In ABC's new fall drama series Commander-in-Chief, Geena Davis plays the United States' first female president. In contrast with NBC's political intrigue-heavy The West Wing, which features a male president in the shape of Martin Sheen, the new drama will focus as much on the protagonist's role as a wife and mother as on political issues. As Commander in Chief's creator and executive producer, Rod Lurie, put it in The Hollywood Reporter: “We're going to deal with East Wing stuff, residential stuff.”
Why is it that depictions of powerful women on stage and screen so often focus on the tension between family and career? You wouldn't catch Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), or George C. Scott as the hotheaded military general George S. Patton in the 1970 movie that bears his name, fretting about picking the kids up from school or overcooking dinner. Yet powerful women, from Eva Perón to Jacqueline Kennedy, are constantly portrayed in pop culture in terms of the struggle to reconcile their personal and public lives. And all too often, the private lives of these female figureheads are seen to overshadow the public.
The same cannot be said of Golda Meir (1898-1978) — the Russian-born and American-raised Jew who rose to lead Israel during some of its darkest years — portrayed by Tovah Feldshuh in William Gibson's one-woman play, Golda's Balcony. From a young age, Meir was driven by a zealous devotion to the Zionist cause — namely, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1921, following her marriage to Morris Meyerson, Meir and her husband immigrated to the Holy Land from the not-quite-so-holy land of Milwaukee, Wisc., where she had moved with her family as a child to escape pogroms in Eastern Europe. In Palestine, Meir joined a kibbutz and soon became an active figure in the burgeoning Labor movement. One of 25 people to sign the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Meir subsequently became minister of labor, foreign minister, and the fourth prime minister of Israel, a position she held between 1969 and 1974.
The conflict between the great lady's home life and her political career is relegated to a relatively minor source of dramatic tension in Gibson's text. In her autobiography, My Life, on which much of the play is based, Meir does not shy away from discussing the difficulties of balancing life as a housewife and a political figure. In both autobiography and play, Meir acknowledges the tension openly and tries to defend her position with lighthearted anecdotes about lugging her son's cello around and taking her children to the theater. But despite Meir's sincere stab at motherhood, Israel basically comes first and the politician lives her life in a perpetual state of guilt about her family.
A flimsy projected image of Meyerson dwindles into darkness about halfway through the performance (Meir's husband died alone at home while she was away on a trip), visually demonstrating how guilty feelings about the family swiftly make way for more pressing anxieties regarding the state. From that moment onward, the play resolutely focuses on the political conflict between Israel and its neighboring Arab nations. It is out of this national struggle that the central and most powerful metaphor emerges: the contrast between the view from the balcony overlooking Meir's home in Tel Aviv — a source of happiness — and the view from the balcony of the watchtower at Dimona, the locus of Israel's nuclear arsenal in the Negev desert. This second balcony, named “Golda's Balcony” owing to Meir's frequent visits to Dimona, is the cause of so much dread for the un-military-minded Meir that she can barely bring herself to speak about it. Every time the word “Dimona” comes up in Gibson's script, Feldshuh physically buckles, and even retches. It takes several aborted attempts before the character is able to talk about the role of nuclear war in determining the future of Israel following the fraught days of 1973's Yom Kippur War. Tellingly, My Life does not even mention the D-word.
The play, which flits gracefully between scenes from Meir's youth in America and her years in the Middle East, provides a hard-hitting counterpoint to the popular, oversentimentalized view in the U.S. of Meir as “Mommile Golda, who makes chicken soup for her soldiers.” Feldshuh's Meir is unabashedly practical and deeply unfeminine. Stocky and rasp-voiced in a matronly wool suit, thick stockings, and a frazzled gray bun, Feldshuh, who ages approximately two decades for the role with the help of a fat suit, makeup, and a prosthetic nose, is so down-to-earth that she seems rooted to it, unwaveringly clinging to the Promised Land as an old oak tree weathers a storm. Our first view of Feldshuh, stoically smoking cigarettes against the thunder and glare of gunfire, low-flying planes, and exploding bombs, is the image we take away of the character at the end. Feldshuh's performance embodies how David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, described Meir: “the only man in the Cabinet.”
The staging reflects the protagonist's steadfastness and permanence. Anna Louizos' set design suggests the Temple or the Wailing Wall with its thick shell of sand-colored rocks. The people in Meir's life, from Ben-Gurion to Henry Kissinger, are evoked in a suitably literal way. Feldshuh brings close to 40 characters to life with minimal fuss: Lowering her voice and speaking as if through marbles, the actor becomes Kissinger; putting her right arm up to her shoulder, as if holding a book bag, is Feldshuh's way of indicating Meyerson, her gentle, bookish husband. Photographs of these people are projected onto the back of the set during the performance, giving the production a public lecture-like quality.
Golda's Balcony tells an important story. Important not only for its depiction of a formidable woman and charismatic leader, but also for the way in which it helps to humanize, albeit in a partisan way, a political problem of such immense proportions and complexity that it resists comprehension, let alone the possibility of solution. Yet in emphasizing the political over the pastoral, the play sometimes goes too far, almost to the point of undermining its essentially feminist viewpoint.
For one thing, Meir's mother, as brought to life through Feldshuh, is reduced to a stereotype of the Yiddishe Mame, all nagging Ashkenazi bluster. For another, the play pokes fun at the idea that a young female Pioneer and rising star in the Zionist Labor movement might be interested in doing anything as demeaning as making matzo balls. But in My Life, Meir repeatedly states how much she enjoyed her years working in the kitchens at Merhavia Kibbutz in the early 1920s, because it gave her an opportunity to improve Merhavia's unimaginative menu. “I remained more concerned with the quality of our diet than with feminine emancipation,” she writes. The production dismisses this aspect of Meir's character, but it is precisely such moments of following her instinct for the common good that Meir proves herself to be ahead of her feminist contemporaries.
Regardless of one's gender, the difficulty of reconciling the public and private spheres of life for anyone in a position of power is an insoluble problem. But popular culture should resist relegating the family-career conflict to plots revolving around female protagonists. Rod Lurie, take note: Isn't it time we had some male leaders on TV concerned about getting to their kids' soccer matches on time? And what about introducing a few females modeled along the lines of Meir?