Can a President be impeached because he likes corn muffins? No, I am not talking about the next Democratic Party anti-Trump impeachment hoax. Almost 90 years ago, on December 26th, 1931 the most biting political satire ever written opened at the Music Box Theater on Broadway. Called Of Thee I Sing was the first successful American musical with a consistently satiric tone. What made it work, it captured the political feelings of the day. Today’s political feelings are very similar.
Interestingly we see some of the same movements today that were “popular” in the early 1930s. Specifically the Democratic Party’s move toward socialism, and phony impeachments. During the worst years of the Great Depression, between 1930 and 1935, there was a great attraction to socialism, thanks to the Soviet Union, and the American Communist Party.
While not a socialist, when FDR became President in 1932 he adapted some big-government socialist programs but they didn’t really work. In 1937 the US faced a recession that was almost as bad as the Great Depression which began in 1929. Despite what FDR fans will tell you, the economy didn’t correct itself until World War II forced the government to ease up on regulation and allow companies to do their jobs (sound familiar) to support the war effort.
It is in the environment of the worst years of the depression that Of Thee I Sing was produced. But in today’s climate of identity politics, and the radicalism of the Democratic Party, and impeachment being made meaningless, Of Thee I Sing, is just as relevant and biting as it was in 1931. The play lampoons identity politics lampoons a political system too tied up in personalities and silly little issues to fix the country’s economy, impeaching a president for nonsense reasons, and how a completely, gullible American people can be controlled at the hands of an excellent political media spin (sound familiar?). It speaks to politics today and is long overdue for a Broadway revival.
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Of Thee I Sing was so biting, so satirical, that the writers and cast of the play and were unsure of what the public’s reception would be, prompting one of the writers of the book, George S. Kaufman, to quip “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” Ah but it didn’t. In fact, Of Thee, I Sing was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize.
The creative team behind the musical was a Broadway All-Star team. The book was written by George S. Kaufman (You Can’t Take it With You) and Morrie Ryskind. The team’s previous collaboration was Animal Crackers, a Broadway musical they wrote for the Marx Brothers (Ryskind went on to write many of the Marx Brothers movies).
George and Ira Gershwin wrote music and lyrics. George Gershwin was perhaps America’s most celebrated composer of music at the time, writing everything from musicals to opera, classical music, and ballet. Ira Gershwin is one of the American musical’s greatest lyricists, who wrote for both stage and screen (including the original A Star is Born).
The play tells the story of presidential candidate John P. Wintergreen. As his campaign song says, “he’s the man the people choose, loves the Irish and the Jews (song below).”
For Vice President, the choice is Alexander Throttlebottom, a man best known for gaffes (sound familiar) and who throughout the play gets thrown out of essential meetings because, despite the fact he is the vice president, because no one knows who he is.
For the Wintergreen political campaign, the party elite (specifically political bosses Louis Lippman and Francis X. Gilhooley, newspaper magnate Matthew Arnold Fulton, Senators Carver Jones, and Robert E. Lyons) selects a political platform meant to avoid political controversy– the “love platform.”
The party elite also decides the bachelor Wintergreen needs to get married, so they hold a beauty contest. The selected winner is the sultry southern belle, Diana Deveraux.
As happens with most campaigns, the candidate throws a wrench into the plans. In this case, he refuses to marry the contest winner. Right after Miss Deveraux is announced as the winner, candidate John P. Wintergreen stops the pageant because he has fallen in love with the all-American Mary Turner whose primary qualification is, “some girls can make a pie made up of prunes and quinces, some make an oyster fry others are good at blintzes, some lovely girls have done wonders with turkey stuffings but I have found the one who could really make corn muffins.”
But immediately after the inauguration/wedding, the opposite party looks to impeach the new couple. Ms. Deveraux shows up to tell her story of winning the contest and being jilted by the new President she is “Jilted, Jilted, I’m a flower that’s wilted.”
The Supreme Court is called in to decide between corn muffins and justice. They march on to the stage singing:
“We’re the one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine Supreme Court Judges. We have powers that are positively regal; Only we can take a law and make it legal.”
Of course, back then the Chief Justice didn’t hide under a table when a key ruling was needed. That Supreme Court decided, “corn muffins are more important.”
After the court, the audience meets the least sympathetic character in the play, the French Ambassador. The Ambassador escalates the Diana Deveraux scandal, bursting into the White House demanding retribution for the affront to France. Affront? Yes, because contest winner Diana Deveraux is “the illegitimate daughter of an illegitimate son of an illegitimate nephew of Napoleon.”
France is not happy, so to placate the French, the political operatives decide to have the President impeached. The Senators begin their impeachment roll call (in a song of course) The Senate roll call for impeachment is not going well for Wintergreen, at least at the beginning, it looks like he will be thrown out of office. Just as the Senate vote is getting really gloomy, in bursts the First Lady, Mary Turner who announces she’s expecting. Since no expecting President has ever been impeached the impeachment is called off.
Of Thee, I Sing is an exceptional play because it connected with the mood of America during the first part of the depression. A mood that is similar to today, a feeling that Congress is tied up in their own underwear over political things rather than trying to get anything done and a president can be impeached over something stupid like corn muffins. Over and above the great music, comedy, and biting satire, the play has a sense of optimism; a feeling that however bad things get things eventually would turn out fine. That optimism is uniquely American.
Of Thee I Sing was revived a few times, a planned movie version starring the Marx Brothers never came together (thank God), and there was even a dreadful TV version starring Carroll O’ Connor (it was the musical comedy equivalent of the horrible Star Wars Christmas Special), but the play was never revived at the right time–like now.
Of Thee I Sing is merciless in the way it attacks all American institutions, the nine members of the Supreme Court care more about their image than justice (just like today), the Senators care more about their political party rather than doing their jobs (today’s Democrats) and a political establishment that doesn’t give a rat’s ass about what the country. They only care about maintaining power, and identity politics are more important than issues.
Some things never change.
This classic of American theater works best during a time when the country is facing political distress, at a time when the country looks for entertainment poking fun at what they are going through while understanding that as bad as things get, in the end, everything will be just fine. A time like today.
Oh…and the play ends with the Supreme Court deciding the gender of the presidential babies. They decide on twins, one boy, and one girl–because it was the politically expedient thing to do (sounds like John Roberts?).
And what of beautiful southern belle Ms. Deveraux? Vice-President Throttlebottom reminds us when the President is not able to fulfill his duty, that obligation is taken over by the Vice-President. So Throttlebottom gets Deveraux.
In the end, everyone is happy, the President has his Mary (and corn muffins). After all, as the song says “Posterity is Just Around The Corner”