The Theater of the Absurd was the vogue of the '60s, when the cry was "anything goes." and everything did. Characters on stage, usually larger than life, invited audiences to reflect on the comedy of human existence, to shock them out of the complacency of everyday life. Such drama was particularly popular in New York City, the cultural capital, where baby boomers were coming of age and establishing the unconventional as the prevailing cultural values.
Something else was going on in Washington, D.C., the political capital, where an older generation was in power. The boomers' anger was focused on human tragedy: the mounting loss of young American lives in the Vietnam War. Washington was a different kind of absurd theater, one demanding change from then-President Lyndon Johnson, the embattled commander in chief. Protests became part of social life for thousands.
In "The Armies of the Night," Norman Mailer's Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the 1967 peace march on Washington, he describes how protesters arrived in Washington in great numbers, promising to levitate the Pentagon. Protesting doesn't get much more absurd than that.
Despite huffing and puffing, the Pentagon wouldn't rise. But the protests and elaborate theatrics contributed to ending the unpopular war — which took the lives of over 58,000 Americans — and Saigon eventually fell. Johnson decided not to run again, and the "domino theory," that a communist victory in one state would lead to a communist takeover in neighboring states, faded into oblivion. That particular game was over.
What a difference half a century makes. This week, President Obama traveled to Hanoi, Vietnam, to lift the ban on American arms sales to the communist country, a ban he called a relic of the Cold War. Vietnam, once a bitter enemy, now wants shelter in the arms of the United States.
The distance from that era can be measured by rhetoric. Gen. Curtis LeMay, former U.S. Air Force chief of staff and commanding general of the Strategic Air Command (that delivered the nuclear bombs to Japan to end World War II), boasted that the U.S. could "bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Ages." That didn't happen. Vietnam has inched forward into the high-tech age, and the United States is looking for ways to increase trade, investment, tourism and educational exchanges with its old foe. To show the world that even communists can change, Vietnam released a dissident. Rev. Nguyen Van Ly, a Roman Catholic priest and human-rights activist who has spent more than 20 years in prison or on house arrest, was freed.
Along with political theater, trends in drama have changed. The reigning Broadway hit is a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton, the Founding Father who created the U.S. banking system. Hardly anyone remembers "America Hurrah," three absurd dramas that satirized American consumerism and protested the Vietnam War with farcical juxtapositions and nonsensical action. But absurd sensibilities haven't disappeared. Absurdity merely changed venues; it now exists inside the two political parties as they choose their presidential candidate.
Hillary Clinton, who has dour policy prescriptions, speaks with deliberation and exhaustive seriousness while a Democratic circus erupts around her, leaving her to explain the chaos at the Nevada Democratic Party Convention, where Bernie Sanders supporters threw chairs in protest of party rules they think are devised to favor Clinton. California Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a Hillary surrogate, trembled at the lectern. This was theater as absurd as trying to levitate the Pentagon.
Clinton should have realized that she would have to earn a coronation months ago. Bill Maher, television pundit and Clinton supporter, began mocking her for losing primaries "to a 74-year old Jewish socialist" eight years after "she lost to a black man with a Muslim name." He told her, speaking as the kind uncle (or sympathetic cousin), "we're making this as easy as we can for you, but you're going to have to help a little." As endorsements go, it bordered on absurd.
Clinton's 11-point lead over Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate, has dwindled to a precious 3-point lead, as shown in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. It's likely to further diminish and disappear after the findings from the May 25 inspector general report — as secretary of state, she ignored her own national security warnings with her personal server.
This should put Trump on a roll, but he's playing in a theater of the ghostly absurd. He has resurrected skeletons from the Clinton family closet. It's a big one, reminiscent of Fibber McGee's. Millennials can look up McGee while they're looking up Vincent Foster, Juanita Broaddrick, Kathleen Willey and Paula Jones. Those names were once writ large in headlines, and now they're back.
"I created myself, and I'll attack anybody I feel like," said Edward Albee, the playwright master of the Theater of the Absurd. That sure sounds like the Donald.