You know, I would have been happy to write about anything else this week. This is an arts professional and pop culture blog, after all. Even with the reduced activity of the Quarantimes, there’s theater companies announcing future seasons, or closing their doors indefinitely, or both in a few confusing cases. There’s bungled superhero movies and tv series to binge and all manner of other subjects. Absent a pop cultural angle of some sort, I try and avoid blog posts that are solely about current events, unless the news item in question is so immense and grotesque that there’s no avoiding it. Like a terrorist attack, let’s say, or an act of civil war.
And so, well, here we are.
Now, if you’re taking time out of your day to read an arts blog from a New York actor/playwright – or, really, if you’re a functioning human being at all – then I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you’re horrified by what happened at the Capitol this week. Perhaps you watched the chaos unfold on your television set and wondered how on earth this could happen here, how such events could even be imagined. Perhaps you heard the mob’s shouted slogans and couldn’t imagine how such vile ideas could take root, or listened to the president’s* exhortations to them and wondered how such mafia tactics could become normalized. If you’re like my arts professional friends, you’re surprised, and outraged, and wondering who’s to blame.
Well, I’m as disgusted and outraged by this past week’s events as anyone – but I’m not remotely surprised. This crowd has telegraphed its beliefs and intentions for years at this point; far-right seditionists have been a frightening presence in this country for as long as I’m alive. (And remember, I’m old.) So while this is all disgusting, it’s only surprising if you haven’t been paying attention.
And if you’re a storyteller by trade, it’s your job to pay attention.
I’m assuming the bulk of my readership is made up of fellow storytellers, actors and writers and other theatrical types. We typically don’t have the same politics as the rioters, and even the most high-strung of us tend not to share their delusions. But we shape the culture around us for everybody with the stories we tell, even those rioters. Their delusions may be their own, but the fantasies they believe they’re living out came from somewhere. And we need to take a long, hard look at the degree to which those fantasies came from us.
How many times have we depicted the destruction of Washington DC, of some famous landmark or other, for the sake of entertainment? When we did that in Independence Day – which, remember, was a quarter century ago – we coined the term “disaster porn” for the spectacle. In that same year’s Mars Attacks! – a film I’ve kept flashing back to over the past few days – the massacre of Congress is presented as a joke. Are we really so surprised that somebody somewhere would find this past week’s nightmare funny or exciting?
How many fantasy epics have we told where the plucky hero faces impossible odds to bring down some tyrannical government, as throngs of everyday citizens cheer? And how often is the ideology behind hero and villain deliberately left as vague as possible? We present those heroes as cyphers, so we can appeal to as broad an audience as possible – everybody can project their own ideologies onto them, even if that ideology is horrifying.
How often, throughout my entire life, have we seen Mafiosi presented on screen as exemplars of what the wielding of power actually looks like when the veneer of polite society is stripped away? How many leadership lessons from The Godfather and The Sopranos have we been encouraged to draw? Why are we then surprised when our real-life leaders start behaving that way?
How often has the American drama taken a look at the dark, sociopathic recesses of our national soul, only to take the characters it finds and set them up as an Everyman, softly asking for our pity? Seriously – imagine what would happen if Willy Loman had unlimited credit and access to the nuclear codes. Sound familiar?
I’m not bringing all this up as part of the much-derided, ridiculously termed “cancel” culture. I only mean to say that we need to start thinking long and hard about the fantasies we spin, and how those fantasies may influence others in ways we haven’t wanted to admit. As Vonnegut said in Mother Night, “we are what we pretend to be – so we must be very careful about what we pretend to be.” Because some truly terrible have been pretending some truly terrible things, and trying very hard to make those fantasies a reality.
Have we helped them along the way, without our realizing it?
And now that we realize it, what the hell do we do?