Mickle Maher’s The Strangerer was a sell-out-success send-up of the George W. Bush vs. John Kerry debate of 2004. He returns to his favorite moderator-as-play-subject with his newest work, Jim Lehrer and the Theater and its Double and Jim Lehrer’s Double, part of Pivot Arts’ Live Talk series taking place at Steppenwolf Theater on November 9. We chatted about art and politics in anticipation of the show.
JE: Your play THE STRANGERER was a highly successful send-up of the John Kerry vs. George Bush debate moderated by PBS’s Jim Lehrer. What made you want to return to Lehrer as a character?
MM: Well, like a lot of my pieces, it started with a joke. In The Strangerer, for logistical reasons, we had two actors playing Lehrer on different nights — Colm O’Reilly and Brian Shaw — and I’d said to them both a number of times, joking, just post-curtain conversation, “One of these days I’m going to write a play called Lehrer Vs. Lehrer starring the both of you, ha ha ha.” And that was all that was until this election year when I felt like I had to say or do something about the current Hexennacht and just sat down and started at lights up, Lehrer #1 alone at home, with Leher #2 entering a few pages later. I’ve always felt Lehrer was the deepest of the characters in Strangerer, or the one with the most unanswered questions about what made him get up in the morning. He’s stuck around in the back of my head, and now here he is.
JE: Several debate moderators have been the center of attention these past few months, many of our politicians are out-sized personalities — do any of them inspire you as future subject matter?
MM: No, not really. I mean, I think when you talk about Jim Lehrer, you’re talking about every moderator of anything that ever needed moderating. He’s the quintessential. The perfect blend of “I am very approachable and real and sincere, and yet inhumanly objective and fair-minded.” No other moderator is nearly as interesting. And as far as out-sized personalities (ones in real life) go, politicians or otherwise, I’m generally not drawn to cast them in my stuff. A number of people have said to me “You’re going to write a play with Trump in it, right? He’s such a Mickle kind of character!” And I think, hmm, you don’t know my work I guess.
JE: There’s been so much drama in this election cycle and so much noise around the election. What do contemporary playwrights have to contribute during volatile political times that’s different from television satire or other political commentary?
MM: TV is about images, primarily, and theater’s strong suit is people talking and putting an excess of language in the middle of our evening. Politicians (maybe Trump is excluded from this) are artful in using language to cover over language — to make language say the least it can possibly say. So there’s something relief-giving about having them on a blackbox stage, live, speaking language that uses the air in the room and makes a sound when it’s said. All plays are comedies of manners in that they all, to one degree or another, show the mask of language and make stabs at lifting that mask away. So they’re good for talking about politicians and political language because rarely in life is that mask lifted.
JE: We had our first African American president, we may have our first woman president and the Chicago Cubs made it to the World Series. Which one of these events surprises you the most and why?
MM: I’m going to dodge this question and say that Trump is the most surprising thing to me. And that I’m surprised that I’m surprised by him. It feels like we on the left have been predicting him since at least the 30’s. So why am I so surprised? I guess it’s like a “woah, dude, this dream seems so real” kind of thing.
JE: The ever critical beer question. Which candidate would you most want to have a beer with? And would it be OK to order Pinot Grigio instead?
MM: I wouldn’t want to drink anything with Trump. And not just because of his general repellency, but because — and here’s my big theory about Trump — is that he’s the first candidate in our lifetimes who has deliberately run away from being like us. He makes no real effort to be a regular guy. He’s the Other, and that’s what he’s run on. He is an eccentric billionaire (a type we have a fondness for, generally, in the West), and proudly wears his ego inflammation and crippled sexuality on his sleeve. I wouldn’t want to have a beer with him because he so clearly doesn’t want to have a beer with me, or anybody else.
I’d be happy to have a glass of wine with Hillary Clinton. I think she’s remarkable for a lot of reasons, but most remarkable is how unremarkable her candidacy seems. This has been commented on before — why aren’t we all more amazed/wigged out by the first woman Presidential candidate for a major party? What makes her the least strange of any politician I can think of? Between Her and the Grand Guignol Fright Wig it’s like an election between the Superego and the Id. What a world.
Photo of Mickle Maher by Joe Mazza at Brave Lux