Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Program Note: The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley

Trav SD as JR Brinkley and Jenny Lee Mitchell as his wife Minnie
After the 2016 presidential election, I started having gatherings in my apartment, inviting friends and colleagues over for what I called “Resistance Readings.” These were informal gatherings in which we read aloud from theater created in countries from around the world in response to political crises.  We started with Václav Havel, then continued to Brecht, to Ionesco, to Beckett, to Mrozek.  I began to realize that much of my favorite work was written at those times, and it formed the canon of what Martin Esslin termed absurdist theater. I loved those plays because they integrated the elements of political ideas, farce, and tragedy, just the sort of work I try to do with Untitled Theater Company No. 61.
I was searching for a way to respond to modern America, of course. My answer eventually came not only from those playwrights, but from history. Listening to a podcast, I heard some brief information about John R. Brinkley, the subject of this play. He has obvious parallels to Trump, but I was also fascinated by the world he was part of. What I found particularly intriguing is that most of the seeds of what we think of today as right-wing identity already existed in Brinkley’s time.  In fact, he helped define many of those elements, from its connection to country music to conservative talk radio. 
I was also interested in him as a con man, and in the place we put con men within American myths. In some ways we scoff at them, but in others they are an embodiment of the American Dream, fighting their way to fame and riches no matter what it takes. And there is no question Brinkley was admired as much as he was hated.
Why have we more or less forgotten him? I could posit a number of reasons, but one guess is: he lost.  He was discredited and bankrupted, in the end.  But in his day, he was an important media star and politician, not just a notorious quack. And if things had worked out just right…well, who knows what he could have become. Or where he could have taken America.
The Resistible Rise of JR Brinkley is playing at the New York Fringe Festival October 12 - 28, 2018