“I can tell you this much,” the old-timer at the end of the bar said to me the other night while I waited to meet a friend for a Broadway show. “I don’t think that lady likes men very much.”
We were at Sardi’s, and he was referring to Heidi Schreck, the writer and star of the one-act play I was about to see at the Helen Hayes Theater next door. What the Constitution Means to Me has enjoyed ecstatic reviews, a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize, and an unexpectedly long run. According to Deadline.com, its financial backers are even making money! It shut down on Broadway this month; next it heads to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then it’s off on a 40-week, 22-city tour.
I gave a half-hearted chuckle, and the old-timer shrugged. “You’ll see what I mean,” he said as I finished my drink and made for the door.
Only moments before, he had been boring me with an extended tirade on the evils of Republicans and boasting of his wife’s role in the Resistance. Somehow Schreck had found a way to crack his carapace of Manhattanite liberalism and poke at a sore spot beneath, producing his wary accusation of reverse sexism.
Soon enough I was in my seat, knees up against my chest. (Why are Broadway theaters less comfortable than a suburban Cineplex?) And sure enough, 20 minutes into the show, Schreck was defending herself against precisely the accusation the old-timer had leveled against her.
“I really have no desire to vilify men,” she said good-naturedly, pretending to address a man in the front row. “I love men! I do—I love you. I’m the daughter of a father! But …”
By now I had watched enough of What the Constitution Means to Me to recognize this as an instance of what one armchair sociologist (me) calls the Ex Post Facto Trumpian Hand Wave. Everybody knows the pattern by now: a sincere opinion followed by an insincere contradiction meant to cancel it out. The president will issue some absurd and tasteless tweet—telling, let’s say, a quartet of congresswomen to go back to the countries they came from, which in most of their cases is the United States. And then, a day later, he will stand before a teleprompter and read a clarion call for national unity, regardless of race or creed or country of origin.
It’s not convincing, but it’s catching. By the time Schreck insisted she had no intention of vilifying men, she had already told us several revolting tales of male barbarity, with several more to come. Indeed, one of her chief insights into the Constitution is that it was written by men to protect the privileges of men from all persons who weren’t men—which, if true, certainly sounds to me like good grounds for vilification. But seriously, folks: “I love men!” She vilifies because she loves.
The set of What the Constitution Means to Me is a dystopian riff on an American Legion hall, with a desk and a podium and three walls covered in pressboard wood paneling and hung with black-and-white headshots of middle-aged guys in Legionnaire hats—dozens of them, cheek by jowl. Schreck is surrounded, in other words, by the enemy, whom she loves. As a girl of 15, Schreck appeared in many such halls to give speeches about the Constitution. The prize money she won paid her way through college.
“A few years ago,” she tells the audience, “I was thinking about the Constitution [beat] for various reasons [meaningful glance].” The ironic aside gets a good laugh; no group of New York theatergoers needs to be told why she’s worried about the Constitution. They’re worried too! She wonders why, as a girl, she loved the Constitution so passionately. “Because I did, I loved it,” she adds, in what may be just another EPF Trumpian Hand Wave. By play’s end, it’s become clear that if the young Schreck did indeed love the Constitution, it’s because she misunderstood it; and if her passion for the document has cooled as she’s gotten older, it’s because she’s transcended her earlier misunderstanding to misunderstand it even more.
Schreck’s view of the Constitution is perhaps too dramatic. We should expect drama from a professional dramatist, needless to say, but how dramatic should we be? “The Constitution,” she tells the audience, “can be thought of as a boiling pot in which we are thrown together in sizzling and steamy conflict to find out what it is we truly believe.”
We can indeed think of the Constitution this way—it’s a free country—but it’s probably better if we don’t. All that sizzle and steam make sober deliberation more difficult. Of course, this assumes sober deliberation is what you’re after. The locus for the constitutional conflict, in her reading, is the Ninth Amendment. (She seems uninterested in any part of the Constitution other than the Bill of Rights and the Reconstruction Amendments.) She oddly calls it Amendment Nine, the way a reader unfamiliar with the New Testament might refer to “Two Corinthians.” Amendment Nine is a special favorite of people who hold an expansive view of the Constitution, because all by itself, it appears to be as expansive as an accordion.
It reads: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Nobody, as far as I know, has been able to give a satisfactory account of what this sentence means, especially since it’s tagged vaguely onto a document that is otherwise pretty specific and targeted. Lawyers and laymen alike more or less ignored the Ninth Amendment until the middle of the past century, when judges were discovering new rights hovering beyond and beneath the actual words of the Constitution. They’ve been arguing about it ever since, without any suggestion that a resolution is near at hand.
Schreck has no patience for legalistic jibber-jabber. While she calls the Ninth Amendment “magical and mysterious,” with the implication that it is full of ambiguity, in practice she is quite sure she knows its meaning. Specifically, it means whatever she wants it to mean, depending on circumstance. In the show, her analysis of the Constitution is interrupted, without apparent method, with stories from her own life—pregnancy, abortion, consensual but unpleasant sexual encounters—and harrowing tales of her family’s past, which was stalked by violent men committing brutal acts against their wives and children.
