Hard Truths or Easy Targets? Confronting the Summer of Trump Onstage

Hard Truths or Easy Targets? Confronting the Summer of Trump Onstage

I can’t recall a night at the theater as electric as the performance of “Julius Caesar” in the park that was halted when a protester stormed the stage and had to be escorted out. Was that a sign of theater’s power? A misreading of Shakespeare? Both?

JESSE GREEN That “Caesar” was electric in part because it was the very rare recent instance of a play exciting the interest of a world it mostly fails to engage. But be careful what you wish for. The theater may not really want so much excited attention, especially where touchy funders are involved.

ALEXIS SOLOSKI Theater mattered — in wrong and terrible ways. And that felt so emblematic of the moment: I don’t think the protesters were reacting to the play or even the Public’s somewhat confrontational staging. If they’d read to the end or stayed to the end, they would have seen that yes, a group of conspirators assassinate a power-hungry Caesar, who in this production was styled like Trump, but the conspirators pay for that action dearly. It’s a cautionary tale.

BEN BRANTLEY What’s sad, in terms of the level of our national conversation, is that the image of Trump-Caesar post-stabbing, his suit splattered with blood, quickly became a Pavlovian meme, like the picture of Kathy Griffin with Trump’s severed head. The question is, have we seen anything that isn’t conducted on the quick-take insult level of Mr. Trump’s tweets?

GREEN It’s the quick-take part I worry about. “Building the Wall” imagined a near-future landscape of concentration camps and immigrant death centers in the Southwest. Hastily written to express the author’s outrage at the new administration, it was thin as drama and old-hat as polemic. Its audiences already had worse thoughts. It was scare-baiting the converted.

Here’s what one of those audience members had to say on the website Show-Score: “The writers are trying to frighten Americans into believing we are headed for Nazi fascism... This show went from being realistic to the twilight zone, making it counter productive.” Interesting to consider that comment after the white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, but also worth exploring more deeply how politically engaged theater can be “productive.” Or should it aim to be at all?

SOLOSKI I go back and forth between thinking: Theater doesn’t matter! We should all be out in the streets! Or running for office! Or weeping at our kitchen tables! But I’m still looking for plays to help me understand the moment. So far, explicitly political theater hasn’t done that for me. You?

GREEN Nope, none. Some shows comforted me with commiseration, or made me laugh, but no real news, emotionally or otherwise.

BRANTLEY Agreed. The (aspiringly) timely production of “1984,” was meant, I think, to cause us to find parallels with the direction in which we are headed, but I can’t say it did that for me. (A friend of mine said, “Trump is Little Brother, for God’s sake!”) But if we go back to the spring on Broadway, there was Lynn Nottage’s “Sweat,” a portrait of blue-collar discontent in Pennsylvania. No matter what you thought of the play as a work of art, it did try to dig into the mind-set of people who would vote for Trump.

SOLOSKI I had a warmer response to the play and I did wonder about its closing. Was it too soon for audiences to want to know these people, to feel sympathy with them? Would the play have felt more comfortable if the election had gone another way?

GREEN I think you may be right, Alexis. Its analysis of the conditions that led to the Trump victory was less compelling somehow when it in essence proved true.

Leave analysis to the editorial page for now. Shouldn’t theater offer drama? Catharsis?

BRANTLEY Yes, but I don’t experience catharsis unless I’m startled into feeling more deeply than I do just reading the headlines on my phone.

SOLOSKI That was the problem most of us critics had with the Michael Moore show. During the election he had some pretty probing arguments, but “The Terms of My Surrender” boiled down to: Annoy Trump. Also, make some calls. Book-ended by two hours of self-aggrandizing stories. It was like one endless victory lap. And Michael Moore hadn’t even won.

GREEN We are talking about fundamental problems of political theater in a moment when politics has become more incredible than anything the stage can deliver. So while I crave drama that makes its points through the traditional — and I would argue longer-lasting — means of character and conflict, I’m not sure that anything in that vein can do what “Angels in America” and “The Normal Heart” did during the height of the AIDS epidemic or, for that matter, what “A Raisin in the Sun” and other seminal civil rights dramas did to change the way Americans — or white Americans anyway — looked at racism.

SOLOSKI Maybe theater will. But not soon. In the meantime try topping Scaramucci for comedy or Charlottesville for tragedy.

BRANTLEY I keep thinking of the Odets plays of the Great Depression — the pro-union drama “Waiting for Lefty” and “Awake and Sing” — or the musical “The Cradle Will Rock” that had audiences on their feet and, by all accounts, energized in the name of a cause. What’s happening now are plays of affirmation for middle-class theatergoers (is that the only kind?) who don’t want to be challenged in their melancholy and anger.

SOLOSKI But even they don’t want to be bored or condescended to. I hope.

There was no MSNBC or Twitter in Odets’s time. Perhaps politically engaged theater for the 24-hour news cycle demands a different intensity?

SOLOSKI That’s why we have “Saturday Night Live,” right? For the hot take and the gut laugh.

GREEN No theater I’ve seen has been as trenchant as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock were on “S.N.L.” right after the election. By comparison the theater has been comforting the miserable and cheerleading for future action, which are legitimate. “Me the People” was clumsy in its satire but a lot of fun in its fury. The highlight was when a Hillary figure led the audience in an epithet-laden singalong of a Cee Lo Green song — the epithets aimed at the president.

BRANTLEY I suppose there is cathartic value in swinging a bat at a piñata of the Enemy. But that could happen just as easily in a theme night at a bar.

O.K., no theatrical “anger rooms.” But can each of you share a moment from this stage summer that held thoughtfulness and anger in the right balance?

SOLOSKI None for me so far. For that sense of force and engagement, I think about the women’s march, that sea of pink pussy-hatted women and men crowding the U.N. plaza. Millions of us were actors that day. It wasn’t a play, but it was cathartic.

