It is fair to say that we are living in troubled times. Not only troubled though, they are becoming increasingly absurd, this absurdity personified by Donald Trump and his ridiculous assertion that he will build a wall and that will somehow “Make America Great Again”. My assertion that ‘that we are living in troubled times’ is clearly always applicable, and it is Western arrogance to assume that because things are going well within the confines of your own borders all is well, but recently even this false sense of stability has seemed to slip away. Some are optimistically labelling this precarious state of affairs as Late-Capitalism (we can but hope), and this is showing itself in part through the polarisation of political opinion and the breakdown of the supposedly centre ground.
In Britain UKIP have become a significant political force, and although they currently appear on the point of imploding they have had a large enough effect on the political system to have pushed an already right-wing Conservative Party even further to the right. On the left the Labour Party have the first truly socialist leader of a major political party since Michael Foot, and the right-wing of the party have spent every moment since his first election trying to undermine and remove him. This political upheaval has been somewhat mirrored and magnified across the Atlantic in the US, where Bernie Sanders harnessed a progressive social movement to push for a forward-thinking and relatively radical agenda, although was ultimately beaten by the far more conservative politics of Hillary Clinton. The biggest shockwaves to come from the US though clearly stem from Donald Trump, a racist misogynist who brags of sexual assault and uses explicitly fascist rhetoric, yet has the real possibility of becoming President.
It can feel at times as if politics has lost all touch with reality, and this is evident in the recent presidential debates, where so many words get spoken but so little is said. The critic Martin Esslin coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ in his 1960 essay of the same title, and described it as a form that “attacks the comfortable certainties of religious or political orthodoxy”; it is clear to see that the current political orthodoxy is in danger of collapse. One of the key texts in the formation for Theatre of the Absurd was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a masterpiece of theatre about going nowhere and talking about it endlessly, and it is hard not see parallels of this in modern political discourse. Endless rhetorical bluster without any true depth and a million miles from true intentions or any kind of action. The recent Presidential Debates play like some grand performance in which the actors play their parts, but the substance is entirely lacking. There belies a deep problem though, because whilst the election seems to have lost touch with reality, the outcome will have very real effects, and the rhetorical bluster of performance also has insidious effects of its own. Here in Britain we have seen a horrible rise in hate crime since the divisive Leave campaign and the increasingly toxic language from this government, and clearly the prospect of Trump winning is a terrifying one that will have very real and horrible effects.
Esslin said of Theatre of the Absurd that “the challenge behind the message is anything but one of despair. It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is… The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful but it leaves behind a sense of freedom and relief.” That is where the theoretical take on theatre and the reality of the current political situation part ways. The rhetoric of the Conservative government, of the right-wing press and on a larger scale of Donald Trump is precisely the message of despair. It is the hunt for easy (and wrong) solutions to complicated problems and the encouragement of division to generate support for them. The departure from reality of modern politics will have very real outcomes and they will cause suffering for those far removed from the bizarre political machine. Esslin continued by stating “the Theatre of the Absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.” Watching Donald Trump may inspire laughter of disbelief and scorn, but the tears of despair are already falling as the result of this continuing shift to the right and escalating dangerous rhetoric. This will only increase further if people do not see past the hatred being thrust upon us and look to build something better, rather than continue in this absurd race to the bottom.
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