bush's voice we hear as Tartuffe pronounces, "How dare you even hinder or annoy when I've the means to ruin and destroy. You should have thought before my toes you trod. Attacking me, you set yourself 'gainst God." (Timothy Mooney adaptation.)

Bush, alas, is not a knowing hypocrite like Tartuffe. Hypocrites are easy to expose while true believers like Bush stand fast as reality implodes around them. He appears to believe what he says even as he plays the leading role in our national drama. He would serve nicely as a foolish father in a sit-com, or a ridiculous boss in an office comedy, but he is the Commander-in-Chief who can and does send young men and women to their deaths. Sadly, he does not even have the true villain's consciousness of when he has done wrong. This is why apology and admission of error is so difficult for him. He believes in his God-given rectitude in all situations.

The closest that true drama has ever come to a leader such as Bush is that of Shakespeare's Henry V, the wastrel inheritor of the English crown who puts aside his carousing, abandons his friend Falstaff, and takes his nation into a war with France. But Henry's character is buoyed up by his eloquence, ennobled by his courage and his love of England. Nobody can accuse George Bush of eloquence or locate his courage and love of country as he labors to strip it of its natural wonders, and sell his power to its worst exploiters. What he shares with Henry V is a ruthless ambition wed to a sense of royal entitlement. As Henry exploited his soldiers' patriotism, Bush exploits his nation's fears. Our unwatched borders, unguarded ports, and unarmed Humvees tell their own story about this President as our protector.

Like most incurious people Bush starts with a belief and then searches desperately for the evidence to support it. This faith-based approach to the world is one that most often has tragic consequences for others, rarely for the man himself, protected by his power and by the fear he has exploited in others. Bush is many things, but he is not insincere. It is delusional to believe that he does not believe what he says. In his heart of hearts he still believes that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to be found if only we had the right dogs to sniff them out.

No playwright's talents could render a portrait of George Bush onstage that could command the attention of an audience for two hours. I doubt that Shakespeare himself could have done so. True drama requires a gravity on the part of its hero and in Bush we have a man who cannot understand and feel the emotional weight of any situation, or recognize the consequences of his actions. If becomes clearer over time that he has never learned in the course of his misadventures, as he kept failing upwards toward the Presidency, the most essential lesson of life -- the value of other people's lives. For this inherited characteristic we need only look at his mother, Lady Barbara, the woman who thought that the poor people caught in the catastrophe of Katrina should be comfortable living in unprotected squalor since they were accustomed to it in their daily lives. George proved to be her true son when as the Governor of Texas he viciously mocked the plea of death-row inmate Karla Faye Tucker, the first woman to be executed in Texas, with his "Please don't kill me" impersonation for Talk Magazine. This, from a man who claimed that he was born again through the grace of God's forgiveness and love.

Some subjects cannot be dramatized because of their gravity. The Holocaust is one of them. Slavery is another. The pull towards sentimentalizing, and thereby diminishing the subject is so strong that our natural sympathies for the victims stand in the way of creating real people caught in horrible circumstances. True villainy is equally difficult to dramatize, but it has been done in such characters as Richard III, although it was easier in Shakespeare's day when Richard's hump could stand as a symbol for his twisted mind. Richard's consciousness of his own acts is part of his fascination. A character such as Bush who lacks such consciousness may preside over a country but he cannot command a stage. Bush's smirk is a poor stand-in for Richard's hump. Shakespeare shows us the allure of evil as Richard courts the wife of the very man he has killed and wins her. True evil always fascinates. John Milton was obliged to give Satan all the good lines in "Paradise Lost" because evil -- conscious evil -- in a Macbeth or a Hedda Gabler -- intrigues us onstage while virtue -- which we cherish in life -- will soon bore us in theatre. But equally boring is self-righteous, unexamined bad behavior, the kind we see in Bush on a daily basis. Here is a President who grabs for more and more power with each new failure.

Our political history is filled with complex characters that provide the material for great drama. Lyndon Johnson -- for all his buffoonery -- was a figure worthy of a great tragedy. He started with the noble goals of Civil Rights and a Great Society that would embrace all, and ended with a war that destroyed his presidency and cost thousands of young men their lives. Even Dick Nixon had his own malignant grandeur, a true fall from grace, or at least a fall from power through the very trickery that had brought him to power. It was no small achievement of his to reach out to China and to implement much of Johnson's Great Society. But this kind of accomplishment under a flawed leader cannot happen under George Bush. As Gertrude Stein famously said of California, "there is no there there."

We have three more years of Bush as the main player in our national drama, three more years of platitudes, certainties, grinning, winking, cajoling, but never owning the consequences of his own actions. Since he cannot change his act, we will continue to get what we see -- an empty man propped up with a foolish sense of his own worth, taking us from one new disaster to another -- that is, unless the other players in our national drama, the stumbling Democrats and few surviving decent Republicans effectively oppose a leader who cannot lead. We don't need a hero for our national play, just some strong supporting actors with enough courage and sense to stand up against this comedian in our tragedy. More important is an enlightened electorate who must ultimately take center stage and restore the values upon which this country was founded.