How many divisions does the pope of Walden Puddle have? Several, political commentators like to say, since when Garry Trudeau draws a line, millions of eyes faithfully follow it to the end, even when the end involves a tour of President Reagan’s brain–though in the case of Reagan’s brain, sundry newspapers dropped an editorial curtain over the offending comic strip, and the millions must have dwindled. Trudeau is a valuable man, in short, and it’s very nice to see him collaborating with Elizabeth Swados on “a partisan revue” at The Village Gate. There are seventeen songs in the revue, each more partisan than the last. “Rap Master Ronnie,” the title song, offers a rap routine intended as a “Reagan Campaign Message to Minority Voters,” in which the President soullessly recites herky-jerky rhymes over funk rhythms, while Secret Service agents breakdance and chant backups. “Say, we want Ron, the cat’s pure sex,/he’s the man who signs your monthly welfare checks.” In “The Class of 1984,” four revolting yuppies croon, “We’re entry-level assholes on the rise” and come out for social Darwinism. A chorus of right-wing ministers sing for intolerance. Another song lampoons the gloulish Elliott Abrams, officer in charge of making optimistic reports about human rights under fascism. A man and wife sweetly declaim against feminism. “Must I have it all?” she sings. And the mustn’t and she won’t, we realize, because nearly every song in Rap Master Ronnie shows Reaganism kick social equality, tolerance, broadmindedness and dignity for all, down the stairs and into the ditch, where they are scheduled to remain.
There’s a good deal of pathos in Rap Master Ronnie. A melancholy marine Writes to Brooke Shields from Beirut. A derelict reflects on life on Park Avenue, where he occupies a bench. Pathos is by and large the strongest emotion of the evening, and pathos mixed with Trudeau’s satiric geniality can get a little tiresome. I kept wishing Trudeau and Swados would stand up and blast the White House, but good. I wanted to see mudballs; I’ve wanted, many of us have wanted, to see mudballs all campaign long. I wanted to go on a tour of Reagan’s brain. Mario Cuomo pointed the way when he proposed a campaign that would raise questions such as, Why did the President leave his first wife? Why doesn’t the President ever see his grandchildren? (Naturally, Cuomo suggested these questions with Ciceronian delicacy by saying they were questions he would not raise.) On the level of politics, a barrage of unprincipalia would make an excellently principled point: that Reagan stands for hypocrisy, the hypocrisy of all the right-wing pospelers who, like Senator Roger Jepsen, preach family values while cavorting in whorehouses or, like Senator Paul Laxalt, talk probity while deriving their power from the Las Vegas Mafia. Why shouldn’t the President be shown as the scheming hypocrite he is? On the level of theater, a more vicious satire than Rap Master Ronnie would at least get us pounding the table. There was vicious satire in the days of Lyndon Johnson. Barbara Garson’s Macbird was a classic of viciousness. Let the President run into mightly Barbara Garson in a dark alley, and you have the feeling national affairs would be in good hands. But I would be less confident if it were Trudeau and Swados lurking among the trash cans and dim shadows.
The music in Rap Master Ronnie accounts for some of the geniality. Swados has a gift for stylistic variety. The songs she has written with Trudeau are disco, calypso, funko, ballado and blueso, and you do get a feeling of musical fluency, which is satisfying. But there’s little depth to the score, possibly because of the constant stylistic shifts, nor do the lyrics always work especially well with the music. The performers–there are five, of whom Reathel Bean and Catherine Cox stand out–often have to cram oversize declamations into their mouths, as if they were eating giant sandwiches with lots of tomato and onion dribbling out the sides.
But why complain? At least Trudeau and Swados have gone after the Great Communicator. No sign in their revue of that terrible blight creeping across select liberal and left-wing columns recently, which makes otherwise sane individuals think Reagan is indistinguishable from Mondale. The dementia hasn’t reach The Village Gate. And at one point during the performance, I did find mysefl nursing a particularly bitter thought, for which Trudeau and Swados deserve the credit. Those of us who are more or less the same generation as these two artists have spent our adult lives, apart from four dubious years under Jimmy Carter, living under a Republican shadow. Ever since we’ve been teen-agers we’ve had to go home and wash whenever the President utters a remark. That’s no way to live. How old will we be when things are different? Ready for Social Security? Except there will be no Social Security.