Of writing royalty and royalties: From "The Queen" to "The Last King of Scotland" to the imperial presidency of Richard M. Nixon, writer/raconteur Peter Morgan courts jesters and palace potentates with the aplomb of an insider with insight.
On a filmic first-name basis with Queen Elizabeth and "Idiot" Amin — two real-life "regals" who captured Oscars just two months ago for the actors who portrayed them — Morgan more than manages to move regally, majestically, gliding gracefully onto the Great White Way with an acclaimed play that has given double-sided significance to the acclamation: Nixon's the one!
"Frost/Nixon," opening this Sunday at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway, uses "tale of the tapes" as a terrific measure of the tail ends of two formidable careers of opportunistic opponents preparing a bout that would buffet America around as a reminder of the sport that was Watergate in the 1970s.
Cornered: Glib talk-show host/playboy David "The Big Chill" Frost and redoubtable Richard "Tricky Dick" Nixon, whose V-shaped wave was just a digit away from the finger he had given the country during the Watergate scandal.
And here they sit and schvitz on a TV set — survivors of the truly first reality series — in serious mano a mano mania in which audiences would learn if they could handle the truth. Or for that matter, let sleeping lies dog their conscious.
Nearly 30 years to the day after the "Watergate" edition of the four Frost-hosted televised interviews, in which the talk-show host would be toasted or toast for the way he handled the furrow-browed fury that was Richard Nixon, Morgan's masterly measure of these two men o' war — abetted by their minions — is gloves-off gladiatorial drama, a lancing literary look at two lions clawing at keeping the lines between them civil if circumspect.
Both want history on their side as their "cut" men, using the present to cleanse the cuts and pains of the past.
Playwright Morgan — this is his first theatrical venture since his college days some 20 years ago — has a history with historical figures. Not only with the Queen of England and Amin, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair — a prime figure in "The Queen," as well as Morgan's "The Deal" — and Lord Longford, an ingenuous member of Parliament whose paramount mistake was believing in forgiveness in an unforgiving society. Cynicism and not sympathy seared his efforts when he tried to restore the redemption of a young woman who had murdered her children, as honed in on by an HBO movie written by Morgan.
But why would Morgan — an actor in college who got scared off that career track by a bad case of stage fright — chase one of history's most frightening power grabbers in the grab-bag that is American political history? Is this Tricky Dick's humorless posthumous trick, a playwriting pardon?
Far from it; "Frost/Nixon" nixes any such thoughts. But while it condemns the late president's bungled burglary-case intrusion, it illustrates the complex contusions that never healed over in his seared soul, going back to a childhood in which the president-to-be was presided over by a father who belittled and berated him.
As a symbolic father of our country in the role as its president, Nixon had foundered on the father figure icon from childhood. And here he is now, hunched over from age on stage, still gripping the hunch that he could gain a nation's approbation even as apostasy had gained its upper hand on him.
His was a crooked presidency bent to the breaking point. And here he is, perspiring under the spotlight once more, trying not to break with the past, but make it malleable through his mendacities.
A father's daze of redemption through revisionism? Frost's mug encountering the 5 o'clock shadowy Nixon: The play lets it all play out beautifully as it follows the sad sack of a president and his sycophants bumping heads against a talk-show host falling victim to rope-a-dope tactics. But the four-part harmony that Nixon had hoped for proves a catastrophic cacophony as the Watergate section of the TV talks went into a tailspin.
For a former president whose idea of taking a constitutional meant a walk on the wild side of what "We the People" really meant, the Frost fiasco was just added flop sweat for a middle-brow of high-rank meandering between reality and illusion.
And for Frost, who had lost his TV talk show in England while devoting too much time to the Milhaus millstone in the states, would that "Hell, Britannia" anthem change its tune if the Nixon series recast him as a serious interrogator?
As for Morgan, a father figure figures into his own answers for taking on more questions than could be handled at a seder table.
"Idi Amin, Nixon and Watergate all connect me to my father," says Morgan, a man of good looks and great talent who, in some ways, has penned this play as a paean to his pop, a German Jewish refugee who left his homeland just before the Nazis and died when his son, the writer-to-be, was only 9.
"I remember how my father and I would talk about Watergate," and all its implications. "In a way, I'm always writing about things he knew about."
And, maybe looked like?
"My father looked like Kissinger," smiles Morgan, whose family surname, it surfaces, was shortened by his father from Morgenthau.
What's in a name? Lack of pride in a heritage? Far from it: The changed name wasn't a shortcoming in a loving legacy left the son, who was then raised by his Catholic mother.
But "I feel more comfortable in Jewish culture," avows Morgan, who recalls that since his "father was the more social" of his parents, "the house was always filled with his friends more than my mother's, and those people in the house were mainly Jewish refugees.
"It was a very traditional marriage; he was given the spotlight to shine."
