revival of a Shakespeare tragedy did the impossible earlier this year: It made headlines. In June, New York’s Public Theater performed Julius Caesar in Central Park in a modern-dress production directed by Oskar Eustis, in which the actors who played the parts of Julius Caesar and his wife impersonated and were made up to look like Donald and Melania Trump. Because of this decision—which entailed Caesar-Trump’s being knifed to death in full view of the audience, as specified by Shakespeare—three of the company’s corporate donors publicly disavowed the production. And one performance was disrupted by two alt-right protesters, one of whom jumped onto the stage after the assassination scene and tried to halt the show by shouting, “Stop the normalization of violence against the right!”
No similar incidents have been reported, but not for lack of opportunity. In the past year, references to Trump have been shoehorned into any number of theatrical productions in New York and elsewhere. One Trump-related play by a noted author, Robert Schenkkan’s Building the Wall, has already been produced off Broadway and across America, and various other Trump-themed plays are in the pipeline, including Tracy Letts’s The Minutes and Beau Willimon’s The Parisian Woman, both of which will open on Broadway later this season.
The first thing to be said about this avalanche of theatrical activity is that these plays and productions, so far as is known, all show Trump in a negative light. That was to be expected. Save for David Mamet, I am not aware of any prominent present-day American playwright, stage actor, director, or technician who has ever publicly expressed anything other than liberal or progressive views on any political subject whatsoever. However, it appears one can simultaneously oppose Trump and still be skeptical about the artistic effects of such lockstep unanimity, for many left-of-center drama critics have had unfavorable things to say about the works of art inspired to date by the Trump presidency.
So even a political monoculture like that of the American theater can criticize the fruits of its own one-sidedness. But can such a culture produce any other kind of art? Or might the Theater of Trump be inherently flawed in a way that prevents it from transcending its limitations?
rom Aristophanes to Angels in America, politics has always been a normal part of the subject matter of theater. Not until the end of the 19th century, though, did a major playwright emerge whose primary interest in writing plays was political rather than aesthetic. George Bernard Shaw saw himself less as an artist than as a propagandist for the causes to which he subscribed, which included socialism, vegetarianism, pacifism, and (late in his life) Stalinism. But Shaw took care to sugar the political pill by embedding his preoccupations in entertaining comedies of ideas, and he was just as careful to make his villains as attractive—and persuasive-sounding—as his heroes.
In those far-off days, the English-speaking theater world was more politically diverse than it is today both on and off stage. It was only in the late ’40s that the balance started to shift, at first slowly, then with steadily increasing speed. In England, this ultimately led to a theater in which it is now common to find explicit political statements embedded not merely in plays but also in such commercial musicals as Billy Elliot, a show about the British miners’ strike of 1984 in which a chorus of children sings a holiday carol whose refrain runs as follows: “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher / We all celebrate today / Cause it’s one day closer to your death.”
As this example suggests, postwar English political theater is consumed with indictments of the evils arising from the existence of a rigid class system. American playwrights, by contrast, are typically more inclined to follow in the footsteps of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, both of whose plays portray (albeit for different reasons) the spiritual and emotional poverty of middle-class life. In both countries, most theater is neither explicitly nor implicitly political. Nevertheless, the theater communities of England and America have for the last half-century or so been all but unanimous in their offstage political convictions. This means that when an English-language play is political, the views that it embodies will almost certainly be left-liberal.
This unanimity of opinion is responsible for what I called, in a 2009 Commentary essay about Miller, the “theater of concurrence.”1 Its practitioners, presumably because all of their colleagues share their political views, take for granted that their audiences will also share them. Hence they write political plays in which no attempt is made to persuade dissenters to change their minds, it being assumed that no dissenters are present in the theater. In the theater of concurrence, disagreement with left-liberal orthodoxy is normally taken to be the result either of invincible ignorance or a deliberate embrace of evil. In the U.S. and England alike, it has become rare to see old-fashioned Shavian political plays like David Hare’s Skylight (1995) in which the devil (in this case, a Thatcherite businessman in love with an upper-middle-class do-gooder) is given his due. Instead, we get plays whose villains are demoniacal monsters (Tony Kushner’s fictionalized portrayal of Roy Cohn in Angels in America is an example) rather than flawed humans who, like Tom in Skylight, have reached the point of no moral return.
All this being the case, it makes perfect sense that Donald Trump’s election should have come as so disorienting a shock to the American theater community, which took for granted that he was unelectable. No sooner were the votes tallied than theater people took to social media to angrily declare their unalterable resistance to the Trump presidency. Many of them believe both Trump and his supporters to be, in Hillary Clinton’s oft-quoted phrase, members of “the basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it.”
