Man of the People
Man of the People
Man of the People is inspired by the true story of John Romulus Brinkley, a medical charlatan that grew to notoriety in the 1920s, and the Chicagoan that brought him down. This uniquely American story examines one of the great vices ingrained in the nation since its infancy – what Charlatan author, Pope Brock, refers to as that “perverse seam in the American mind” that not only tolerates hucksters, but embraces them (Brock 11).
The story is not without a hero from which to learn. Dr. Morris Fishbein, lead editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, sought to hold Brinkley accountable in a time of rampant quackery. However, his position was immensely unpopular. Brinkley was beloved by many, having made a name for himself selling a sham treatment for male impotency known as the “goat gland cure” and riding the rejuvenation trend sweeping the country. He was further bolstered to fame through his uncanny knack for radio, a burgeoning technology with few competing channels.
Dr. Fishbein’s numerous efforts to thwart Brinkley were further complicated by a lack of any real power or authority – the American Medical Association was limited to public education as a means of influence. What’s more, few medical regulations existed. Despite Fishbein’s best attempts, Brinkley wriggled away from consequence time and again, creating his own reality and eventually “winning” the Kansas governorship before being brought down in 1939.
2. Historical Context
The 1920s were primed for charlatanism in ways few consider. The years leading up to the decade were filled with incredible innovations in science, and it may stand to reason that a reliance on scientific method would eschew quackery. However, scientific discoveries, especially of the unseen world, left people feeling that anything was possible (Brock 32). This was true not only for the common man, but for the medical community that, through hasty and faulty experimentation, soon came to make incredible claims based on little more than faith (Brock 31-38). This atmosphere gave birth to a new type of charlatan, one far-removed in presentation from the carnival-barker style tonic-toter of the previous era. Instead, this huckster trafficked in the scientific babble that now sounded credible to the common man. In Brinkley’s case, he wore a lab coat.
Brock notes that medical charlatanism is in some ways more psychological than other shams, appealing to a person’s fears and desire for cures rather than their greed (10). Indeed, in order to understand the rise of “rejuvenation,” and the obsession with male virility during this time, it’s important to understand the influences and fears affecting the nation. Following the First World War, older men shouldered the responsibilities of younger men lost in the war. In her dissertation, The Age of Obsolescence: Senescence and Scientific Rejuvenation in Twentieth Century America, Lamb argues “obsolescence” was becoming associated with old age (218). This fueled the hopeful narrative that aging was a disease for which there was a cure. However, the obligations of older men didn’t start and stop at the company door. Lamb states, “old age was coming to be perceived as a burden on […] families, and the nation at large” (218). Sexual mores had also shifted; women no longer insisted on being married, in committed relationships, or open to conception to engage in sexual activity (Hogan, Harlan, et al.). In this unencumbered environment, men unable to perform were by no means guaranteed a second chance. Additionally, many saw reproduction as a good, even a moral responsibility, to replenish the population (Brock 32). Thus, even in an era glowingly remembered as care-free, there lurked deeper insecurities associated with aging, especially for men. Brinkley was all too ready to exploit these fears to his benefit.
It’s also important to understand the state of American medicine and regulations, or lack thereof, which allowed medical charlatanism to thrive. In his dissertation, The Boundaries of Medicine: Redefining Therapeutic Orthodoxy in an Age of Reform, Boyle notes that Jacksonian political forces in the 1830s helped create a “largely unregulated medical marketplace” through the repeal of licensing laws (50). Medical colleges, hospitals, and journals were unregulated, and legitimate physicians and institutions struggled to maintain authority. By the beginning of the 20th century, false practitioners had become legitimate in the public eye, leaving the orthodoxy dismayed at “the great flood of proprietary remedies, secret or half secret […] let loose upon the profession and the public” (Boyle 66). Years later, Brinkley would exploit these systemic weaknesses, buying his credentials from a diploma mill – Bennet Eclectic Medical College, which relied on herbal remedies – and partnering with pharmacies across the country to peddle propriety medicines over the airwaves (Brock 25).
There was little the AMA could do about any of it. Founded in 1847 with the purpose of promoting medicine and the betterment of public health, the AMA held no real power to influence change (Encyclopedia of Health Care Management). They did, however, begin to fight back by establishing their own standards for medical education and ethics and formed a council to promote public health. The association published its first medical journals in 1869 and created the first family healthcare magazine, Hygeia, in 1922 (Biancaniello). In this magazine, Fishbein’s “Modern Medical Charlatans,” one of a series of articles excoriating Brinkley, would later come to be published.
