It has become the defining image of the Republican nominating convention. Barring even more bizarre antics, it’s likely to be the most memorable of the entire presidential campaign: Clint Eastwood, a Class A Hollywood celebrity, chiding an invisible Obama in a visible—but empty—chair.
The Twitterati tweeted. The “empty-chair meme” was born, fledged, and took flight. Cue photos of Barack Obama sitting (“this seat’s taken”). A Facebook-enabled photo of Eastwood addressing Pee-wee Herman’s upholstered companion Chairy (no caption needed). Satirists everywhere silently mouthed a thank you for the chance to go Eastwooding.
Eastwooding: debating an empty chair which the speaker represents as being inhabited by an opponent.
Talking to imaginary presences, with or without furniture, has its own cultural history. Shakespeare gives us perhaps the most famous moment.
A king, driven mad by his heartless daughters, puts them on imaginary trial. “Arraign her first; ’tis Goneril,” commands Lear, who gestures at something not present to human sight. And not being present, the accused Goneril can hardly deny her identity. Who or what is in the room? “Cry you mercy,” exclaims Lear’s Fool. “I took you for a joint stool.”
The Arden Shakespeare cites this as an expression proverbial in 16th-century England: “I cry you mercy, I took you for a joyn’d stool,” glossing it as “a facetious apology for overlooking a person.”
Chairs can, like thrones, function as symbols for and centers of authority. To speak from the authority of a chair is to speak ex cathedra. (Eastwood knows the power emanating from the director’s chair.) To speak with authority to a chair, however, is something else entirely, especially when, as in this case, the chair’s occupant apparently talks back.
Acting classes regularly compel students to address imagined people in empty space. The distinguished director Peter Brook brought together some of his influential ideas in a book he called The Empty Space, but it’s unlikely Brook could have envisioned this political acting class, if that’s what it was.
Though we never got to hear the words of the fantasmatic president, we might still consider Eastwood’s performance as an act of ventriloquism, which makes him an engastrimyth (one of my favorite words)—literally someone who speaks from the belly.
And it was surely fire in the belly that moved Eastwood to commandeer 12 minutes for his episode of Eastwooding. As the convention’s commandeer-in-chief, the Hollywood star allowed his audience to erase, at least for the moment, the otherwise important distinction between presence and absence, real people and invisible ones.
The octogenarian gave the Republicans the thing that a political convention dreads most: an unscripted moment. And a long moment at that. Despite the two million Google hits the term stirred up, it’s unlikely that Eastwooding will survive as a term of American political discourse. But Eastwooding at least has the virtue of not pretending that one’s opponent is really, really there.
If Eastwooding heralds the emergence of invisible opponents in American political discourse, it might—in an odd way—be a nostalgic turn to a simpler time, before the stultifying nondebate became the standard format of American politics, where real people standing side by side endlessly rehearse their positions without hearing, much less responding to, their standing-right-there opponents.
The entertainment industry has a bit more latitude. Conversations with invisible persons (though somewhat less with household furniture) have been a recurring theme of dramas and teleplays. The amiable Cosmo Topper—first in the movies, then on TV—addressed the specters of his late friends George and Marion Kirby, an exercise that sometimes required him to address—and argue with—empty chairs.
It’s a coincidence that this Broadway season’s revivals included not only Gore Vidal’s 1960 political comedy The Best Man but also Mary Chase’s apolitical 1944 hit Harvey. In the role of Elwood P. Dowd, Jim Parsons spends much of the evening in conversation with the title character, an invisible pooka resembling—we have to take Elwood’s word for it—a 6-foot-3½-inch rabbit.
Harvey is a sentimental comedy, but although we can’t see Harvey, we’re always able to know when he’s walking or standing or seated in a chair. And Elwood treats him with unfailing consideration.
Elwooding never threatened to become a term of political art. This election season, though, is the moment for Eastwooding. It might serve best as a reminder that our engagement with politics requires from each of us a fire in the belly—and a little suspension of disbelief.Return to Top