What kind of theater is emerging from this shared belief? Building the Wall, the first dramatic fruit of the Trump era, is a two-character play set in the visiting room of a Texas prison. It takes place in 2019, by which time President Trump has been impeached after having responded to the detonation of a nuclear weapon in Times Square by declaring nationwide martial law and locking up every foreigner in sight. The bomb, it turns out, was a “false flag” operation planted not by terrorists but by the president’s men. Rick, the play’s principal character, has been imprisoned for doing something so unspeakably awful that he and his interlocutor, a sanctimonious black journalist who is interviewing him for a book, are initially reluctant to talk about it. At the end of an hour or so of increasingly broad hints, we learn that Rick helped the White House set up a Nazi-style death camp for illegal immigrants.
Schenkkan has described Building the Wall as “not a crazy or extreme fantasy,” an inadvertently revealing remark. It is possible to spin involving drama out of raging paranoia, but that requires a certain amount of subtlety, not to mention intelligence—and there is nothing remotely subtle or intelligent about Building the Wall. Rick is a blue-collar cartoon, a regular-guy Texan who claims not to be a racist but voted for Trump because “all our jobs were going to Mexico and China and places like that and then the illegals here taking what jobs are left and nobody gave a damn.” Gloria, his interviewer, is a cartoon of a different kind, a leftsplaining virtue signal in human form who does nothing but emit smug speeches illustrating her own enlightened state: “I mean, at some point in the past we were all immigrants, right, except for Native Americans. And those of us who didn’t have a choice in the matter.” The New York production of Building the Wall closed a month ahead of schedule, having received universally bad reviews (the New York Times described it as “slick and dispiriting”).
The Public Theater’s Julius Caesar, by contrast, received mixed but broadly positive reviews. But it, too, was problematic, albeit on an infinitely higher level of dramatic accomplishment. Here, the fundamental problem was that Eustis had superimposed a gratuitous directorial gloss on Shakespeare’s play. There have been many other high-concept productions of Julius Caesar, starting with Orson Welles’s 1937 modern-dress Broadway staging, which similarly transformed Shakespeare’s play into an it-can-happen-here parable of modern-day fascism. But Eustis’s over-specific decision to turn Caesar into a broad-brush caricature of Trump hijacked the text instead of illuminating it. Rather than allowing the audience to draw its own parallels to the present situation, he pandered to its prejudices. The result was a quintessential example of the theater of concurrence, a staging that undercut its not-inconsiderable virtues by reducing the complexities of the Trump phenomenon to little more than boob-baiting by a populist vulgarian.
Darko Tresjnak committed a venial version of the same sin in his Hartford Stage revival of Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1919), which opened around the same time as Building the Wall and Julius Caesar. Written in the wake of World War I, Heartbreak House is a tragicomedy about a group of liberal bohemians who lack the willpower to reconstruct their doomed society along Shaw’s preferred socialist lines. Tresjnak’s lively but essentially traditional staging hewed to Shaw’s text in every way but one: He put a yellow Trump-style wig on Boss Mangan, the bloated, parasitical businessman who is the play’s villain. The effect was not unlike dressing a character in a play in a T-shirt with a four-letter word printed across the chest. The wig triggered a loud laugh on Mangan’s first entrance, but you were forced to keep on looking at it for the next two hours, by which time the joke had long since grown numbingly stale. It was a piece of cheap point-making unworthy of a production that was otherwise distinguished.
ow might contemporary theater artists engage with the Trump phenomenon in a way that is both politically and artistically serious?
For playwrights, the obvious answer is to follow Shaw’s own example by allowing Trump (or a Trump-like character) to speak for himself in a way that is persuasive, even seductive. Shaw himself did so in Major Barbara (1905), whose central character is an arms manufacturer so engagingly urbane that he persuades his pacifist daughter to give up her position with the Salvation Army and embrace the gospel of high explosives. But the trouble with this approach is that it is hard to imagine a playwright willing to admit that Trump could be persuasive to anyone but the hated booboisie.
Then there is Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, which transferred to Broadway last March after successful runs at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater. First performed in the summer of 2015, around the time that Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Sweat is an ensemble drama about a racially diverse group of unemployed steel workers in Reading, the Pennsylvania city that has become synonymous with deindustrialization. Trump is never mentioned in the play, which takes place between 2000 and 2008 and is not “political” in the ordinary sense of the word, since Nottage did not write it to persuade anyone to do anything in particular. Her purpose was simply to show how the people of Reading feel, and try to explain why they feel that way. Tightly structured and free of sermonizing, Sweat is a wholly personal drama whose broader political implications are left unsaid. Instead of putting Trump in the pillory, it takes a searching look at the lives of the people who voted for him, and it portrays them sympathetically, making a genuine good-faith attempt to understand why they chose to embrace Trumpian populism.
Sweat is a model for serious political art—artful political art, if you will. Are more such plays destined to be written about Donald Trump and his angry supporters? Perhaps, if their authors heed the wise words of Joseph Conrad: “My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Only the very best artists can make political art with that kind of revelatory power. Shaw and Bertolt Brecht did it, and so has Lynn Nottage. Will Tracy Letts and Beau Willimon follow suit, or will they settle for the pandering crudities of Building the Wall? The answer to that question will tell us much about the future of political theater in the Age of Trump.
1 “Concurring with Arthur Miller” (Commentary, June 2009)