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Nashville Scene American Spirit

Touring play captures the essence of turn-of-the-century president

By Lisa A. DuBois

JANUARY 19, 1999:  At the turn of the 20th century, America was a land of disjointed opportunity. The Eastern shores teemed with immigrants escaping intractable poverty and oppression in Europe. The long-colonized Atlantic seaboard states, their monied classes firmly entrenched, idolized affluent families, politicians, and industry moguls.

Meanwhile, the South continued its self-mutilating battle with Jim Crow; the Midwest began capitalizing on the new technologies that would turn small-town farms into crop-growing empires; and the West reluctantly embraced ambitious homesteaders, who plucked down tar paper shacks on desolate claims and waited out the brutal winters. A mere decade after the Battle of Wounded Knee, which officially marked the end to Indian resistance, the government slashed and whittled away at Indian territories, opening up former reservations to encroaching settlers.

Only one year into the 20th century, the country's ruling infrastructure suddenly changed. President William McKinley was assassinated, and vice president Theodore Roosevelt ascended to the helm of the nation. A New York City blue-blood with an inexplicable penchant for open prairies and high adventures, Roosevelt was charged with stanching the divide between people in urban centers and those on the frontier. He was, says actor John Davidson, the right man for the job.

For the past few years, Davidson has immersed himself in the life and mythology of Teddy Roosevelt in preparation for Bully, Jerome Alden's one-man play about the 26th president of the United States. The production comes to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for four performances this weekend. "I idolize this man, as most did who met him, because of his strength," Davidson says. "He encompassed the wildness of the West with the aristocracy of the East. He was the perfect guy to pull the country together at the time.... He created five new national parks, he almost single-handedly brought about the Panama Canal--and yet he's criticized for being a loose cannon."

On the one hand, Roosevelt was revered (and sometimes despised) for leading the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba, for hunting down grizzly bears in California, and for swimming naked in the Potomac River. On the other, he spoke French fluently, read both Greek and Latin, authored 35 books, and fought for morality in government. He moved into the White House with a rambunctious brood of children and an entourage of raccoons, snakes, dogs, and various hoofed animals. Because of his spectacles, thick mustache, huge teeth, and effusive personality, he was often the butt of caricature. He spoke with the erudite accent of a wealthy, well-educated Easterner, but in a voice so high-pitched that it often rose to the level of screeching.

Teddy Roosevelt was no clown, though. When he took office, he was infinitely aware of his moment in history. "Play hard, my dear friends, while you play, but do not mistake it for work...," he told his followers. "The 20th century looms large before us with the fate of many nations, and our nation calls not for the life of ease, but for the life of strenuous endeavor."

Artistically, Bully is designed to accentuate the depth and breadth of the man. Unlike many one-person shows, this play is divided into scenes--during which Roosevelt carries on conversations with senators, visiting dignitaries, his Cabinet, his wife, his children, and his dogs. "T.R. was known for not letting anyone say anything in his presence. A dialogue with him was a monologue. His personality was so big, and so obnoxious at times, that after they were with him people felt they had to wash him out of their clothes," Davidson says.

At certain points in the show, the actor breaks the fourth wall, particularly when he carries on a "dialogue" with H.L. Mencken as if the Baltimore Sun journalist were seated in the balcony of the theater. Mencken and Roosevelt remained lifelong enemies, and from their respective "bully pulpits" they often exchanged heated barbs. In fact, the president invented the term "muckraker" to describe his nemesis. After one exchange in the play, Roosevelt mutters, "The more I see of the Czar, the Kaiser, and the Mikado, the more I'm content with democracy--even if we have to accept as one of its assets the American newspaper." Curiously, he was the first president to install a pressroom in the White House.

Although he enjoyed wide swings of appeal and disapproval, toward the end of his political career T.R. fell out of favor with the public. "He was devastated by the loss of his son Quentin in World War I," Davidson explains. "There's even a little evidence that he felt he was responsible for his son's death. But T.R. can't run away anymore. He can't run to Africa to hunt animals or to Brazil to chart unknown rivers. He has to face the fact that he's an old man and he's immobilized."

Davidson claims, however, that Roosevelt later enjoyed a resurgence; had he not died in 1919, he would have been the Republican Party's presidential nominee in the 1920 election. "He had qualities like [President] Clinton, in that no matter what he did wrong, he still had this amazing charisma," the actor says.

Roosevelt intentionally defied the parameters of the presidential role. He was the first president to ride in a submarine; ride in an airplane; own and drive his own car; receive a Nobel Peace Prize; travel outside the United States while in office; invite an African American (Booker T. Washington) to dinner at the White House; step between management and labor during a strike; and create legislation that interfered with big industrialists, who at the time were practically running the country.

Taking their cues from Teddy Roosevelt, average citizens began to follow his lead. Garnering strength from his fearlessness and activism, America grew up. By viewing our nation through the eyes of Teddy Roosevelt, 100 years later Bully gives us a roadmap to the future.

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