Now that we know the result, it is already perhaps easy to be nonchalant about what happened on November 4th. On the day of the American election, however, the ghosts of 2000 and 2004 had yet to be exorcised, and despite the fairly consistent poll leads Obama had enjoyed over McCain there remained considerable doubt about whether the country could make amends for its original sin, and do what would still be unthinkable in much of Europe, by electing a black man as leader.
I spent the day working in the New York Public Library, and watched as members of staff nervously wished one another good luck before clocking off. Their anxieties had no doubt been increased by Jeremiah Wright’s “God damn America”, which boomed continually from last-minute attack ads; by television newsrooms reporting on how voters trusted McCain on the issue of terrorism and by various pundits debating how the so-called “Bradley effect” would play out. When I came out of the library, I wandered towards Times Square and looked up at McCain’s face, enlarged to enormous size. Surely America would see the danger. Those giant, pock-marked jowls provided disconcerting evidence of the ticking time-bomb that would bring Sarah Palin to the White House.
The resourceful street-hawkers of Manhattan were taking part in a race of their own that evening, desperately trying offload an assortment of soon-to-be-superannuated novelty goods: “Palin, McCain and Obama condoms … get screwed by both parties!” one vendor cried out. “Why no Biden?” I inquired. The entrepreneur shook his head, then offered: “I’ve got McCain ones … old but not expired!” A disconcerting image flitted across my imagination of what my wife’s face would look like if I ever tried to wear one of these, so I let it pass.
I made my way on along Broadway to the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, to see the revival of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, directed by Simon McBurney. The venue was providing refuge for those of us who had fled from all the pre-result nerves and nonsense on television, and although the play would overlap with the results from the very first states to be announced, it would at least spare the audience the early hysterical elation or despair of a very long night.
McBurney’s production was also sprinkled with stardust in the form of John Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun) and Katie Holmes (Dawson’s Creek and Mrs Tom Cruise). Holmes, in her Broadway debut, looked hypnotically beautiful during the show – far more attractive than on screen and showing none of the Cruise oddness that might be expected. Yet at the very start of the production John Lithgow stole the limelight by ambling out with the rest of the cast and – in the charismatic fashion of a global television star – thanking the audience for turning out to see the show on such a day. He declared his hope that everyone would have a good election night, and pointed out that the real drama was going on outside.
For a number of years in the 1990s I used to have a Villa Park season ticket, and so have seen a few football games in which – because of relegation, promotion, or qualification – the result of another game being played elsewhere simultaneously takes on a significance at least as great as that of the match going on inside the stadium. On these disorientating occasions, spectators effectively witness two simultaneous performances: the game being described on portable radios and mobile phones, and the match happening in front of them. At such times, many of the usual rules of fandom go out of the window, as the cheers, boos, and chants bear increasingly little relationship to what the players are doing on the pitch.
The November 4th performance of All My Sons was the first time I had witnessed a similar thing happening inside a playhouse. Lithgow’s prefatory comments of course had planted a suggestion, but as the play continued it became clear that audience members were drawing their own links between Miller’s play and the election. At a relatively early point in the performance, one balding and uncertain character delivered the line “Maybe I too can get to be president”, eliciting a surprised whoop from the audience. Perhaps if Obama won then any American could indeed harbour this hope.
Later on, our imagined parallels became clearer. Miller wrote All My Sons in 1945, and the first act describes an American family that has been shattered by the disappearance of one of their sons, Larry, whose aeroplane went missing in action during the war. Three years later, Larry’s mother, against all reason and advice, still refuses to believe her son to be dead, and even continues to polish his shoes in the mistaken belief that he will return. For those who had been following the election campaign, it was easy to see, behind all these discussions, the image of John McCain, the comeback king, who based his remarkable presidential campaign on his missing five and a half years spent in a Vietnamese prison after his plane had been downed in 1967. And as the actors spoke of the pilot’s disappearance, the production underscored the emotion with music, a melodramatic flourish that perhaps indicated McBurney’s lack of confidence in Miller’s script yet somehow suited the heightened emotional atmosphere of the evening.
When the interval arrived at the end of the first act, the audience reached for their mobiles. Of course only a small number of votes had been counted by this point, but we could still dwell on the (entirely predictable) fact of Kentucky being projected for McCain, and Vermont for Obama. As discussion died down, the two-act second half began. Here we learn that the father of the family, Joe Keller (played by Lithgow), sold damaged aeroplane cylinder heads to the US Air Force. As an inadvertent result, twenty-one airmen died, with Joe’s son Larry deciding to commit suicide out of shame for his father’s actions.
If the story of the missing pilot in the first half had threatened – perhaps much against this New York audience’s inclinations – to make us sympathise with McCain, the downfall of Joe Keller in the second and third acts increasingly resonated with the dishonesties and evasions of the GOP. Now, in the second half of the performance, Miller’s Shavian story of wartime profiteering brought to mind nothing but Haliburton, Dick Cheney and all of those grand homes in Connecticut built on the mega-profits of recent wars.
Joe Keller, of course, has firm reasons for what he has done. He had been building up a business to ensure his family’s financial security and knew that cancelling his lethal shipment of cylinder heads would have ruined him. As he declares:
I’m in business, a man is in business; a hundred and twenty cracked, you’re out of business; you got a process, the process don’t work you’re out of business; you don’t know how to operate, your stuff is no good; they close you up, they tear up your contracts, what the hell’s it to them? You lay forty years into a business and they knock you out in five minutes, what could I do, let them take forty years, let them take my life away?
