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Defining Trumpian Theater

Karren Alenier

The Steiny Road Poet has been wracking her brain to process the last four years under Donald Trump and why Trump's desperate measures to overturn Joe Biden's presidential win made her think of Richard Wagner's opera Götterdämmerung. The word Götterdämmerung means a collapse (as of a society or regime) marked by catastrophic violence and disorder. It can also be understood as a downfall of the gods. Since Trump has happily accepted the mantle of Messiah from his conspiracy-theory-loving followers, downfall of the gods seems to be the right pigeon hole at this time.

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But on the other hand, Wagner's opera is so complicated by the love story of Brunhilde, the "fat lady" with horns, and Siegfried, the young man who saves her from her father's punishment—an eternity of sleep within a circle of fire. Meanwhile, in Trump's drama, Melania—a trophy wife with a questionable glamour portfolio, has been cheated on by her husband through a number of loose women who were paid off by Trump not because he cared about his wife's feelings or what she thought, but because he cared about his political standing. Romantic love has nothing to do with Trump's story.

So Steiny moved on to thinking about theater of the absurd. Theater of the absurd derives from an essay Albert Camus wrote on the myth of Sisyphus.

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The gist of the Sisyphus tale is that every day he pushes a boulder up a mountain and when it gets up to the top, it merely rolls down the other side making Sisyphus start over again the next day. Camus' commentary builds on avant-garde creations from the period 1920 through the 1930's into the horrors of World War II which speak to iconoclasm, arbitrariness, and meaninglessness. Yet the idea is to shake the audience caught up in the mundane to discover a mystical experience beyond the boundaries of the human condition.

So there in the US Congress on January 6, 2021, we had the rather boring ceremonial task of counting the electoral votes which every US citizen heard ad nauseum was 306 for Biden and 232 for Trump. We knew for a month Biden won the election, the election was legally executed, and nearly every legal suit Trump and his people brought against the states was thrown out of the courts, many presided over by judges appointed by Trump. So what was boring became theater of the absurd, complete with a partially naked, tattooed man in Brunhilde helmet with horns and fur, when Trump whipped up his base of white supremacists to disrupt the proforma counting of  the electoral college votes. Steiny thinks that what resulted was not a mystical experience beyond the boundaries of the human condition. No deus ex machina (god in a machine) descended from heaven to give Trump the win he wanted so badly.

So what kind of theater did we have from Trump's domestic terrorists? How about Theater of Cruelty, an offshoot of surrealism? Theater of Cruelty was the brainchild of Antonin Artaud who was kicked out of the surrealist circle by its founder André Breton.

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Surrealism featured that the unconscious mind is a source of artistic truth. Logic is out the window. Taking off from surrealism, Theater of Cruelty banks on violence and sadism to shock the audience awake. It's heavy on image, gesture, and movement. The aim is to go beyond words and to overpower the senses.

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Imagine the mob that assembled from states all around the United States of America—people dressed in battle fatigues, superhero costumes, hooded sweatshirts, t-shirts (with QAnon, Auschwitz, blue lives matter, Crusader Cross, Marvel Comics Punisher symbols and slogans), flannel shirts printed with words Civil War and date January 6, 2021. A few had face paint, most were maskless fearing neither covid-19 nor arrest because their leader President Trump told them in person, "Something's wrong here. …if you don't fight like Hell, you're not going to have a country anymore."

The mob brought flags flying from long poles (later used as weapons), metal pipes (which they beat Capitol Police with), guns, jars of napalm, zip ties (for those congressionals they intended to kidnap). On the Mall, they built a gallows with noose to hang Vice President Mike Pence. And they left their stink—urine and feces.

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Mixed into the mob, some of them military trained and so fit they could scale the walls of the capitol building, mixed into this antigovernment mob were many naifs. Steiny finds it difficult to call these uncomprehending attendees innocents. These people are Trump's cult followers, who thought this trip to the capitol building was something entertaining to do. Reporters heard some of them complain indignantly that they were maced. After all, isn't revolution supposed to be fun, never mind that, at a minimum, the crowd was breeching police lines to enter a federal building that was closed to the public and, at a maximum, police were being savagely beaten and a woman was trampled to death.

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For weeks, Steiny had been saying that our 45th president needed to be wrapped in a straight jacket (In the late 1930s, Artaud was wrapped in a straitjacket and deported from Ireland.) Steiny suggests that would complete Trump's performance in Theater of Cruelty. Curtain down.
Lights out.

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Scene4 Magazine ‚ÄĒ Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
For more of her commentary and articles,
check the Archives.

©2021 Karren Alenier
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

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