Maybe Eastwood was on to something.
Look, three days of droll speech after droll speech with musical interludes from the Oak Ridge Boys can't possibly be anybody's idea of a good time. I think an experienced thespian such as Clint Eastwood realized at some point you need to kick it up with a skit, some drama, a one-man show. Something with characters, a protagonist and antagonist, a storyline, a plot, building tension.
I have read several astute opinions that equated Eastwood's gutsy performance of "The Chair" to The Theater of the Absurd, that genre of 20th century drama that gave the world Ionesco, Beckett, Brecht, Genet, Pirandello, Pinter, and others. Indeed, maybe Eastwood's genius escaped us all.
Absent characters are nothing new to The Theater of the Absurd -- indeed, they are more common than you would think. For instance, in one of Luigi Pirandello's plays six characters spend the play looking for an author who doesn't exist..
And in one of Samuel Beckett's plays two characters spend the entire play waiting for someone who never shows up.
Harold Pinter wrote a play in which one of the two main characters might as well not be there -- he's silent and motionless the entire play as his wife does all the talking.
Eugene Ionesco wrote a play with the eerily Eastwoodian title of "The Chairs" in which two characters frantically set up chairs for guests who never arrive.
Eastwood's problem is that he gave his performance in front of a Republican audience who couldn't possible grasp the existential dichotomies presented by classical absurdist theater. The Oak Ridge Boys, not Pirandello and Pinter, were more their style.
My principal complaint of Eastwood's "The Chair" revolves not around the Speaker's halting style, his disheveled look, or the sense that the performance did not appear to be either rehearsed or scripted, indeed at its most base level that is where Eastwood's genius lies.
There had been three days of glib and smooth, combed and styled, scripted and practiced performances. "The Chair" essentially dropped the car in reverse while it was gliding down the interstate at 60 mph, and nearly home. It was the jolt that woke people up and re-oriented and re-focused their thinking after three days of droll speeches that were starting to sound droningly alike. And none too soon as Rubio and Romney waited their turns back stage.
In fact, many considered Rubio's speech the best of the convention, and the astute observer knows why: the audience was alert and responsive because after "The Chair" there was a buzz, even an expectation, that anything might happen. As if men were nudging their wives and saying "Keep your eyes on the stage, Bertha, I think something's about to happen."
There's a maxim in theater that if a gun is shown in Act 1, it has to go off by Act 3. Eastwood showed that gun and loaded that gun and placed it on the fireplace mantle for all to see. The expectation, then, is that the gun might go off in Act 2, during Rubio's speech, but it never did. Nonetheless the drama had built and the tension had heightened as Romney took the stage for Act 3. But as Romney droned on it became apparent the gun, loaded with safety off, would stay on the fireplace mantle even as the curtain dropped. People were checking their programs to confirm that there was no Act 4.
Indeed, Eastwood risked his reputation to set the stage for what could have been the most explosive ending to any political convention in US history, but Romney could not grasp Eastwood's genius and could not adapt his performance to the electrified atmosphere in the hall and the edge-of-the-seat anticipation of what might happen, and in the end it was Romney, not Eastwood, who failed to deliver the explosive ending. A better politician, a more practiced and astute politician, would have made the necessary adjustments to take advantage of the stage that Eastwood had set.
After watching a play by Pirandello or Pinter or Ionesco, or any of those post-war, mid-20th century dramatists, you walk around in a daze wondering what that was all about. But you're haunted by what you've just seen for days, and slowly you put the pieces together. "Waiting for Godot" is not a 2-hour performance, it's a 2-day performance with the last 46 hours played out in your head. If Godot does show up, it'll be in your final-piece interpretation of the play as you wait in line at Starbucks two days later. If you want to drop in and watch a play then walk out satisfied, go see a Neil Simon play.
All that said, my problem with "The Chair" was not its delivery, that was spot-on, it who was "sitting" there. I think Eastwood short-armed the performance by putting Obama in the chair. Perhaps he dumbed it down knowing that he was risking enough with that audience by what he was about to do -- dramatic homage to Ionesco and Beckett -- but going full-Pinter on these people could disorient them to the point that they might become unresponsive, even catatonic. Or perhaps the Southern state delegations might became so agitated that they would rush the stage and declare secession from the Union.
No, Eastwood must have thought to himself, let's keep this easy for them to understand. These are not New Yorkers. These are not gay people or people from Hollywood who understand this kind of stuff. These are the kind of people who believe in Noah's Ark and the Parting of the Red Sea, so they're comfortable with literalism. If "Obama" is in The Chair, well they understand that, although they may stand tippy-toe to see if he's really sitting there. But put Saul Alinksy, or Rev Wright, or Obama's mother, or Thomas Jefferson, or a revolving cast of characters in that chair, then he loses them and the gun never gets shown or loaded.
Imagine for a minute if it were Jefferson and not Obama in that chair, and Eastwood engaged Jefferson on the Separation of Church and State and how its modern-day liberal implementation has repressed good Christian morals and ethics and kept them from becoming the foundation of American society. Then Chief Justice Warren Burger followed Jefferson, and Eastwood engaged him on how Roe v Wade, a decision really about privacy, has led to millions of fetuses being brutally murdered in utero, generations washed away before they even drew a breath. Then Saul Alinsky and Rev. Wright with how their radical socialist agendas have poisoned the pure water of America's wellspring. Then finally, the demurely maternal Stanley Ann Dunham who, more than anybody, best knows the stuff that Pres Obama is made of, what motivates him, what his dreams and fears are. Obama's source and still his blood. To really know your enemy, you must first know your enemy's mother.
Indeed, Obama could have been the evasive Godot that everyone thinks they know but no one really knows, and who we all wait for, but who never arrives. He's a rumor, a whisper, a wispy savior who disappointingly stays off-stage even as the curtain drops.
And two days later, while standing in line for a double-latte extra hot, it dawns on them, and the essential core of their conservatism is strengthened, and their belief in Romney solidified.
But it didn't work out like that. But don't blame Eastwood. Eastwood is a genius.