Fixin’ to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater

Pegasus Players

The Libertine

Steppenwolf Theatre Company

By Albert Williams

Then Old Age and Experience, hand in


Lead him to death, and make him


After a search so painful and so long,

That all his life he has been in the


–John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester,

“A Satyr Against Mankind”

The heroes of The Libertine and Fixin’ to Die: A Visit to the Mind of Lee Atwater were bad boys, no question about it: controversial confidants of their nations’ rulers, they lived fast, achieved fame early, and died young. Yet on their deathbeds–to which they were led by plenty of experience, if not old age–they embraced Christianity and repudiated the actions that made them notorious. John Wilmot, second earl of Rochester, who succumbed to the effects of alcoholism and venereal disease in 1680, asked that his “profane and lewd writings” be burned–which would have made quite a bonfire, considering the randy and irreligious verse that has survived. Just before he died of a brain tumor in 1991, Lee Atwater, a Republican political consultant who made his name smearing other people’s, sought forgiveness from erstwhile Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis for the Willie Horton ad campaign, in which Atwater made a black felon Dukakis’s symbolic running mate.

While in a fundamental way Rochester was the opposite of Atwater–the first railed at hypocrisy while the second exploited it–the two have much in common. Each was a specialist in his own form of obscene art. Atwater “turned spin doctoring into a performance art that outlives him,” as Francis X. Clines wrote in the New York Times (the description is repeated, uncredited, in Pegasus’ program); Rochester elevated pornography into literary art through wit, poetic craft, candid psychological insight, and an idiosyncratic mix of sensuality, melancholy, and irony. Atwater calls himself “a born rebel” in Robert Myers’s 1992 one-man show, while Rochester declares himself “as troublesome a package of humanity as ever pissed into the Thames” in Stephen Jeffreys’s play. The blues-loving Atwater bubbles about his fondness for “girls and music”; Rochester’s poetry repeatedly sings the praises of liquor and lust, primarily but not always lust for women: “Nor shall our love-fits, Cloris, be forgot / When each the well-looked linkboy strove t’enjoy, / And the best kiss was the deciding lot / Whether the boy fucked you, or I the boy,” he writes in “The Maimed Debauchee.”

Was Atwater’s dying repentance a conversion of heart or just a final spin from the master spin doctor? Did Rochester really undergo a spiritual rebirth after a lifetime of atheism and hedonism, or was he just a coward at the end? No one can know for sure, of course; these two historical dramas leave us in some doubt about the depths of their heroes’ faith but don’t convincingly suggest that they were hypocrites either. But the men’s public avowals hang over these plays, reminding us that for all their outrageousness, Atwater and Rochester wanted people to believe that they had changed at the end–whether they actually did or not.

Of course, the penitential protestations that come during the last few minutes of these two-act shows are nowhere near as interesting as the sin and scandal that fill up the rest of the evenings. Fixin’ to Die focuses on Atwater’s public rather than his private life: in a series of anecdotal vignettes in various settings–press conferences, war-room meetings, jogging tracks–the man who set the standard for today’s attack politics recalls a career of sleazy campaigning based on a simple premise: “You have to make the case that the other guy…is an untrustworthy son of a bitch.” Democrats are his main target, of course–and an easy one once you’re willing to stir up racial resentments, as evidenced by the devastating success of the Horton smear. But Republican rivals are fair game too: Atwater recalls steering a black voter drive away from his candidate, Ronald Reagan, and toward the camp of Reagan’s primary opponent, John Connally. Repeatedly Atwater insists that he’s not a racist–even when he’s rejected as a potential trustee by all-black Howard University because of student protests, and especially when he’s embarrassed by the emergence of fringe Republicans like David Duke. Yet when Atwater is faced with a white supremacist, his concern is pragmatic, not principled. “Steer clear of the Nazi and Klan stuff,” he says while plotting Duke’s defeat. “We want to expose him as a charlatan. We don’t want to cut ourselves off from his constituency.”

Fixin’ to Die is a timely offering, as the Republican establishment wrangles with the extremist elements empowered by rising star Pat Buchanan (whose crucial southern success has been fueled partly by Duke supporters). Though Atwater declares disingenuously, “I never cross the line,” in fact he did, and the GOP’s current problems are a result. Atwater is an unfashionable figure these days–liberals loathe him, and conservatives are embarrassed by his deathbed recantation–and that makes him all the more interesting. Played with fine nuance by Brian Stepanek under Gary Griffin’s direction, Fixin’ to Die vividly restores Atwater to his place in history. Taking control of Pegasus’s sprawling stage (designed by J. Branson in a black-and-white chessboard pattern befitting this quintessential game player), Stepanek’s cleancut Atwater is an imposing figure–and an essentially lonely one, assisted only by cutouts of prominent people he has known and used (Reagan, George Bush, Dan Quayle, Barney Frank) and, at the harrowing climax, by a silent nurse who assists him as the effects of cancer and radiation therapy render him gaunt and weak. A complex but vigorous and ingratiating presence, he faces even death with the cunning of a lifelong political warrior: “I asked my aides to research all the religions,” he tells us, “so I could try to figure out what I believe.”

