“They gave me so much power. Why are they surprised I used it?’’
That’s none other than Richard M. Nixon speaking, in “Nixon’s Nixon,’’ and his revealing words are directed at Henry Kissinger, the other Nixon of the title. It’s Aug. 7, 1974, the night before Nixon will go on TV and, facing the prospect of impeachment for his role in Watergate, announce he will resign the presidency.
With one anxious eye on posterity’s judgment of their conduct in office, both men volley rationalizations back and forth. What neither of them is willing to acknowledge, or even see, is the line between using power and abusing it.
In their moral obtuseness, they have a lot of company on Boston-
area stages lately. Indeed, if there is a single theme that has dominated the fall theater season so far, it is the getting, using, and misusing of power, not just by presidents and statesmen but also by judges, mayors, clergymen, generals, kings, queens, and even average citizens.
Each day’s headlines suggest that this is a propitious moment to consider the questions about the abuse of power — its causes, culprits, and consequences — that are posed by dramas like Russell Lees’s “Nixon’s Nixon,’’ recently presented by Watertown’s New Repertory Theatre, and Trinity Repertory Company’s world-premiere production of “The Prince of Providence.’’ Trinity Rep has scored a box-office hit with George Brant’s play about Buddy Cianci, the buccaneering mayor who wielded raw political clout in Rhode Island’s capital city right up to the moment he was sentenced to federal prison for racketeering.
The truth captured by Lord Acton’s oft-quoted dictum, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,’’ is the assumption underlying not just those two plays but also “Saltonstall’s Trial,’’ now receiving its world premiere at Beverly’s Larcom Theatre; “The Stone,’’ recently staged by Needham-based Arlekin Players Theatre; “King Lear,’’ currently at Chelsea Theatre Works in an Actors’ Shakespeare Project production; “Coriolanus,’’ being presented by Praxis Stage in Dorchester’s Little House; and “The Crucible,’’ produced at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater by Nora Theatre Company in association with the New York-based theater company Bedlam.
At their most incisive, these plays examine the constellation of factors that gives rise to the abuse of power — including support from the citizenry, a.k.a. we the people — while also asking, pertinently, what does it take to stop it?
These dramas soberly underscore the fact that the corrupt abuse of power often arises not just from the megalomania, amorality, greed, and general venality of the malefactors, but also from the complicity, cowardice, and intellectual dishonesty of others within their orbit. For that reason, it’s notable that there comes a moment in several of these dramas when longtime enablers finally summon up their courage and principles and say: “Enough.’’ Or, in the words of Herb DeSimone, Cianci’s longtime mentor, in “The Prince of Providence’’ as he storms out on the mayor for good after learning Cianci has withheld crucial information from him for years: “Pardon me, everyone. I need some fresh air.’’
Those lines might have been drawn from the soul-baring testimony before Congress earlier this year by Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer. Or they could have been part of the dramatic press conference held by Kendall Roy of HBO’s “Succession’’ as he turned the tables on his coldly manipulative media-mogul father, Logan Roy, in last Sunday’s season finale. In crafting a portrait of a Murdoch-like clan who cast loyalty and legality to the winds as they jockey for position within a family-run conglomerate, the creators of “Succession’’ have reaffirmed that there are few more surefire ways to generate gripping story lines than by exploring the shadowy nexus of power and corruption, whether financial, political, or moral.
That’s something playwrights have always understood. Because the dynamics of power are inherently dramatic, it has been a perennial source of material for theater writers, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, who got engrossing results in “Hamilton’’ by mining the rivalries among the Founding Fathers as they battled to gain and maintain power while building a new nation.
Buddy Cianci was obviously light years away from that caliber of political leaders, but a small trace of idealism is palpable in him, beneath the gleam of ambition and calculation, at the start of “The Prince of Providence.’’ The young Buddy sees politics as an instrument for change, and is genuine in his determination to bring about the revival of his beloved Providence.
