Commenters at all levels of sophistication have criticized Clint Eastwood’s “empty chair” speech. I confess to being confused at their confusion, if in fact that confusion is legitimate and not feigned. Eastwood was drawing on a long history of stage symbolism; the empty chair is quite common on stage and in ceremony as a symbol of something that is absent.
In Jewish tradition, for instance, an empty chair is used to represent loss or sorrow, the guest who is not present at the table. When the Samuel Beckett play “Waiting for Godot” is staged, directors often use empty chairs to represent those who should be present but who are absent, or to represent Godot, who of course never shows up. Detective dramas use empty chairs to symbolize the murder victim, and television and movie dramas of all sorts use them to symbolize absent loved ones: children, spouses, and others. Clint Eastwood is a master of dramatic art; certainly he was not ignorant of the history of this piece of stagecraft.
Of course, as an actor, Mr. Eastwood may have had a different empty chair in mind: the theater seat that should be filled by a listening and engaged person but is instead conspicuously empty. What better metaphor is there for Obama’s complete disengagement with most voters? At least this way, Eastwood gained an audience (I use the term intentionally) with the President.
(For that matter, Obama may be a bit concerned about empty chairs in theatrical settings himself – the ones that loom in his nightmares at his DNC acceptance speech, haunting him with the cricket-chirp of an empty stadium. An empty chair talking to empty seats – I like the image!)
Symbols have power. It is easy to make fun of them,, particularly the simplest ones, as the liberal left is furiously doing. But symbols are more than “just words,” and they are more powerful than any thousand words Obama has ever spoken. A symbol used properly is a conduit directly to the human soul. The best symbols are universal, easily interpreted within a story by just about anyone even when the audience is not intending to interpret at all. Judging by the empty-chair meme he seems to have initiated, I think Mr. Eastwood’s symbol may have touched quite a few people right where it counts.
Now a writing note: writers, consider how powerful Eastwood’s thirteen or so minutes of addressing an empty chair has been to the story surrounding the election. He used simple words, simple ideas, a shtick that has been around since before Vaudeville reigned – and he created what may be an immortal moment, a point upon which the future of our country may hinge. (For I think Eastwood’s empty-chair speech may be identified as that moment when Obama most clearly began losing this election.) The power of clear communication, drama, and a storyline, all displayed for us in a brief free-form performance by a master of the storytelling art: this is a gift on many levels we should appreciate, examine, and learn from.