Well, this is a day to remember the fallen. Perhaps that includes those fallen from grace; and according to M*A*S*H creator Larry Gelbart, the fallen one to be recalled this Memorial Day is none other than George W. Bush, Ex-President. I am referring to Gelbart’s radio play Abrogate, which aired on BBC Radio 4 on Friday, 26 May. Memorial Day roughly coincides with Ascension, which the British insist on celebrating as “Spring Bank Holiday.” I rather resent this government-imposed erasure of traditions, as if the “holi” of this “holiday” were the culture of saving and spending, and the miracle to behold and recall were the power of Mammon. The holiday-by-any-other-name broadcast of Gelbart’s play is well-timed, considering that the futuristic satire Abrogate not only serves as a memorial to the Bush and Cheney years—which it imagines to have given way to a Hillary Clinton administration—but also serves up a miracle, revealing, in an act of levi(tationali)ty, that Baby W. was the product of Barbara Bush’s immaculate conception, his rise to office being decreed from above. Ascension meets condescension in what is itself a high-spirited, irreverent, but less than immaculate confection.
Abrogate is conceived as a broadcast by the fictional AGN (the All Gates Network), “devoted to the endless scandals and excesses which White House after White House also seem so endlessly devoted to.” Carrying on the tradition of truth-finding lowered to the level of scandalmongering, AGN presents
highlights of the recent hearings held by the Special Senate Committee that was charged by the present administration with the investigation of the extent to which the former administration was engaged in a campaign of secrecy and deception, as well as a thorough disdain for the law, the result of which was tantamount to a virtual second American Revolution that threatened to undo the first, a nullification no less of over two hundred years of this nation’s civil and social progress, as well as the alarming arbitrary banishment of recognizable order or, as it has come to be known throughout and within the media, Abrogate.
Or, as the Committee Chair puts it “at the onslaught” of the hearing, to answer the “sixty- four trillion dollar question”: “Did the powers that then were, the previous Bush administration, pursue with both malice and perhaps some aforethought certain actions which served to violate the letters and spirit of the laws of this land in a way never here before thought possible? And do the sum of these reactionary actions equal a total that smacks of a conspiracy [. . .]?” In other words, “What did the President know, aside from what the Vice President told him he already did?”
From Senator Fulsome (played by Vincent Spano), for instance, you will learn about the Secretive Service, the Center for Shame and Public Apology, and Bush’s POOP (Photo-op Operations Program). “[I]t has become more and less common knowledge that anyone who was everyone was a spy in those days,” Fulsome declares, excusing the administration’s errors in judgment by arguing that “Terrible times create terrible thinking.” Among those called to the microphone during the hearing are Condoleezza Rice (played by Theresa Randle), Lynn Cheney (Joanne Baron), and Barbara Bush (Pat Carroll), whose motherly defense of her heavenly-fathered child provides the outrageous climax of Abrogate.
It all may have sounded rather more radiogenic as it turned out: a series of voices denouncing and defending the present-turned-former president and his actions, criminal or otherwise. As a radio production, Abrogate does not quite come off, however. It is too verbose, for one, squandering many of its inspired oneliners (while drowning out some less than subtle puns). My prose, for instance, barely suited to a blog, would have no chance on the air. On the air, lines need to be snappy, delivered slowly and forcefully enough in well-timed intervals to be absorbed in a single sitting.
Nor does Abrogate succeed in sounding verisimilitudinous, in coming across like a real newscast, an actual Senate committee hearing, which is the setting of this satire. What exactly is being sent up here, other than the heavens-bound Ms. Bush? Is Abrogate deriding the former President, his family and staff; the subsequent (and presumably Democrat White House) that indulges in this fault-finding mission; or the media, for leaping at every opportunity to undermine the authority of a much-maligned administration? And while it is true that the speakers implicated themselves in their ineptitude, the dizzy spin of Gelbart’s fictive broadcast seems to be taking too many turns, ridiculing the medium of which it avails itself and thereby negating the valid (op)positions to which it gives voice.
Such shortcomings notwithstanding, Abrogate is worth a listen, especially since attempts at contemporary radio drama, let alone timely politically relevant plays, are so rare these days. For inconsequential folly, you can always tune in to my podcast, a new feature of broadcastellan about which I will have more to say in the near future.