Well, it didn’t take long! Robert Mueller’s long-awaited report was made public on April 18, 2019 and by June 24, 2019 we had a “play” about it! Eighteen notable actors—including John Lithgow, Annette Bening, and Kevin Kline—took the stage at the Riverside Church in Manhattan, and offered an hour-long reading of the Mueller report, entitled The Investigation: A Search for Truth, a title that forces one to sing “Dah-dah-daaahhh” after saying it.

Obviously, it would take way more than an hour to read the 400+ pages of the Mueller report. However, playwright Robert Schankken efficiently cut out most of the report—including the large portion that found no collusion committed by President Donald Trump or anyone on his campaign staff—focusing instead on the obstruction of justice section, which Mueller apparently was unsure about.  Schankken himself is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, whose most recent piece before The Investigation(Dah-dah-daaahhh!) was Building the Wall, a May 2017 play about “life in the Donald Trump era.”  I’ve yet to figure out how a President can define an “era” just five months into his administration.

It stretches no one’s imagination to discover that this “play” takes a side: James Poniewozik’s review in the New York Times notes its “decidedly nonneutral take.”  In his introduction to the proceedings, Bill Moyers mentions “10 counts of obstruction of justice” contained in the report, even though no such “counts” were ever offered against Trump by Mueller.  But, as Moyers helpfully posits, this “play” represents “our search for truth in the continuing drama of democracy.”  Great phrasing, vapid comment.  What with Lithgow’s scenery-chewing portrayal of Trump and Bening’s brow-furling concern as the narrator, I imagine the audience was treated to a star-studded, self-congratulatory evening created by the woke for the woke.

So, what is there left to say about this piece?  It was a one-night performance, streamed live via the internet, which accomplished nothing, offered little of substance, and probably changed no minds.  To me, the most important part of this endeavor is the decision to create a play as opposed to any other form of art.  Why are plays the first thing artists think of when they’ve got something to say right now?  Schankken has now polished off two works (that I know of) about Trump in a relatively short time, and it is not hard to imagine that progressive playwrights all across the country have “Trump era” plays at the ready—probably since January 2017 or before.  So why not Trump novels, Trump poems, Trump landscapes?  Are there any Trump symphonies we’ve heard about?  We know that Joseph Papp staged a Trump Julius Caesar a few years back, but what about a Trump ballet?  What is it about plays that they make the most sense when the message just has to get out?

I believe the answer is found in the ritualistic origins of theatre.  In the most accepted formulation of how theatre began, the ancient Greek religious rituals started with choruses chanting prayers called dithyrambs. Eventually, one member of the chorus came forward to speak on his own, and then two, and the dramatic dialogue of the theatre was born.  A chief requirement of this paradigm is the congregants present to partake in the religious ceremony.  Today we call those congregants the “audience.”  So, from the outset, theatre has been a vehicle to call the masses together to witness a communal event of existential significance.  Very little of that has changed, except today I fear we have lost touch with the “existential significance” part of the model.  I think it is telling that the venue for this “play” was built for religious ceremonies.

I think artists use theatre when they believe the cause is so vital and so immediate that they need to inform the masses quickly.  Through the guise of entertainment, playwrights rouse the people, opting for the relative intimacy of theatre where people like John Lithgow and Annette Bening are naturally at home.  Plus, I just think it is easier to write a play quickly—even if it sucks (as most hastily-written plays do)—especially if the dialogue has been written for you (I wonder if Schankken would consider sharing writing credits with Mueller). This is why I think Trump-era plays probably abound: they’re relatively easy to write and stage (especially a table reading) and you can get enough congregants together—and maybe even a live audience for streaming–if it believes the cause is just.

This leaves me with two more questions: 1) is The Investigation (Dah-dah-daaahhh!) a “play” (note that I keep putting the word in quotation marks.  This is not a typo) and why when conservatives stage a play to summon the masses about a cause we believe in, we’re considered radical, political, and haters?  I can answer the first question easily: no.  It is no more a play than the Gettysburg Address.  Reading a report, even with the animated machinations of Lithgow’s Trump, does not substitute for dialogue, spectacle, movement, and a story in a synergistic whole.  This is a performance piece at best, naturally at home in a theatre so it can awaken the congregation, but not worthy of the designation “play.”

As for my second question, well, I guess it just is what it is.  How dare conservatives use theatre in exactly the same ritualistic way! Conservatives are to keep their mouths shut, their minds closed, and their hateful ideas to themselves, particularly in the sacred space of theatre.  The problem for those who think this way is that theatre space may indeed be sacred, but it’s never, ever been “safe.”  For those seeking sanctuary, I would recommend instead going to church. In fact, I’d recommend that to everyone—it may be just the thing to cure our lack of civility and lessen the effectiveness of angry mobs listening to a boring report.

Click here to watch the performance and here to read a review critical of it.


Image via tiburi (Pixabay)

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