And while Morgan is quick to point out that he is "in no way connected to Jewish dogma or religion — any religion — in any way," Jewish culture has its way with him. "It's a culture in which I feel comfortable."
Indeed, it had its impact. "The ideology in our house was education, education, education" — an emphasis with roots in Jewish thought.
It all hits home for those who had to leave their home. "I read a while back about the second-generation of English Jews" from Germany– of which he is one — and what generates their current concerns. "They are consumed with a desire to prove that they existed," to leave behind a traveled trail checkered with accomplishments and significance.
It is a path of which the playwright partakes. "I am consumed to leave evidence that I survived. It's not a question of narcissism, but of survival."
Narcissism has no chance of surviving his self-deprecating demeanor. "I am not a very good writer," he says, parrying praise and the contradictory evidence of the many prizes he has collected for his efforts.
High honors and accomplishments cannot assuage his claim to "low self-esteem," no matter how estimable is the regard of him held by others.
If he does 'fess up to a festering smidgen of confidence, it is that "there are certain things I do well. I am a good storyteller."
The story on stage at the Jacobs is telling of a talent who can tell history as if he were channeling it.
"Well," he laughs, "I don't get the History Channel" on TV, but he does get its importance.
Importantly, it gets him as artistic advocate. If there is a theme that threads its way through the wonderful web that is Morgan's writings — "Frost/Nixon" is also being made into a movie, helmed by Ron Howard — it is "about popular protest and leaders forced to listen to their public."
No End in Sight
His public is all ears — and so is Hollywood, which handed him honors aplenty for his "Queen" and "Scotland" sagas. Indeed, that was the week that was: Hoopla and hurrahs led up to an Oscar night of award-worthiness.
There was no end in sight for honors, either, from London's West End — from which this production at the Jacobs arrives — for his "Frost/Nixon."
But then, Morgan low-balls himself with a self-blast demonstration of that low self-esteem: "I'm convinced my writing is facile and immature, and what people give me awards for is … what they respond to is when someone does something different."
And if others beg to differ with his diffident self-analysis, he will admit that "I have compassion and respect for the people I write about."
No matter how dastardly their deeds? "I don't have hate in me, even for people you should hate."
But he would hate people to think that he'll write just about anyone. There has to be connection of communication. In that case, don't expect a play anytime soon about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner. "Someone asked me to write about him, and I couldn't think of a less interesting person to write about."
What grabs Morgan's attention more than a sybaritically silk-robed rogue is a menaced man who once gave an impassioned speech about a cloth coat. Indeed, Nixon is the one who propelled Morgan into doing this play, but it is the demonized late president's duality with Frost that compelled him to. Odd couple, single purpose: "Nixon without Frost or Frost without Nixon didn't interest me," reveals Morgan. "I love stories in which people get to know each other."
This is no immaterial "Uma, meet Oprah," but an opening in which Frost and Nixon could deliver over the detente of TV.
Is much of the on-stage badinage between the two men bad karma for serious historians who may claim the playwright is playing with history? Did it all really happen this way? Or is this just a case of harping historians with a bad case of histrionics? In its own way, good theater is the mother of invention — and father of fearlessness.
"I am not interested in accuracy," attests Morgan. "But I am committed to truth."
Truth be told, a vice-vexed president such as Nixon stands alone in life, no matter how many cronies crowd his inner circle. And those who once did now praise the playwright "for getting it right," even if Nixon wronged the country. "He was a formidable man, formidable," says Morgan. "But he was also completely traumatized."
Nixon's checkered past is in many ways his alone, despite those beating the bush for evidence elsewhere. For those seeing his role here as a stand-in for the current White House resident, well, a Rose Garden by any other name is not necessarily a Rose Garden.
"I want to write about Bush," but, right to the point, Morgan avers "Frost/Nixon" is no metastatic metaphor covering the current president.
If he is to do GWB, it would be through TB's eyes. "I want to examine the relationship between Britain and America through the POV of Blair's," says Morgan of any such future endeavor.
Outside chance that Morgan, a self-described "outsider," would find the humanity in all of it?
"I like to write about vilified people," says Morgan. "It gives me a chance to defend them."
It is a defense system built of words as weapons, waging war against wonks of mass-destructive tendencies. Morgan has a knack for exposing the WMDs where others may shy away from them. And when others around him lose their heads, he keeps his. Evidence: His next project, "The Other Boleyn Girl," about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII and their heady, tempestuous union.
That may be just about the eighth historical drama in a row for Morgan — or not — but this living breathing history channeler sees a future beyond the past. "I am interested in writing about other things."
Tales of the heart? The angst of amour unreciprocated? Wedding sagas that march down the movie aisle? Well, muses Morgan of his queens, kings and royal pains in the asinine behavior they sometimes evince, hasn't he already done that?
What he manages to write, probably more than anything, "are love stories," says the man who has married history to its art-felt suitors with such a sterling sense of majesty.