Though a most dramatic statesman, Theodore Roosevelt had little understanding of drama itself. Since his student days at Harvard, he had delighted in reading Greek tragedies, but he once wrote to a friend, “I have never been able to see that there was the slightest warrant for resenting the death of Agamemnon on the part of his son and daughter, inasmuch as the worthy gentleman had previously slain another daughter . . . not to mention that he had obtained possession of that daughter, in order to slay her, by treachery, and that he had brought Cassandra home with him as his mistress.” If this excerpt displays Roosevelt’s upright morality, sense of fair play, and approval of violent recourse, it also shows a failure to comprehend the mechanics of the theater.
So perhaps it’s fitting that Jerome Alden’s play about Roosevelt,
Bully, isn’t much of a play at all. This one-man show, which enjoyed a Broadway run in 1977 starring James Whitmore, now features William Walsh. First attired in tan Western wear and later in black suit and bowler hat, Roosevelt paddles back and forth in memory’s slipstream, detailing his childhood and private life, then breaking off to greet unseen Japanese ambassadors or decline a third term in office. Though certain lines and scenes are imagined, Alden has leaned heavily on Roosevelt’s letters, speeches, autobiography, and other published writings. Sometimes Roosevelt addresses himself, sometimes the audience, and at other times “viewless companions,” from Woodrow Wilson to H.L. Mencken to his son’s pet raccoon. The resulting rhythm is a jerky one, as the extracts don’t naturally flow into one another, nor can Walsh finesse them. The show names no director and as a consequence these transitions go unsmoothed.
A directorial eye might have also improved a lamentably shoddy production design. An oversize American flag constitutes the backdrop, relevant to be sure, except this one boasts 50 stars, though the U.S. boasted only 48 states at the end of Roosevelt’s life, and the stage height allows for only 12 stripes to be displayed. (Apologies, Rhode Island.) And surely, even a modest production budget could have supplied hardcover books, for a scene in which Roosevelt reads to his second wife, Edith, rather than Sam French playscripts, or a gun that wasn’t so irredeemably plastic.
In a famous 1899 speech, Roosevelt announced that he wished to preach “the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife.” We cannot speak to Walsh’s life, but he does give a strenuous and sometimes impressive performance. He seems to have mastered Roosevelt’s distinctive, if nearly unintelligible manner of speech—a series of growls uttered through bared teeth in which many of the niceties of syllabication seem to have been lost on their journey from the back of the throat to the tip of the tongue. Walsh shades Roosevelt’s folksy mien with considerable power and energy. But he lends every utterance a tonal sameness, albeit a loud and vigorous one, whether he’s admiring the cuddliness of bear cubs or mourning his son, who was shot down in World War I. Indeed, Walsh does manage to convey a man whom Henry James could name “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding noise,” if not Mark Twain’s observation that Roosevelt was “clearly insane . . . and insanest upon war and its supreme glories.”
Indeed, Alden’s play glosses over many of the pricklier aspects of Roosevelt’s career. There’s some teasing in the detailing of Rough Rider exploits and hunting expeditions, but a solemn treatment of his settling the Russo-Japanese war, his antitrust crusades, and his conservationism. It presents a man who, though perhaps immodest and immoderate, was outspoken in his beliefs, plain in his dealings, and unhypocritical in his morals. However, the script overlooks Roosevelt’s priggishness. (Not many Harvard men confess to their journals, “Thank heaven I am at least perfectly pure!”) Alden also ignores Roosevelt’s ambivalent attitudes toward women, African Americans, and those “wild” Native Americans. Nor does he dwell on his almost pathological jingoism or martial enthusiasm. This loving father not only insisted that all four sons should enlist in World War I, but pushed them toward the frontlines. (Alden does, however, detail how Roosevelt, though nearly 60, tried to persuade Wilson to let him take a brigade to France.)
Contemporary biographies concern themselves too much with fault and scandal, but it is no improvement to treat their subjects too uncritically. Most of our presidents have been men of great power and no little complexity. We do them and ourselves a disservice when we simplify their actions and motives, rendering them either too vicious or too virtuous. A more nuanced portrait of Roosevelt would have been welcome, or at least a more thoughtful rendition of Alden’s script, particularly now, when many historians are drawing parallels between Bush’s adventures in Iraq and the Spanish-American War of Roosevelt’s day.
In The Folly of Empire: What George W. Bush Could Learn From Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, author John P. Judis warns of consequences should we ignore “the important lessons Americans drew from [McKinley and Roosevelt’s] brief and unhappy experiment in creating an overseas empire.” If we who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it, we might at least request that the lessons be more edifying than those Bully offers.