Our addiction to political theater did us in.
We hated the 2016 campaign — prayed for the endgame — yet we couldn’t look away. Like a car crash, horrified onlookers said.
But was that really a gripe? Or was it a choice? After a year and a half of high-ratings, low-content TV debates and drama-packed stadium rallies, who’s to say the 2020 sequel won’t be bigger? More spectacular? Altogether more gripping and worse?
There are two definitions of “political theater”: the one that applies to the realm of politics, and the one that applies to art.
In the public sphere, “political theater” is synonymous with “empty show.” It’s a gesture. Posturing. Grandstanding. Sound and fury, likely to be signaling no genuine idea but certainly indicating a play for power.
You hate to think of presidential campaigns as empty shows because they’re so consequential. Yet how, in fact, did we spend the past 19 months and the $2 billion it takes to hash out these extravaganzas?
On Nov. 9, everyone was scrambling to interpret the historically shocking results. What was the message and the mandate? Well, who could say with any precision? Indisputable now is that the message was change, yet it was practically blind change. Apparently, 23 percent of Donald Trump’s voters thought he was not qualified for the job.
“I’m excited to see him blow the place up,” a heartland voter told The Washington Post after the election. “He stands on his own, so he can throw the middle finger up.”
Policy specifics didn’t matter. Anger did. And it was spectacular.
Theater people know about spectacle. It’s the cheapest tool in the kit. It’s also often the most popular. It goes back to Aristotle, who observed in “The Poetics” that spectacle is the least valuable element of tragedy. The effect of spectacle is visceral, not intellectual — it’s a thrill.
This was widely described as an angry election; David Axelrod’s phrase was “primal scream.” Could it be that we are angry (both sides) because across so many issues we skimmed past evidence and ideas to feeling? What answers were talked through? Is the public smarter and more fluent about anything now (except how to craft a zinger and swagger past a gaffe) than we were before this campaign?
Has the public basically just blown a year and a half of college to binge on rage?
The inevitable campaign “narrative” isn’t issues but “character,” a lazy habit nurtured by candidates, pundits and an increasingly rabid public that’s prompted to stoke its frustration and get louder with no requirement to get smarter. All around, it’s bad citizenship.
That was what New York Times columnist Paul Krugman objected to in September when he complained that political journalists were behaving like theater critics, describing the lively but hollow show. Theater critics disputed that: We know spectacle when we see it. And the word for this Wrestlemania-like showdown — executed with particular fervor at CNN, with its glowering head shots of the heavyweight contestants above a ticking countdown clock — was never really “drama” or even “farce,” but “travesty.”
Journalists palpably experiencing withdrawal from the fury and surprise of this campaign are already trying to gin up the next round. The Friday after the election, Jane Sanders, Bernie’s wife, was asked by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer whether her husband would run in 2020.
“See, that’s exactly the wrong question,” Sanders answered.
She offered Blitzer issues every day, but we don’t really seem to want to think it through. We’d rather slug it out. That’s a choice. As long as emotion and spectacle remain our preferences, be braced for the next extravaganza, the next mesmerizing unicorn who will razzle-dazzle some sort of unpredictable path to 270.
We are the stories we tell.
“Political theater” in the artistic realm, by contrast, is exemplary citizenship: The two hours (or seven, in some ambitious cases) are the definition of a thoughtful deep dive. Yet this fall, Washington theaters lamented that the stage had a puny voice, if any voice at all, as the hyper-theatrical campaign boiled to its climax.
“I said that the discourse in this country is so terrible and that people were getting away with big lies,” Michael Kahn told Peter Marks as five theaters embarked on “Theatrical Selections,” a free Monday-night series of political plays during the final weeks of the campaign. “I was thinking about how we could try to wake people up.”
Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse told American Theatre magazine that “Theatrical Selections,” which has The election in its title if you highlight the proper letters, was born of “a shared feeling of impotence and a desire to do something to use the theater to comment on the moment we found ourselves in.”
The readings were popular: Tickets vanished for Bertolt Brecht’s fascist-gangster fable “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” at the Shakespeare Theatre, and a large portion of the audience stayed past 11 p.m. for a Trump-centric discussion with political journalists. “Bad Jews” playwright Joshua Harmon’s “Medea”-themed “Ivanka” was a fast sellout at Studio.
