Joseph Alsop, a warrior with a typewriter, is the unusual subject of the Florida Studio Theatre‘s new play, The Columnist, which opened this weekend. The William F. Buckley-esque Alsop was a permanent fixture on the Washington, D.C. social scene, culminating in a visit from President John F. Kennedy on the night of his inauguration. Playwright David Auburn, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his play Proof, chose to feature Alsop when he researched the Vietnam War and continuously found Alsop’s name among the footnotes of history. Alsop was an outspoken advocate as a behind-the-scenes advisor to Kennedy and publicly through his ubiquitous columns supporting the now-besmirched war.
This proved an interesting week to premiere this play about the meaning and efficacy of war, given that during his confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran who is noted for questioning that war as well as this century’s wars in Iraq and Afganistan, was raked over the coals by hawkish senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham. During the painful-to-watch proceedings, which have run repeatedly on television for the past several days, McCain and Graham tried to get Hagel to admit he was wrong to question our country’s love affair with war. The nomination hearing gives Americans the chance to consider whether the Defense Secretary ought to defend our country through peaceful means or whether we must test a nominee’s willingness and desire to go to war; and Hagel has become a flashpoint for this important question.
Alsop came from a politically well-connected family, related to both Presidents Theodore and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which gave him a unique insider status and incredible access to the highest echelons of power. He elected to serve in World War II as a historian with the Flying Tigers and was even held captive in Hong Kong by the Japanese. Additionally, he was a closeted homosexual whose status was an open secret in Washington. His life experience shaped him as a writer and public policy advocate, and he proved to be a fascinating figure with whom to spend a couple of hours. Jeff Plunkett brilliantly portrays the complex Alsop by capturing both his pomp and his genuine humanity. Although Alsop dismisses coverage of civil rights, he vigorously defended those accused by Senator Joseph McCarthy of communism.
His marriage of convenience to the lovely and long-suffering Susan Mary (played by Rachel Moulton, who sizzled in last season’s Jericho) enabled him to host parties for the who’s-who in Washington and gave him the chance to play doting stepdad to his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Marie Claire Roussel). Although his politics are difficult to stomach with the benefit of hindsight, he proves to be a charming relic, especially in his sparring scenes with his beloved brother and his heart-to-heart with Abigail, who drops out of Harvard to oppose the war he so staunchly supported. Pulitzer-prize winning writer David Halberstam reports from the field in Vietnam and joins the ranks of a new brand of journalists who look critically at government policies. Halberstam and Abigail represent the younger generation who question authority, while the Alsops stay firmly rooted in the old guard.
Alsop declares early in the play that he tells his readers what to care about, and The Columnist pulls back the curtain on a bygone era when a powerful writer could influence geopolitics. As much as we may criticize the media today, the proliferation and choice of sources has democratized our political system as we march toward an era of greater social justice and political awareness. This exploration of a long-forgotten political figure reminds us that, although the lack of a clear guide through the messiness of politics can be destabilizing, our country is the better for it.
For tickets to this thoughtful and well-acted production of The Columnist, go to floridastudiotheatre.org.