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Inauguration of Barack Obama gives public theater a much needed lift

January 21, 2009 | 12:48 pm


Theater, as any stage veteran can tell you, is a two-way street between performers and audiences, with emotion traveling back and forth in waves of accelerating force. There’s no better example of this powerful circuitry than Tuesday’s presidential inauguration, in which a sea of grateful, joyous, tear-streaked humanity flooded the National Mall to witness the swearing-in of America’s first black president, Barack Obama.

The emotional responsiveness of those in attendance ratcheted up the theatrical occasion. Bundled in the frigid cold, citizens from all walks of life stood in celebration and amazement, their emotions primed by the magnitude of the ceremonial occasion, the grand historical setting and the resonant date, one day after the commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth.

Hero-worshiping chants filled the air, but just as we’ve come to expect from this meditative political superstar, Obama took the opportunity not to indulge the sentimental outpouring of the crowds but to shape it in a more challenging and analytical direction.

He talked to us as fellow adults, urging us to move beyond the stalemate of partisan divisions and the narrow interests that neither our country nor the wider world can afford anymore. He reminded us that

Tim_mcgregor_has_tears_in_his_eye_3history isn’t simply a face on Mt. Rushmore but the ongoing struggle of people not unlike ourselves. Adopting a biblical tone, he told us it was time “to set aside childish things,” and he refused throughout to underestimate our capacity for complexity and tolerance for contradictory truths.

The performance was remarkable for its sharp intelligence and moral clarity. But just as striking was the discipline Obama exhibited not to succumb to the feelings that were overtaking his listeners. The actor cannot melt into the swelling audience response; private emotions, even when fueling one’s real-life part, must be contained.

This is not a job for ordinary sappy mortals, but then Obama had already resisted the warm perfumed bath of poetry in favor of cold water prose in the text of his speech. The rhetoric was unvarnished, the metaphors unstilted, and those potted antitheses from inaugurations past (“Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country”) were kept to a minimum.

Indeed, the speech wasn’t about Obama’s lyricism but the collective action that’s needed to confront the dire state of national affairs. As the Rev. Joseph Lowery put it in his stirring benediction, “He has come to this high office at a low moment.”

Chief_justice_john_roberts_slips_onThe vivid images of authentic diversity, of belated racial progress, of an eloquent man of ideas replacing one who distrusted intellectualism were salient theatrical facts. Less consequential but symbolically curious were the sights of departing wheelchair-bound Vice President Dick Cheney, injured from moving boxes, and Chief Justice John Roberts flubbing the order of his words while administering the oath of office to Obama.

President Bush may have looked slightly less chipper during the ceremony as Obama pointedly rejected “the choice between our safety and our ideals” and an economic philosophy that “favors only the prosperous.” But there could be bipartisan agreement on the underlying lesson of governmental practicality and communal and personal responsibility.

One could sense the 44th president pitching his theatrical tent as widely as possible for the occasion. Yet there was nothing mawkish about the ceremony (Ashford & Simpson didn’t get to perform their irony-decimating “Solid as Barack”), and the speech was tough all around. Like the best dramatists, Obama refused to dole out cheap consolations, and though dark clouds of pessimism were held at bay, there was a persistent demand for honest reckoning.

The one line that jumped out of Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem contemplated a “love with no need to preempt grievance.” The phrase lit up Michelle Obama’s face with the inward recognition that only literary language can provoke, and it articulated a subtle but unmistakable motif: Progress is to be gloried in, but it needn’t entail amnesia.

Rick_warren_delivers_the_invocati_2 The Rev. Rick Warren gave a heartfelt invocation, yet it was Bishop V. Gene Robinson’s prayer from Sunday’s We Are One event at the Lincoln Memorial that continued to resound with its commitment to social justice. Asking the Almighty to “bless us with anger at discrimination,” Robinson dared to name those groups whose civil rights struggles sadly still take courage to mention.   

Formal ceremonies are meant to reaffirm the morals and values of its society, but memorable drama pushes the envelope. The inauguration was always extremely moving as theater, but it turned dramatic only when voices were raised to remind us of what too many would prefer to forget.

Probably the bravest instance was when Obama, in considering “the meaning of liberty,” praised a country in which “a man whose father less than 60 years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.”

Difficult truths, hopefully delivered. Aristotle is the first to have elucidated the salutary function of theater to purge dangerous emotions by compelling us to fully experience them.

Tuesday’s inauguration had moments of cathartic healing when the country’s deepest scars revealed themselves, and rather than alienating members of the audience, it offered the thrilling sense of a deeper integration.

— Charles McNulty

Top photo: Members of the audience listen as President Obama addresses the crowd Tuesday. Credit: Ken Cedeno / Bloomberg News. Second photo: Tim McGregor of Cape Cod, Mass., has tears in his eyes as Obama speaks. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times. Third photo: Chief Justice John Roberts slips on his lines while administering the oath of office. Credit: Tim Sloan / AFP / Getty Images.  Fourth photo: The Rev. Rick Warren delivers the invocation. Credit: Pat Benic / EPA