Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Crown (TV show)

John Lithgow (right) as Winston Churchill in "The Crown"
The problem with using the stage to make direct and obvious political statement is that the message can be misinterpreted, casually dismissed, or in the case of most local productions, singing to the choir or more often ignored entirely.

The first year of Guerrilla Theater Company our more obvious agitprop was leavened with playful absurdity, but as our more pointed statements we from time to time dismissed out of hand or criticized, we bent the rules of inclusion to force each of the performer-writers to defend the point of each brief vignette. In short order the creators of some of our most popular pieces decided to move on and our audiences dwindled.

When a company decides to present a classic piece of political theater, the language and situation would most likely not most obviously resemble contemporary concerns. When Ensemble Theatre presented Waiting For Lefty six years ago (to take one example) they strove for period accuracy in production in costume and design, but their video projections reflected the very recent Occupy Wall Street uprisings. And yet, the Great Recession was not the Great Depression and the pictures did nothing to change Odets' clumsy words. In spite of using David Bowie in the soundtrack, it was still more museum piece than think piece.

Timing is also important. Bad Epitaph produced Lysistrata in 2000, which was enjoyed as an absurd sex comedy, but as we were not currently engaged in an wars (at least not any we could see) the playwright’s original political intent was beside the point. We came a bit closer to the mark in 2004 when we produced Kirk Wood Bromley’s The American Revolution.

True, we made no obvious references to the present geopolitical situation, the early years of Bush’s war in Iraq, and the Colonial version of occupier and freedom-fighter, but just putting it out there seemed to make its own statement. As Plain Dealer critic Tony Brown put it, we didn’t need to be “ponderously obvious” about it, as that was his job.

“One imagines that if the revolutionaries were to say and do now some of things they said and did then, John Ashcroft probably would have them locked up without lawyers in the prison at Guantanamo Bay on terrorism charges,” said Brown.

Ladies and gentlemen, ponderously obvious.

The Trump era has invited a slew of productions of Julius Caesar, which has been an obvious go-to for those who would warn against tyranny in all it forms, for centuries. In New York this summer you can see a modern-dress production for free at the Delacorte in Central Park, or an Off-Broadway production by Access Theatre featuring an all-female cast and set in an independent, girls’ school.

Orson Welles' "Julius Caesar" (1937)
It is facile to swap out one political leader for another. Arguably when Orson Welles presented this work during the reign of Mussolini, that strongman must have appeared to be a literal incarnation of almighty Caesar. But Donald J. Trump more closely inhabits the strengths and failings of Caesar -- as conceived of by William Shakespeare -- especially in those scenes where he loudly protests his immutability even as he agrees with who ever spoke with him most recently.

But a military genius with an extensive record of victories on the battle-field? Darn that ankle spur.

The question remains whether or not political commentary on stage has any relevance at all. To those of us who are theater practitioners, of course it does. But most people do not see plays, are unaware of plays, are entirely unaffected by plays.

However, the extremity of the actions of and declarations from the Trump Administration have emboldened commercial entities, which would normally avoid controversy and offense. We live in a golden era of men in suits sitting at desks (and one woman standing in slacks) taking the piss out of the president every night of the week.

In fact, the word and actions of the young Trump Administration have been so extreme, and transparently anti-democratic, that any creative expression in regards to totalitarianism and propaganda in the service of such ends can appear to be intentional commentary on the current president.

Yes, sales of George Orwell’s 1984 spiked after the inauguration, but when Audible produced a television ad featuring Zachary Quinto performing an audiobook version, it created controversy. Reading passages from a seventy year-old book is commentary on Donald Trump? Whose fault is that, Audible’s, Orwell’s or Trump’s?

Hulu’s production of The Handmaid’s Tale includes scenes that appear to emulate the January 21, 2017 Women’s March, but production started last year, long before the election. How might this program have been received during a Hillary Clinton Administration? How significant is it a big screen Wonder Woman came out this past weekend and has broken all kinds of records including biggest opening for a female director. Has the disappointment and disillusionment of the past six months actually fed interest in such a vehicle?

Last week I started watching the Netflix series The Crown, which debuted four days before this past election. I like Peter Morgan, loved The Queen, The Audience. I’m an Anglophile, and my interest in the monarchy reaches beyond what is necessary to comprehend Shakespeare’s history plays.

With this series, dramatising the first months of the reign of Elizabeth II, Morgan seems to be a bit more heavy-handed with the exposition than with other treatises on Elizabeth Windsor, as though he assumes most of his audience will be American - or at the very least, not British. The idea of having to explain to the new queen that she chooses her royal name (her father George VI was born Albert, for example) is ridiculous, she knows that.

I’m loving John Lithgow as Winston Churchill, the first time I have seen any actor embody the character without doing a Churchill impression. Episode four, "Act of God," felt as though it too were mocking the new American President for his behavior, even though that episode, like the entire season, were all released on the same date, November 4, 2016.

The Great Smog of 1952
The Great Smog of 1952 was a bizarre weather event, an “anticyclone” which trapped air pollution - mostly the result of the use of coal for electricity and heat - over the Greater London area for several days. It was catastrophic, resulting in thousands or by some estimates over one hundred thousand deaths, due to either accidents due to low visibility or illness due to inhalation. These facts are a matter of historical record.

"Act of God" suggests Churchill, the Prime Minister, intentionally ignored scientific studies which made plain the health risks related to the coal-based power infrastructure and even reports that such a freak weather event were possible.

That I watched this episode on the very day President Trump announced the United States was withdrawing from the Paris Agreement wasn’t even the most alarmingly prescient element of this episode. That came when, in the midst of a national calamity, the Prime Minister was determined, during a cabinet meeting, on ranting about whether the Queen’s consort, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, should be allowed to train for a pilot’s license.

The comparison is ponderously obvious.

Freedom Rings With An Edge in “American Revolution” by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer, 6/23/2004
Great Smog of London, Wikipedia

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