A dramatic president didn’t inspire great theatre

Trump's legacy was hardly one of artistic inspiration, writes John Nathan


US President Donald Trump speaks before boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on January 20, 2021. - President Trump travels to his Mar-a-Lago golf club residence in Palm Beach, Florida, and will not attend the inauguration for President-elect Joe Biden. (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN / AFP) (Photo by ALEX EDELMAN/AFP via Getty Images)

At the time of writing there was one more day of Trump. Or to use the words of the late, and already much missed Herbert Kretzmer One Day More.

The title of Kretzmer’s stirring Les Misérables anthem is also the recurring refrain in a heartfelt parody sung by James Corden, which ten hours after it was posted on YouTube clocked up over half a million eager views.

It shows a masked Corden walking jauntily into CBS’s Television City in Los Angeles, where a series of TV screens display a selection of Trump’s speeches.

“We had an election that was stolen from us,” declares the soon-to-be former President, before Corden wistfully chimes in with “One day more, the final day of Trump as President, the White House has a brand new resident…” which is almost Kretzmeresque in its eloquence.

The parody is an exuberant theatrical response to a man to whom theatre has conspicuously found it difficult to respond. Last year I asked Angels in America and Caroline or Change author Tony Kushner about how what he once described as his Trump play was coming on.

“It has transformed into something completely different,” he replied. “You can’t really write him as a dramatic character because it’s the machinery of transformation that makes a character dramatic. In other words the possibility that a character will improve or worsen in reaction to what has happened is really not there [in Trump] if there’s no core.”

He added, “There’s a kind of constancy with psychotic people like Trump. These people who float along in pursuit of one goal their entire life and without the fundamental curiosity or intellectual vitality to engage with the world because there is not a lot there.”

In other words their effect on the world may be calamitous and fascinating even. But as company they are deadly boring. Theatre opted instead to explore societal fissures around race with plays such as Fairview, while in America Heidi Schreck’s still streamable What the Constitution Means To Me explores the legal suppression of women by men, staged while the “grabber in chief” still occupied the White House.

Anne Washburn’s Shipwreck (2019) was the first real attempt to respond to Trump with dramatic seriousness. It was recently described by the New York Times as having “not aged well”, I disagree. With its demonic depiction of Trump and hand-wringing liberals it feels prophetic. Trump grew into something much closer to Washburn’s monster than most of us thought possible. And the uneasy feeling remains that it will prove more relevant than Corden’s parody for some time to come.

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