Schreck is appalled at the possibility that the Constitution doesn’t prevent horrifying violence. A good example of her reasoning is her interpretation of the 2005 Supreme Court decision Castle Rock v. Gonzales.
Jessica Gonzales, Schreck explains to the audience, had obtained a restraining order against her husband. He routinely violated it, and one day ran off with their three children. Gonzales implored her local police in Castle Rock, Colorado, to find and arrest her husband. They didn’t, and the father killed the children. Gonzales sued the city and took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. “Led by Antonin Scalia,” Schreck says—her audience shudders audibly at the dog whistle Scalia—the Supreme Court ruled “that the police did not have a constitutional obligation to protect Jessica Gonzales or her children.”
What kind of Constitution is this, anyway? Schreck tells us the ruling means we cannot “look to our Supreme Court or to our Constitution for protection from this kind of violence.”
Schreck delivers the story with maximum pathos, as though she can scarcely believe it herself. Yet her version has important omissions. Schreck’s argument—that the violence alone created a constitutional obligation for the police to prevent it—was one even Gonzales’s lawyers declined to make. The courts, after all, would be even busier than they already are if crime victims could sue the cops for not preventing crimes.
Yet Gonzales’s lawyers conceived an argument that was almost as impressive in its audacity: The restraining order, they said, was in essence a piece of property. The police were thus obligated to enforce it under the Fourteenth Amendment, which says the government cannot deprive a person of property without due process of law. In the Court’s ruling, Scalia dismissed the argument almost out of hand. Even Justices David Souter and Stephen Breyer, whose view of the Constitution is almost as expansive as Schreck’s, sided with Scalia; so did Sandra Day O’Connor, one of two women on the Court at the time.
“What does it mean,” Schreck asks plaintively, “that the document will not protect us from the violence of men?” It means, among much else, that the Constitution can’t do everything, and more important, that it shouldn’t claim to. This is why the Ninth Amendment, Amendment Nine, is so appealing to someone like Schreck. It gives the illusion of comprehensiveness that the document otherwise lacks. There are bad things in the world, and the Constitution should eliminate them: not only violence against women, but, she says, climate change too. And more, having done away with the bad things, it should guarantee the good: the right to an abortion, for example, and universal health care. She notes that more than 100 countries enjoy such “positive rights” constitutions in the world today “that actively rectify inequality, include gender protections on page one, provide health care, protect the environment.”
She mentions Germany and South Africa as examples. But again, she glides over complications. The constitution of South Africa promises “adequate housing” for all, even as, by some estimates, nearly one out of five South Africans lives in inadequate housing. And she neglects to mention such bastions of equality and peace as the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose constitution promises protection “against sexual violence.” And Zimbabwe, which requires the government to “provide for reproductive health care.” And China, of course: Its constitution guarantees women access to its highly censored version of an education system. I don’t think Schreck would find life more congenial, or less violent, in the Congo than in the United States.
Schreck even makes an argument from authority, citing Thomas Jefferson’s recommendation that each generation should draft a new constitution for itself. (Call me a revisionist, but Jefferson, although a really terrific Founder, said many daffy things.) This emboldens her to present to the audience the proposition that the Constitution should be abolished and a new one put in its place, by unspecified means. She calls a young actor and high-school debater onstage to debate the proposition, an avatar of her younger self. The audience is encouraged to hoot and holler its approval or disapproval.
It was a close-run thing, the night I was there. The argument against ditching our national charter was pragmatic. “Old white men” would likely write its replacement, we were told, so we might as well stick with the one we’ve got. Schreck’s argument to abolish the Constitution, on the other hand, struck an elegiac tone.
“As a kid, I believed this document was a tool of justice,” she said. “Today, however, I actually don’t think our Constitution is failing. I think it is doing exactly what it was designed to do from the beginning, which is to protect the interest of a small number of rich white men.”
A single audience member was deputized to resolve the question. A woman in the front row got the job. She said she was from Missouri. She decided we would keep the Constitution. The audience, though evenly split, was kind enough not to object. Phew.
I wonder how well What the Constitution Means to Me will travel as it leaves the comfy confines of Manhattan for Washington, and then for parts beyond. If a Washington audience of civil servants and politicos splits on the question of whether to do away with the Constitution, it will be disturbing enough; unlike New Yorkers, they’re supposed to be serious about things like that. But such a response in Washington wouldn’t be nearly as disturbing as a warm reception from audiences in the country at large, in Charlotte and Pittsburgh and the tour’s other scheduled stops, where people really do go to American Legion halls, without irony.
So I admit I left the Helen Hayes Theater a bit unsettled. The old-timer at Sardi’s was wrong. The lesson to learn from Schreck and her show’s rapturous reception isn’t that she “doesn’t like men,” whatever that may mean. It’s that she doesn’t like the Constitution, which is why so many people like her .
This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.
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