Don’t you love farce?
That line from a peerless Stephen Sondheim song, “Send in the Clowns,” came to mind repeatedly this week, as television viewers and seasoned pundits alike gaped, gawked and giggled in astonishment at some of the more bizarre goings-on at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.
Remember all of the dire warnings about how the Republican National Convention would be wild in the streets? Who knew it was going to be wilder on the stage?
Farce, in theatrical terms, is the most rigorously disciplined of all forms of comedy; built on a foundation of slapstick and unlikely coincidence, it requires lickety-split timing and an unassailably polished contribution from every person on the stage. But the kind of farce that has enveloped the GOP convention — turning it into live theater of the most compellingly watchable variety — has relied on a template of its own more spontaneous design. It’s farce on the grander scale of what results when an audience’s expectations for the orderly congress of an event in our vital national interest are completely upended. Conditioned for the dull, meticulous, reassuringly and confoundingly robotic programming of a normal political convention, we’ve been instead exposed to the jarring and, yes, entertaining chaos of a Trump convention.
At the start of the week, who could have foretold the subplots we’d be dragged through, that the blood feud between Donald Trump and his Uriah Heep-like archrival, Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.), would burst an extraordinary new vessel in prime time, or that Ben Carson would go all “Exorcist” in his speech on Tuesday evening, likening Hillary Clinton to Lucifer? Or for that matter that the event’s breakout star would not be a convention attendee, or even a Republican, but Broadway actress Laura Benanti?
Wearing a facsimile of Melania Trump’s $2,200 white Roksanda dress, Benanti appeared on CBS’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” on Tuesday and did a devastating impression of the candidate’s wife, whose plagiarized opening-night speech imprinted the convention with a bona fide, indelible scandal. (Benanti instantly earned herself a spot in the modern political parody pantheon, alongside Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin and Larry David’s Bernie Sanders.)
This is, in a sense, exactly the convention Trump promised us when he predicted the gathering would be “amazing,” one of those adjectives that the Republican candidate has beaten into numbing submission over this already endless campaign. Should we even consider giving credit to him and his inner circle for orchestrating some of the week’s more sensational twists? Or were these the inevitable results of an overburdened campaign machine and the feral personality at its center?
At the very least, Team Trump succeeded in keeping reporters energized. As NBC News’s Chuck Todd tweeted on Wednesday night, after Cruz was booed off the convention stage for refusing to endorse Trump: “Tonight has done one thing for the political press corps: it’s made covering conventions great again.”
Trump’s speech on Thursday night, a litany of perceived shortcomings of the current American government, went over well in the hall. It should be noted, though, that the rest of the country might not have been quite as transfixed: Despite Trump’s own proven Nielsen prowess, the ratings on the convention’s first nights were lackluster. And whether everyone in TV land could follow the synopsis of unfolding convention plotlines was in doubt. Undecided voters in a focus group assembled in Cleveland on Wednesday night by MSNBC were asked whether they understood why the delegates were shouting at Cruz during his speech. Not a single hand went up.
In any event, given the odd tenor of the week and in keeping with this abnormal, repellent and mesmerizing election cycle, it seems perfectly reasonable to view this semi-august event through a theatrical prism. No doubt, a review may seem to take irreverent measure of events that were of serious, even disturbing consequence; there was nothing remotely entertaining, for instance, about the spectacle of delegates with faces contorted poisonously, shouting “Lock her up!” — a baseless exclamation aimed at Clinton, out of Republicans’ most perverse revenge fantasies. On the other hand, the E-list notables trotted out for center-stage testimonials to Trump, “celebrities” on the sub-basement-level order of Scott Baio, Antonio Sabàto Jr. and a former soap star described by one cable anchor as an “avocado enthusiast,” only served to remind you of all the weightier folks who weren’t there. Oh, for those savvier showbiz days when a Clint Eastwood would show up on a Republican stage, and do a complete scene with a chair.
By the convention’s closing Thursday, one had the feeling that eons had elapsed since Trump’s initial entrance on Monday, when he unwittingly opened the door to farcical disaster. Who will ever forget the reveal concocted for him, as he emerged, silhouetted in the dark, encircled by stage fog, and seemingly ready to sing “The Music of the Night”?
He was followed onto the stage by his wife, who radiated charm and spoke with measured conviction. It was the evening’s most convincing performance, far more likable and digestible than the sputtering outrage of former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who may have revved up the agitated conventioneers but seemed to a lot of the rest of the world as if he might soon require an ambulance.
Not long after, the discovery was made by an astute listener from afar, Jarrett Hill, that some of Melania Trump’s speech was borrowed from remarks eight years ago by Michelle Obama. And from the point at which plagiarism became the central topic, the convention organizers never again seemed able to control the conversation.
That problem reasserted itself Wednesday, when Cruz used his choice spot in the speaking lineup to make a hugely dramatic impact, with a rhetorical device as well planned as Melania Trump’s gaffe appeared unintentional. It’s interesting that the two most controversial moments in Cleveland were over the unforeseen implications of words, already in the speakers’ scripts, that the convention minders had ample time to review before they were delivered.
In Cruz’s case, the omission of a phrase in his speech that was anything close to “I endorse” created a havoc on the convention floor, the source of which wasn’t readily apparent to the average viewer, as that MSNBC focus group revealed. The ever-so-slight smile that crossed Cruz’s face signaled, however, that he knew well the hornet’s nest he stirred.
“I appreciate the enthusiasm of the New York delegation,” he said, reacting to the boos from Trump’s fans. Trump’s arrival at that very moment at the edge of the stage, seeking to steal the spotlight back from Cruz, sealed the cinematic sense of political Kabuki. The enticing mystery was whether at this stage of the farce, Trump’s team was now better prepared, whether the candidate’s entrance this time had been mapped out or merely improvised as the delegates’ ire grew louder.
A skilled playwright or screenwriter might kill for the chance to explore the drama in such a high-intensity confrontation. But maybe fiction wouldn’t do it justice. Because sometimes, you just can’t make this stuff up.