By Paul Deblinger
Life sometimes produces strangle confluences. For me, it’s usually when two seemingly disparate creative endeavors collide. In this instance, it was the collision of Mad Men’s May 5th episode “For Immediate Release” and the staging of the play “A Walk in the Woods” at Burning Coal Theater by Raleigh’s Exit Through Eden (show continues May 17-19, exitthrougheden.org).
Both deal with the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, a doctrine dating back to the Cold War that produced the arms race and the decades-long stand-off between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was a game of chicken played out to the horror of Earth’s total destruction. If either of the Super Powers pushed the button, they would both be destroyed.
For those of you who aren’t Mad Men aficionados, the AMC series about a Madison Avenue ad agency is set in the 1960s and straddles events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations, and the Vietnam War.
A Walk in the Woods is a 1988 play by Lee Blessing that is based on an event that took place during 1982 arms treaty negotiation in Switzerland: The American negotiator Paul Nitze and his Russian counterpart, Yuli Kvitsinsky, hammered out a framework for an arms agreement while taking a walk in the Geneva woods.
The Mad Men episode has two parallel storylines that deal with Mutually Assured Destruction. Pete encounters his father-in-law in a high class Manhattan brothel. In a talk with a colleague after the meet-up, he is told that his father-in-law won’t spill the beans to Pete’s estranged wife because it’s mutually assured destruction. “That’s why I’m not afraid of the bomb,” Pete’s colleague tells him.
Later in the episode, main character, Don Draper, encounters Ted Chaough, the creative director from a competing agency, in a Detroit bar the night before they are both to pitch GM about a Chevy account. At the bar they realize that GM is using their two small agencies to milk cutting-edge ideas to pass along to the mega agencies that they usually deal with.
Draper and Chaough realize they are being used. “We’re both dead,” says Chaough and then they hatch a plan to merge their two agencies–“Both of us have the creative, but neither of us has an agency to match,” Draper tells his adversary.
GM has set up the two agencies like two cats tethered together, their mutual destruction assured, yet they wriggle out of their predicament with outside-the-box thinking.
Unfortunately, Pete’s fate isn’t as certain. He pushes the mutually assured destruction angle to his father-in-law (who has provided Pete with his largest account) but his father-in-law pushes the button, effectively blowing them both up.
The Exit through Eden production of A Walk in the Woods is similar to the mano-a-mano encounters in Mad Men. In sparkling performances from Raleigh actors, Eric Hale and J Chachula, the Soviet and American negotiators play verbal volleyball as the safety of the world hangs in the balance. Ken Hubbell’s spartan, subdued set provides sharp contrast to the tension between the actors. As the two sit on a wooden park bench in front of stylized linden trees, the semiotics of the play dance in the wind like so many leaves.
Over the years, many of the reviews of A Walk in the Woods treat the play solely as a political piece and describe the diplomatic styles of the two characters. What separates the old reviews from this 2013 staging of the play is the continuing flow of history, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
I originally saw the play right before the Berlin Wall fell. At that time, it was easy to look at it as a purely political piece by a playwright seeing the absurdity of the rapid build-up of nuclear weapons in the 70s and 80s, as the two Super Powers raced to the brink of economic bankruptcy through profligate military spending.
Now, 24 years after the Wall fell, the language in the play has different meaning. Recent college graduates know only of a “mythical” Cold War and even though there are still thousands of nuclear warheads left, the number has decreased since the fall of the Soviet Union. Now America’s enemies are not states, but amorphous terrorist groups (although politicians often sell us with the idea that there is an Al-Qaeda affiliate in every hut in the less-developed world).
So, in the age of a single Super Power, the possession or development of nuclear weapons by “rogue” states and the scary thought of terrorist organizations with nuclear material has changed the landscape of fear. The boundaries have been delimited as the game has changed and the number of potential players has expanded wildly. The meanings of A Walk in the Woods are not as clear as they were in the 80s or 90s.
If there is a fulcrum in the play, it is the word “friends” and how it is bandied about by the two characters. The Russian negotiator Andrey Botvinnik (Hale) wants to be friends with his American adversary John Honeyman (Chachula). The American resists; he is new at the grand old game while the Russian is a veteran who has dealt with several American negotiators and the continuing impasse.
The American is dead set against any type of friendship. He wants to use the opportunity in the woods to dig beneath the diplomatic costume of Botvinnik and find his soft spot, so they can negotiate effectively, away from the charade of world politics.
The Russian tries to get the American to engage in “frivolous” talk, about Minnie Mouse, for instance. He even brings up baseball and movies and anything else to distract the American. But Honeyman won’t budge. His taciturn personality is all business.
