Read: The Tony-nominated play that savages the U.S. Constitution
“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.”