The Libertine’s Rochester thinks he knows what he believes. In constant pursuit of sex, he’s disdainful of its pleasure; a brilliant thinker, he sneers at rationality; full of emotion, he’s contemptuous of love. “I am John Wilmot, the second earl of Rochester, and I do not want you to like me,” he says by way of introduction–and in John Malkovich’s reined-in, conscientiously charmless performance you know he means it. Libidinous, licentious, and seemingly in a state of perpetual arousal, Rochester mocks the world around him: England’s “golden era” of science and art, ushered in by the restoration of King Charles II after a decade of Puritan republican rule. Such a permissive society would seem to suit the ever-randy Rochester, but he finds it intolerably false; Malkovich makes his discomfort palpable and physical, forever fussing with his long, unkempt hair and wriggling in his flamboyant clothing. Only in art can Rochester find a truth that satisfies him. He’s drawn by the passion of the actress Elizabeth Barry, whose lack of theatrical craft has made her a laughingstock, and undertakes to teach her the art of acting. They become lovers–but their affair finally crashes under the insistently obnoxious, alcohol-fueled behavior that expresses his self-loathing. Rochester also alienates his friend King Charles II, who admires the witty young writer and wants to put him to use as an advocate for his agenda. But Rochester refuses to be a spin doctor: instead of the noble drama the king has commissioned, he pens a lewd farce mocking both morality and monarchy. (The second act begins with the cast’s female members singing Rochester’s ode to “Signior Dildo” while knocking large phalluses together like drumsticks.)

Despite its title and Malkovich’s presence, this is no retread of Dangerous Liaisons. If anything it recalls those well-made historical dramas prevalent in the 1960s, like A Man for All Seasons and Becket, in which a dissolute or apolitical man finds great reserves of ethical courage when circumstances bring him into conflict with his ruler. But writers today don’t seem to think audiences would believe such a story, so they write plays like The Libertine, whose hero’s main crisis comes when his teenage boy toy is killed in a brawl. The incident sends Rochester into self-imposed exile, from which he returns a beat-up drunk for a reunion with his long-estranged wife, just in time to accept Jesus before he kicks the bucket. Yet a final image leaves us wondering: Rochester rises from his deathbed, over which his wife and priest mourn, and regards the audience with that teasing, enigmatic pout Malkovich has perfected.

Lacking the strong dramatic conflict that would make an audience really care about its protagonist, The Libertine nonetheless will be welcomed with open arms by those who wondered whether they’d ever see a traditional well-made play at Steppenwolf again–traditional but trendy, that is. It’s packed with sexual and scatological material: raunchy language, casual cunnilingus, same-sex fondling, full-frontal pissing, and plain old fucking (including a scene that shows how King Charles likes a little spanky with his hanky-panky). Happily, Jeffreys uses these elements as a tool, not a crutch; what’s most impressive about his script (somewhat revised since its 1994 debut at London’s Royal Court Theatre) is the way he fuses antique and contemporary language to create accessible, evocative dialogue. It’s often very funny, and if it finally fails to be moving, it paints a clear picture of Rochester and his world. It also provides a showcase for tasty acting and design, making for one of the most consistently high quality productions at Steppenwolf in quite some time.

Balancing Malkovich’s intriguingly mysterious performance is Martha Plimpton’s searing portrayal of Barry, the first great actress in English drama–because, The Libertine suggests, she felt as strongly about humanity’s potential greatness as Rochester did about its corruption. Strong support for the two leads comes from Steve Key as Rochester’s doomed male lover, Mariann Mayberry as the prostitute who finally betrays Rochester, Francis Guinan as the ruthless, cosmopolitan King Charles, Marc Vann as a foppish Charles Sackville (best known from history as the man who introduced the king to his favorite mistress, Nell Gwynne), Alan Wilder as playwright George Etherege (whose comedy The Man of Mode satirized Rochester–and starred Elizabeth Barry), and the amusing Ian Barford as Rochester’s manservant Alcock (if the name weren’t real they could never have gotten away with it). Missi Pyle as Rochester’s wife would be more effective if one could understand her words.

Director Terry Johnson adopts a deliberately artificial tone to suggest Restoration comedy. A clever playwright himself (his Insignificance explores cold war anxieties through an imagined meeting between Albert Einstein and Marilyn Monroe), Johnson contrives to have the stagehands as visible as the actors at key moments and encourages extreme theatricality from his designers. Derek McLane’s set, with its undisguised use of painted flats, and Kevin Rigdon’s lighting constantly remind us that we’re watching a show on a stage–even when the action takes place backstage–and the brilliant costume designer Virgil C. Johnson delivers period clothing rich in texture and detail. The production values are as vital as the acting: the more rooted in specifics Rochester’s story is, the freer we are to explore its resonances for a contemporary culture more advanced and more base than ever.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jennifer Girard Photography.