The bully has long been a familiar figure on film — Biff in “Back to the Future,’’ Regina George in “Mean Girls,’’ Scut Farkus in “A Christmas Story,’’ the jocks and queen bees of countless teen movies — and seeing them get their comeuppance has usually been a source of satisfaction for audiences.
Yet behaving like an archetypal high school bully has not seemed, at least until recently, to hurt the 70-year-old man who has been the snarling face of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Donald Trump cruised to the GOP nomination and dominated media coverage while ridiculing the stature of opponents, mimicking a reporter’s physical disabilities, disparaging Mexicans and Muslims, unleashing tough-guy rhetoric (“I wanted to hit a couple of those speakers so hard,’’ he said after the Democratic convention), and generally indulging his free-floating malice.
When Trump denigrated the grieving parents of a slain war hero, though, it appeared he might finally have to pay a political price. Inadvertently, Trump may have brought us to a cultural moment in which we make a serious effort to measure the real-life costs of bullying and try to figure out why bullies wield so much power, how much of that power is due to our acquiescence, what forces shape them, how we can stop them, and what, ultimately, it costs us — socially, spiritually — if we don’t.
As it happens, those are precisely the kind of urgent questions embedded in a host of current and recent stage productions, several of which examine the new forms that bullying takes in an age defined by a no-boundaries digital culture and marked by a college admissions process that encourages dog-eat-dog behavior. More broadly, there’s a sense in these productions of frayed connections and a loss of basic humanity that extends across age, ethnic, and demographic lines.
Bullies, their victims, and their legacies seem to be everywhere you look onstage in this Season of Trump. Williamstown Theatre Festival’s world premiere of the musical “Poster Boy’’ offers a searching examination of the 2010 suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi after he was subjected to cyberbullying. In Pittsfield, Barrington Stage Company’s production of Jiehae Park’s “Peerless’’ features a pair of ruthless high school twins who are so determined to get into “The College’’ (presumably Harvard or Yale) that they toy with, deceive, and even contemplate lethal action against the naive classmate who stands between them and admission.
In Company One Theatre’s current production of Natsu Onoda Power’s “The T Party,’’ a cross-dressing man tentatively hoping to find community online is instead subjected to mockery and abuse. In “Matilda the Musical,’’ presented in June by Broadway in Boston, schoolchildren and even their adult teacher were terrorized by the vicious headmistress Miss Trunchbull. In Gloucester Stage Company’s July production of Deborah Zoe Laufer’s “The Last Schwartz,’’ a woman — insecure about her standing in the family she married into — felt pushed around by her sister-in-law. In Berkshire Theatre Group’s “Little Shop of Horrors,’’ a deranged dentist verbally and physically abused his girlfriend, Audrey, and in “The Merchant of Venice,’’ now playing at Shakespeare & Company, the moneylender Shylock is repeatedly vilified and subjected to open anti-Semitism.
What’s striking about the newer works, especially “Poster Boy’’ and “Peerless,’’ is the window they open onto how bullying is perpetrated — and experienced — in an era of rapid social, economic, and technological change. In their depictions of means and motives and the way their characters see their place in the world, these productions feel very much of the moment.
The main characters in “Peerless,’’ at Barrington Stage, view the future as something that can be snatched away from them (chords of entitlement and victimization that Trump has expertly played during his campaign). Park’s play is a parable of resentment leading to dehumanization, a kind of cautionary tale that suggests the pressure-cooker of competition to get into the best colleges — such a dominant fact of life for high schoolers today — can, in very extreme circumstances, turn kids into bullies and even monsters.
“Peerless’’ unfolds in a suburban high school in the Midwest, where a pair of maniacally overachieving twin sisters are stunned when their well-laid plan to get into “The College’’ runs into a glitch. One of the sisters had deliberately stayed back a year; their idea was that one would get into “The College,’’ and then the other would ride her legacy coattails the next year. But a sensitive, formerly overweight boy in their class (who had attempted suicide not long before) is accepted there instead.
“Usurped by a no-good, no-talent, no-brain-fat-[expletive]’’ spits out one sister, identified only as M. Adds the other sister, identified only as L: “He’s nothing. No, less than. If nothing is zero, he’s like negative a million.’’ So they set out, with chilling deliberation, to exploit his weakness and social inexperience — and his severe allergy to tree nuts. Whereas the prototypical bully is after a sense of power, these sisters are after access to power, and also status — and also, in their very twisted way, a sense of security.
In “Poster Boy,’’ Tyler Clementi is not bullied with staredowns or punches but rather with a few clicks on a desktop, underscoring the vulnerability that comes with our deep immersion in the digital realm. Created by Craig Carnelia (music and lyrics) and Joe Tracz (book), “Poster Boy’’ tells the story of Clementi, an 18-year-old who killed himself by leaping from the George Washington Bridge just days after his college roommate used a webcam to secretly observe Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room.
Drawing from court documents and the public record to use the actual words of Clementi and others, “Poster Boy’’ starkly illustrates the level of detachment and diminution of empathy that may be one of the byproducts of digital culture, making bullying easier than ever. Although Clementi and his roommate, Dharun Ravi, are usually no more than 10 feet from each other, they don’t talk, they don’t get to know each other.
The musical revolves around the efforts by a group of gay men in an online chat room to follow the clues that might solve the puzzle of Clementi’s suicide, to ascertain, as one of the men sings, “Whoever might have called him a name/ Whoever might have filled him with shame.’’ They also seek to find the answer to a broader question: “Who was Tyler before he was news?’’
The news accounts told this tale: First, the roommate, Ravi, tweeted out a message to friends about Clementi: “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.’’ Then Ravi tweeted again, urging friends to watch that night, when he planned to train the webcam again on what he expected to be another encounter between the two. According to later testimony by a police detective, Clementi saved screenshots of those two tweets and checked Ravi’s Twitter account nearly 40 times in the two days prior to his death.
Tellingly, the chat-room participants in “Poster Boy’’ have to cope with some bullying themselves, by a hate-filled interloper who invades their space. A question that hovers over the musical: Will the men in the chat room find the courage to come out from behind their online aliases — to no longer let themselves be bullied into anonymity by their own fears or insecurities — and get to know one another as flesh-and-blood human beings?
For all the different approaches to the wrenching, all-too-topical subject of bullying taken by “Poster Boy,’’ “Peerless,” “The T Party,’’ and the other productions, their underlying message is similar: How we treat one another matters, a lot. That’s true of face-to-face encounters, online interactions, and even a presidential campaign.