Conservatives and their values do not often fare well on the stage. Derided by left-leaning playwrights for everything from economic and military ideology to religious conviction and sexuality, right wingers bear much of the brunt of drama’s social and political critique. This is of course nothing new (see Shakespeare’s pitiless excoriation of Twelfth Night’s Malvolio).
In her 2005 play Third, Wendy Wasserstein seems bound and determined to counter this trend. Sadly, she overcorrects. Rather than giving us a nuanced view of the grey areas between the cultural left and right, or even an insightful invective against the left, Third offers an uncritical reaction to a long tradition of theatrical right-bashing. Certainly Wasserstein’s project to bring a conservative viewpoint to the stage in this play is admirable—drama is about tension, after all, so we should have voices from all sides—but she has conducted that project by first constructing a strawman out of the intellectual left and then preceding to knock it over with uncontested potshots. It is a play startling in the broadness of its strokes and the flatness of its critique.
Wasserstein draws stark ideological lines between her two leads: Dr. Laurie Jameson (Annette O’Toole), a lefty professor of English at an unnamed elite New England college whose career is dedicated to problematizing the patriarchy in literature and life, and Woodson Bull III (Christopher Sears), a preppy Ohio hayseed wrestler who has come east to strange new terrain with wide eyes and an zest for learning about third-world literature and queer theory as if an ethnographer of contemporary academia.
Bull (who gives the play its title in his preference to be called Third) shows up in Jameson’s Elizabethan drama course, where we see the professor conduct her deconstruction of patriarchal norms in Shakespeare. Tension arises between Professor Jameson and Third when the student claims he will be unable to attend a film screening due to a wrestling match. Jameson is more than a little condescending in her insistence that Third must recognize he is at school to learn not wrestle, and Third is unflappable in his obsequious efforts to show he is invested in the course and his education.
Third submits an excellent midterm paper on King Lear that Jameson wholeheartedly believes to be plagiarized, and the ensuing accusation, disciplinary hearing, and aftermath tests the convictions and personalities of both characters. Jameson especially finds herself wracked by the entire ordeal. In her eyes, Third represents all that she has railed against her entire career—a privileged white male who benefits at every turn from patriarchal structures—and she cannot stomach him. The play leaves open the question of guilt, but there is little doubt that the process forces the accuser into wrestling with troubling realities of her life.
In endeavoring to flip theater’s expected political script, Wasserstein has made her conservative Midwesterner a complex character whose identity becomes more nuanced as the play progresses. From the plagiarism ordeal he learns a great deal about himself, the world, and his position in it. But much of that complexity is cheaply won at the expense of an adversary who is a flat caricature. Wasserstein’s Professor Jameson is like the super villain out of some conservative comic book: a humanities professor ensconced in her ivory tower from which she hurls intellectual missiles at everything from Shakespeare’s misogyny to George W. Bush’s war efforts, all while being utterly disgusted by patriotism, blue-collar work, or gender normativity. She is committed fully to a leftist ideology, not to the complexity of everyday life. Although we never learn the true author of Third’s essay, the clear implication is that Jameson, blinded by a conviction that vilifies Third upon a first impression, has overstepped.
Most troubling about Third is that in the hands of Wasserstein, a woman like Professor Jameson is reduced to a mockery. Harvard educated, she fetishizes elite colleges, relishes the privilege of criticizing the government from the safety of her New England home, and beams with pride when she hears of her bisexual daughter Zoe attending political demonstrations. But names of schools like Swarthmore and Williams and Yale are tossed out like hollow bombast, Jameson’s political anger is treated as a foolish obsession, and her other daughter Emily (Emily Walton) rolls her eyes patronizingly at her mother’s wish that she be more of an activist.
Wasserstein makes Jameson a career woman to be pitied for her life choices. Of course Jameson is experiencing hot flashes, is alienated from her husband, and quarrels with Emily who is leaving Swarthmore to move in with her bank teller boyfriend: what other fate could there be for a middle-aged woman who has seemed to be so successful by resisting society’s expectations for her? Surely she would have been happier now had she never embarked on the project of questioning social structures. What’s more, the playwright seems unable to resist the implication that the female professor is so vexed because of an underlying sexual attraction to the charming Midwestern wrestler.
Tossing around buzz words from gender and sexuality criticism in the humanities like punch lines, Third caricaturizes in order to construct easy targets. When the title character takes the cafeteria open microphone after one student campaigns for a clothes-free dormitory and another announces the burning of a paper-mache Patriot missile, he calmly reminds everybody that the Patriot missile protected Israel during the first gulf war and that their production employs thousands of Americans, and while angry liberal disembodied voices tell him to “Go work for Halliburton!” Third remains composed and delivers an articulate thesis about how the school’s athletes are unfairly stereotyped and judged by their professors and classmates who claim to be so open-minded. The scene sounds very much like the playwright rolling out an agenda while stacking the deck against any opposition.
The problem with Third is not its conservativism, but its dramaturgy. Certainly there is room on the contemporary stage for a broad range of political viewpoints and ideological tension, and in a left-leaning aesthetic field, a voice from the right can be a welcome check. But surely we can expect such a voice to give us complex characters and a central conflict that allows for some nuance. Third denies us that compelling drama, opting instead for parody cloaked in the guise of social critique.