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Politics as Theatre; Then and Now

I have read for the second time now an article in the TLS by someone who goes by the name of Docx. This curious appellation reminds me somehow of XTrapnell, a strange character in Antony Powell’s “Dance to the Music of Time”. In this article, a book review, Docx pins down the theatrical absurdity of Johnson’s manipulation of Parliament and reiterates the latter’s motivation in his illegal prorogation of Parliament. He touches on the psychology of Boris, recently referred to as delusional by the Leader of the opposition and quotes D.W.Winnicott’s notion of the False Self to underline the splits in the man’s psyche. Johnson avoids guilt and the expectation is that paranoia features as his acting becomes increasingly absurd.

This acting resembles the theatre of the absurd which once was called Pataphysics. The loss of meaning which we see in the plays of Beckett and Ionesco is acted out on the floor of the House of Commons. The audience of Conservative MPs are complicit in the act and the opposition, though more in touch with compassion, find it difficult to bring the charade to a meaningful conclusion.

I have just finished reading the most remarkable life story of Richard Brinley Sheridan which is written by the outstanding Irish writer and political commentator, Fintan O’Toole. It is called A Traitor’s Kiss. There are many reasons for recommending this book so I shall confine myself to just three. Firstly, because it so closely illustrates this connection between politics and the theatre. Sheridan’s father, with whom he had a particularly interesting oedipal conflict, taught rhetoric so that Sheridan imbibed and used the power of heightened speech in his drama and in his political speeches. One only need consider the figure of Mrs Malaprop in The Rivals to grasp his power over language. Secondly, O’Toole’s explanation of the basic integrity of Sheridan’s love for Ireland, democracy and far sighted anti-imperialist radicalism is thoroughly illuminating with respect to Eighteenth Century political shenanigans. Thirdly, the biography is imbued with a real feeling for the duelling, the striving for status, the struggle against poverty, the wenching and resulting illegitimacies pursued in the chaotic Regency times. The reader comes away with some understanding of the complexities of both Whig factions and the decide lack of safety considerations within the candlelit Drury Lane theatre.

The article which underlined for me this connection between politics and the theatre was an edited version of a lecture given on behalf of the Voltaire Association in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on March 17th. It was given by the Harvard Professor, Robert Darnton and entitled Despotism Centre Stage- Theatricality and violence in Paris on the eve of revolution. It appeared in the March 25th, 2022 copy of the Literary Supplement and so very fascinating that I have read it several times to appreciate just how the masses in the streets of Paris, the Parlement and the Chatelet Court all became embroiled in a political carnival in which magistrates acted out their remonstrances (a forcefully reproachful protests) with speeches and gestures so that Paris itself became a free for all vaudeville. with the aristocracy and the monarchy as the players caught in a tragedy. Here is a small example of the scenes on the streets leading up to the Revolution:-

For anyone who wishes to hear the lecture itself:-

Watching this which mostly concerns events in 1788, I am reminded too of the dramatic events of the August Coup in 1991in the Soviet Union https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1991_Soviet_coup_d%27%C3%A9tat_attempt

The drama acted out in those few days goes some way towards understanding the current conflict in the Ukraine; Putin’s response to Gorbachev’s reforms over 30 years ago.

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