I seem to have lost my sense of humour. It’s to do with Donald Trump. Yes, yes – I’ve tried very hard to put him out of my mind and even harder not to write about him – but I can’t do it. The man pervades my life. He gives me minor depression and major rage. Sometimes he makes me laugh in that way we novelists often use to denote irony and scorn, he makes me laugh hollowly. I find him, like snakes, repellent and fascinating at the same time. I cannot look away from him – his tiny dogs’-bum mouth that makes such peculiar shapes, his little gestures with his little hands that look like he is orchestrating his audience (and is) – his expression that I think he thinks shows gravitas and intelligence but which actually looks like a man undergoing serious dyspepsia (perhaps he is) or planning to hire a hitman. But the worse thing of all is that he has a way of delivering statements – about Mexican Walls (didn’t I do one of those at a recent 50th birthday party?) – about healthcare, about ex-Ku Klux Klan members, about abortion rights – in a confident bar-nothing voice that he then underlines with ingratiatingly low key phrases like ‘Yes we will, folks’ and ‘It’s gonna happen’ and ‘I will do that’ – which chill the blood. There is something of the night about the way he delivers these little add-ons that leaves me weak with fear. He will do these things, folks, you’d better believe it – and we will suffer for it.
Sorry to go on but Trump’s Chief Adviser, Steve Bannon, chairs a news outfit called Breitbart which has tasty headlines like ‘Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy’. And which uses offensive phrases like ‘Renegade Jew’ to describe a political opponent. And who has had his appointment endorsed by the head of that delightful outfit that does so much for the white cotton industry and the pleasure of flaming torches, the Ku Klux Klan. Oh My God. You see, I can’t keep away from the horror of it all. Bannon will pass stuff to Donny for signature and Donny – who says he doesn’t have time to read long things (!) will sign them. Let us not speculate on what a far, far, far right apologist might or might not do. One hopes it will not involve yellow stars.
But it struck home yesterday just how much Trump and his Team has taken away my ability to see the funny, lighter side – and that was when I was leafing through the Sunday Times Style Magazine. At best it usually makes me smile at the silliness of it all, and sometimes it makes me laugh out loud – particularly when I see those poor, grim-faced, ill looking young things (otherwise known as models) standing there, or walking the walk, and wearing absurd things like watermelons around their necks or jackets made of fishbones or torn blankets that are to be worn as overcoats. The men glare as if they want to poison the world and the women glare as if they have. But it is all good fun and I never look at the prices or it wouldn’t be fun any more. Nobody is expected to wear those outfits and common sense says that when those glarers remove their trumperies (oh dear, there it goes again) – they are perfectly normal, sentient beings, who wear jeans and a sweatshirt and like a pizza (albeit a small one, well – a tiny one, perhaps). And you, the dear reader, move on, smiling. And there’s usually an article or two to tickle the fancy. This Sunday was no different. There was Claudia Winkleman, a woman whom I have a lot of time for, and whose column I generally enjoy in an ‘Oh come off it’ way – and the headline was something about ‘Can we still wear kitten heels?’ Which, no doubt, was written with much irony. But – and here is where the Trump influence kicked in – I couldn’t read it. It was like ashes to my eyes. Who cares about kitten heels when Trump is in the White House and Bannon is advising him? I can’t any more. Come to that, who cares about Johnny Depp’s profligacy? Or broccoli at five pounds a pop. Let them eat cake.
But I will strive to get my sense of humour back, and I will balance my view of the world with my love of the lighter side of life, I will again manage to take my pleasure in the silly things that light a candle in the darkness. Oh yes folks, I will do that. It’s gonna happen… Believe me out there, that’s coming up soon and for sure…
Paddy O’Connell, the ubiquitous presenter of BBC radio programmes from R2 DJ-ing to R4 News is one of my broadcasting heroes. There is something genuine about him that makes its way through the sound waves and seems to come straight from the heart. But this morning he made me jump off my pillow and nearly spill my tea in alarm when he stated – relating to the Vice-President-Elect Pence’s visit to the theatre and his being booed and called to account by the cast – that ‘Theatre should be a safe place’ – I think he was quoting rather than opining – I hope he was quoting rather than opining – because theatre has never been a safe place. Theatre, with its live performances that change every night, has always been somewhere anything can happen, anything can be said and where – of all the arts – it requires courage – the playwright’s courage and the performers’ courage to speak out.
Our theatre is firmly rooted in the Greeks, and Oh Boy those Greeks were not averse to stirring up trouble on the stage and pointing the finger at their leaders. Aristophanes, the Father of Comedy, never held back. Anyone who has seen one of the Satyr plays (squashed in between comedy and tragedy – and as vulgar and anti-politician as you could wish) will know that the theatre was never designed to show so-called good manners. Here’s what Aristophanes thought of politicians: ‘You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner’ or, just as scathing, ‘Under every stone lurks a politician.’
Then there was Sophocles, master of tragedy… ‘Time alone reveals the just man; but you might discern a bad man in a single day.’
And the brilliant Aeschylus – in Prometheus Bound ‘Words are the physicians of a mind diseased.’ and – from a fragment of a play of his now lost (more is the pity) ‘Verily a prosperous fool is a heavy load…’ Robert Kennedy quoted Aeschylus in his speech given the night of Martin Luther’s murder – just think how remarkable it is that – after 5000 years – the words of the playwrights, given through the mouths of the actors, are still working for us and against the bad without grace or favour. The theatre has always spoken out, and will always speak out. The marvel of it is that now there are mobile phones that can record what happens upon that fleeting stage, instead of it just being reported afterwards. I hope that won’t inhibit the theatre’s courage in future.
So Vice-President-Elect Pence must take the flak that our brave and free theatre dishes out to him. There is nothing that requires conduct to be polite in theatre – quite the reverse. In recent times, and from the tub-thumping scorn of John Osborne ‘I never deliberately set out to shock, but when people don’t walk out of my plays I think there is something wrong…’ – to the mischieviousy subversive Alan Bennett ‘ I write plays about things that I can’t resolve in my mind. I try to root things out.” – the theatre and its perpetrators have always been on the attack. And long may it continue – apart from anything else it shows, indeed, that the pen is mightier than the sword.
So – no Paddy – you should not feel safe in the theatre. It’s a Live Performance – and anything can happen. And it frequently does.