Beyond his profuse talents as a hard-right media star—as a master of the paranoid style, a fear-mongering clown, a skilled entertainer basing his act on a deliberate misunderstanding of Enlightenment thought—Glenn Beck has a soft side. This time last year, he published The Christmas Sweater, a best-selling "novel" relaying a spiritual parable, and he further developed the book into a one-man stage show. Notwithstanding his strident denouncements of global warming as a hoax, Beck recycles assiduously, and last night he was at an arts center at New York University presenting The Christmas Sweater: A Return to Redemption.
I was half a mile north at the Union Square Stadium 14, one of several hundred American movie theaters simulcasting the show. The turnout was strong, with the theater roughly at 90 percent capacity, possibly because of its proximity to such conservative hotbeds as the Union Square Greenmarket and the New School for Social Research. Being fussy about buttering my popcorn, I entered the theater to see Beck already in progress, live onstage. He was dressed in a suit and tie. The set was dressed with large silver snowflakes and the familiar hexagonal yellow logo of NAPA, where the marketing department is experimenting with new ways of reaching out to NASCAR dads.
Beck briefly seethed at himself in remembering a personal low point defined by doing his Christmas shopping at a chain drugstore. He misted up in explaining that his inspiration for The Christmas Sweater was the last Yuletide of his mother's life. Beck breathed deeply and introduced complete film footage of the one-man show. Here, throwing himself into the performance Anna Deavere Smith-style, Beck employed a distinct voice for each of the five central characters, reserving his own for narration. Thrusting and leaping around the stage with gusto, he sweated through two layers of T-shirt and made copious use of the kneepads bulging beneath his trousers.
In short, The Christmas Sweater is a tale about the eternal soul of Eddie, a 12-year-old ingrate. Though Eddie knows that money has been tight since his father's death, he still stews and curses fate upon seeing that his mother has knit him a sweater for Christmas instead of buying him a red bicycle. He keeps on stewing and hurting his mother's feelings during their visit to his grandparents' farm. On the car ride home, Mom falls asleep at the wheel and dies in the crash. Taken in by his grandparents, Eddie occasionally listens to the cryptic wisdom of the grizzled and dirty old horse whisperer down the way, but mostly he grows angry at the universe. Then Eddie tries to run away, renounces God, encounters a thundering storm, dives around a cornfield like Roger O. Thornhill, and achieves redemption, if that's the word for it, after the horse whisperer makes the scene: "He was no longer dirty and old. ... He was made of light. ... In that light, I knew exactly who I was."
At this point, it emerges that the "Mom dies" plot point and all that followed was just a bad dream. Eddie wakes from it knowing the true meaning of Christmas and appreciating his knitwear properly. Also, Grandpa was hiding the red bicycle out in the barn the whole time. While the story as a whole is just so much didactic sap, these concluding events would seem to mark it as trifling and dishonest sap. But Beck says that Christmas is "all about second chances." Funny, I'd thought that was Easter.
There is obviously no use in evaluating The Christmas Sweater according to conventions of dramatic criticism, but I would like to point out that there is no substantive difference between the burbling and sniveling Beck does in character as Eddie and the burbling and sniveling he regularly does on air—or that which he did back live at NYU, tie loosened now, after watching the tape. He was sitting in an armchair opposite a sofa, and there was a box of Kleenex on his end table. It looked like a shrink's office and with good reason.
He summoned to the couch four people it would have been sinful to root against, including two recovering drug addicts and a breast cancer survivor, all of whom showed impressive courage in struggling against despair. They were admirable, and they were articulate, and, it being the case that each had recognized himself in The Christmas Sweater, they were offering these kinds of existential testimonials. Beck came closest to offering a coherent lesson in saying, "You don't survive life; you are a victor of life," which is a fine sentiment and a great bumper sticker.
It was otherwise impossible to make out his argument beyond the vague contours of some spiritually infused psychobabble about "finding peace" and "filling a hole." In its appeal to emotions and disregard for linear logic, this segment felt like a harmless self-help analogue to his unreasonable rabble-rousing. My Christmas present to Beck is the suggestion that he get out of the demagogue business while the getting is good and reinvent himself as a post-Oprah positive-thinking guru on daytime TV. His skill at sobbing on cue should prove quite an asset.