LBJ’s Infamous Mushroom-Cloud Commercial Cuts into Our Deepest Fears With This Award Winning Play
REVIEW: Amid the relentless critique of social media and the swirl of “fake news” accusations that never seem to go away, Sean Devine’s “Daisy” is a play that asks a timely question: Do political ads manipulate the fears we already have, or do they actually change minds?
International City Theatre's virtual production, directed by caryn desai, focuses on the Vietnam War era presidential election and the landmark ad campaign run by its ultimate victor, Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the ad, an innocent girl counts the petals on a daisy while a male voice—ostensibly Barry Goldwater, the hardline Republican candidate—ominously counts down to an atomic explosion.
Based on true events, “Daisy” is a political drama that presents the moment in TV history that ushered in the age of negative advertising and forever changed how we elect our leaders. It also tells the more cynical tale of how a nation got led into war, distracted by the "packaging" of a seemingly peaceful U.S. president. Daisy explores the art and science of political manipulation, the forces at play on public consciousness in our mediated world, and the impact that fear has had on our democracy. It’s a story that resonates so deeply with our current moment that it should be required viewing for all registered voters.
Set during the 1964 U.S. presidential election, with brutal race riots erupting across America, the play takes place in the high-pressure advertising world of Madison Avenue; a group of "ad men" working for Lyndon Johnson unleash the most powerful political commercial ever conceived, the "Daisy" ad. War was the objective. Peace was the bait. And everyone got duped. Johnson, who had become president only because John F. Kennedy was assassinated, was desperate to discredit his Republican presidential opponent, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. He got more than he expected.
Picture a little blonde girl standing in the bushes. She’s no more than 4 years old. Probably younger. One chubby arm holds a freshly plucked daisy. Her open, freckled face studies the flower. Birds sing as she concentrates, counting petals, pulling them off as she goes:
One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . five . . . seven . . . six . . . six . . . eight . . . nine . . . Suddenly, another voice. A man—amplified, accented, distorted. We can’t see him. He drowns out the girl.
Is it God? Ten, nine, eight, seven, six . . . The little girl looks up. The picture freezes, and we move in on her as the man counts down, closer, deeper, into her eyes, swallowing her up— A mushroom cloud. Thunder cracks. Fire swirls.
Another man speaks now. A solemn Texas drawl. A former schoolteacher. We know him. “These are the stakes. To make a world in which all of God’s children can live, or go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”
Finally, white titles on black: VOTE FOR PRESIDENT JOHNSON NOVEMBER 3RD!
Unless you were watching “The NBC Monday Movie” on September 7, 1964, you likely don’t know when you first saw it, as it was endlessly replayed on the news and discussed in print. Some Americans hailed the ad as a work of art, a spectacular strike in LBJ’s campaign against Goldwater, who had joked about shooting nuclear missiles into the Kremlin men’s room. Others were horrified. It was vicious…un-presidential. Children wept in bed, and adults pondered a new world where elections wouldn’t be won on promises but on fear.
Fast forward to 2020, and the tools and impacts of "negative advertising" that were unleashed almost forty years ago have now bored their way so deeply into our TV and social media screens that there’s no going back. And with the current level of political deception and distraction, who knows now how low we can go?
One commericial – maybe one man – fundamentally changed how we elect our leaders. That commercial ran just once – but once was enough to drop a bomb on American politics. Attack ads have now become part of our political metabolism. Its legacy has come all the way to this year’s presidential campaign, with both Trump and Biden launching an avalanche of ominous, old-fashioned black and white attack smear campaign, taking turns throwing one outrageous claim after another.
Mr. Devine's play has been thoroughly and painstakingly created. Daisy's characters are in fact based on real-life figures that are icons in the advertising world, including Bill Bernbach (Ed F. Martin, “Arsenic and Old Lace” – La Mirada; “Daniel’s Husband” – Ovation Nominated), the creative pioneer who founded the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, and at the nexus of it all sits the sweet but agoraphobic Tony Schwartz (David Nevell, “The Odd Couple” – Laguna Playhouse; “Twelfth Night” – New Swan Shakespeare), the eccentric "sound man" who forever revolutionized the science of communications, but who was afraid of walking more than eight blocks from his apartment.
The story's protagonist is a conflicted idealist named Louise Brown (Erin Anne Williams, “Doubt,” – 2016 Robby Award; “Silent Sky”), a brilliant copywriter who withholds a damning secret as she struggles against her ethics and her ambition.
Also through the course of the play we meet stern, African-American White House legal adviser Clifford (Phillip J. Lewis, “Wizard of Oz” – Nat’l Tour; “Ragtime” – Coalhouse) who’s deeply invested in getting Johnson re-elected to keep pushing for civil rights; sharky ad boss Aaron Ehrlich (Matthew Floyd Miller, “Not About Nightingales” – Circle In The Square; “The Invention of Love” – Lincoln Ctr. Theatre); and a boisterous, “Mad Men”-style ad writer named Sid Myers (Alex Dabestani, “The Understudy” – Annenberg Theatre; “Criminal Minds” - CBS).
Arguing fiercely over whether inventing the country’s first successful attack ad is a good idea, some characters are dubious about the outcome. Others not.
“The Great Society isn’t going to come easy,” says Clifford, in the middle of an argument about how far to push the adverse backlash. “The president wants a landslide.”
“What did you call them, attack ads?” replies Louise. “You hired us to sell a product, which is the president.”
“Please,” Clifford says icily, “do not refer to the president as a product.”
“Daisy” premiered in Seattle in 2016 where it received a Gregory Award nomination for Best New Play and a Broadway World Seattle Critic's Choice Award for Best New Play. Since then the play has had regional premieres at professional theatres across North America and has been mounted by numerous colleges and community theatres.
Mr. Devine, the playwright, who is also the artistic director of Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre, says, “the people who made the daisy ad knew it would just draw up everyone’s fears. Basically, it said, ‘If you don’t vote for Lyndon Johnson, the fires of hell will be unleashed upon us all.’ Then Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, unleashing the fires of hell. The question is, can it be ethical for a candidate to frame himself as a peace candidate when he’s planning something else?”
Exploring the art and science of political manipulation, human fragility, the forces at play on public consciousness, and the impact that negative news has had on our democracy, the play addresses issues such as fearmongering, racial injustice, police killings, sexism in the workplace, and the integrity (or lack thereof) of politics, leading the audience through a provocative discussion on how we as Americans came to our point of being today.
Directed and produced by caryn desai, a graduate of the MFA directing program at the University of California, Irvine, and is the recipient of awards from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle, NAACP, LA Weekly, Ovations, and Drama-Logue. Casting Director is Michael Donovan, Casting Associate is Richie Ferris, Costume Designer is Kim DeShazo, Sound Designer is Dave Mickey, Property Designers are Patty and Gordon Briles, Hair and Wig Design is by Anthony Gagliardi, Publicist is Lucy Pollak, Video Design/Editing is Mike Bradecich, Streaming Service is by Virtue Venue Theatricals.
Beginning their 35th season, International City Theatre (ICT) in Long Beach, California, is a professional, non-profit theatre company located in the Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Virtual Venue Theatricals, streaming on demand thru Nov. 7 at www.ictlongbeach.org/2020-season/ Tickets are $20.
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The Show Report
Photo credit: Mike Bradecich
Tony Schwartz Historical Photos