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'Daisy' and the Science of Manipulation

Exploring the roots of political terror in the new play at ACT.
Feature | July 20, 2016 | By Caleb Thompson

It’s 1964. America is plagued by fear and exploding with racial violence. A heat wave of xenophobic hatred is sweeping the country. Storms of civil unrest are gathering across the land. Demonstrations in the street are met with tear gas and police in riot gear. A dark horse, loose cannon candidate wins the Republican nomination for President. A growing specter of terror rules the hearts and minds of the nation’s citizens. Sound familiar?

The political manipulation of terror is the central concern of the play. A group of Madison Avenue advertisers is given the opportunity to create Lyndon B. Johnson’s television campaign ads. The team, initially ecstatic at the chance, struggles with competing ambitions, varying claims as to the origins of ideas and serious questions about the moral integrity of creating an ad that plays so precisely on the fears of voters. Eventually they create the most devastating attack ad in history: the infamous “Daisy ad.” 

The ad didn’t mention Johnson’s opponent Barry Goldwater and it ran only once, but it had a chilling effect, and Johnson won the election in a landslide. The mastermind behind the ad was an eccentric, agoraphobic audiophile by the name of Tony Schwartz, played with expert quirkiness by Michael Gotch. Schwartz opens the play with a monologue reminiscent of a TED talk, directly addressing the audience and detailing how sound is the very first thing we learn: first our mother’s heartbeat, then our own, the sounds of voices and music from outside the womb, some angry, some loving, some of another beauty altogether. At one point he pauses, and then says, “You will remember these words for the rest of your…” He leaves the sentence unfinished, and the mind immediately completes it with the word “life.” A chuckle ripples through the audience. It’s a neat trick, and it gives an ominous gravity to his genius.

Schwartz’s insight into the way the human mind works—specifically, its ability to infer and fill in missing information—was the basis for the “attack” portion of the ad. The ad didn’t need to mention Goldwater; voters intuitively filled in the blank. 

Kirsten Potter plays Louise Brown, a sharp, ambitious, upstart copywriter and the only woman on the team. (The historical character was actually male, but playwright Sean Devine, graciously, saved us from the monochrome of an all-male cast). Not only is she intensely career-driven, but she also has the unfortunate fate of possessing a moral compass whose needle is tremulously and forever shaking. She’s the stand-in for our individual complicity in a media-crazed society that always seems to be giving lip service to a sense of moral dignity, but nevertheless continues, salaciously and cynically, to grind away for more viewers, more clicks, more likes. 

The show’s multi-media effects are wildly evocative, including a backdrop of about eighty television sets all stacked next to and on top of each other, each of which could either display an independent moving image or a small part of one massive moving image.

What makes the play wonderful isn’t its big themes and its digging for the root causes of political evil—these far pre-date the 1960’s and will surely outlast our own present predicament—but its more modest accomplishments as an embodiment of rational, civil discourse and technologically driven psychological manipulation. We want both. We’d like to be able to have reasonable conversations, and we’d like to be psychologically manipulated—not toward fear and despair, of course—but toward hope and wonder. Isn’t that the power of art? 

As we filed out the guy seated next to me pointed me toward Sid Myers, one of the real-life advertisers on the team, who had been sitting directly behind me. I introduced myself and we chatted for a few minutes. Referring to his own experience working on the ad, he said, “You know, it wasn’t that dramatic.”

Daisy runs through August 7 at ACT Theatre. Check out our interview with the playwright, Sean Devine, here.

Photos by Dawn Schaefer.