“That Championship Season,” which opened on Broadway in 1972, was a spectacular success, running for 944 performances and winning the Pulitzer Prize. The play is currently being revived and has been the subject of cultural commentaries along with the usual hyper-ventilating reviews.
The play presents a reunion of four members of a state championship high school basketball team at the home of their coach. It’s a bittersweet occasion that mingles memories of glory with the inevitable disappointments of the aftermath years. Beneath the surface of camaraderie boils a malevolent brew. Phil, an unprincipled businessman, has had an affair with the wife of George, the corrupt city mayor. Phil plans to support George’s rival in the next election. James spills the beans on Phil, and the fireworks begin. Tom, an alcoholic, casts bitter insults at his friends, while the coach spouts racist, right wing cliches: “Communists are at work today … Students burning down colleges … Government gone bad. And there’s no McCarthy to protect us.”
When the play first opened, it was received as a revelation of America’s failures and sins. Most reviews of the revival have been less than enthusiastic. But the interesting thing is the way various critics have used the play as a spring board for venting their own ideologies.
Writing for the conservative Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout calls it a “moldy theatrical corpse,” a “quasipolitical cartoon whose smugness stinks like dime-store perfume.” He sees it as an expression of the liberal mindset that blossomed in the ’60s — the disillusionment with middle class American ideals brought about by the Vietnam War, the antipathy to the bigotry and hypocrisy of the Eisenhower years.
“I doubt that any other play … has more to tell us about the self-satisfied attitudes of the generation that made it,” writes Teachout
While admitting that the play is a bit corny and melodramatic, John Lahr — writing for the liberal New Yorker — finds it not dated at all, but highly relevant to our times.
“Beneath the constant pep talks about winning is a rueful sense of moral exhaustion, which plays as powerfully today as it did in 1972,” Lahr writes. He seizes on the coach’s crude pearls of wisdom — “You have to hate to win,” “Exploiting a man’s weakness is the name of the game” — as expressions of the cruel ethos of competition, capitalism and individualism. And to drive his point home, he makes a gratuitous association to current events: “The coach’s words, which sound eerily like those of some of today’s Tea Party pols, hang in the air.”
The two reactions nicely represent our ideological divide. For conservatives, the ’60s were when America lost its soul. For liberals, the same period marked the birth of a redemptive American reformation. There seems to be no escape from these polarized mindsets that dominate our national conversation. And it’s endlessly fascinating how intelligent people who seem to have so much in common can consider the same phenomenon and come up with diametrically opposing views.
Paul Johnson — a conservative historian but by no means a mindless rube — actually likes Sarah Palin. Her scorn of “this awful political correctness business” is in “the good tradition of America,” he writes. “Plus: She’s got courage.” Johnson is also a fan of the tea party: “It’s brought a lot of very clever and quite young women into mainstream politics and got them elected. A very good little movement, that.”
How can you square Johnson’s views with the many thoughtful people who foam at the mouth at the mere mention of Sarah Palin and the tea party? Are we members of the same species? Would we be better off if either side won?
Questions about winning and losing bring another matter to mind which also relates to basketball, but not a championship season — alas. Once again, our team lost. Not just lost, but suffered an inexplicable, catastrophic collapse. Why? What happened? There are no answers to these questions except that life isn’t fair and that no one has a birthright to victory. What have we learned? That it’s better not to strut and swagger and beat your chest. Better to retain your dignity, your perspective, your class. Then if you do lose, you’ll have those priceless treasures intact. And you won’t look like a fool.
T.S. Eliot was wrong when he pegged April as “the cruelest month.” That designation belongs to March. March is the month of disillusionment, self-doubt and defeat, when hopes are dashed and fans are exiled to the wilderness while they wait for another season, another chance.