RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Let's take that idea of playing out a little further now. The budget standoff has been described in all sorts of dramatic terms. So we decided to look into what the great works of the stage can tell us about this debate over tax hikes and spending cuts, and how it will play out. Think of it as "The Fiscal Cliff for English Majors."
NPR White House correspondent - and English major - Ari Shapiro has this take.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: It's Act 4 in Shakespeare's tragedy, "King Lear." The Earl of Gloucester is blind. He believes he's standing at the Cliffs of Dover, about to throw himself to his death. The audience can see the blind man is not on the edge of a cliff at all. But Gloucester's son describes the vertiginous sight to convince his father that the cliff is real.
(SOUNDBITE OF STAGE PLAY, "KING LEAR")
SHAPIRO: This is the moment that comes to mind for Gail Paster of the Folger Shakespeare Library when she considers the standoff in Washington: an imaginary cliff that is conjured up by the people on the brink of it. After all, says Paster, every tax hike and spending cut in this debate was created by the lawmakers who are now creeping towards the edge.
GAIL PASTER: We will so frighten ourselves with the consequences that we will have to do something. And in some sense, it seem to me, language is making that landscape more terrifying than it might have even been in reality.
SHAPIRO: Some lawmakers in both parties are making this argument. They say the fiscal cliff deadline is no more deadly than Gloucester's imagined cliffs of Dover. Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island is on the Senate budget committee.
SENATOR SHELDON WHITEHOUSE: This is not a fiscal cliff in the sense that January 1st happens and it's all the way to the desert floor like Wile E. Coyote.
(SOUNDBITE OF FALLING SOUND, CRASH)
WHITEHOUSE: This is a thing that increases very, very, very gradually over the months and the years.
SHAPIRO: The path to this ledge is paved with public expressions of shock and indignation. White House spokesman Jay Carney described the GOP offer as...
JAY CARNEY: Magic beans and fairy dust.
SHAPIRO: House Speaker John Boehner responded to the White House's first proposal this way.
REPRESENTATIVE, JOHN BOEHNER: I looked at him and said: You can't be serious.
SHAPIRO: This brinksmanship makes Folger Library director Michael Witmore think of Shakespeare's comedy "As You Like It." The play literally defines how to deliver an insult, how to intimidate your opponent without heading into a fatal duel.
MICHAEL WITMORE: It is a culture of scripted escalation. It's a dance. It's a game. And that's what politics is. You say one thing, but you know that you've got this way out and this way out, and the other side knows, too.
SHAPIRO: Then there's the question of where this all leads. At the Washington institution Politics and Prose, bookseller Anna Thorn finds guidance in ancient Greece. The Greeks talk about dramatic irony. Thorn says it means something different from the modern usage of the word.
ANNA THORN: According to Aristotle, irony is the idea that the viewer or the reader is aware of some aspect of the drama that those experiencing it are not aware of.
SHAPIRO: So the audience knows that Oedipus has married his mother, but Oedipus doesn't learn that until the end of the play. Here's how that applies to the fiscal cliff. Speaker Boehner wants $800 billion in tax revenue. President Obama wants $1.6 trillion. The audience knows they'll probably end around $1.2 trillion. Similarly, Republicans want the top tax rate to stay at 35 percent.
The president wants 39 percent. Everyone watching concludes they'll land around 37 percent, but the performers in this drama act unaware of their destination. The last stop on this theatrical tour has deep ties to American political history.
PAUL TETREAULT: We have a view directly across the street of the historic Ford's Theatre.
SHAPIRO: Where Abraham Lincoln was shot almost 150 years ago. Paul Tetreault directs the theater today, and he found an old Thornton Wilder play with contemporary echoes. This play, "The Matchmaker," became the basis for a popular musical.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HELLO, DOLLY")
SHAPIRO: Tetreault says the play captures Republicans and Democrats perfectly. The two main characters fight like cats and dogs.
TETREAULT: You have the Republican, Horace Vandergelder, who is a small businessman running his grain-and-feed store, and you have the Democrat, Dolly Gallagher Levi, who, in her great famous line, says in the play: Money is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around, encouraging young things to grow.
SHAPIRO: At the end of that show, the two rivals fall in love and get married. So maybe art doesn't always imitate life. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.