As two planned TV shows
The timely production, which runs at London’s Bunker Theatre until April 28, comes amid the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements to end the sexual harassment, exploitation and assault of women.
It also follows a personal essay by Lewinsky in Vanity Fair which speaks of the trauma it caused her and asks, 20 years on, how the scandal should be viewed today.
Devil With The Blue Dress is written by Kevin Armento and uses transcripts from the five key female players in the Lewinsky scandal, which almost toppled President Bill Clinton over his affair with a young White House intern, and the lies he told
Those women are President Clinton’s wife and daughter, Hillary and Chelsea, his secretary Betty Currie, the intern Monica Lewinsky, and her civil service confidante Linda Tripp. But Clinton never even appears on stage, and is only voiced through impressions by the women.
“To be honest, when I was researching the story, Bill’s kind of the least interesting person involved,” playwright Armento tells Newsweek.
“As in, he’s a middle aged man seducing a 22-year-old intern. I don’t really care about how he was anguished over it or not, or his guilt relating to his religion, or his suffering.
“The second you put him on stage it all becomes about him because that is the kind of culture we’re in. It would be a lot harder to make a play about these five women if there’s a Bill Clinton on stage.”
Armento, an American, said he wrote the play during the summer of 2016 and in anticipation of Hillary Clinton beating Donald Trump in the presidential election. He described the timing as “serendipitous” because #MeToo exploded after he conceived the play.
“We have tried to be responsive to that moment [but] we don’t want to make the play about that moment,” he said. “This is one of the ancestors of the conversation we’re having now.”
“Looking at the scandal from Hillary’s point of view was the starting point,” Armento continued. “The play makes the case that out of the ashes of this scandal was birthed her political career. When she lost, it became about the birth of an achilles heel.”
Two TV shows about the Lewinsky affair were recently pulled by their producers. The first was a six-part series called The Breach: Inside The Impeachment of Bill Clinton, dramatizing the book by journalist Peter Baker, due to air on the History Channel.
Exactly why it was pulled is unclear. After public fanfare on the series’ announcement, a History Channel spokesperson told the Washington Post “we made a decision not to move forward” and that a separate docuseries is being planned instead, though no details were given.
Separately, a producer of the American Crime Story series, who was planning a season on the Lewinsky scandal, said he had changed his mind after speaking to her.
“I told her, ‘Nobody should tell your story but you, and it’s kind of gross if they do,'” producer Ryan Murphy said, according to Hollywood Reporter. “‘If you want to produce it with me, I would love that; but you should be the producer and you should make all the goddamn money.'”
Armento told Newsweek he didn’t try hard to get Lewinsky involved in his play.
“I’ve reached out a couple of times just because she has offered her version so infrequently,” he said. “I took great care to use her words as much as possible. I just have to imagine she doesn’t want to relive any of this. And I think that’s completely valid.”
The playwright said part of the problem in his research is that so much of what is available, such as press reports, is “framed by the victors.” But Armento made a concerted effort to use as much as possible of the words that came directly from the women’s mouths.
Lewinsky—who has been ridiculed, humiliated, and bullied over the Clinton affair—wrote an essay for Vanity Fair in March 2018 about how she was treated in the immediate wake of the scandal and the years that have passed since.
She describes being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder “mainly from the ordeal of having been publicly outed and ostracized back then. My trauma expedition has been long, arduous, painful, and expensive. And it’s not over.”
“Until recently (thank you, Harvey Weinstein), historians hadn’t really had the perspective to fully process and acknowledge that year of shame and spectacle,” Lewinsky continues, reflecting on 1998, when the affair blew open, and the opportunity for a new analysis thanks to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.
“And as a culture, we still haven’t properly examined it. Re-framed it. Integrated it. And transformed it. My hope, given the two decades that have passed, is that we are now at a stage where we can untangle the complexities and context (maybe even with a little compassion), which might help lead to an eventual healing—and a systemic transformation.”
She continued: “For two decades, I have been working on myself, my trauma, and my healing. And, naturally, I have grappled with the rest of the world’s interpretations and Bill Clinton’s re-interpretations of what happened. But in truth, I have done this at arm’s length. There have been so many barriers to this place of self-reckoning.”
Armento said, on his reading of her essay, Lewinsky’s “thesis is we went through a national trauma that we never actually dealt with.”
“For me as a writer, I wanted to use to what extent I have a platform to listen to five voices of this story that we think we know really well, but actually we’ve never listened to any of these five perspectives, from the point of view of five women who revolved around this man at the pinnacle of American power,” he said. “This really belongs to each of the five of them.”
Armento added: “I think that’s the only way, to use Monica’s articulation of it, we can ever process that trauma and actually learn from it so that it isn’t cyclical, and we aren’t setting ourselves up to handle the same scandals in the same way.”
Though the play is being launched in London, Armento has plans to take it home to the U.S.
London, he says, offers an opportunity for an audience removed from, but curious about, American politics, in a similar way to Americans watching Netflix’s The Crown. And it gives him space to rewrite the play.
“I knew if I’d done that in New York or D.C., there’s such a thornier labyrinth of pre-existing biases that I know people are bringing in with them,” Armento said.
“So I’ve been able to rewrite it in a little bit more of a vacuum where people don’t really know who Linda Tripp is. That then gets to be a plot twist that a lot of the audience doesn’t know is coming.”
“I’d be really pleased to take it to the States,” he adds. “I’m still recovering from the press night hangover. Once that subsides, we’ll start those conversations.”
Monica Lewinsky did not respond to a request for comment.