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Theatre and the Presidential Debates: the Role of Performance in Voter Choice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2006


The fictionalized account in the recent film The Queen of Tony Blair's coaching of Her Majesty into a more voter-friendly response to the death of Princess Diana, largely through the medium of television, is a pertinent reminder of how the presentation of self on television subtly modifies the presentation of self in everyday life. In this article, Ian Watson considers how the now-ritualized debates between the main contenders in American presidential elections are stage-managed to enhance what their supporters suppose to be their candidate's most sympathetic features – supposedly learning the lessons of the first such debate, between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which displayed Nixon in such an unappealing light. However, what are ostensibly strengths or weaknesses may be read as quite other by an audience attuned to reading signifiers in film or television drama – or simply empathic towards what others perceive as failings, as in the case of reactions to George W. Bush's inarticulacies, awkward mannerisms, and failed jokes, which some read not as signs of ineptness but of an endearing humanity. Ian Watson, who is a Contributing Editor of New Theatre Quarterly, teaches at Rutgers University, Newark, where he is the Acting Chair of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts. He is author of Towards a Third Theatre: Eugenio Barba and the Odin Teatret (Routledge, 1993) and of Negotiating Cultures: Eugenio Barba and the Intercultural Debate (Manchester University Press, 2002). He edited Performer Training across Cultures (Routledge, 2001), and has published numerous articles on theatre in scholarly journals.

Research Article
2006 Cambridge University Press

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