Review of What the Constitution Means to Me

Today’s guest review is by Hannah Farber, an assistant professor at Columbia University. Her scholarship has appeared in the New England Quarterly, Early American Studies and the Journal of the Early Republic; she is at work on a monograph on marine insurance, tentatively titled Underwriters of the United States.

What the Constitution Means to Me, a play currently running at the New York Theater Workshop offers a hopeful, accessible, and sophisticated vision of a renewal of American Constitutional life.

“What the Constitution Means to Me” starts as a phrase in quotation marks. In a warm, self-deprecating, and informal introduction, the playwright and lead actor Heidi Schreck reminisces about her lucrative youthful hobby. She traveled around the country to American Legion halls, giving speeches about what the constitution meant to her in competitions for award money. Her speeches, she confesses, were rather bad. The Legionnaires, evoked by a set decorated with hundreds of photographs of somber men in club garb, seem to have been humorless and rule-oriented judges.

Schreck’s reminiscences of these events begin to be interrupted by memories of her female ancestors, dating back several generations. As she reveals, with numerous anxious glances at an impassively presiding Legionnaire, these women suffered at the hands of domestic abusers from which the law (and, ultimately, the Constitution), did little to protect them. A critique of the Constitution therefore emerges.

There are elements of Schreck’s critique to which a historian might raise objections. Her outrage at judges caviling with one another about the definitions of words like “shall” is understandable, but misplaced. Words, unavoidably, are the stuff that laws are made out of, and words are what we use to interpret those laws. Schreck could just as easily have found examples of court cases in which absurd-sounding word splitting resulted in legal outcomes of which she approved.

For a historian, however, the most interesting moment in the play is a transition that does not take place. Gazing around her at the endless rows of Legionnaires, Schreck tells the audience, “I’d really like for all of this to disappear now … All of this. A big set change!” But it doesn’t disappear. The Legionnaires stay put. As Schreck says, “It’s not that kind of show.” But then she adds, still hopeful, “Maybe we can all imagine that we’re someplace else now.” The meaning of this wish soon becomes clear. American history is the set. We can’t change it—but we can imagine we are somewhere else, and see what happens.

As it happens, even without changing the set, Schreck can evoke change, for as the play continues, she calls the Constitution itself into question. She’s bared her soul, and her family’s painful stories, bound up with the history of the law. The Constitution is implicated in her intergenerational family trauma. As she hints, the Constitution is, itself, America’s own intergenerational family trauma. So should we just trash it? Can we imagine that we’re somewhere else now?

Schreck hastens to add that she has not faced her family’s painful history alone. She has had allies—relatives and friends, women and men. For my taste, Schreck works rather too hard to appease male audience members: she repeatedly mentions how much she adores men, in spite of the abuse her foremothers suffered at their hands, and she demonstrates, through one remarkable moment of character transformation, that she has always been able to count on their loving allyship. As I contemplated the ranks of Legionnaires—all of them, of course, army veterans—I found myself hoping that instead of baring her soul for their approval, she would invoke their honor to call them into battle.

But there is no need, in the end, to criticize such fearless feminine kindness. After all, battle is not where Schreck is headed. She is headed, rather, toward debate: toward an astonishing participatory event at which audience members supplant Legionnaires as the judges of a debate about the United States Constitution (her Douglass and her Garrison will both surprise you). It’s an audacious theatrical moment, and it works; thanks to a careful setup, we cannot help but to put our trust in the two debaters, both of whom, we believe, have the country’s best interest at heart. If the debate points themselves are a bit shaggy, emotional, and inelegant—well, who cares? Schreck is proving the efficacy of participatory politics in real time.

And Schreck is, in fact, doing even more than this. She is out to prove that one can reveal, castigate, and condemn the sins committed by the Constitution’s propertied dead white male framers and their heirs—in fact, one can even commit the ultimate heresy of calling for the Constitution’s own death—while at the same time affirming and reinscribing the best elements of the American constitutional legacy: real contests over ideas with real stakes, undertaken in good faith, in a setting in which everyone can place his or her faith in the rules. In such a setting, even the most devastating critiques of the Constitution are mere starting points, meant to invite more responses. Defenders of the Constitution, we must conclude, should lean into this conversation rather than away from it. If the Constitution really is that great, it can take it.

Recent historical scholarship has emphasized that the Constitution was contested from its very origins. James Madison first characterized the fateful gathering of 1787 as a small-c convention, intended for revising the federal Constitution, not creating it.[1] The ink on the new Constitution was barely dry before its authors were arguing with one another about their own original intent in writing it.[2] Ratification of the Constitution was followed by at least a decade of a genuine bewilderment about what it actually was.[3] But today, we rarely have the opportunity to really sit with the question of “What the Constitution Means To Me,” a question that by the end of the play is no longer in self-deprecating quotation marks but a provocation posed to every audience member, in whom Schreck has playfully vested political power.

Debates, like constitutions, require very strict rules, and one of the rules of debate is apparently that it is cheating to use props. “Props!” squawks an outraged debater as her rival rifles through a physical copy of the Constitution. Since a play about the Constitution is not an actual debate about the Constitution, Schreck is free to cheat, and she does. In fact, in gifting audience members free copies of the United States Constitution, courtesy of the ACLU, I believe that she tips her hand–but every night (at least until the end of October) the debate is going to go on.

The year 2018 would be a good year for Americans to attend to their Constitution. In the country’s remaining civic spaces, new productions of this play-cum-debate—better yet if they are heavily customized ones—might go a long way toward renewing the conversation.

_____________

[1] Mary Sarah Bilder, Madison’s Hand: Revising the Constitutional Convention (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 15.

[2] Jack Rakove, Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Knopf, 1996); Andrew Shankman, Original Intents: Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and the American Founding (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Jonathan Gienapp, The Second Creation: Fixing the American Constitution in the Founding Era (Cambridge: Belknap, 2018), 3-4.

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