But no sooner is Buddy elected mayor on an anti-corruption platform in “The Prince of Providence’’ than his office fills up with men who think they can push him around: a developer angling for city contracts, a leader of the Democratic political machine demanding that he deliver municipal jobs, a city councilor informing him that the council, not the mayor, runs the city, saying, “We are pleased to render you a lame duck on day one.’’ Cianci surprises them all, though, by concentrating power in his own hands, blithely informing the machine pol some time later that he has “come to the conclusion that I can take it from here.’’ And he does. Without excusing Cianci’s abuses of power, Brant’s play suggests that the corrupt status quo he inherited helped make those abuses possible. Along the way, Cianci develops the kind of grandiose L ’état, c’est moi (I am the state) attitude common to those who misuse their authority, essentially coming to believe that he is Providence and Providence is him.
A chief justice named Stoughton is guilty of a lethally extreme abuse of power in “Saltonstall’s Trial,’’ Michael Cormier and Myriam Cyr’s new drama about the 1692 Salem witch trials. Looking to make a name for himself as he considers a run for governor, Stoughton disregards due process and prohibits the cross-examination of witnesses who are making wild accusations of witchcraft against an innocent woman. Stoughton even goes so far as to declare: “I say who gets hanged, and when.’’ That ignites the conscience of magistrate Nathaniel Saltonstall. Though earlier Judge Saltonstall had been fully committed to the campaign to root out supposed witches, Stoughton’s abuse of power ignites Saltonstall’s conscience about the previous injustices he has committed while on the bench. So he sets out to redeem himself by saving the woman.
The best-known play about the Salem witch trials, of course, is “The Crucible.’’ Arthur Miller wrote that 1953 drama in response to McCarthyism, and its warnings about the exploitation of mass hysteria by demagogues remains relevant. But what also registers today, as we watch the misuse of legal and religious authority by the play’s male inquisitors, is their desire to enforce, through terror, a rigid cultural uniformity that oppresses women.
If witch hunts real or metaphorical are one way of enforcing control within a society, wars are another, a fact underlined by Praxis Stage’s production of “Coriolanus.’’ It is set in 2049, when a society is coming apart at the seams because of the machinations, including military confrontations, of the powerful.
A capacity for self-delusion often goes along with the abuse of power, all too evident as Nixon and Kissinger huddle, bicker, and scheme on the night before the president’s resignation in “Nixon’s Nixon.’’ At one point Nixon asks: “How many did we kill, Henry?,’’ referring to the conduct of the Vietnam War, the secret bombings of Cambodia, and other policies. The number adds up to more than 800,000. Nixon suffers a brief spasm of conscience and seems to be on the verge of a true reckoning with the price paid by others for his misdeeds. Then Kissinger reassures him with a bromide (“A world leader makes decisions’’), and Nixon is immediately back in his comfort zone. The president admits: “I feel like I should be asking forgiveness, but I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong.’’
Neither does the German couple who exploit the helplessness of a Jewish family in 1930s Dresden as they wrest the family’s house away in “The Stone,’’ a drama by Marius von Mayenburg that reminds us that the abuse of power is not always confined to those who hold high office. Aware how their actions will look, the couple concocts a self-exonerating, wholly false narrative about their interactions with the Jewish family that gets passed down through the generations.
Shakespeare, of course, was the master at creating characters who no sooner acquire power than they abuse it, often as an instrument of revenge. The cruel expulsion of Lear into the storm by his daughters Regan and Goneril is indefensible, yet one can’t help but wonder whether a desire for filial payback is at their root. The ferocity both women display once they have the upper hand and no longer need to be subservient to him suggests that Lear was a less-than-doting father (as does the king’s harsh repudiation of his third daughter, Cordelia).
Once Lear is cast out of their castles into the storm, the monarch experiences homelessness for the first time, whereupon he gives voice to an un-Lear-like regret, saying: “Poor naked wretches, whereso’er you are/That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,/How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,/Your loop’d and window’d raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en/Too little care of this!” Sometimes the worst abuse of power is failing to use it on behalf of those who need it.