A Blast from the Past

by Michael Potemra


In today’s pile of books sent to us by publishers comes the welcome news that Barbara Garson is still going strong. I say this not because I am especially interested in her new offering — Down the Up Escalator: How the 99% Live in the Great Recession looks like an earnest effort to describe the economy in the Age of Obama, which is frankly a subject we all know more about than we’d ever want to — but because she gave me one of the most delightful reading experiences of my childhood.

Forty-five years ago, Garson wrote a satirical play called Mac Bird!, whose Swiftian premise was that none other than Lyndon Johnson was the mastermind of the assassination of President Kennedy. (I mean Swiftian in the quite precise sense: Just as Swift did not literally believe in eating children as a solution to food shortages, Garson has said she was not actually accusing LBJ of that crime.) In any case, so far, so dull: Back in the late Sixties, kooky conspiracy theories were a dime a dozen. What made Mac Bird! extraordinary was that it went deep into the treasure chest of Western culture to find the language for its parody: Mac Bird! transposed Macbeth into the 1960s, replete with puns and pentameter. It was one of the first and most eloquent tributes to Shakespeare I ever encountered, and – even after spending the last four decades traversing the complete works of Shakespeare countless times — I remember it fondly even today. Garson’s joy in language was surely an important part of the attraction for me; the satire also provided an emotional outlet — a way to laugh about the age I was growing up in, a terrifying time of the seemingly eternal Soviet threat, assassinations of American statesmen, Vietnam, and the overall fear that the nation was about to come apart.

Within a decade of my first reading of Garson’s dark play, Reagan had begun the implementation of a new morning in America; within two decades, the Soviet Union had vanished.

It’s good to remember, at a time like 2013, that we’ve made it through dark times before.


PS. In the original production, the role of the villainous Lady Mac Bird was played by . . . Rue McClanahan. Now there’s a Ph.D. dissertation topic for an enterprising scholar: “The Golden Girls and Their Long March Through the Institutions”!

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