Towards the end of On The Road, his 2020 overview of 50 years of American politics combined with travelogue, legendary broadcaster James Naughtie presents an interesting view from Aaron Sorkin. The writer known not only for The West Wing but also stage works including his adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird has an interesting take on divisive political figures.
I have a prediction, which is that you’re never going to see Donald Trump as a character on screen or on stage. He’ll always be offstage, and the reason is that whether it’s a hero or an antihero, protagonist and antagonist, there’s no such thing as an interesting character who has no conscience. You can’t do anything with the character.
The story will be about the senator or the congressman who is up for re-election and is selling their soul… Because even if they’re a bad person, even if they’re doing the wrong thing, the fact that if they’re aware that they are making some kind of bargain here, that’s enough to get drama. From Trump, you’re not going to get a Richard III moment or Richard Nixon moment.
Sorkin might have been talking about TV dramas, but when it comes to theatre, politics has been a recurring theme for millennia with leaders suffering from a conscience bypass relatively common.
Central figures of Greek drama might not have been meeting in the House of Commons or Capitol but their concerns are often just as political as anything on more modern stages. Similarly, much of Shakespearean drama, not to mention the work of Christopher Marlowe and other contemporaries, focused on political figures simultaneously behaving badly and often gleefully.
Some might dispute the proposition that Richard III was weighed down by conscience. He was indisputably haunted by his past deeds, but is that the same as being burdened by a conscience?
Conscienceless political characters people contemporary stages in large profusion and some of the most entertaining have been indefatigable narcissists who would happily sell their mothers or children, if anyone offered the going rate. A memorable example was Adolf Hitler in The Portage to San Cristobal of AH by George Steiner, while Stalin and his contemporaries were more likely to be portrayed via subtle allusion, in attempts to prevent the samizdat playwrights from summary execution.
There is another problem when it comes to Aaron Sorkin’s proposition. Theatregoers on either side of the Atlantic have already had the pleasure of watching plays built around Donald Trump and his wannabe British imitator, Boris Johnson. Indeed, ironically, the proposition was shot some time ago. In 2017, a Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar caused outrage in certain quarters by depicting the Roman emperor in a manner that could bring to mind nobody but the reigning American president. Johnson imitators have also been popular in political satires on the Fringe for several years and also in TV drama This England.
In reality, unless you take a James Graham approach of viewing political developments at a tangent, for example through the eyes of government and opposition whips rather than the leaders themselves, it is almost impossible to offer critical views of live politicians, if only because of the danger of falling foul of libel laws or, at the very least being beaten into submission by an intimidation lawsuit also known as a SLAPP (strategic lawsuits against public participation).
Shakespeare had the good sense to view contemporary politics through the medium of events set in ancient Greece or Rome or, when he was feeling particularly brave, England or Scotland several generations in the past.
This means that we are unlikely to see many aggressively incisive on-stage character assassinations of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson or any other contemporary political figures for a few decades. Despite their populist popularity, we probably won’t even see plays lauding their wonderful achievements until both men are in their graves.
There might be one potent exception. Tribunal and verbatim plays have become particularly popular means of investigating contemporary political issues. It wouldn’t be a surprise to learn that some of the leading exponents of this art form are already thinking about bringing to the stage the COVID enquiry, the Partygate investigations by both the police and House of Commons committee and/or the storming of the Capitol supplemented by the ever-increasing series of court cases involving Donald J Trump.
While dramas about unprincipled politicians may not be to Aaron Sorkin’s taste, many viewers would relish the opportunity of seeing figures that they love/hate (delete whichever is applicable) depicted on stage in all their glory.