Lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of Trump on the stage. And not just the soapbox from which he constantly delivers histrionic performances but also the artistic space of the theater.
This past weekend, two dramatic productions concluded their runs: Sophocles’s “Antigone” staged by Fairfield University and Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People” at the Yale Repertory Theater. Both “Antigone,” a fifth-century B.C. ancient Greek tragedy, and “An Enemy of the People,” originally penned in Norwegian in the 1880s, have historically been employed to comment on the place of morality and civic responsibility in resisting abuses of political authority. From Nazi-occupied France to post-revolutionary Egypt, these plays have resonated with audiences in cultures and eras far removed from their provenance. Given that politics and theater have always enjoyed a fruitful relationship, it is little wonder that these two recent productions have read a timely relevance to modern politics between the lines scripted by Sophocles and Ibsen.
Both productions affirm that the theater is not the “safe and special place” Trump has claimed it should be. Yet they approach this critique in vastly different ways: “Antigone” by explicitly portraying a character as a Trump-like figure, “An Enemy” by subtly evoking Trumpian language and modern politics in its translation and delivery. By far the more powerful interpretation, I found, was the latter.
The production of “Antigone,” motivated by a pro-feminist reading of Anne Carson’s new translation, staged Antigone as a defiant girl dressed — confusingly — to resemble Malala Yousafzai, facing off against the tyrannical Creon, who sported the infamous blond coif and matching mannerisms. Malala and Trump were cited by both cast and director as the stylistic reference for the characters, as a sort of archetypal pair: the strong woman versus the oppressive chauvinist. This decision came off as forced and perplexing onstage. Creon’s portrayal was clearly designed to evoke Trump’s misogyny, but it was unclear how the overt insertion of Trump advanced the play’s meaning or expanded on current thought about feminism. Instead, the play’s central antagonism was reduced to a vague and generic condemnation of male oppression.
By contrast, “An Enemy of the People” avoided the pitfalls of obvious references, singling out no figure in particular but instead striking broadly at the current state of political discourse. The plot unfolds a civic conflict between a tactless doctor determined to expose a dangerous truth at all costs and a mayor, allied with both conservative and liberal factions, determined to suppress him. The program provided an exposition of the exceedingly charged phrase “an enemy of the people,” recalling its use by Trump to attack the news media on Twitter in February. It also explored how leaders of oppressive political regimes, most notably Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, have historically used the phrase to dehumanize their opponents. With this in mind, the audience was able to recognize the intended allusion when the characters deployed the phrase against each other onstage.
And it was unsettling.
In the absence of a Trump, the performance’s focus turned to individual citizens and, indirectly, the broader consequences of the election. The audience was forced to reckon uncomfortably with how people, liberal and conservative, compromise the truth and behave hypocritically even in their convictions. I was stunned to see disturbing similarities between the characters and the sorts of people I have met in college. Billing, an unkempt, vocal anarchist who hypocritically applies for a government job, recalls the liberal who is a pro-communist hippie in college but ends up working at Goldman Sachs. Aslaksen, who constantly cries “majority” and “moderation” to avoid confrontation, recalls the conservatives who claim to be “centrist” to assert their superiority. Even the doctor, with whom I initially sympathized most, is single-minded and elitist in his pursuit of truth. All are fallible; there is no easy enemy.
This eerily prescient vision of modern-day politics would undeniably have been thwarted by a decision to stage Trump. Because Trump’s exaggerated behavior so easily invites us to ridicule, simply inserting him into the character of any tyrant figure does little to provoke real reflection on contemporary politics in the theater. Even productions that attempt to stage Trump more thoughtfully — such as the Public Theater’s performance of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” this summer — risk polarizing their audiences and delivering a one-dimensional message.
The best theater has always been a theater that forces us to think more critically about ourselves. It never simplifies but instead disturbs and complicates our beliefs about our own reality. Given that the modern theater world is a largely progressive and liberal milieu, its characteristically subversive streak is best kept alive when it provokes everyone in the room. Only then can the theater be truly unsafe.
Sherry Lee is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .