American playwright BONNIE GREER likens the general election to theatre – and says it could be a performance with a deeply unsatisfactory ending.
One of the most satisfactory aspects of being a foreigner, and choosing to remain one as much as possible, is the stance that can be taken.
It means it is possible to stand outside; to peer through the window of a society and see what lies within. What the engine of it is, what drives it.
When it comes to this election, and to the person of Boris Johnson – a man of whom BBC broadcaster Andrew Neil memorably pointed out “critics and sometimes even those close to him have deemed him to be untrustworthy” – I think the answer to what lies within rests in the British, especially the English, addiction to theatre.
There is little argument against the statement that the British are amongst the best actors in the world.
Maybe British actors are the best because of this country’s innate love and need for narrative. In 1957, the playwright John Osborne turned post-Suez Britain into a rancid music hall in The Entertainer. Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse called their 1964 musical The Roar Of The Greasepaint – The Smell Of The Crowd.
The phrase is itself an inversion from an old theatre saying – the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd – and conjures up the image of an ageing, fading actor stepping once more onto the stage.
The major factor in the ascendancy of Boris Johnson is that he is, quite simply, an actor. He performs the role of prime minister, an Edwardian one, to make it really nostalgic, complete with florid phrases and exaggerated gestures. He moves about with the gait of a bumbling official with too much supper in him, a Dickensian character for those who have never read Dickens.
He is the offspring of a man who publicly accused the great British public of stupidity – Johnson’s father, Stanley, suggested recently on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show that people were illiterate and could not spell ‘Pinocchio’. Of course, this was said in a rather florid way and in the voice of a ‘better’. After all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
This British addiction to theatre, this need, not only for pageantry but for performance was something that George V understood. It enabled him to pull off, arguably, the greatest rebrand of the 20th century: The changing of a rather stuffy royal house that prided itself on its remoteness and its German links, to the folks-next-door. If next door happened to be a palace. In 1917 the family name of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha became Windsor.
In 1922, George V’s daughter, Princess Mary, married at Westminster Abbey in what was a huge public event. She and her husband appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace; the culmination of the first royal wedding to be covered in fashion magazines. The wedding gown was designed to reflect empire, complete with its the lotus flower motifs. It was another part of the theatre of it all.
It must be unnerving for the Duchess of Sussex, an actual actor, to find herself in a never-ending performance, demanded by the people as the price of the family’s continued existence at centre stage in the life of the nation.
Sometimes, as a foreigner, you ask yourself when will the acting stop, when will a real UK emerge? But Britain is like that old saying about Los Angeles: “Behind the tinsel, there’s more tinsel.”
This is not to suggest insincerity. The British are not insincere, in my experience. It is just that the culture demands role-playing. It needs it.
And if Johnson becomes prime minister once again, the greatest British theatrical trope of our time will reign supreme, to the detriment of the nation itself. I call it the ‘Greatest Hour’ trope and it can be seen on Saturday afternoons, when you turn on the television and find endless documentaries about World War Two. These accounts tell, over and over, the story of a ‘plucky Britain’, a UK whose moral authority carried it through to victory in that conflict.
Of course, the reality was much more complicated than that. But this is seldom taught. Seldom seen.
This election has become a theatre of mythos in which a vision of a socialist utopia battles against one of a Britain (for which, read ‘England’) fighting to be free from beneath the muck and mire of the EU, an Excalibur nation that will rise again. Once Johnson is able to “Get Brexit Done”.
It is a dangerous thing to poke the bear, as the expression goes, but it is necessary to remind this nation that its parliamentary democracy is hard won. That it is still being hard won. And the idea, or the sense, or the pitch, that the UK is anything else, is dangerous.
The party at the despatch box is the government and the government is not sovereign. It is subject to the will of parliament.
But, like Donald Trump, Johnson exhibits authoritarian qualities. He implied that the last parliament was against him, and to be against him violated the people. The people did not – do not – elect him. Nor anyone else in parliament.
They voted for a political party. A party. But Johnson wants the nation to forget that. And focus on his performance. Performing the role of prime minister. Because Papa is always comforting. Then we can forget everything and continue to pretend. Go out and play. “I’ll take care of everything”, Don Corleone says in The Godfather Part II. And he does.
In a nation of 66 million people, the pall of performance that could descend on this nation the day after the election will be dangerous. Because a play has winners and losers; victims and brutes; angels and devils. A play embodies drama and drama. It is conflict. The question is: Can we handle more?
I have no idea how the election will turn out. As a writer of plays I find this play called General Election 2019 to be too obvious and now rather tedious. I know the characters, in the theatrical sense. We all do.
But this play involves, not a pantomime villain, but parliamentary democracy itself. Parliament will still exist, but it could be relegated to the bit players sitting behind a Player King.
The advantage in being the audience at a performance is that it is you who is being entertained. It is you sitting in the dark looking at what is an illusion. Believing that it is real.
But then the lights come up. You remember that you are in the theatre. The British are addicted to “lights down”. Suspending disbelief. Enjoying the roar of the greasepaint. The smell of the crowd.