Molly Ivins, A 'Red-Hot Patriot'

In Austin, Texas, late iconic political columnist Molly Ivins is the subject of a new play. Red-Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins is giving her fans — and her foes — a reminder of her fiery style.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

W: The Kick Ass Wit of Molly Ivins."

The play opened this spring in Philadelphia to strong reviews. Kathleen Turner played Ivins. Now as NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports, the play is now on stage in Ivins' adopted hometown of Austin, Texas.

WADE GOODWYN: During the 1970's, Molly Ivins and the Texas Legislature were a match made in heaven. At the time, Texas politics were still dominated by big oil money and becoming speaker of the House was a seemingly irresistible invitation to stick your hand in the cookie jar.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

BARBARA CHISHOLM: (As Molly Ivins) Six out our last seven speakers have been indicted for one thing or another, the exception being the one who was shot to death by his wife. She was indicted but not convicted because in Texas, we recognize public service when we see it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: Austin Actor Barbara Chisholm is bringing Molly Ivins back to life on the Zachary Scott Theatre Stage. It's a role she continues to research.

(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)

GOODWYN: It's 6 p.m., and Chisholm and a group of Molly Ivins' old friends gather around the bar at St. Cecelia's Hotel.

LOU DUBOSE: When we worked together on one story in Amarillo, we were in the Days Inn.

GOODWYN: Lou Dubose co-authored three books with Ivins.

DUBOSE: I mean, Molly was a genuine Mark Twain. She appropriated the language of the gargoyles, the good old boys who ran the state, and she made that language her own.

GOODWYN: In the year 1970, Ivins was a young writer who was beginning to find her voice. She already knew how to write funny, and having grown up the daughter of a Texas oilman in Houston she also understood Texas.

She despised her powerful patrician father's right-wing politics, a sin he never forgave. As co-editor of the liberal political journal The Texas Observer, she would leave the office at 4 o'clock and head over to the capitol. And by the next morning, she'd have her story.

DUBOSE: Molly was a six-foot-tall woman who could drink most men under the table. Texas politics was essentially closed to women then, and Molly became a good old girl who would sit and drink with the good old boys.

GOODWYN: When George W. Bush came along to run for Texas governor, he became her meal ticket. Ivins dubbed him Shrub. And the books she wrote with Dubose, "Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" when he was Texas governor, and then "Bushwhacked: Life in George W. Bush's America" when he was president, made her nationally known.

Ivins' success proved you could be a woman newspaper columnist, even a liberal woman newspaper columnist, but you had to be funny.

MARGARET ENGLE: When I heard that she had died four years ago. That day I called Allison and said we must write a one woman-play about Molly Ivins.

GOODWYN: Margaret and Allison Engle are twin sisters, former journalists who'd known Ivins. They'd seen Hal Holbrook on stage as Mark Twain and thought: We can write the same kind of play about Molly Ivins.

ENGLE: One of the things that really attracted us to Molly is that she was this prescient, on-the-nose observer of the political scene but doing so from Austin, Texas. Living outside the power corridors of New York and Washington, D.C., is very important.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

CHISHOLM: (As Ivins) I wish I were in Dixie tonight. But she's out of town.

GOODWYN: Ivins' relationship with her father throughout her life is one of the play's touchstones. As Ivins became famous, she discovered to her bewilderment that it often didn't matter how badly she skewered some venal legislator.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

CHISHOLM: (As Ivins) I would denounce some sorry son of a bitch in the ledge(ph) as an egg-sucking child molester who runs on all fours and has the brains of an adolescent piss ant. And the next day, that sumbitch would spread out his arms and say: Baby, you put my name in your paper.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: For Molly Ivins, the painful reality that undergirds that story is that the reason that those East Texas or West Texas legislators laughed was because they knew that Ivins couldn't touch them politically.

"Red Hot Patriot" is filled with the kind of affectionate liberal Texas put-downs that entertainers like John Henry Faulk made famous.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

CHISHOLM: (As Ivins) The only thing wrong with our Texas Baptists is we don't hold them under water long enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GOODWYN: But Ivins' lifelong struggle with her authoritarian father and her own alcoholism grounds the play emotionally. Ivins died of breast cancer at the relatively young age of 62.

The play takes a moving turn at the end, when Ivins suddenly hears her long-dead dog barking and running around her house and she realizes to her chagrin that there's only one way that could be. It gives the comedy a nice element at the end. Molly gets one last opportunity.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

CHISHOLM: (As Ivins) Well it's my last column. I'm allowed. I know what people are going to ask after I'm gone. They're going to ask: What would Molly say? Hell, I said plenty.

GOODWYN: In Philadelphia and Austin, the end of the performance was and is often met with standing ovations.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "RED HOT PATRIOT")

IVINS: What do you say?

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

GOODWYN: Barbara Chisholm says that in Austin, playing to so many who knew Ivins or knew of her, Chisholm feels she's sharing the applause. The play runs through March 13th.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.