News & Politics

Jim Lehrer’s New Play Launches NatGeo’s First Foray Into Theater Production

“Bell” opened Thursday night and runs for ten performances.

Rick Foucheux, portraying Alexander Graham Bell, on the wonderfully cluttered set of NatGeo’s first live theater production, Bell.

Even the playwright, veteran broadcast journalist
Jim Lehrer, admits he learned a lot about his subject, inventor Alexander Graham Bell, while
creating the 90-minute piece that launches NatGeo’s first ever theater production
as part of National Geographic Live. The one-act, one-man play, called simply
Bell, stars DC actor
Rick Foucheux, and opened
Thursday night with a packed house and a crowded after-party.

Everyone knows, of course, that Bell invented the telephone, and that is addressed
in the play, but it also mentions other interesting pieces of his life that caught
our attention, including:

• Bell’s role in treating President James Garfield after he was shot in an assassination
attempt, and his frustration when doctors would not properly use a metal detector
he invented, which could have found the bullet. Infection set in, and Garfield declined
and eventually succumbed. “He died a painful death after being shot at the Washington
train station,” Bell says in the play. “Please do not interpret my actions as heroic.
I was motivated by wanting to save the life of a president.”

• That at the same time as the Wright Brothers, Bell was creating his own first airplane,
and the race to be first was intense. “We inventors of those days were involved in
a monumental invention warfare—we all wanted to invent a flying machine.” Later, frustrated
by being beaten by the Wright Brothers, Bell laments, “The invention of flight dwarfed
what I did with the telephone.”

• A lot of whining about Thomas Edison, who was his rival.

• About himself, Bell reveals he “require[s] only four hours of sleep a night,” and
that he’s “driven by the need to find something new, something different.”

At every turn, the play is a revelation and an education as it takes the audience
on a journey into a richly productive era in American history. Bell alone was the
holder of 47 patents. He also served as president of the National Geographic Society
from 1898 to 1903.

This is Lehrer’s third play. He has also written 20 novels, two memoirs, and a nonfiction
book about the presidential debates. He has moderated presidential debates in the
past. In 2011 he stepped down as the anchor of the PBS
Newshour after almost 30 years with the broadcast.

Bell, the first play to be produced on the National Geographic Society stage, runs through
Saturday, September 21. The director is Jerry Skidmore. Tickets ($30) can be purchased
by phone at 202-857-7700 or online.