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The Antidote to the “One Great Man” Theory is “Assassins”

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: there is a hacker, or a boy wizard, or a Lego minifig. About 20 minutes after we meet this man (almost always a man), someone looks at him and says, “It’s you. The one we’ve been waiting for. The one who will save us.”

So often in fiction, the fate of the world comes down to One Great Man, one special person who is uniquely suited to saving an entire society. This fallacy has crept into our real lives, too. It’s why mediocre artists refuse to cede the spotlight (“I’m the only one who can spread this message”) and why mediocre politicians enter crowded presidential races (“I’m the only one who can save this country”). 

The natural corollary to “one great man” is the “one great foe” who threatens him. For every Superman, a Lex Luthor; for every great political leader, an institution or person conspiring to take them down. 

This brings me to the 1990 Stephen Sondheim/John Weidman musical “Assassins.” “Assassins” is a bizarre show without much of a coherent story, framed as a revue. It’s set in a liminal space where people who have killed or tried to kill U.S. presidents throughout history can meet and converse. 

The second song in the show introduces our narrator, the fresh-faced Balladeer. “Someone tell the story, someone sing the song,” he sings, as if invoking the Muses at the beginning of an epic poem. (Homer: There’s a guy who had no patience for the concept of “one great man.”) “Every now and then the country goes a little wrong. Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along. It doesn’t stop the story; the story’s pretty strong. It doesn’t change the song.”

Right at the outset, “Assassins” wants us to know that its titular characters traffic in futility. Yes, Booth killed Lincoln, but how much more often do we think about Lincoln than Booth? Which man had more impact on the story of this nation?

“Assassins” is a thorough exploration of the fact that no one man can permanently change the story of a society. Over and over again, we meet an assassin who literally shoots their shot. And whether they succeed or they fail, they are largely forgotten. We’ve all heard of Presidents Garfield and McKinley, but few can name Guiteau or Czolgosz, the men who killed them. (Incidentally, this is also why “Assassins” lights up all the true crime pleasure centers of my brain with none of the guilt: it’s the rare example of true crime in which the victim is always better known than the criminal.)

After the 2016 election, lots of people quoted those lines: “Every now and then a madman’s bound to come along. It doesn’t stop the story; the story’s pretty strong.” The irony, of course, was that this time, the “madman” wasn’t an assassin; he was the president. Some have believed that Donald Trump is the one great man who can save us. Others believe he is the one great villain who will destroy us for good. 

The relief, the good news, is that neither is true. I thought of those opening lines again at a performance of “Soft Power,” a breathtaking new musical staged at The Public Theater. The way “Soft Power” unfolds is surprising and miraculous. I wouldn’t take the experience of discovering it for yourself away from you, even if I could. But I will say that it is the story of our political moment. It asks that vital question: Is this the moment in our history when everything permanently changes for the worse?

The answer, incredibly, is no. Not if we don’t want it to be.

None us can change the story — not alone. But each of us has the power and the responsibility to nudge it in the right direction.

Featured photo: The 2004 Broadway cast of “Assassins.” Photographer: Joan Marcus.

Published inCulture

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© Mary Gaulke 2023