Then there’s the radio. The importance and influence of 1920s radio would be difficult to overstate. According to Crawford-Franklin and Robinson’s article, ““Even in an Age of Wonders”: Radio as an Information Resource in 1920s America,” Americans developed an insatiable appetite for radio beginning with the first broadcast in 1920 (418). The first regulation of the radio in the United States, the Radio Act of 1912, was meant primarily for ships at sea, but played a critical role in 1920s broadcasting (419). While it charged the Commerce Department with issuing a license, it did not give it the authority to deny one to any U.S. citizen (419). When Brinkley requested a radio license, he got one. While he was regulated to shortwave frequencies, his license would later prove a pain in the side of the Federal Radio Commission (Brock 145). It’s additionally important to note that when Mexico tried to negotiate commercial bandwidths in the mid-1920s, Washington refused. Instead, the U.S. divided bandwidths between Canada and itself, making Mexico all-too-willing to aid Brinkley later when he sought circumvent U.S. law by broadcasting with a station across the border from his home in Del Rio, Texas.
3. The Argument
Man of the People speaks to a contemporary audience by reflecting America’s current political and social climate through our past. Brock explains that a disdain for knowledge first appeared in the United States in the Jacksonian democracy of the early nineteenth century, however it remains to this day (11). It is echoed in the alt-right’s rallying cry against “elitism” as well as the political rise of liberal celebrities. Indeed, many of today’s political figures did not build careers based on qualifications. Instead, they began as entertainers popularized through television and film. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former actor, held the California governorship for two terms, from 2003 to 2011. Former comedian Al Franken was elected to two senate terms before resigning his Minnesota seat amidst scandal. And now Donald Trump, of The Apprentice, sits in the White House without ever previously holding public office. Man of the People examines our cultural exaltation of the “common man” (if in name only) to real-life consequence.
Furthermore, the play delves into the power of new technologies to elevate private citizens into public figures, considering the potential dangers and possibilities of such advances. Trump has been called the “Tweeter in Chief,” criticized by conservatives and liberals alike for sending careless messages via the popular social media platform, Twitter (Williams). To his 48.7 million followers, Trump has disparaged the “fake” news media and made a number of false claims, such as accusing former president Barack Obama of wire-tapping (Williams). While the power of the platform is evident – it is most direct line of communication that an American President has ever had with the public – the result is a populous increasingly distrusting of media and the unmooring of reality. And before there was Trump, there was Brinkley, a man with his own radio station and very little competition for the public’s attention. Over the airwaves, Brinkley spoke day and night to whoever would listen, endearing himself through stories of his childhood while interweaving advertisements for medical “miracles.” As a result, he became one of the wealthiest scoundrels in America, taking in twelve million dollars during the worst of the Depression when the average man made three thousand (Brock 199). He also pioneered radio and is credited with introducing the populous to country music; the first time Johnny Cash heard June Carter, it was on Brinkley’s station (Brock 219).
Finally, Man of the People asks, “Are hucksters mere opportunists or evil manipulators?” and “What role does society have in aiding and abetting them?” – debates that have been playing out in the public arena regarding Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Trump has described popular campaign chants, such as “build that wall,” and “lock her up,” as stemming from hot button issues existing long before his candidacy. But others have held him directly responsible for creating a dangerous environmental for immigrants, legal or otherwise, and purveying false information (Clinton was never found guilty of any wrong doing). Like Trump, Brinkley argued that he should not be criticized for giving people what they asked for. He claimed that his first goat-gland patient requested the procedure without prodding. Regardless, Fishbein regarded Brinkley as a charlatan to the core, guilty of manipulating the public to achieve financial gain.
