Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty brought all the drama to assessing how the theater, "the most public-minded of the arts," would deal with the crisis of Donald Trump's election. The December 26 headline was "How theater should respond to a democracy in meltdown." We are in a "crisis" at the end of 2017, which means we have liberals who still equate democracy with Democratic victories. It began:
How should artists respond to a nation in crisis? Playwrights and their collaborators, not wanting to be the proverbial fiddler sawing away as Rome burns, have had no choice but to contemplate their responsibility in a year of stark political turmoil.
Since Donald Trump was elected president, America has undergone a savage transformation. Institutional norms have been flouted, ethical constraints have been ignored, constitutional principles have been muddied and longstanding alliances have been kicked to the curb.
McNulty says this without giggling. He doesn't realize that Bill and Hillary Clinton, when they were in power in the Nineties, were not strong on "ethical constraints" or "constitutional principles." Liberals write without irony that suddenly we have the unprecedented crisis of shameless liars in the White House. Talk about fake news. But playwrights heard the "call of duty" to alert the public to their errors:
The theater, the most public-minded of the arts, has quickly answered the call of duty. Playwright Robert Schenkkan composed on crunch deadline Building the Wall to address what he saw as the imminent dangers of Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore made his Broadway debut in The Terms of My Surrender, a thrown-together variety show intended to buck up the resistance’s morale. And in Central Park this summer, the Public Theater’s production of Julius Caesar gave Caesar and Calpurnia Trump and Melania makeovers to raise political parallels that were ludicrously misinterpreted by those on the far right who had obviously never read (or properly understood) Shakespeare’s play.
McNulty meant that in Julius Caesar, the death of Caesar is not the central drama. But he should recall The New York Public Theatre's own website summarized the Trump/Caesar plot as “Magnetic, populist, irreverent, he seems bent on absolute power. A small band of patriots, devoted to the country’s democratic traditions, must decide how to oppose him." So who was turning Shakespeare on his head?
The Times critic failed to muster the moral imagination to go outside the plot and imagine if someone staged this play with an actor playing Obama being stabbed to death to "buck up the morale" of Obama opponents. Can he really say it would be "ludicrous" to object, that this might seem to cheer a current assassination?
McNulty didn't say everyone in the theater community should be making agitprop, that providing an escape in troubled times has its place. But he winds his way back to Trump-bashing when considering the creative fictional worlds in novels and plays:
It’s troubling to read reports that President Trump, an avid TV watcher, has little inclination for reading. But even more disturbing is the impossibility of imagining him ever sitting down with a novel. America’s first reality TV president seems to lack not only the intellectual curiosity but the essential humility to give himself over to an experience that, on the surface, has nothing to do with him.
Still, theatre critics have a strange habit of thinking the country's finest visionaries are actors and the people who put words in their mouths:
The word “theater” derives from an Ancient Greek word meaning “behold,” and the stage is fundamentally a place of vision, a medium where ways of seeing are transformed.
Identifying with characters who are both like us and not like us, whose individual qualities turn out to be a subset of the universal, is a necessary corrective to the solipsistic ruts that human beings regularly fall into. Empathy is a muscle that must be regularly exercised, and there’s no better gymnasium than the theater to keep it from atrophying....
The survival of our species, after all, is contingent on culture. In his 2004 book “Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?” written during the martial drumbeat of post-9/11 anxiety, Harold Bloom issued a stern caution: “Reading alone will not save us or make us wise, but without it we will lapse into the death-in-life of the dumbing down in which America now leads the world, as in all other matters.”
Today would seem to be a prime time for agitprop. Bring on the rabble-rousers, the worrywarts and the grievance peddlers, I say. Preaching to the choir isn’t the grave sin some critics would have us believe. (Even the most fervent choruses need bolstering from time to time.) And more power to those who want to appeal to Trump loyalists in an attempt to, if not convert them, at least respectfully grapple with their convictions.
Now just try transforming these sentences into Michael Moore. He is the "muscle of empathy," and the best hope for "the survival of our species"? Michael Moore and his ilk ask conservatives to "respectully grapple with their convictions"? Preaching to the choir often means expressing contempt for the "idiots" who voted the wrong way. They have put democracy in "crisis."
In fact, the critics savaged Moore's Broadway foray: New York Times theater critic Jesse Green claimed it was “a bit like being stuck at Thanksgiving dinner with a garrulous, self-regarding, time-sucking uncle,” and Peter Marks of the Washington Post asserted that “Michael Moore should leave Broadway to the pros.” Marks called the play a “sloppy concoction” that is “less a jaunty excursion than an unvarnished ego trip."
In fact, that's pretty much what one Charles McNulty wrote:
I have no political beef with Moore. I have long admired the way he has fought on behalf of working people. But I found myself cringing at the self-congratulatory applause that would break out when he would utter one of his pieties. And I lost patience with the way he seemed to want both sympathy for being a victim of the right and adulation for being the champion of all mankind.
Earth to Charles: this is the way you all sound when you present the dramatists as the champions of all mankind.
It is a little funny to install a picture of the Clintons in this McNulty summary: "Picasso called art the lie that tells the truth, and in an era in which facts are shamelessly manipulated by politicians, fictional journeys can help develop within us an understanding that truth is an inquiry. Not all frauds are created equal. Motives count."
Liberals think their frauds help the country to grow. Their frauds are superior because they have the "muscle of empathy."
[HT: Gary H.]