When pundits want to ridicule what they see as shallow displays of governance, or stunts on the campaign trail, they tend to resort to the same term. They call it political theatre.
The effect is to use theatre as a pejorative, which does the field no good at all. After all, if theatre is equated with empty speech or action, it suggests there’s no validity to what is being shown or said, no fundamental and meaningful core. Presumably, that core is what we would all like from our candidates and our elected officials, as well as from our theatre.
Yet, during the first day of the impeachment hearings in the US, NBC News sent out a tweet, linked to a larger story, bemoaning the lack of “pizazz” in the proceedings – as if a significant and potentially paradigm-shifting process should have top hats, tap shoes, and the all-important jazz hands.
It was resoundingly ridiculed as an absurd comment, evidence that the very sources that wail over political emptiness actually desire it.
The theatre metaphor was carried further two weeks ago when Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin sent a tweet, during the impeachment testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, wondering whether it would be “riveting enough for the ‘theatre critic’ school of journalism”. One suspects she was not prepared to get a response from an actual theatre critic, let alone the chief critic at her own paper.
If theatre is equated with empty speech or action, it suggests there’s no validity to what is being shown or said, no fundamental and meaningful core
Peter Marks tweeted at Rubin, writing: “This isn’t what real theatre critics do, Jennifer.” He followed up: “Stop, Mr and Ms Political Pundit, with the uninformed references to theatre critics.”
Elaborating in a phone conversation earlier this week, Marks said: “The basic mistake that’s being made is that theatre criticism occurs with someone watching a live performance, in the room with the person who is doing the performing. In these situations what these political pundits are talking about very often is their own medium – it’s really television criticism. This is performance that’s going on for the cameras.”
Marks has been writing a series of features where he spends a few days trailing presidential candidates to assess their actual performative style, often drawing parallels to characters from theatre – Joe Biden is Willy Loman, Elizabeth Warren is Marc Antony, Pete Buttigieg puts Marks in mind of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But he draws a distinction between what he’s writing and the casual denigration of theatre and theatre criticism.
“I am in the room with them,” says Marks, “watching their effect on an audience around them – how the audience affects them and they affect the audiences is part of the assessment. It’s not just about the idea of saying something outrageous that gets a response, which is essentially what these pundits are all often talking about.”
He adds: “The other thing that bothers me is that it becomes synonymous with superficiality. The idea that these pundits, and what they’re describing, is something on the surface that they’re ascribing to theatre criticism when, in fact, theatre criticism is the opposite. It’s trying to find out the meaning behind performance and what’s going on.”
New York Times columnist Charles M Blow played into the politics-as-theatre trope directly this Monday when he wrote: “Trump realised something that few people are willing to acknowledge: that politics is theatre first. It is about appearance and performance to a disturbing degree. People want a story, a vision, a fascinating protagonist. Politics loves a star.”
Despite that declaration, Blow’s comparison was more truly made between Washington and Hollywood, rather than Broadway or the West End, especially since the president has avoided anything that smacks of the arts, even skipping the annual Kennedy Center Honors. We were once threatened with an authorised Trump musical, but fortunately that never came to pass.
Marks is no doubt fighting an uphill battle, as am I, since theatre has long been a punch bag for political commentators.
A particularly awkward or insincere showing by a politician is labelled community theatre. The various formalised political rituals that candidates or officials must, or choose, to go through is derided as Kabuki theatre. These terms are thrown about by people who likely haven’t been to an amdram performance in years or ever seen traditional Japanese theatrical drama live.
However, if these commentators really want a dose of political theatre, then they can hustle over to New York’s Public Theater right now and get a helping of it thanks to Tony Kushner, whose substantially revised early work A Bright Room Called Day is currently playing in revival.
Originally written in a way that drew parallels between the rise of the Nazi party in Germany in the 1930s, and 1980s America under Ronald Reagan, the play has been updated and gained a new character in order to bring it into the present day and to invoke the current administration. It would be fascinating to see political commentators grapple with Kushner’s fearsome intellect and passion, to see them struggle for the right words with which to encapsulate it.
But in the meantime, maybe pundits could turn to another field, perhaps sports, for their shorthand terms, since sport is less rarified than the arts and consequently more accessible. Additionally, in the US for now, the president seems to have an affinity for stadiums and arenas. Of course, the commentators might opt for calling a political misstep a ‘bad play’. And that puts us right back to where we started. Sigh.
Diablo Cody, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Juno, is paired with the music of Alanis Morissette for the new Broadway musical Jagged Little Pill, inspired by the 1995 album. Focusing on a housewife and her efforts on behalf of her family, including her adopted African American daughter, the show is directed by Diane Paulus, and opens on Thursday.
It’s a busy fall season for playwright Will Eno. With the premiere of his play The Underlying Chris now running at New York’s Off-Broadway Second Stage in a production directed by Kenny Leon, he’ll have another premiere Thursday night at the Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut with The Plot, directed by Oliver Butler.
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/. A Bright Room Called Day runs at New York’s Public Theater until December 15