Playbill

Playbill
Federal Theatre Project, NYC: "It Can't Happen Here"

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Trump and Theatre History

Call me irresponsible, if you like, think of me as on hallucinogens, but among the many many thoughts I have about Donald Trump, most of them unfit to print, a few very different theatrical productions from the past come to mind; one based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, another a production of Richard III starring Sir Ian McKellen, and last but not least...wait for it..., a number in The Sound of Music (from the play, NOT the movie).

Have I got the attention of my theatrical friends? A few at least?

The Donald is nothing if not theatrical. He is a lot of other things too, but let's focus here on Trump and Theatre. His statements on just about everything are melodramatic, and of course his entrance at the Republican (Republican?) Convention (Convention?), dry ice and all, are just a few examples of his theatrical flair (BAD theatre at that). 

So, stroll back with me into history. In 1935 Sinclair Lewis, a political, sometimes polemical American novelist of the last century, wrote a novel called It Can't Happen Here. The plot involves a "populist" candidate for the presidency of the US, Buzz Windrip, who easily defeats others, including FDR (!) and wins! He takes complete control of the government and establishes a totalitarian state, enforced by his secret police, named the "Minute Men." I leave it for you to find out how the novel ends - I'm no spoiler! 

In the following year the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), one of my favorite movements in all the history of theatre, produced a theatrical adaptation of the novel, which in true FTP style opened in 17 different states, at 21 different theatres, all on the same night. 

This of course at a time when for some at least (not nearly enough), the writing was already on the wall. Nazis and Fascists in Europe were expanding their nightmarish regimes. The connection of Windrip to fascism should be obvious. But most critics of the day found a closer connection, of Windrip as former governor and then current US Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, also a "populist", also a demagogue. Long had just decided to run for president against...FDR. I won't tell you why he didn't complete his run for the White House, but you can look him up if you like. Quite the figure! Again, for many Americans the connection was clear.

A film of it was in planning stages when it was squelched by producer Louis B Mayer, the Hays Commission (arbiters of what was and was not proper to be shown in a film) having warned him that the film might affect the German market. The Nazi government was delighted.

Not the greatest novel ever written, and hardly a brilliant play, but novel and play made their point, as political theatre should. And for me at least it resonates today. In fact I understand that a production is planned later this year (timing is everything) in the Berkshires, maybe? Sorry, but my days as a teacher of contemporary developments of theatre are a thing of the past.

A good bit later, in the early 199os Ian McKellen starred (and I mean STARRED) in a Royal National Theatre (RNT) production directed by Richard Eyre, of  Shakespeare's Richard III set in England in the 1930s. McKellen played the title tyrant as a fascist leader in general, and as Oswald Mosley, the real-life leader of British fascists at that time. It was made into a film in 1995, starring Mckellen again and featuring quite a cast, including Annette Bening and Robert Downey Jr. I saw both and found the stage production much more compelling, even though, despite McKellen's tremeous performance it was hardly the best effort of the RNT during that period. (Google Frank Rich's NY Times review for a good assessment.) The film seemed to me more about the trappings of the period than the plot, though McKellen's performance retained its brilliance - and scariness!

Okay, not a portrait of an American populist, but I see a resemblance, particularly in the shameless lies he tells, and the shameless as well as very dramatic manner in which McKellen plays him. "I am not in the giving mood today!" Still gives me chills.

Now for what may seem to some if not all of you a stretch. Again we're in the 1930s, this time in pre-WWII Austria. The theatrical production of The Sound of Music was to my mind a good bit more political than the film was. In terms of Trump, I have in mind one of the songs that was NOT featured in the film, so it may not jump out at you. The song is "No Way to Stop It" and it is sung early in the second act by Max and Elsa, joined bitterly by Captain von Trapp. I wasn't lucky enough to see the original production, but I'll bet Theodore Bickel did it brilliantly.

The song is not sung by a fascist tyrant, obviously.  Max and Elsa, realists/compromisers try to convince the Captain to moderate his views of Nazism and to bow to the inevitable Anschluss, which forcibly linked Austria to Germany.  The Captain swears that he will not bow his head to "men I despise." The song ends in wild variations on the ego, or as the lyrics have it, "I". One stanza, even though it is meant ironically in the play, just screams Donald Trump to me:

"So every star and every blazing planet,
And every constellation in the sky,
Revolves around the center of the universe,
That lovely thing called ' I '."

"I" - Donald Trump's favorite word! At the end of the song all three characters are all practically screaming "I, I, I!!!" But they can't Trump the Donald.