BRANTLEY For me, that happened at the Almeida Theater in London, in James Graham’s “Ink,” a play in which Trump’s name wasn’t mentioned. It was about Trump’s buddy Rupert Murdoch, the Australian media czar, in his first years in London in the late ‘60s, when he revitalized The Sun. And at a certain point, I realized that Murdoch’s populist press created the social media landscape that made Trump possible.

GREEN The further away from the chaotic, unknowable figure of Trump a play got, the better — that is, the more successfully political — it was. In the drama “While I Was Waiting,” about the destruction of Damascus during Syria’s civil war, the political was never absent but rather hovered ghostlike around a domestic story. And “Master,” about the legacy of “Huckleberry Finn” for black artists, reframed my thinking about racism more than anything that aimed at that subject directly.

What about that “Julius Caesar”? With a little distance, how do you think the production holds up?

BRANTLEY The best part of that “Julius Caesar” was what happened after the initial crowd-baiting presentation of Caesar as Trump. Oskar Eustis, the director, did a good job of keeping the show tight and fleet-footed, and suddenly — as Alexis pointed out — if you were paying attention, what had seemed like a hoot suddenly became a sobering admonition.

GREEN Scheduling and producing the play that way was a master stroke of judging the New York moment. But it’s not a template going forward. Artists and producers are going to have to figure out how to engage Trumpism without being merely opportunistic. Last weekend I saw a one-man show called “Trump Lear” in a flyspecked grotty grotto of a theater on St. Marks Place. In the show, “Trump” interrogates the author, David Carl, a Trump impersonator, about the value of his work. It’s quite damning. “You do over 100 impressions Carl,” he says. “You could have done a show about anyone, and you picked me for one simple reason. I put butts in seats Carl … I have employed you, and thousands of artists like you, and you should all be thanking me!”

SOLOSKI Should we? I dunno. And it’s not like white male actors were the ones hurting for work pre-Trump. I’ve noticed that nearly all of the responses have been by white men and in some ways for white men. Of course I’m curious about what Tony Kushner will do with all of this. David Hare, too. But what about Suzan-Lori Parks or Dominique Morisseau or Robert O’Hara or Ayad Akhtar? We haven’t yet been hearing from artists who are part of the communities Trump is working against.

BRANTLEY What I want is a play that actually offers insights into a man who is, let’s face it, a real character. I learn more about Trump’s inner workings from the nuances of Alec Baldwin impersonating him than I do from anything I’ve seen on a stage.

SOLOSKI But I don’t think we can put a moratorium on political plays until everyone has a chance to cool their respective jets. Whether or not this will exhaust ticket buyers, that’s another question. In the meantime, what deserves to be revived and will speak to the moment? Ben, I know you and I would both like to see “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”

BRANTLEY Hell, yeah. Any show that begins with a song about populism being born of rejection captures the anger and disaffection of a time that is much like our own.

GREEN No no no. Puerile humor we already have plenty of. I want mature complexity, which is to say I want to see anything by Caryl Churchill. She finds ways of embedding political terror in ordinariness, which is what life is beginning to feel like. Or, for some, has always felt like.

BRANTLEY Sarah Kane, please. Her pain and rage, conveyed in portraits of individual-crushing worlds, grabs you in way more obvious satire can never do.

SOLOSKI “Richard III.” “The Madness of King George.” “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui.” Maybe Wallace Shawn’s “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” a play about creeping fascism. (Yup. More white guys.)

BRANTLEY Might I hover briefly on a moment I’m feeling nostalgic for? I’m talking about 2015, when “Hamilton” opened on Broadway and the world — by which I mean different classes, different ages, and even people who are not classic theatergoers — seemed united in its enthusiasm for a musical that celebrated diversity on so many different levels. The night when cast member Brandon Victor Dixon addressed audience member Mike Pence from the stage during curtain calls (on the subject of inclusiveness) remains for me the most important conversation about the Trump presidency that the theater has initiated.

SOLOSKI Do you think that changed Pence’s mind, or even rattled him momentarily?

BRANTLEY I doubt it changed Mike Pence’s political views, but it was in fact a dialogue starter, and done in the context of a musical that had captured national attention and good will. Are we going to be changing hearts and minds via any art form at this moment? I doubt it, sadly and sincerely.

GREEN Perhaps the theater can arm or armor hearts to fight and survive nontheatrical battles.

SOLOSKI Put down the sippy cup, take up the (metaphorical) sword!

You’re sounding like Michael Moore himself, who shared his hopes for his show with a Times reporter: “I think people will find themselves laughing one minute and wanting to go look for some pitchforks and torches the next.”

BRANTLEY Call me sappy, but I would most like a play that makes us all ask questions about how we got to where we are, rather than one that underscores entrenched hate and disgust.

Easy to joke, understandable to despair. But as we’re having this conversation, over my computer I’m watching scenes from Charlottesville on CNN. Isn’t it a moral imperative for artists to engage, engage, engage?

BRANTLEY Yes, but that doesn’t have to mean inflame, inflame, inflame.

SOLOSKI Would Charlottesville have been solved by engagement? By theater?

GREEN I don’t criticize any of these artists for trying — except maybe Mr. Moore, who was pulling a narcissistic bait-and-switch. But if we are dreaming of theater that can successfully engage our moment, we’re going to have dream better, and probably longer.

Tell those artists how to do it better. And remember, you’re fighting for their attention.

SOLOSKI Startle us. Surprise us. Make us want to do and know more.

GREEN Confuse us with contradictions we hadn’t considered. Leave the rest to the comics; they do it better.

BRANTLEY There you have encapsulated the playwright’s dilemma, Scott. Fast and furious is for Twitter, not theater.