Stop Calling Ted Cruz “Political Theater”

Matinee idol Ted Cruz.


When commenting on Republican Texas Senator’s 21-hour non-filibuster on Wednesday, which sought to delay (or just obfuscate) a scheduled Senate vote on Obamacare, one word immediately leaped to the lips of news anchors, talk show hosts and political analysts.

“A moment of theater,” quoth one CNN reporter, “among many moments of theater.” To which a guest commentator on the same network responded “A moment of theater, yes. But a theater of the absurd that makes a mockery of the process.”

Peggy Fikac did a nice piece for the San Antonio Express comparing Cruz’s presentation to Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ actual filibuster this past June opposing proposed anti-abortion legislation. Though she doesn’t use the phrase in the body of the article, Fikac’s story was subtitled “Comparing two acts of political theater.”

A blog called Little Green Footballs posted “Let’s Call Ted Cruz’s Fake Filibuster What It Was: Theater for Morons.”

(Oh, great. Now what are we going to call Tony & Tina’s Wedding?)

Rush Limbaugh announced “I just heard [conservative pundit] Michael Barone say, ‘Well, this is nothing but theater.  All Ted Cruz has done is engage in something that’s impossible.’ It’s not theater.  This is real.  This is about freedom.”

(There has never, apparently, been theater about freedom. Cats and The Whipping Man simply don’t exist.)

New York Post John Podhoretz wrote “All in all, the Cruz performance was great political theater.”

(Is Podhoretz hoping to take over from Michael Feingold as the overseer of the Obie Awards?)

Aaron Goldstein in The American Spectator, meanwhile, opined that “Cruz certainly understands the value of political theater and I wish more Republicans utilized it to their advantage. But as with Rand Paul, I am troubled by how Cruz utilized political theater.”

The blog deathandtaxes remarked “The 15-hour speech [Cruz] gave last night was not a filibuster. It was a 15-hour speech. A filibuster, by nature, functions to delay Senate activity. Which this did not do, and was not even meant to do. It was meant to be a 15-hour infomercial for Ted Cruz, and Ted Cruz alone. It was theater.”

Whoa. You’re going to go into the intricacies of filibustering, then expect to get away with the premise that what you’ve just labeled a speech and an infomercial is theater?

But even Cruz himself used the T-word as a guest on Limbaugh’s show a few hours after he stopped speaking on the Senate floor. “They have stopped listening to their constituents,” Cruz said of his fellow Senators, “and as a result we see lots of theater, lots of symbolic votes and very little willingness to actually stand up and fight.”

I have often blanched at the use of “political theater” to describe what is actually poor political speechmaking or overt attempts at grandstanding. (Don’t get me started on the misuse of “Theater of the Absurd.” Ionesco’s rolling.)

Political theater, to my mind, is Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, or Shakespeare’s Richard III, or Barbara Garson’s MacBird, or the San Francisco Mime Troupe, or Bertolt Brecht, or Augusto Boal, or Caryl Churchill, or Athol Fugard, or Bread and Puppet. To some, performances or pageantry at rallies or demonstrations—the Yippies levitating the Pentagon, or the occupation of government buildings—can be called “political theater.”

A guy posturing at a podium? Without anything remotely resembling dramatic structure? Totally oblivious to the tastes of his audience?

Who wants to claim that as any kind of art?

Politicians are often clueless about the arts—witness the latest gutting of the NEA—so allow me to provide a few pointers. Unless you’re Robert Wilson doing the CIVIL warS or Ken Campbell doing Neil Oram’s Warp cycle, 21-hour performances are seldom considered great theater of any kind.

If you are going to perform an open-ended, multi-hour improvised monologue in a public forum, most theater professionals would recommend appropriate costumes, lighting and sound design to augment the proceedings. Having a director and dramaturg standing by would help. Rehearse a bit, especially if the whole thing is going to be televised on C-SPAN.

And if you’re going to recite Green Eggs and Ham in a so-called theater performance, be aware that the book in question has already been handily musicalized and choreographed as the showstopping curtain call number of the Broadway hit Seussical—The Musical.

Not that I’m requesting a revival, you understand. I just don’t want elected officials tossing around “theater” like they know what it means. Of course, given the content of Cruz’s speech, I’m not even sure he knows what “politics” means.