Wednesday, 10 January 2018

How Dramaturgy Explains Donald Trump

Back when Donald Trump was winning the race to become the President of the United States, a few articles suggested that a study of dramaturgy could explain how his campaign had been so successful. Thinking about Trump in terms of presentation rather than content – the manner in which he shaped his personality and speeches for public consumption might offer clues to his success. Around a year later, and he’s still in office, despite the public backlash, despite a series of tweets that seem to confirm his stupidity and divisive opinions. Yet the articles on dramaturgy have disappeared: perhaps people are too busy getting irritated by him to analyse his antics through theatre studies.

A little bit of theatre history might help, though. In Melodramatic Formations, Bruce McConachie discusses the celebrity of the melodramatic star Edwin Forrest. During the middle of the nineteenth century, Forrest embodied a passionate intensity, carrying on in a generally abrasive manner, even provoking a riot against a rival actor, the British star Macready in 1849. As it goes, the nineteenth century is full of riots that happened due to theatre performances: another British actor, Edmund Kean, was the victim of one in Boston, after he slighted American patriotism, and even the English got in on the act in the early years of the century with a protest against a rise in seat prices. It’s a far cry from a bunch of Christian evangelists handing out leaflets outside the Tron during Glasgay! (and even those protests have waned in recent years).

The general mayhem aside, Forrest had a certain ability to provoke. He beat the hell out of a man whom he suspected was up to stuff with his wife, and ended up in the divorce courts where his behaviour – coarse and violent – was condemned and his wife absolved of guilt. The public response was to turn up at his next performance and cheer him. McConachie wryly observes that Forrest became a national hero, regardless of his personal obnoxiousness. In fact, he was celebrated as a straight-talking man of the people.

Like many of the nineteenth century thinkers, Forrest loved Napoleon, even posing like him for portraits and wondering whether a play about Spartacus could include a reference to the Corsican Emperor. The melodramas which made his name cast him as the Big Man, a hero willing to get his hands dirty and fight for freedom, personal and political. Critics identified his personality with the characters he played: here was the archetypal melodramatic performer, who imbued his roles with his own passion. There might have complaints about the star system – McConachie observes that it operated as a form of economic oppression for everyone else in the company – but it drove American theatre to become a juggernaut in the social sphere, earning the big money through big emotions and big enthusiasm.

Forrest’s status prefigures the celebrity cults of the twenty-first century: while Beyoncé doesn’t have the same ridiculous violence associated with his personal life (Forrest whooped people’s asses), the blurred boundary between her art and life echoes the adulation of Forrest. Far from being the result of social media and technology, idol worship has been a feature of American culture for at least two hundred years. The film studios have given society a stream of celebrities – Mae West, Buster Keaton, Clint Eastwood, Kim Basinger, Jack Nicholson, Kevin Spacey, Harrison Ford, Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps the star system, originating in the melodramatic theatre, remains the push behind American endeavour: it certainly fits with the great monomyth of the USA, the pioneer spirit resolving into the entrepreneurial individualist. Even the plastic arts had a go, when Abstract Expression was funded by the CIA to become the Great American Art Form in the 1950s, with Jackson Pollock, another man of questionable personal integrity, became the hero of the paint-brush.

And so back to Trump. Trump himself enjoys pushing the myth of his individualism, and many protests buy into his vision: here is a unique man, nothing like those other Presidents, with a unique set of characteristics and prejudices. Never mind that he appeals to a mythical past when America was great and social values were settled. Never mind that he is a populist, suggesting that plenty of people share or admire his values: Trump is sui generis.  

The President as celebrity, however, is hardly new: Obama played with it, using self-consciously iconic posters in his campaign and appearing on television – once mocking Donald Trump’s tweets. Bill Clinton, whom Trump uses as an excuse for his predatory sexual behaviour, used show-business to hide his actual politics and misdemeanours. And Ronald Reagan was an actor before he was President. Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns (1986), aside from reinventing Batman as a brutal vigilante, commented on an America dominated by media and, in the sequel, pictured the President as a computer programme, manipulated by evil men and providing a stream of empty aphorisms. The finale of Dark Knight features a thinly-disguised Reagan, speaking like a cowboy and sending Superman to deal with Batman while admitting that a bit of revolution helps to maintain the illusion of democracy. Ontoerend Goed’s Fight Night exposes the mechanism behind voting and demonstrates how image can be more important than substance. The victory of the celebrity is predicted by both performance and comic book – and its inevitably.

The problem with seeing Trump as another manifestation of an American historical trend is, of course, that it ignores the detail of his policies and personality. The former, at least, is what politics is supposed to be about, and some kind of moral integrity is expected in elected officials. It taps into the kind of cynicism found in Society of the Spectacle, which regards society itself as a corrupted matrix of illusions, demanding a deep change of consciousness and refusing to be distracted by the surface corruptions. Trump becomes a symptom rather than the illness. 

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