In 1865, as Confederate troops were surrendering to Union forces and the reconstruction of a fractured nation was beginning, The Spectator, a British weekly, published an editorial assessing the state of diplomacy on the other side of the Atlantic. “Nothing perhaps in politics is so hard to explain as the precise connection which exists in this country between ‘society’ … and politicians,” it began, before concluding, “There is no doubt something utterly base somewhere in a society in which an invitation can affect a vote, or a great saloon influence a division, but then there are evils in the absence of that baseness.”
Could a schmoozier culture have prevented the Civil War? It’s highly unlikely. But the decline of Georgetown society as a unifying force—of salons presided over by Kate Chase and Perle Mesta and Pamela Harriman—has long been lamented in an increasingly fractious and polarized Washington. Its soft power is closely studied in The City of Conversation, a play by Anthony Giardina currently running at Washington’s Arena Stage. Hester Ferris (Margaret Colin) is a Georgetown hostess very much in the Mesta mold—from unremarkable origins in Arkansas, she’s risen to become a powerhouse of liberal politics, championing favorites and smoothing out quid pro quo legislation over cosy dinners. But as much as Giardina focuses on his compelling heroine, he deftly explores the larger consequences of a lack of camaraderie in Washington, as well as the paradox of consistently electing people who promise to blow up the establishment. After all, he seems to ask, how can you burn the house down when you’re inside it?
The City of Conversation takes its title from Henry James, who commented on Washington’s obsessive inward gaze in an essay in The American Scene. But the play is also inspired by a 1996 article in The New Yorker by Sidney Blumenthal titled “The Ruins of Georgetown,” in which Blumenthal explores the life of Joseph Alsop, a journalist and noted host whose career paralleled the rise and fall of a rarified strata of Washington society. Blumenthal describes a newly elected President Kennedy arriving unannounced at Alsop’s door after attending a parade of inaugural balls, cementing the neighborhood’s significance. From that moment, he writes, “Kennedy’s true home town, if he had one, was Georgetown … Camelot was Georgetown, and Georgetown was only a garden party away.”
It’s all too tempting now to scorn such lofty entitlement, and to interpret the Georgetown set as a kind of unelected aristocracy in sore need of being deposed. And Hester doesn’t help. In the play’s first act (set during the Carter presidency), as she recounts a story about Kennedy getting foreign-policy advice from none other than Isaiah Berlin at an Alsop dinner, she sighs nostalgically: “That was the way it used to be … a president was able to get out of the White House, come to Georgetown, and learn something.”
But as The Spectator pointed out some 150 years ago, the only thing worse than such a system is the alternative. Hester’s primary antagonist arrives on her doorstep when her son Colin (Michael Simpson) comes home from the London School of Economics bearing a new girlfriend, Anna (Caroline Hewitt). The second she sets foot in Hester’s elegant drawing room, Anna clashes with her surroundings, from her suede thigh-high boots and fringed poncho to her bold, populist conservatism. Rather than respect social mores, Anna follows the gentlemen into the living room after dinner for brandy and cigars (the last time a woman did such a thing, one notes, she was Sally Quinn). While Hester attempts to persuade a Kentucky senator to support a bill requiring judicial appointees to repudiate all-white country clubs, Anna defies her by railing against the “straitjacket” she wants to put decent, hard-working Americans in.
Anna’s language, although coming from 1979, couldn’t seem more timely (the play premiered at Lincoln Center in 2014 in a production by Doug Hughes, who also directs the Arena run). She talks of “a suppressed energy waiting to be released,” and how Americans “feel that something in this country has been lost.” She bemoans the fact that “no one respects us in the world anymore,” and speaks passionately about “people’s desire to love their country again.” She is, in short, the embodiment of the Reagan Revolution, both in ideology and in her latent desire to destroy the centers of power that have manifested in the drawing rooms of Washington. The only thing worse than wrong-but-romantic Hester’s elite way of doing things is right-but-repulsive Anna’s impulse to destroy it.
Giardina clearly sides with Hester, acknowledging her flaws, but presenting her mission as a noble one. Anna, by contrast, is almost too perfect an enemy, and Hewitt’s performance is so good, her rage so fiery, that it’s impossible to sympathize with her. “I say win, win all the time!” she cries Trumpily in the second act, set during the Reagan presidency, by which point she and Colin are married with a young son. Although Anna is very much entrenched in Washington politics at this point, working for the Justice Department and campaigning for the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, she still identifies as a “real” American, fighting for the disenfranchised working man. But Hester knows better. “We come here and we are changed by this place,” she tells her. “Face that. Don’t keep thinking that you’re some fresh-faced outsider.”
As the play progresses into its final act, set on the night of President Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Giardina shows how cyclical these fights are—how the impulse to kick out the old guard and revolutionize Congress is realized every four years or so by a loudmouth band of braggards who quickly become absorbed into the system. (It’s hard to hear Hester acidly describe “the overgrown boys from the Reagan freshman class” without thinking about a recent group of younger guns.) Earlier, Hester had tried to explain to Anna that “politics is about tides,” and that the thrill of victory now guarantees defeat in the future. In the old days, she says, understanding that, people would lay down their arms at the end of the day and break bread with each other, smoothing the path for deals in the future. “That would be a lot easier if I didn’t find your side so repulsive,” Anna responds.
What’s extra fascinating about The City of Conversation is that both Hester and Anna are women, channeling their energy into the roles they’re allowed to fill. In 2016, Hester would almost certainly be a Senator herself, marshaling her raw political instincts into legislation first hand (it’s similarly easy, if uncharitable, to imagine Anna as a talking head on cable news). The circumstances of Hester’s era, during which gaining elected office as a woman was almost impossible, undoubtedly pressed her into gaining influence in other ways: Restricted to the domestic sphere, she made her house into a boardroom of sorts. Perhaps one uncredited factor in the decline of Washington society is that so many of its brilliant hostesses have simply found better jobs to occupy their time.
But if it’s hard to explicitly mourn the passing of an era in which so many unelected people held so much undue influence, it’s less difficult to wonder what might happen if our representatives were more frequently compelled to spend leisure time together. The former ABC News anchor Charles Gibson, who blamed the current state of enmity on members of Congress not socializing in a 2011 paper for Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, suggested that Congress might imitate the British Parliament by installing a pub in the U.S. Capitol to “defuse some of the bitterness of the bodies.” Not exactly a vote-winner. But all is not lost. At the opening night for The City of Conversation, as the audience filed out toward their cars, a fleet of black SUVs drove up to pick up attending VIPs. The last bastion of bipartisan engagement, it seems, is theater.