Canadian playwright Sean Devine has always been what he calls “politically curious,” which is why about 15 years ago, in a book about political consulting, he came across a media consultant named Tony Schwartz who worked with President Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1964 campaign.
Schwartz is behind what would come to be known as the “Daisy” ad. Originally called “Peace, Little Girl,” the ad—which only ran once—features a child in a sunny field of wildflowers, plucking petals off a daisy. The ad abruptly shifts focus to the explosion of a nuclear bomb, the narration explaining that world peace is at stake in the election, imploring viewers to vote for Johnson, who was running against Republican candidate Barry Goldwater.
“The more I read on the story of that ad, I came to see it as the beginning of negative campaigning,” Devine says. “It was fascinating.”
That research ultimately birthed Daisy, Devine's play making its regional premiere at Main Street Theater March 31 and bringing with it all the tumult of the 1960s.
At the time of the ad, American culture was at war with itself. The previous year brought the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which thrust Johnson into the White House. Many in the country saw the Civil Rights movement, which picked up steam that same year, as a threat to a traditional way of life. The war in Vietnam hadn’t yet begun, but its tensions simmered on the back burner ready to explode. Race riots erupted in Harlem, Chicago, and Philadelphia. The Beatles released their first album, creating a worldwide sensation and further drawing a line in the sand between rock ‘n’ roll and its more staid predecessors. Threat of nuclear war was ever present.
It’s against this backdrop that Devine sets his play, one he says he came to see as eerily parallel to today’s political scene.
“The more I researched and spoke to people, the more I came to see parallels between the 1964 election between Goldwater and Johnson and the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump,” he says. “At the 1964 Republican convention, there was a divisive fight over the identity of the party. More traditional conservatives were fighting over the uprising of a darker, uglier side of the party. When Goldwater accepted the nomination, a race riot broke out in Harlem—that’s in the play.”
While Devine realizes he’s writing a drama and not a documentary, he did strive to capture the truth in his version of events. He spoke to people who knew and worked with Schwartz, extensively researching both the times and the creation of the ad. In subsequent years, the ad’s ownership has been a source of tension, with some saying it’s Schwartz’s creation and others claiming it as the brainchild of the Doyle Dane Bernbach Agency. Devine captures that tension, too.
After eight years of research and writing, Daisy premiered two seasons ago in Seattle. Devine is excited to bring it to Texas, where he’ll speak about the play before the performance on opening night. (Anyone is welcome to attend that discussion at 6:45 p.m., with or without tickets for the evening’s show).
“To me, this is about how voters can be manipulated and how influential media is,” he says, “and I hope people are able to see why it’s important to be engaged in determining the outcome of an election, of being aware of who you’re voting for—and why.”
March 31–April 29. Tickets from $45. Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd. 713-524-670. More info and tickets at mainstreettheater.com.