Towards the end of my last post, I happened to mention Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf and Sarah Palin in almost the same breath. Here's the relevant passage:
Character matters, we like to say, even and especially in judging our presidents. But we also know character is a complex matter. Take, for example, the many available portraits currently on display of Sarah Palin, the most recent subject of our national attention. Sarah isn’t just Sarah – it also depends on who’s doing the looking, and in what context you place her. The same, of course, might be said of Charlotte.
Generally what I say in my mild mannered theatre blog passes into the airwaves without a sound. But not this time. Almost instantly I heard from a friend and THEATREWORKS board member telling me how offended he was by my remarks. And now Peter Brebach has written to say he finds the comparison of Charlotte and Sarah an "insult."
I begin to see why---clearly even a casual reference to political figures during the heat of an election campaign is provocative. And I can see why some readers might well be offended at my comparing the character of Charlotte (a revealed informer for the secret police) with that of Sarah Palin's. But actually that is not what I meant at all.
I meant what I said--the judgment of character is a complex matter--especially when who is being judged is complex and many sided to begin with, and that judgments depend not only on who is being judged but who is doing the judging. A truly prophetic comment, considering the response. If you understand character to mean "moral strength" as it often does, you might be more likely to take umbrage at an implied equivalence between Charlotte and Sarah. But if you understand character to mean "distinctive quality" as it also does--and as I intended-- then perhaps you are less likely to be upset.
Charlotte and Sarah are both remarkably vivid and distinct characters--that's one reason we find them so interesting, and worth talking about. And both characters have been judged in very different ways by different people. Charlotte was a bona-fide gay hero for many, because she maintained her unconventional identity during two very oppressive regimes while also creating a remarkable collection of antiques. But she was also a spy for the Stasi--and so a treacherous villain to others (though even that clear judgment can be clouded by context: lots of people in East Germany were informers--it was a culture of informers--and Charlotte would have done anything to protect her collection of antiques. Not admirable, perhaps, but entirely human). Sarah Palin, like the other three candidates, has also been the subject of widely different passionate judgements: for some she is the plucky, fresh, honest "maverick"; for others she is the shallow, mannered Sarah Barracuda. That's just the way it goes.
As for me, I am suspending my judgements, both of Charlotte and Sarah--except in one respect. I judge them both to be great characters, whether played by themselves or by Erik Sandvol and Tina Fey. Charlotte is the subject of a Pulitzer prize winning play. Sarah's arrival late in the campaign brought new life to the national drama---it's almost as if the cosmic playwright had been saving her up. Shakespeare often does exactly the same thing. Think of Phoebe making her first entrance in the third act of As You Like It. She brings a whole new energy (and sexual life) to the forest of Arden. O Phoebe, Phoebe, Phoebe! O Sarah, Sarah, Sarah! Am I comparing Shakespeare's vain, compelling and hilarious shepherdess to the hot honorable Governor of Alaska? Not at all. Except to say that whether appearing in the Bon Vivant or on the national stage, they are both superbly, theatrically alive.