Sunday, December 30, 2012

Children of the Reagan Generation

Thanks to my friend Ricki I wound up at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. yesterday to see Jon Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities.  It deals with the same issues that people like Mad Men for addressing, but without leaving the impression that anything cool is actually happening.

Reviews (LA Times and LA Weekly's) have focused on the frame of a political couple, Polly and Lyman Wyeth (center and right in the photo), who were big in the national Republican party during the Reagan years, and who have, in 2004, been retired for a while in Palm Springs. Their children do not share their conservative politics, and their daughter, Brooke (at left), a liberal and a writer, has arrived to spend her first holiday with them for a while.  The youngest son, an L.A. TV producer, is also there. The oldest son, who committed suicide in the 1970s, is there in the form of a book manuscript that Brooke, has recently completed. It is a tell-all book about her famous family and how they cruelly drove their oldest son to suicide out of hatred for and embarrassment about his anti-war politics and revolutionary drug-taking friends.  Brooke wants her family to read the manuscript and bless her decision to use a published book to air the truth about their lives.  We learn (SPOILERS scattered from this point on) that she has been helped by her aunt and Polly's sister, Silda, a recovering alcoholic who has her own scores to settle with her sister and with Republican politics, not necessarily in that order.

The "liberal" position is upheld in the play by the two women--Brooke and Silda--who have  been damaged by their lives under the reign of the self-righteous, authoritarian power in the family, the mother Polly (played wonderfully by JoBeth Williams).  But they don't really espouse their own positions and instead continuously criticize Polly's.  Polly is a dominating figure who was friends with Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and at one critical juncture had forced their fictional versions to back Lyman when they want to dump him.   The ongoing power of the parents is the real subject of the play, and runs deeper than Brooke's dislike for Polly's support for George W. Bush's wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, for Lyman's faith in Colin Powell, or for Polly's very frank hatred for the protest politics of the 1960s, which have clearly for her never ended.

Polly's position is clear from beginning to end: she hates weakness and admires strength.  "Families get terrorized by their weakest member," she says, referring to her sister Silda as someone she's had to take care of from start to finish--which financially at least is true. In one of the most quoted lines, she says, "I just think— The only way to get someone to not be an invalid is to refuse to treat them as such." (The audience loved Silda's response: "And there it is, folks: the entire GOP platform in a nutshell.")  When it becomes clear that Brooke's book is about her dead brother, Polly says two kinds of things.  One is "political" -- a standard conservative attack on the liberal / radical 60s:
The story of your brother. It’s drugs. Your whole generation, awash in drugs. The provocations, the absurd beard, the refusal to shower, to bathe, to adhere to the basic civilities of family life. He was stoned from the age of fifteen on, it made him dumb and it triggered his depression. Three generations, three generations of escapism. Lost. Drugs. Drugs actually destroyed the American century. Up the hill there, up the hill in Indio, the meth addicts, and you see them coming into town, wrecks.
There isn't much analysis, just a visceral antipathy for what she reads as a generation's break with the authority and more deeply the civilization of its parents.  The Reagan-era parents, embodied by Polly, once rejected by their children, were wounded, insulted, outrageous, furious, and unforgiving.  Baitz's Polly is a luminous portrait of a Reagan generation that condensed every social movement or progressive political idea into this rupture with, implied repudiation of, the goodness of their way of life.

The second kind of thing Polly says is parental. Referring to Brooke's view that publishing her version of the family's history is her right and of great benefit, Polly says,
Why is it that children are allowed a sort of endless series of free passes in this life, you know, and we’re expected to be the parents of children forever? This is a new phenomenon; once I was an adult, all of my parents’ indulgence ceased. You all want to stay children forever, doing whatever mischief you can think of. All you entitled children of the “me” generation. 
Polly is wrong about her children's politics and leftist motives, as in the first passage. She is right, as in the second passage, that her adult children remain childish.  Brooke replies with submissive wit, "By free-passes you mean 'free-will' of course?"  Her entire visit, in fact her book itself, is an effort to get not only attention but approval from her parents.  The effort is delusional and self-destructive: her parents couldn't possibly approve a project that claws open old wounds and embarrasses them all over again for something that had happened thirty years before, and for her to imagine that it could is infantile, a form of aggression that presents itself as victimized, which is of course exactly what her Republican parents see in everyone not of their political circle -- Romney's 47% etc etc.

Until we get to the major revelation, Polly and to some extent Lyman are much more impressive and even sympathetic than their twerpy children and the perceptive but completely unreliable Silda. Here's a core exchange between mother and daughter, regarding the publication of the book:

Polly (cont.) Whatever it is, whatever you do, you’re our daughter, and I will love you. I can’t stop you from doing what you will, I can’t prevent it. But you must know that whatever you do, there are consequences to your actions.  
Brooke What does that mean?  
Polly How could I trust you? How could I ever be in your presence, my dear? If you betrayed the trust of the family? A family that has so valued discretion and our good name in the past three decades. You would still be my daughter, but the meaning of it would change. You needed us. We came to the East Coast. A year of our lives, I thought of nothing but your well-being, your recovery. I could never in quite the same way avail myself— I know who I am. That is who I am. You would lose us. So you understand.
Polly does know who she is, while Brooke does not.  Polly's claim about the primacy of trust is entirely open and consistent with everything else she believes. She is a far more appealing character than is the passive-aggressive and dependent Brooke.

But Brooke is Polly's creation.  We don't know how she has produced Brooke exactly until the climax of the play--MAJOR SPOILER HERE.  In order to derail Brooke's book once and for all, Polly and Lyman finally tell the rest of the family the truth about their dead son: he never killed himself, but was ferried in secret by Polly and Lyman across the border to Canada, where he presumably still lives under an assumed identity.  Brooke has never gotten over her brother's death, and is shattered by this news. By the end of the play, we realize she really is victimized by her parents after all, whose genteel, sociopathic politics, Lyman says quite directly, flow from the capacity he discovers in himself, through this coverup, to lead a life of secrets and lies.

The revelation scene ends too abruptly. There's an epilogue six years later in which Brooke seems to have changed her book into celebrity pablum to cash in on the death of her parents.  The point is not to make Brooke an emblem of feeble-minded Democratic politics, though she is that, but an emblem of the capacity of the Reagan-era parents to destroy the independence of their children.  This is of course ironically what their childrens' generation was supposed to be about.

At one point Silda, pressing Brooke not to back down, says of Polly and Lyman and their Republican circle, "These people, driven by fear, have taken ownership of an entire country. And fear— fear led to punishment."  This is true of the parents, but it is equally true of the Reagan era's children.  What exactly are we still afraid of?