A cardinal rule for spinning out a compelling drama, the old master Anton Chekov wisely suggested, holds that a rifle seen hanging on the wall in the first act had better go off with a bang before the final curtain comes down. Clues, Chekov was saying, had better lead somewhere, or else fickle audiences will feel they’ve been taken for a pointless ride.
But what if the gun goes off as soon as the show begins? What if there’s an inciting incident to start things rolling, a large, compelling event the audience sees and hears with an undeniable shock of recognition as the curtain rises? What does the dramatist do then? How does he try to write his way out of this narrative predicament? The play, after all, would seem to be over even as it just began. What more is there to say?
These questions — admittedly as mischievous as they are genuinely problematic — rose up in my mind as I, along with many Americans, closely followed the progress of two large dramas unfolding on the national stage.
The first began with a bang all right. A fairly run-of-the-mill bit of shoving and grappling late in a Nov. 14 football game between the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers suddenly got dangerously out of hand. Myles Garrett, the Browns defensive end, turned into “The Incredible Hulk.” He huffed and puffed and somehow managed to yank the helmet off the head of Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph. Exploding with rage and fury, Garrett swung the six-pound helmet in a vicious arc. It landed with a dull thud against Rudolph’s head. Pretty much every rabid football fan in America was watching as the attack played out live on TV — but if you missed it, you could see it, again and again, on the internet.
There was no doubt about what happened. Case closed. Interim suspensions were dished out by the league. Hefty fines would undoubtedly soon be coming. A hangdog Garrett apologized. And the drama seemed over; all that remained was the persistent flutter of indignant commentary.
But then last week Garrett found a way not only to keep the story alive but to give it a new twist. With the self-righteousness of a hero in a Shakespearean tragedy, he wailed that he was more sinned against than sinning. Garrett, according to press reports, alleged that Rudolph provoked things by hurling a racial slur.
No one else has come forward to say they also heard the inciting words, nor did any intrusive microphone pick them up. And the slur apparently either slipped Garrett’s mind at the time or he was too abjectly contrite to offer it as a justification in the aftermath of the melee a week earlier. But, suddenly faced with the prospect of a suspension that could cost him his $5 million or so annual salary if not his career, he wrote a new act to the sordid drama. And, judging by the fervent chatter on sports radio and stories in the press, he succeeded in resurrecting debate in what initially seemed a definitively open-and-shut case.
Which brings me to the other episode that has kept many Americans glued to their TV sets in recent days. This, too, seemed to be a national drama where all was said and done in the first act. It began with the smoking gun: a transcript of a “perfect” conversation — perfectly incriminating. “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” the most powerful man on the planet demanded from a besieged supplicant, Ukraine’s president. And if anyone was obtuse enough to harbor any genuine doubts about whether a shakedown had gone down, President TrumpDonald TrumpGraham says he hopes that Trump runs again Trump says Stacey Abrams 'might be better than existing governor' Kemp Executive privilege fight poses hurdles for Trump MORE’s chief of staff helpfully clarified the matter. “Get over it,” he growled at squeamish moralists.
What happened in the July phone call between the president of Ukraine and the president of the United States seemed as self-evident as what happened on the football field in Cleveland. It was all out there for everyone to see. The facts were not moot. All that remained was for the House of Representatives and then the Senate to decide whether a constitutional punishment fit this manner of crime. From the git-go, “did he or didn’t he?” seemed beyond debate.
Yet Republicans, like the Browns’ Garrett, have decided they can get people to ignore what they’ve seen with their own eyes. They, too, can inventively keep the drama going with distractions. They, too, can hurl contrived accusations in an attempt to create a measure of doubt: The whistleblower needs to testify; after all, it’s somehow crucial that he confirm what’s already been confirmed by the transcript of the “perfect” conversation. Or: Democrats need to be called to task for chasing down nude photographs of the president (which, if true, would undoubtedly serve them right if they’d ever succeeded). Or: All the evidence is hearsay, except for what is not hearsay and that is no less specious — the disloyal betrayals of insidious Never-Trumpers.
Irrefutable evidence be damned — these two national dramas continue to play out contentiously on center stage. And unless Republicans in the Senate can find the moral courage and the sense of duty to come to terms with what they have seen and heard, I’m left wondering whether the president could smash someone with a helmet in the Oval Office and get away with that, too.
Howard Blum is a writer and contributing editor for Vanity Fair, a former Village Voice and New York Times reporter, and the author of more than a dozen nonfiction books. His most recent, “In the Enemy’s House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker Who Caught the Russian Spies,” was published in 2018. His next, “Night of the Assassins: The Untold Story of Hitler’s Plot to Kill FDR, Churchill and Stalin,” will be published in June by HarperCollins.