IIf you want to satirize a figure of power or a political movement, you automatically turn to Shakespeare. The history of theater is littered with examples. In 1937, Orson Welles staged a Julius Caesar in a modern dress that evoked the worlds of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. In 1941, Bertolt Brecht used Richard III as a model for his anti-Hitler The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. In 1966 MacBird! by Barbara Garson! boldly suggested that Lyndon Johnson was a modern Macbeth implicated in JFK’s death. It’s no surprise, then, that writers and directors turn to the Bard to portray Donald Trump.
The current example is Mike Bartlett’s The 47th at the Old Vic, which uses King Lear, Julius Caesar, and Richards II and III to try to nail the Trump phenomenon: while highly ingenious, it is unlikely to spark controversy. The reverse happened when, in 2017, the New York Public Theater’s annual summer production of Shakespeare in the Park was a Julius Caesar in which the tyrant was a blonde figure with a Slovenian-accented woman: a conspirator a even argued that the Romans loved him so much they would forgive him “if Caesar had stabbed their mothers on Fifth Avenue”. Such was the uproar over the assassination of the Trump-like Caesar that two of the Public Theater’s sponsors withdrew their support. This production figures prominently in a book by Jeffrey R Wilson unequivocally titled Shakespeare and Trump.
I can understand the temptation to turn to the man from Stratford to explain the disruptive politician from Queens. My problem is that Trump lacks the thought, rhetoric, political savvy and psychological complexity of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and iconic kings. When Bartlett was writing King Charles III, it was possible to believe that our future monarch would suffer the crises of conscience of his Shakespearean ancestors. In the case of The 47th, it takes all the skill of the brilliant Bertie Carvel to persuade us that Trump is a dramatically compelling protagonist.
The more Bartlett’s Trump mimics the irony of Mark Antony or the demonism of Richard III, the more aware you become of the gap between the politician and the prototype. Bartlett’s Trump is at its best when, again in blank verse, he attacks Kamala Harris for the Democrats’ failure to listen to people’s needs. “You talk to them like children,” he told her. “And not just children, but children poorer and less beautiful / Children trash than you and your celebrities / All constant sermons from your elevated pile.” It hits home. But, while Bartlett’s play is fun and reads well, I was struck by the fact that the real Shakespearean parallel to Trump is not among kings and emperors, but in the figure of Parolles in Everything Is well that ends well: a hollow braggart who adopts a leering tone of curiosity towards women (“Are you pondering virginity?” he asks Helena) and who lies to get off the hook.
So how do you dramatize Trump? Four years ago, Tony Kushner announced he was writing a play about him: After calling Trump a borderline psychotic, Kushner went on to say that “he’s really, really boring,” and so far nothing has happened. emerged. My hunch is that you either have to approach Trump on his own terms – as a man who treats politics as a form of performance art – or you have to analyze the source of his appeal rather than the man himself. .
In the first category I would place a Harold Pinter sketch, The Pres and an Officer, which premiered as part of Jamie Lloyd’s 2018 season of Pinter’s short plays. In the sketch, we saw a Jon Culshaw with an orange complexion and extravagant hairstyles, in a fit of anger, ordering the destruction of London under the mistaken impression that it was the capital of France. The other method, of examining why people actually voted for Trump, was pursued by a number of writers in a show called Top Trumps staged by 503 Theater in 2017. One particular play by Christopher Adams was simply a verbatim interview with the writer’s mother about why she thought Trump would make her and the nation safer: Mark Lawson in his review said the play should be taught in creative writing classes as an example of how to explore viewpoints with which the writer disagrees.
But if any play explained Trump’s America, it was Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, written in 2015 before his election and set in a Pennsylvania town in 2000. Through diligent research and careful listening, Nottage explored what she called “the American disindustrial revolution”. and the anger and desperation that greeted rising unemployment and a steel company’s proposal that everyone take a 60% pay cut to save the plant. Trump was never mentioned, but Nottage’s piece did more than parody and satire to explain his electoral success. Shakespeare himself, of course, had an expression for this process: “Through detours find directions.”