There's a small yet potent scene tucked away in the sprawl of "The Inheritance," Matthew Lopez's epic gay drama that arrived on Broadway last year, which re-creates the experience of the 2016 election returns, when Donald Trump pulled off one of the greatest upsets in modern political history. For progressive theatergoers, this part of the play should come with a trigger warning.
A group of liberal gay New Yorkers has festively gathered to watch America elect its first woman president. But as the results come in, the mood turns funereal. The trajectory of that fateful evening is captured in a concert of increasingly alarmed voices.
"Clinton takes New York!" "Nevada too close to call." "They just called Ohio." "Nate Silver has her at 72%." "They just called North Carolina." "Sixty-seven percent." "There goes Florida." "Fifty-three percent.' "This is bad. Is this really happening?" "They just called Pennsylvania. That's it, then. It's over." "It's over."
The prospect of reliving a version of this night on Tuesday has Republicans licking their chops and Democrats calling their pharmacies. As someone who sees Joe Biden as the last exit before authoritarianism, I don't know how I'd cope with four more years of Trump chaos. But the time has come to take the long view. Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 election, the fabric of the nation must be repaired — and no one is excused from this necessary work.
What role can artists play in the healing of a nation wounded by a viral pandemic and the chronic diseases of racism, inequality and rabid partisanship? Even for the proponents of art for art's sake, politics is inescapable.
Aesthetes may be oblivious to the news crawl, but they don't get to choose the conditions in which they work. To create is to bear witness, directly or indirectly, to life as it is lived at a specific historical moment. The macro and the micro inexorably converge whenever words, color, voices and bodies are arranged into vision.
As a critic belonging to no theoretical camp, I see little point in being programmatic or prescriptive. The delicate process of creativity isn't determined by the will. But the cultural land becomes more arable when there's broad recognition that artists matter to civic life, that their contributions clarify and cleanse the collective imagination.
"Relevance," that favorite word of press releases, is overrated. The ancient Greeks and Shakespeare understood the advantage of distance, of grappling with dramatic material at a remove from contemporary existence. Censorship, in all its official and unofficial manifestations, is a persistent foe. But perhaps more formidable is the suppressive operation of our internal defenses, which screen the inconvenient and the uncomfortable from view.
How can art break through the bulwark? "Tell all the truth but tell it slant," advises Emily Dickinson. "The Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind." Artistic truth, which looks beyond the shifting political scorecard, depends more on imagination than the news cycle.
This is a roundabout way of saying that not everything need be about Trump. But if this figure of obsession cannot be resisted, let's at least adopt a wider focus, one that recognizes him as more of a symptom than a cause.