While no other plays examining Brinkley’s charlatanism or Fishbein’s crusade against quackery were found to exist, there is reason to believe that Man of the People would enjoy a great deal of commercial success. Firstly, Brinkley’s story has recently come into public conscious through other forms of media that have noted its newfound relevance. A January 2017 episode of “Reply All,” a popular podcast on Gimlet media, drew parallels between Brinkley and Trump. According to a February 2017 article in Vanity Fair, a movie about Brinkley is already in the works with Robert Downey Jr. as lead. In “Why Robert Downey Jr.’s New Movie Might Be the Perfect Allegory for Donald Trump,” Yohana Desta writes, “Brinkley’s wild story is one way to put Trump’s triumph into context.” What’s more, other plays with similar newfound relevance are experiencing a resurgence. A March 9, 2018 New York Times article recently credited Trump with the uptick in productions of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People. An adaptation of the play – about a scientist crucified by small town politics – recently closed at Chicago’s Red Orchid Theatre, and the original is currently running at The Goodman. If Chicago is any prediction of trends, audiences across the nation are likely to embrace Man of the People in similar fashion.
4. Production Analysis
Central to any production of Man of the People will be the radio and its listeners. Staging should reflect both the importance of the radio and its effect on the populous through set and sound design. Lining the back wall with radios and speakers will have the effect of making Brinkley’s voice seem ubiquitous and inescapable. Specific props, like Brinkley’s equipment and radio, should be given greater consideration. Vintage radios and equipment will work to provide a feel of the era; they should be given a place of honor in Brinkley’s office and the Fishbein home. Their importance may also be achieved in part through lighting and selection of the pieces themselves. Furthermore, platforms should be used to help divide the space such that multiple settings are portrayed at the same time. Any actor not present in a scene will still be present on upstage platforms and be shown inhabiting these back spaces while listening to an unheard radio.
Special care to sound design should also be taken to reflect the significance of the radio and its impact. The script itself will call for music of the era that Brinkley helped to popularize, artists such as The Carter Family and Cliff Carlisle. Design should emulate the vinyl sounds and grainy quality of 1920s radio and portray an authentic feel. The sounds of radio static will at times be used to portray the confusion and damage caused by Brinkley’s misinformation as will the sounds of changing stations and a station trying to catch. Each of these will draw a stark contrast to moments of silence when the radio is off. The audience will be well-served if reminded through sound design that music and other sounds of distraction haven’t always existed. In line with this, radio sounds should seem at times otherworldly and awesome, at others mysterious and dark, aurally exploring the range and power of the medium for good and bad.
5. Chicago Analysis
The play specifically relates to the city of Chicago in a number of ways. First, Chicago itself has the reputation of being both a haven for charlatans and a stronghold against them. You don’t have to go from one side of the city to the other to note this duality. Brock draws our attention to a classic image from the 1893 world’s fair: in the same breath that visitors marveled at the work of Edison, they called forward a man literally selling snake oil to make a purchase (Brock 10). Chicagoans were one of the first to both embrace science innovation and be duped by false remedy. What’s more, the citizenry of Chicago contains multitudes that have historically made it both attractive for charlatans seeking potential cash-ready victims and a natural place for education strongholds against them to flourish.
It was one such stronghold, Rush Medical College, that gave rise to Morris Fishbein. Fishbein was inspired in part to pursue a career in medicine after regularly witnessing the bloodied and bandaged patients of a neighborhood cancer quack recovering in the park near his home in Indianapolis (Brock 14). After graduating, he remained in the city and rose to prominence as the lead editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, a position from which he opposed Brinkley at every turn. The AMA has been headquartered in Chicago since 1902 and still resides downtown on Wabash (Tassava). The Journal itself began in Chicago in 1883 and quickly became the world’s most-read medical journal (Junger). Fishbein’s influence can still be seen in some of the city’s buildings like The University of Chicago’s Center for the History of Science and Medicine that bears his name.
Like Fishbein, the citizens of Chicago – a traditionally democratic stronghold – have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the charlatanism of Donald Trump. Chicago is the only city to have responded to the campaigning of the then presidential hopeful with a successful shut down of his rally in 2016. The woman’s march, largely seen as a disapproval of the president, reached 250,000 in the days immediately following the election (Charles and Issa). After Trump failed to renew the the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy put in place by the Obama administration, a move that opened Dreamers up to risk of deportation, Mayor Rahm Emanuel went as far as to declare Chicago a “Trump free zone” (Etehad).
In these ways, the story of a notorious charlatan and the struggle against him remains relevant in Chicago. Man of the People reminds Chicagoans that they need look no further than their own history for a hero to show the way forward. Furthermore, the history lesson shows the inevitability of charlatans and the importance of vigilance for the nation at large. In Man of the People, audiences find renewed strength inspired by a story of relentless opposition.
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