The verbal volleyball morphs into verbal chess with the endgame being the destruction of the planet. They both know it, and know they are merely pawns on the chessboard of geopolitics, but each of them senses a thin glimmer of hope–the only thing that keeps them going.
“We look across the table and see ourselves,” the American says to the Russian. They are doppelgangers in a sense: the American couched totally in his work and in diplomatic language while the Russian, weary of his years playing real-life Risk, tries to retreat into the natural world, but feels detached from it. Knowing the American has a fondness for botany, the Russian picks a flower and asks the name. The reply from the American: “flower.” So much for the natural world.
As the play moves on the verbal sparring becomes more intense: the semiotic nature of diplomatic language breaks down into the language of emotion, frustration and personal fear.
Both Chachula and Hale handle the shifts in tone precisely. Hale, admirably, delivers the Russian accent seamlessly while Chachula gradually transforms the stone-cold nature of Honeyman’s personality into a more emotional persona. Honeyman hasn’t fully realized he is just a cog in a hopeless machine, a messenger of nuance. His awakening brings forth an emotional explosion. Chachula’s range adds depth to the American diplomat’s character.
Perhaps the meaning of the play springs from one line uttered in exasperation by the Russian: “History is geography over time.” (Think of the crisis in the Middle East).
At the opening of the third act Botvinnik fails to catch a rabbit with his hands in the woods. He talks about how as a child he caught rabbits, then rats for food during World War II. Honeyman had already chastised him for his references to the war, saying it was 40 years ago, but Botvinnik reminds him that 20 million Russians were killed and the their countries look at the world through distinctly different lenses.
As the two characters try to drag their diplomatic language from the conference table to the woods, they gradually understand that the veil of diplomacy does not survive in the woods among the lindens and the flowers. They must discard the geographic ideologies that anchor world politics.
In recent years several theaters have staged A Walk in the Woods with a male and a female character, which subtly alters the context of the play and shifts the semiotics up a notch–in the same way that time has shifted the meaning.
In two-character plays, it is easy to fall into the trap of reading too much into the structure of the play, but in Blessing’s choice of material, a verbal war between two diplomats, the tone is suggested from the first word: there are modes of language that diplomats use to play their game and this language is superimposed over the histories and personalities of the characters.
It’s the same in Mad Men, where there are many scenes where two characters are isolated in a war of words. The language of the ad business overlays the dialogue as in the case of Draper and Chaough sitting in the bar realizing they are being played as pawns in a bigger game.
They have their own agendas which aren’t fully set aside but manage to come together to save their own skins and avoid destruction. There will be more battles down the road, but for now there is peace.
When Pete’s father-in-law pushes the button he effectively negates the whole meaning of Mutually Assured Destruction, leaving Pete twisting in the nuclear wind.
In A Walk in the Woods Botvinnik suggests that they would be more effective if they negotiated at the bottom of a missile silo instead of in the idyllic woods of Geneva. When Honeyman offers the idea that all people want peace, Botvinnik says, if that is true there would be just two soldiers in the world and millions of peace negotiators instead of the reverse.
A Walk in the Woods drifts to an end without any definitive solution and the nuclear arms race and the stalled negotiations continue. Mad Men, though set in the 60s, shows the consequences of believing in myths, especially the myth of Mutually Assured Destruction. The two scenes show that the world is in a lot more peril than the strategic myth of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Draper’s life matches the perils of the 60s. He dances through the 60s inventing new escapes as much as he comes up with new creative for his ad accounts. He is truly a creative director.
If one observes the modern dramatic landscape of U.S. politics it is easy to see how we no longer have outside enemies, but direct our threats internally. We don’t negotiate with Russians–instead we have substituted a Republican vs. Democrat cold war.
It would be fun to change the characters in A Walk in the Woods to a black President and a white Speaker of the House and substitute health care or taxes or budget for missiles.
If history is really just geography over time, then our modern politics will go on and on trapped in an endless and meaningless negotiation that has been fought to a standoff since the Civil War. What do we wish for? In the arms race, the dissolution of the Soviet Union appeared at the time to be a victory for the United States, but it has lead to an endless war on “terrorism” and an internal political battle that has no certain outcome.
Perhaps Pogo was right after all: “We have met the enemy and it is us.”
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Paul Deblinger has spent a lifetime in the media business, from a youth interning at The Washington Post, then editing The Penny Dreadful at Bowling Green (which went on to become the Mid-American Review,) to years writing a horse racing column, and covering the Minneapolis sports beat as a local AP stringer, to publishing a travel guide, and a more recent run in Durham culminating in a certificate from the Center for Documentary Studies and a coterie of projects in the works.
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