Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1245
Moral Corruption and Decline
In this play, Sol Fitzmaurice represents a re- fined form of moral corruption. Sol’s only interests are drinking and increasing his own personal wealth, which indicates that any sense he may have had once of using his office to serve the public has long ago evaporated. When faced with a young idealist like Alan McClean, however, Sol is able to show his empathy, remembering his own roots as a young idealist. He acts indignant at the news that there are members of Congress who would benefit from appropriations, but Sol’s corruption is so thorough that no one takes his indignation seriously. His speech to Alan about how he became ‘‘a fat crook’’ in order to make his constituents happy might seem tinged with remorse, but, despite any regrets he might have, Sol throws himself into the corrupt lifestyle with zeal, and makes it possible to pass the graft-laden final form of the bill.
The only area in which Sol does not show corruption is in his devotion to Simeon Gray. He accepts Gray’s ruling that his pet project must be dropped from the bill without putting up a struggle, and later, when Alan tells him about the penitentiary in Gray’s district, Sol is certain in his disbelief: ‘‘Simeon’s never been hooked up with anything.’’ The point seems to be that, even when the congressmen lose faith in their public mission and turn to crooked means, they still might admire others who are able to work within the system and avoid being tainted with corruption.
Anderson presents the legislative branch of the government as an absurd place, where a bill about a dam can only pass if it has money for battleships and tariffs against circus animals. It is shown to be a place where politicians agree about the social good of a proposal like McMurtry’s call for nurses and birth control, but then vote to appropriate money for making the navy dock its ships in a port where one of the congressmen owns real estate and speakeasies.
The problem that Alan McClean encounters is that he enters this situation thinking that it will bow to the rules of logic. He makes the common sense suggestion that wasteful spending should be stopped because the taxpayers cannot afford extravagant spending, particularly not in the middle of an economic crisis like the Depression. He even fails to see the sense of supporting the people who paid for his own election, if this support will mean wasting the taxpayers’ money.
This leads to the ultimate form of legislative absurdity. Attempting to draw public attention to just how bloated H. R. 2007 really is, Alan adds hundreds of irrelevant measures with the assumption that the congressmen could not vote for such a senseless bill. Instead, absurdity wins the day. The bill does in fact attract massive support. The representatives care very little about what the public will think, knowing that the whole absurd process is so complex that there is little chance of public outrage. Alan’s attempt to save the taxpayer 40 million dollars ends up costing them 475 million.
The political system in this play is fueled by cynicism. When Alan arrives and points out the obvious about corrupt congressmen and the unfair ways in which the committee decides what to fi- nance, he is laughed at and pitied. The established members of the committee do not dislike what he has to say, nor do they disagree with it. Instead, they feel that they have heard it all before, have faced similar matters of conscience, and have come to the conclusion that they cannot change the system. This is shown in Sol’s speech, in which he explains that what constituents expect of their congressional representative is that ‘‘he gets what they want out of the Treasury, and fixes the Tariff for ’em, and sees that they don’t get gypped out of their share of the plunder.’’ Cynicism is also seen in the way in which an overwhelming majority of the House turns away from the ordinary practices that shape a bill and stampede to pass H. R. 2007 because each is focused only on what small benefit it offers him.
Simeon Gray is an example of virtue among these cynical politicians because he has maintained a small degree of selflessness. Unlike Alan, Gray has been in Congress long enough to have had his ideals destroyed, but he still maintains enough integrity to act for the common good; Marjorie, Sol, and the others who know him do not believe that his penitentiary deal is for his own enrichment but that it is, at worst, a mistake. However, the author seems to take a more cynical view of Gray than even the cynical political operatives in the play. While they all look up to Gray’s small degree of honesty, the play emphasizes the dishonesty that his job requires. Except for Alan, none of the characters in the play seem to realize how awful it is that Congress must do so many bad things and waste so much money on corrupt and useless projects in order to do even the slightest bit of good.
The reason that Alan thinks he can change the system that has corrupted so many other hopeful politicians is that he believes in progress. The other, experienced members try to convince him that he will face the same pressures they did and that he will either conform to the way things are or go back home when his term is over without having made any difference to the world. They all have stories like this; those who do not explain their personal sense of defeat at the hand of the system show it by following along with the corrupt practices unquestioningly. But Alan, who is an educated man interested in the larger scope of things, has faith that the system that crushed the spirits of the other politicians will eventually be overcome. At the moment when he has been defeated, when he is most likely to admit that there is nothing one man can do except go along and hope to do some occasional good, Alan is defiant in his optimism:
It takes about a hundred years to tire this country of trickery—and we’re fifty years overdue right now. That’s my warning. And I’d feel pretty damn pitiful and lonely saying it to you, if I didn’t believe there are a hundred million people who are with me, a hundred million people who are disgusted enough to turn from you to something else.
Alan’s faith in progress is, of course, not shared by the other politicians, who have based their careers on the premise that the future will be like the past. Their success in passing a ridiculously bloated bill like H. R. 2007, along with their lack of concern over Alan’s threat to expose them all as crooked, seem to imply that Anderson does not believe Alan to be very astute. Still, the play ends with the faintest hint that progress is possible; when Sol, the old-time politician, brags that he does not expect the system to change in his lifetime, Bus, who is also a voice of experience, states flatly, ‘‘Maybe.’’ This is nothing like the hopeful speeches Alan makes, but it is Anderson’s way of showing that Alan is not necessarily deluded in his optimism.