“Farce is tragedy played at a thousand revolutions per minute,” said the English writer John Mortimer, foreseeing the time perhaps when Hearst Corp. would take “revolutions” literally, rolling the local Prime Time Group into its behemoth press and borrowing liberally from the Commedia dell’Arte tradition to send out its Harlequin to announce with a flourish that “There is no downside” to its near-domination of San Antonio papers.
Brighella, the money-grabbing villain. Played by Hearst Corp. — also the play’s producer, but this sort of arrangement is becoming common — one of the country’s “Big 8” print-media companies according to Freepress.net, with a stable of 12 daily newspapers including the Express-News, 17 magazines, and 27 television stations.
Il Capitano, the old he-man soldier with the heart of a coward. Played by the San Antonio Express-News, the city’s sole daily paper since 1992 when Hearst closed the Light, which it had purchased a short time earlier.
The servant Harlequin, aka the Ombudsman. Portrayed by Bob Richter, public editor for the Express-News, whom Il Capitano promises “will monitor the newspaper’s journalistic efforts.”
The Readers. Played by the general public, who turn out in noticeably fewer numbers for auditions these days. Perhaps for this reason, Hearst has chosen to keep them offstage.
Some slapstick highlights:
“As a cynic, I looked for a dark side of the Hearst Corp.’s decision to buy Prime Time Inc.,” Harlequin assures readers in the wake of Hearst’s announcement that it has acquired the local publishing group, which prints 18 newspapers and magazines, including the Southside Reporter, the Northside Recorder, Que Pasa, and S.A. Kids. But after scratching his head he realizes that “this is a winner for journalists, advertisers (and our ad sales staff) …” He pauses to rub his nose between forefinger and thumb … Forgetting anyone? Oh, yes, “… for readers and for the communities served by the Express-News and its new satellite publications.”
Note to directors: The quoted text is historically accurate. Harlequin does not list readers first, second, or even third. Take from that what you will. One interpretation is that the paper puts its writers ahead of its readers even though they serve no purpose without the readers.
Historical footnote: Other uses for the word “satellite” include: A. Insignificant bodies that circle major planets. B. Former vassal states of the Soviet Union.
Harlequin then spends more time extolling the buyout’s salutory effect on advertising business and Express-News’ employee security than he does explaining how more centralized control of San Antonio’s print publications will serve the community. His pledge that Prime Time employees should feel comforted too follows a promise from E-N Publisher Tom Stephenson to “look for efficiencies” among the new “satellites,” a masterful sequencing that may hint at a tragicomic sequel.
Footnote: In most of corporate America, “efficiencies” is a euphemism for “cost-
cutting,” which in turn is a euphemism for pink slips. Pink slips make great stage props, but it’s notably hard to get true tragedy produced under totalitarian regimes, so plan on viewing Part Two on a small, independent stage. p.s. There’re 18 fewer of them now.
While this particular version of the farce genre follows tradition in that the major players spend a great deal of time trying to hide their real motives and circumstances, Hearst’s production will scandalize many audience members by flaunting the usual happy ending. For even if every Prime Time employee is saved, San Antonio’s readers still lose, having suffered the loss of several Scaramuccias — independent rogues and mercenaries who might dare draw their sword when Brighella insists on endorsing an incumbent Congressman with a track record of ethical violations and collusion to disenfranchise Latino voters.
Some by-the-playbook critics might also note that, unlike traditional farces, this play is almost entirely devoid of characters who are sympathetic despite their failings (readers excepted, but as we’ve noted, they’re offstage for the entire run). But by masquerading as the public’s watchdog while doing his master’s bidding, Harlequin at least keeps this troupe true to form, following Mary Wollstonecraft’s dictum that “In fact, it is a farce to call any being virtuous whose virtues do not result from the exercise of its own reason.” l
Ed. note: All dialogue attributed to Bob Richter and Tom Stephenson were taken directly from Richter’s December 3 column. Stage direction and ellipses were added for dramatic effect.