A bit of magic happened at the Philadelphia Theater the other night that has a lot to do with American journalism. The whiskey voice of Molly Ivins – the satirist of all things worth assaulting in Texas and most of America – came alive again in the whiskey voice of actress Kathleen Turner.
Molly’s voice was stilled by cancer three years ago and those who knew her work still ask in this time of political craziness, “What would Molly say?” She gave us the word “Shrub” as a diminutive for George W. Bush and it is clear today that she had it right long before WMD’s; his pint-sized achievements echo in our scramble to get out of wars, economic ditches, water-boarding, Guantanamo, and a health care system that rewards the rich.
Audiences are quick to laugh at Ivins’s famous one liners during “Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins.” Of a Texas politician: “If his I.Q. slips any lower we will have to water him twice a day.” Of editors: “They’re mice training to be rats.” But the playwrights, journalist twin sisters Margaret and Alison Engel, wanted more than that and so they had to prune, if you will pardon the pun, some of the Shrubisms and other knife-sharp observations to provide a look at Molly the person as well as her dead-ass serious reasons for using humor. (Alas on the cutting room floor was her line after Pat Buchanan’s barn-burning shout out to the faithful at the Republican National Convention in 1992, “it probably sounded better in the original German.”)
The play’s point, made loud and clear, is that Ivins – like Twain and Will Rogers and her long time pal and First Amendment Laureate John Henry Faulk – used wit to make people think. Or tried to. As she said when she wrote her second book of Shrub (along with Lou Dubose) after Bush was re-elected, “If enough of you had read the first book we wouldn’t have had to write the second!”
Molly was a compassionate lover of humanity as much as she was an outraged thunderer against injustice. Now what does this have to do with the rest of journalism? Several things. First of all, when the back screen flashes on a photograph of a newsroom during her early days in journalism, Turner-as-Molly asks, “Now what is wrong with this picture?” and the entire audience roars knowingly. It was all men. So there’s been some change in 40 years.
However, it is an everlasting shame that the poobahs of the fourth estate never gave her the Pulitzer Prize for commentary that she so richly deserved. Or that the New York Times, which hired her to “be Molly,” fired her for “being Molly.” Or that the Washington Post seldom published her syndicated column, going for carefully cautious pablum instead of a full rich meal. (Click here for an archive of that Ivins commentary.)
The stage set was all simplicity, Turner at a desk in the forefront, with a bunch of piled up news desks in the background, a metaphor easy enough for the dimmest wit to understand, the demise of print journalism as we know it. When Molly’s desk was wheeled back there with all the other discarded desks, following a brief reprise about her cancer, the theater remained sadly silent..
Real journalists, the real and good ones, adored Molly and one of them, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, was there beaming, thrilled that the show was not too cute, not too preachy but just right. As part of her legacy, Molly’s will benefits the ACLU and her beloved expose-happy Texas Observer, people who can be counted on to continue “being a pain in the ass to those in power.”
Now back to using humor. Today, Molly would be making us laugh, ripping into the Tea Party, the militia crazies, the crowd who insist that Obama came from another country or even another planet, and who call the hugely compromised health bill “socialized” medicine. She never gave a First Amendment speech without ending it with a line of Faulk’s, the Texas folklorist who was blacklisted, then won a massive libel suit but never got a cent because the red baiters were bankrupt. The onstage Molly repeats it. “We get so rattled by some Big Scary Thing – communism or crime, hell, even sex – we think we can make ourselves safer by giving up some of our rights. Johnny said, ‘When you make yourself less free, you are not safer. You are just less free.’ ”
Ivins was a best seller and the Philadelphia Theater Co. had to extend the run a week to accommodate her fans. The playwrights are not certain where this one woman show is going after April but let’s hope it finds a home, not just on the stage, but on HBO so that the masses will see it.
They have to know what Red Hot Patriotism looks like.