“It’s all just political theatre.”
No, it’s not.
As a grouchy and dyspeptic bald guy, one would think I have plenty of pet peeves. I honestly don’t. As a rule I can listen to
hours of senseless chatter with total equanimity. I can attend to endless harrumphing and gassing from political chatterboxes of every stripe with no trouble at all.
My wife, who was named after the Blessed Virgin, is a far better person than I. When she hears a gasbag utter the smallest lie or disingenuous
remark, she flies into righteous anger. She can’t take the dissembling and mischaracterization that makes up the vast amount of American political talk. So you
can imagine what actual lies do to her. I, on the other hand, sit easy in an inner-world of quietude.
Except for one thing.
“It’s all just political theatre.”
With every election cycle (and in the U.S.A., we have elections every time you turn around) some wise-ass decides it’s time to pull out the
old chestnut about how this . . .THIS . . . .THIS is political theatre. Or, Congress decides to do something. Or not do something. It’s political theatre. Or, someone gives a
speech. It’s political theatre. And then when two or more politicians get together for a chat – all of a sudden we become experts in Asian theatre and
declare this is “kabuki” theatre.
(Let me note with gratitude Michele Volansky making the point in her article, “All the World’s a Campaign” in the September 2016
issue of American Theatre. The use of kabuki is so often used incorrectly. And, I would add, stupidly.)
Why do I get so upset at “political theatre?” Because it’s wrong. And it sets up theatre as something that it’s
The term “political theatre” is never used as a positive term. Its use is always pejorative. Even if used in the form of a
compliment (“He was great at the political theatre. . .”), it’s not a substantively positive attribute. It’s like complimenting someone for farting
less than usual.
Theatre – in this usage – is a place setter for the description of hollow spectacle. Spectacle without meaning or purpose.
And that’s not the theatre I know. And it’s not the political theatre that I know.
Real theatre – actual theatre – has dealt with politics since the beginning. When you have an army veteran writing a play that
centers on the enemy’s leaders and people, that’s political. When you write a play about a farcical means to stop a war with another people, that’s
political. Shakespeare’s plays are chock-a-block with politics real and imagined.
It’s truly odd to have the punditocracy talk about political theatre when one of the hottest tickets on Broadway now is a piece of real political theatre – Hamilton. Hamilton is a clever, and smart, and inspiring piece of theatre. It is full of politics old and new. Miranda cleverly encapsulates early American concerns in Washington’s Cabinet meetings. Miranda also addresses modern politics. In one number, Hamilton and Lafayette agree that immigrants get the work done.
The shows made by actual politicians may borrow from the theatre. They may attempt theatricality. They may try to achieve a certain kind
of spectacle. They may even try to communicate something that fits within a kind of narrative structure.
But none of these things are theatre in the usual sense that we mean when we want to see a play. Further, none of these things contribute to create the ends of theatre.
Theatre tells fictional stories. The characters may be real or historical, but the stories always remain fiction. There is no actual
reality to the theatre act. There is human truth, but it’s not real.
Political theatre, however, is all about reality. Usual the failed reality of our policies and our politics. And the politicians try to
use political theatre to gloss over the failed bits of our lives. So they’ll stand in front of a phalanx of flags. Or, they collect a group of screaming whoop-ers
to provide a soundscape of enthusiasm for nothing very exciting. The tricks of the trade are obvious for all to see. But that’s not theatre.
So, we all have a month to go through listening to Hillary and the Donald and the whole cast of surrogates, lesser lights, and toadies. And
then there will be the endless dissection by the Chris Matthews and Bill O’Reilly’s and Rush’s and Hannity’s and Chuck Todd’s of the
media-scape. There will be endless chatter. Social media will be crowded with endless opining about the debates and speeches and the never-ending effluvia of a campaign
Keep in mind one thing.
Theatre, finally, is about cutting through the malarkey like a drill and squarely addressing the truth of the human experience. On theatre
stage we show -- often in all of its painful glory (in comedy and tragedy) – the absolute truth of human relationships.
Politicians try to cover up the messiness of what it means to be human in actual human relationships. That’s why politicians can’t
ever acknowledge mistakes. They don’t want to acknowledge the absolute truth of human relationships in our public discourse and our politics. And certainly not
their very human mis-judgements.
They don’t have the guts.