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'Robert and Ted': A 'bromance' made in Washington

Kenny Kemp
Denise Giardina turns from historical novels to a play animated by the historical antagonism turned to friendship between Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd and Ted Kennedy.
File photo "The fact of the matter is that Byrd and Kennedy did clash initially over civil rights legislation, did come to figure out how to live with each other, then came to respect and like each other," says writer Denise Giardina, whose new play, "Robert and Ted," takes on the arc of their relationship as U.S. senators.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Denise Giardina calls her new two-act play, "Robert and Ted," a "bromance."

You will be interested to learn, then, that the "Robert" of the title is Robert C. Byrd and the other guy is Edward M. Kennedy, two of the most prominent U.S. senators in recent American history.

"It follows the typical boy-meets-boy, boy-hates-boy, they clash for a while then grudgingly come to respect each other," says Giardina. "And then they come to like each other. So, it follows the trajectory you see in the movies."

Giardina and Frieda Forsley will read a scene from the work in progress at the University of Charleston Builders' Luncheon on Wednesday. Registration for the luncheon is now closed, but plan to head to this year's FestivALL in Charleston (June 15-24) to hear an on-stage reading of the entire play.

The first encounters between Kennedy and Byrd in the early '60s did not go so well. Each was a young senator, but the different worlds they came from might as well have been Mars and Venus.

"Byrd was in his first term and Kennedy was elected in a special election not long after JFK was elected," said Giardina. "Kennedy was from a wealthy family in Massachusetts and Byrd came up hard in the coalfields of West Virginia. He felt Kennedy was born with a silver spoon in his mouth and got all the committees handed to him. Byrd knew that was not going to be the case with him."

They clashed right out of the box over proposed civil rights legislation. The play imagines an initial conflict in Byrd's office. The hardscrabble young conservative senator from the Mountain State tangles with a scion of one of America's great liberal political family dynasties, whose sense of noblesse oblige meant aiding those less fortunate.

"I had to sort of imagine my way into it," she said, "because there is no record of that."

Yet bringing history to life through the lens of imaginative fiction is how Giardina made her name as a writer. Among such works is her first novel, "Good King Harry" about Henry V of England, her two acclaimed West Virginia mining conflict novels, "Storming Heaven" and "The Unquiet Earth," a fictionalized biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Saints and Villains," and her most recent novel, "Emily's Ghost," based on Emily Bronte's life.

The fact of the matter is that Byrd and Kennedy did initially differ over civil rights legislation, did come to figure out how to live with each other, and then came to respect and like each other, said Giardina.

The seed for "Robert and Ted" was planted when Giardinia watched on television Byrd's elaborate funeral ceremony in Charleston on July 2, 2010. The event brought to town President Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and many other dignitaries, including Ted Kennedy's wife, Vicki, who spoke movingly of her husband's friendship with Byrd.

"The moment I was hearing her speech, I thought, 'This would make a good story,' " Giardina said. "I hadn't really thought about them being really good friends, but they were."

Yet, along with being iconic, powerful senators, Byrd and Kennedy each wore an albatross around their necks that would follow them to their graves and which her play addresses.

Byrd's was his youthful dalliance with the Ku Klux Klan, which he spent the rest of his life repudiating. Kennedy's could be summed up in a word -- Chappaquiddick -- involving the July 1969 death of Mary Jo Kopechne, whose body was discovered underwater inside an automobile later found to have been driven by Kennedy.

"Byrd knew that, when his obituary was published, it would include that he was a member of the Klan at one point, and Chappaquiddick would follow Kennedy to his grave," Giardina said. "They both knew that and confronted that."

Giardina said she hopes "Robert and Ted" gives theatergoers an appreciation for the two senators "with all their flaws." After all the conflict and noise, in the end what most impresses her about both men was "their basic humanity and basic decency," she said.

The play's first act runs from that initial imagined office meeting up through Chappaquiddick. The second act runs from Watergate through the unfolding of the Iraq war, a war Byrd -- often alone in the Senate -- publicly and loudly denounced as the Bush administration sounded the call to arms.

A Rush Limbaugh-style conservative demagogue in the play denounces Byrd's opposition, yet Byrd counters: "You don't know what a conservative is!"

Giardina said her play paints a portrait of true conservatism as represented by a figure like Byrd, a conservatism that has devolved today into the far-right radicalism that now dominates and shapes American political discourse.

"I want what conservatism used to be in this country, which is what I think Byrd represented," she said. "God help us, even Richard Nixon you could say that about. If you take away Watergate and the paranoia he had, he gave us the Clean Water and Clean Air acts."

This is Giardina's first play but, given the current political climate, "it may be the most timely thing I've ever written," she said.

"I'm known as a historical novelist -- not to say those historical novels aren't timely and don't speak to us today, especially my two West Virginia novels. But this one is right out of today's headlines, in terms of the consequences of the political system that we do have.

"We're still living with the fallout of the Iraq war. We're in Afghanistan still. Just this whole extremism, dealing with Rush Limbaugh and FOX News."

Her play is framed by "The Obituary Writer," who is writing obits on both senators' lives and who acts as a kind of Greek Chorus, commenting on events. One scene depicts Byrd and Kennedy listening to a civil rights speech by the great Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, who helped write and pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Open Housing Act of 1968.

Giardina gives The Obituary Writer's line during this scene:

"Can you believe there was a liberal Republican at one point?!"

It might be several years before a fully staged production of "Robert and Ted," featuring professional actors, comes to Charleston, as Giardina seeks a professional company to take and develop it. The full FestivALL reading will be the only chance to experience and offer feedback on the production as it develops, she said.

"This is the only chance for Charleston to see the play for a few years. Plays are a work in progress -- I don't know if people realize that.

"It's always a fine line when talking about a real person and trying to imagine them fictionally. You try to be as faithful as you can to the person, but your imagination comes into play, as well. So, I'm interested to get feedback along those lines."

Reach Douglas Imbrogno at douglas@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.


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