As Lithgow delivered these lines, a man sitting in front of me hissed “Joe the Plumber!” and was hushed by his companions. “Joe the Plumber” was of course that planted “surprise” element of the Republican election strategy, who had angrily ambushed Obama over tax policy on the campaign trail. There is no exact parallel between Joe the Plumber and Joe Keller, but perhaps the vocal spectator had been pointing out the affinities between these two owners of small American businesses. After all, both Joes – Keller and Wurzelbacher – are by their own lights simply men who want to run successful enterprises, and yet both feel themselves to be constantly placed on the back foot by hectoring officialdom and government.
Of course it was precisely this attitude that, as we know now, the American electorate decided to reject overwhelmingly. The Republican campaign was obnoxious not because the Hockey Mom and Joe the Plumber sought to better themselves and look after their own families, but because the Hockey Mom and Joe the Plumber were a version of Joe Keller, who could only see the value of their immediate family at the expense of the rest of society and of any wider political engagement. According to this parochialism, it is OK to drill in Alaska, bar the poor from hospital, bomb the Middle East, and even – as we now know from in a leak from one of those who briefed Palin – remain ignorant of whether Africa is the name of a continent or a country.
At the end of Miller’s play, Joe Keller (“Joe Killer”?) realises that it was never enough to worry about the security of only his own offspring, but that he needed to show concern about other young men as well and take care of “all my sons”. And McBurney’s production certainly made sure we couldn’t miss the moral. At the point when Joe finally kills himself, the historical setting of 1945 was ruptured as McBurney catapulted us into the present. A modern, multi-racial crowd scene was projected onto the set, showing the kind of strangers we might meet in the streets outside and for whom we ought to take some responsibility. After all, there is nothing wrong with looking out for people, as Obama had said on the stump in response to McCain’s accusations of socialism. Indeed, in the president-elect’s second collection of memoirs, The Audacity of Hope, he had explained that his whole raison d’être in politics was to highlight “a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another”.
Miller’s play reaches the same conclusion, with the message that “You can be better! Once and for all you can know there’s a universe of people outside and you’re responsible to it”. And after the actors delivered this message (in which it was difficult not to hear something of Obama’s soaring rhetoric), the entire audience gave the play a standing ovation. Then, as the house lights went up, we were all back on our mobiles, to find that Obama seemed to be edging ahead in Florida and was being projected 174 electoral college votes to McCain’s 69.
I came out of the theatre and made my way up towards the temporary CNN screens and raked seating that had been erected near 46th street. By the time that I arrived at the Crossroads of the World, CNN had called Ohio for Obama, a key victory. No Republican in modern times had won the White House without winning that state. The Times Square crowd, realising just how good this news might be, went wild. Television camera crews buzzed about to capture the most excitable or emotional members of the crowd, and all seemed broadly satisfied with the man who was shouting “There is no such thing as African-America, there is only America!”
Much has been made of the fact that these televised pictures looked a lot like New Year. But in fact, compared to the weepy, backward-looking, and boozed-up celebrations of the holiday season, something quite different was going on. The election crowd in Time Square was exuberant and purposeful, drinking hot chocolate as they absorbed the latest numbers and percentages. I did notice one – increasingly bereft – McCain supporter, whose out-of-kilter clapping was creating an embarrassed no-man’s-land all around him. But for the vast majority of the crowd, the news being delivered by Campbell Brown, the CNN anchor, was confirming what it had hardly dared to hope. As the clocks ticked past 10pm we heard that McCain could scarcely hope to accrue the necessary votes in the electoral college.
By 11pm we knew the result, and McCain finally appeared on the screens to accept the inevitable. Boos at first rang out along Broadway, but as the Arizona senator spoke, the crowd increasingly started to applaud. He was, after all, being pretty gracious in defeat. And CNN was doling out popcorn and hot chocolate.
At midnight came the moment that we had been waiting for, when the image of the new president-elect appeared from Chicago. Or at least it did briefly. After embracing his wife and two children Obama took to the podium in Grant Park. His thin, pipe-cleaner frame suddenly looked frighteningly fragile and vulnerable before that enormous crowd. Then, without warning, the CNN feed cut out. The screen went dead just as Obama was about to speak. Oh God, I thought: they’ve shot him. One of those bastards who chanted “Terrorist” and “Kill him” at the McCain-Palin rallies has finally carried out the threat.
Of course when the sweating CNN technicians began dashing around the screens it soon became clear that only the cable television equipment was damaged. One wry section of the crowd swapped their earlier chant of “U-S-A!” for “N-B-C!” But as the seconds ticked by and the CNN crew threw up their hands in frustration, the whole crowd, thousands of us, started to move, filing away from the seated area and racing down Broadway to find the next screen that might be showing Obama. Had ever, I wondered, police officers waved and smiled as so many people – and so many young African-American men in particular – stopped traffic by racing in groups along the streets of central New York? No matter: this multi-ethnic crowd was now bounding, bouncing along the street, smiling and laughing and cheering and chanting: All My Sons.
Of course we have seen new dawns before, have we not? In a remarkable passage in The Audacity of Hope Obama himself has acknowledged that “I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them.” And indeed he is bound to. But on the night when the keys to the White House were handed to that Indonesian-Hawaiian-Kenyan-Kansan from Chicago, it genuinely felt that America had grown to love the world again, and that – for one evening at least – the world might once more fall in love with America.
All My Sons, by Arthur Miller, (labelled “2008 Broadway Revival Edition” in USA), Christopher Bigsby (intro), Penguin, 85pp, $12.00, ISBN: 978-0141185460
The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama, Canongate Books, 384pp, £8.99, ISBN 978-1847670830
James Moran lectures in English at the University of Nottingham, and is the author of Staging the Easter Rising: 1916 as Theatre, published by Cork University Press.