The question is why, in the United States and especially in Washington, political engagement onstage would be an afterthought. In “American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice,” I found that we habitually block political works from the stage, particularly as producers (the ultimate gatekeepers), but also as scholars and journalists. Audiences seldom get a vote.
Our stages see increasingly challenging work on identity, gender and ethnicity, and that’s only likely to intensify: Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” at Studio is already riveting viewing in the new cultural context. But turn to Britain for public topics you seldom see plumbed here: When the Shakespeare Theatre Company presented the three-night “The Great Game: Afghanistan” — a historically grounded deep dive par excellence — it came from London’s Tricycle Theatre. As Britain’s National Health Service was recently reorganized and potentially undermined, Stella Feehily penned a well-received agitprop drama called “This May Hurt a Bit.”
When the world economy collapsed in 2008, London’s National Theatre commissioned longtime issues dramatist David Hare to write. He interviewed bankers and economists, and by October 2009 the result was in front of audiences (“The Power of Yes”). The stage can be a fast-moving, widely variable reflection of ideas in the air and conditions on the ground. That’s not exactly our habit, and finance might be a particular theatrical third rail.
Lucy Prebble’s dense and dazzling anatomy of a financial collapse, “Enron,” was shot down at the border in 2010 by the New York Times, after triumphing in London. Even Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatists such as Bruce Norris (“Clybourne Park”) and Ayad Akhtar (“Disgraced”) can triumph with works on identity but have a hard time selling plays about money. Still unseen in the District: Norris’s 2013 history-of-capitalism “The Low Road” and Akhtar’s 2014 stock market-and-terrorism “The Invisible Hand.”
Hare’s 1993 “Absence of War” might be instructive, too. It’s an insider campaign drama, a lightly fictionalized account of Hare’s period embedded with Neil Kinnock’s failed 1992 campaign for prime minister — a come-from-ahead liberal defeat by a whip-smart, perplexingly flawed candidate. The campaign dodged policy as the candidate’s contentious team got vexed about its messaging. It now seems analogous to Hillary Clinton’s loss.
This is not to suggest that Washington’s theaters are socially oblivious. But there is a variety of topics to be braved — and perhaps the tide is turning. Increasingly, Arena Stage is voting yes on politics, and last winter’s “Sweat,” from Lynn Nottage, now looks like it placed its finger exactly on the sore spot in scrutinizing a Rust Belt Pennsylvania town scapegoating race as jobs went scarce. Arena’s upcoming slate includes Lisa Loomer’s “Roe,” a drama about the ultimate hot-button Supreme Court case; it will run as Trump is inaugurated and probably putting forth his first high court nominee. Jacqueline Lawton’s “Intelligence,” about CIA agent Valerie Plame’s blown cover, will arrive at Arena at about the same time.
Other recent examples: Mike Daisey’s “The Trump Card” and Guillermo Calderon’s “Kiss” (a calculatedly distanced look at Syrian conditions) at Woolly, where artistic director Howard Shalwitz has just written a post-election note declaring, “The role of art in the coming struggle is blazingly clear.” “I Call My Brothers,” Jonas Hassan Khemiri’s fevered account (at Forum Theatre) of a Muslim American man’s paranoia as a bomb goes off in his city. Ari Roth’s vision of a social justice theater has expanded since opening Mosaic Theater Company after being fired for controversial Middle East plays at Theater J. The Public Theater’s production of Richard Nelson’s three-play cycle “The Gabriels” — three intimate dramas watching an Upstate New York family prepare meals on politically significant dates, including Nov. 8 — arrives at the Kennedy Center in January.
Still, the feeling of voiceless-ness that led to “Theatrical Selections” is telling, and curable. After 9/11, a highbrow theater journal asked artists how they might respond, much as the call is going out now among artists about what’s next as Trumpland comes to Washington. After 9/11, Anna Deavere Smith pointedly replied that the question of how to use the stage thoughtfully and actively needs to be asked before crises and surprises, not after.
We are the stories we tell.