If all the world really is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, how would Donald Trump’s White House tenure measure up as a work of theater? A review from our drama critic.
From its preposterous plot to its loony protagonist to its collection of too-weird-to-be-true supporting characters, “The Trump Presidency” strains credibility to the breaking point.
This unwieldy political drama stars one Donald J. Trump, whose ranting performance is so monotonously one-note it brings to mind Dorothy Parker’s crack about Katharine Hepburn: “Miss Hepburn runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” (Also, the orange-hued Trump really needs to have a heart-to-heart with his makeup artist.)
And his costars! Not since “Cats” has there been a creepier assemblage onstage. Rudy Giuliani, Lindsey Graham, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Roger Stone, Kayleigh McEnany, Bill Barr, Stephen Miller, Mike Pompeo, Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr. … For sheer horror, the denizens and doings of Trumpworld rival the Grand Guignol.
What’s missing from “The Trump Presidency” is a crucial ingredient of good drama: Someone to root for, or at least care about. It certainly isn’t Donald J. Trump, who comes across as a man with no limits and no shame. Trump is so underdeveloped as a character that we have trouble understanding the motivations for his seemingly arbitrary actions, much less his appeal to others.
I mean, we’re supposed to believe that a man with the intellectual curiosity of a turnip and the temperament of a colicky infant could somehow rise to the most powerful position in the world? And that in the middle of a pandemic he would publicly muse that maybe injecting disinfectants into the human body could help in the fight against a lethal virus? And that 72 million people would nonetheless choose to give him another four years at the head of their government, even as that virus raged unchecked? Talk about the Theater of the Absurd.
The curtain rises in Act 1 to reveal a sparsely populated stage that Trump noisily insists is filled to overflowing (“A bigger cast than ‘Hamilton’!” he claims). By the time the curtain closes at the end of Act 2, our protagonist is bleating that the entire evening has been “rigged” against him while attempting to pull off a preemptive coup.
What unfolds in between is a deranged spectacle — written, produced, and directed by Trump — that is loaded with broadsides against Democrats, the media, and that nettlesome phenomenon known as reality. It’s clear throughout that Trump wants us to see his protagonist the way King Lear saw himself, as “a man more sinned against than sinning.”
But the dialogue in “The Trump Presidency” is too wooden and repetitive to be persuasive. Whereas we are moved by Lear’s desperate plight as that embattled monarch howls on the heath, “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!,” Trump generates nothing BUT wind.
Scene after scene in “The Trump Presidency” shows the star bellowing at mask-free rallies that this, that, or the other thing is a “disgrace” or a “disaster” or “very unfair.” You sit there in the audience thinking, “Good Lord, man, avail yourself of a thesaurus!”
It’s as if Trump is determined to validate Philip Roth’s description of him as “wielding a vocabulary of seventy-seven words that is better called Jerkish than English.”
To be fair, “The Trump Presidency” does fulfill one requirement of compelling theater: That something significant must be at stake. In this case, democracy. So there are some cliffhanger thrills and chills along the way. Trump does manufacture plenty of conflict, a core component of drama.
But as both writer and director, he lacks any sense of pace or much instinct for coherent storytelling. Because the cascade of events in “The Trump Presidency” is so hectic and unmodulated, with one bizarre plot twist quickly followed by another and then another, he gives the audience little time to breathe, much less absorb the newest developments.
A hallmark of tragedy is that you feel a sense of loss at the protagonist’s downfall. What makes a tragic hero tragic is that he has the potential for either goodness or greatness. But because Trump has neither, “The Trump Presidency” is best understood as a tragicomedy. (If you doubt the comic part, I have two words for you: Four Seasons.)
Slotting the play into that category is not to downplay the nightmarish toll of the Trump years. After all, George Bernard Shaw — who knew a thing or two about the matter — once described tragicomedy as “a much deeper and grimmer entertainment than tragedy.” And the eminent critic and scholar Eric Bentley wrote, in his indispensable “The Life of the Drama,” that the function of the comic element in tragicomedy “is the exact opposite of comic relief, since it makes the tragic darkness grow still darker.”
During the Renaissance era, when the term tragicomedy first came into general use, its defining quality was, in the view of 20th-century philosopher Susanne Langer, “tragedy averted.” Bentley updated that formulation, writing that a principal type of tragicomedy in the modern era could be defined as “tragedy transcended.”
Tragedy transcended: Yep, that may be about the best we can hope for in America. At the moment, however, the producer and star of “The Trump Presidency” is refusing to post closing notices, even as the theater is being prepared for “The Biden Restoration.” Clearly it’s time to say to Trump and all of his miserable costars, in the words of Lady Macbeth: “Stand not upon the order of your going, but go at once.”