By John Grant
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
- MacBeth, Act 5, Scene 5
He may not be a very honorable man and he may not lead the most efficient or wisely-run White House, but he sure knows how to act and how to play a fascist on TV. I think this would be the conclusion of the great, deceased playwright Arthur Miller, author of Death of a Salesman, The Crucible and a brilliant little book titled On Politics and the Art of Acting. Miller’s little gem was published in 2001 and was inspired by the election debacle of 2000, an election that a comedian recently pointed out did not suffer from Russian interference; the thumb-on-the-scale interference in that election was home-based and patriotic, provided by a conservative United States Supreme Court.
I watched the Trump State Of the Union speech on a large cinematic screen at a bar on the Mainline in Philadelphia, part of a “watch party” put on by an environmental activist group my wife works with. With a couple tequilas under my belt, let me tell you, it was total theater of the sort Miller and Shakespeare would appreciate. In this case, it was also a bit like a midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with hoots and boos and wisecracks from the assembled audience, all of whom scorned the leading man on the stage. As was often done in the old days of theater, in this case, no one threw rotten tomatoes at the performance. One woman did don earmuffs.
“The mystery of the leader-as-performer is as ancient as civilization but in our time television has created a quantitative change in its nature; one of the oddest things about millions of lives now is that ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are so surrounded — one might say, besieged — by acting.” This is how the second paragraph of Miller’s book begins. He goes on to say: “I can’t imagine how to prove this, but it seems to me that when one is surrounded by such a roiling mass of consciously contrived performances it gets harder and harder for a lot of people to locate reality anymore.”
This from a man who found it literally impossible to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s path as a businessman, who thus gravitated to the theater and wrote a classic tragedy about an ordinary traveling salesman. Critics said this was impossible; you couldn’t have classic tragedy where the protagonist was not a king or a general, whose tragic fall (caused, of course, by his own decisions and character flaws) was not from a grand and worthy height for great theater, as was associated with Sophocles and Shakespeare. Miller’s Willie Loman was too pedestrian, too common — like most of the people in the audience…
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