Like Meryl, Donald Trump is an actor – Streep gave him her professional opinion
PUBLISHED: 16:37 15 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:36 15 January 2017
Zuma Press/PA Images
Donald Trump, like Barack Obama before him, is an actor and Meryl Streep played the role of the critic. Playwright Bonnie Greer on an unfolding American drama
Piers Morgan ends his assessment of Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech with the following: “How much more effective would it have been had the most powerful woman in Hollywood called for unity not division, demanded a stop to all the teeth-gnashing and wailing over the election result, and urged Donald Trump in his inauguration speech to preach tolerance, fairness and equality? That would have been a truly courageous and admirable thing to do.”
Well, the reason that she didn’t do it is because she’s an actor, not a phoney. Both pretend, but they’re not the same thing. So as we enter the Era Of Trump – where even lies have their own lies, complete with special advisors – I think it’s important to call out The Normalisers, those trying to make this upcoming four year run of the Theatre of The Absurd into something palatable. Well, normal.
“Streep it up!” was the admonition in the American theatre world even when Streep was still in drama school. Like Ian McKellen, Kenneth Branagh, and France’s Isabelle Adjani, she was KNOWN. The industry had heard about her even while she was still studying. And they waited for her. She was in demand so much after she graduated, you couldn’t get away from her.
And sometimes you wanted to. I certainly did. I couldn’t take the accents; the persona morph that she presented with every movie, every stage appearance. I like craft, not incarnation, and sometimes she was too real, too “into it”. While at the same time, you could see the mechanism working underneath, the razor-sharp intelligence. The wit and the drive you have to have to make it.
Brilliant as she was and is, there was a time when her work didn’t make me relax, didn’t make me lose myself inside the world of her performance. That’s because she was always there: “Marvellous Meryl” as a Time Magazine cover called her in the early ‘80s.
She’s a feminist because many women in her generation are – that’s how we grew up. But at the same time, she knows – and wants – her words and her work to be mainstream, reach a world-wide audience. She wants what she says to matter. And to many, she does.
So like the great actor she is, she put herself in the expert place of giving a review of one of the widely-viewed performances of the greatest actor in the world right now: one Donald John Trump, of New York, real estate tycoon, elected by the American Electoral College to be the 45th President of the United States.
And because he is an actor – a creator of atmospheres and stories, and realties not quite there – Streep gave him her professional opinion.
He responded (of course) and called her “overrated”. This is one of the few accolades that she has not won.
Some people don’t get it: this New Age isn’t about unity, its about what Trump calls “The Look”. It’s about theatre: what performance is going to win; which one will go home with all the awards: which one will flop, board up the venue and turn it into a parking lot.
You’re never supposed to utter the word Macbeth inside a theatre. It is thought to bring bad luck. Meryl uttered Macbeth to Trump and to all of his supporters. She knew that the self-described germaphobe had not quite allowed the audience in. They were kept outside, at the backstage door, waiting for a glimpse of Him-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Because you gotta get your hands dirty if you want to give a great performance. Not live in a gilded tower.
A monster is always fascinating in a kind of laboratorial way to those of us in the theatre. For Streep too, which is why she did not name him. Trump is an archetype. She must have also wanted not to shame him. Why make the effort to do that? It’s impossible to do as one of his followers explained to the New York Times after allegations about his personal life appeared.
Some say that Barack Obama is an actor.
Of course he is. Here’s a guy with a backstory that makes the kind of Americans who voted for Trump run for their muskets.
“Was he even born in the US?!” they scream. By the way, this was the question that Trump used to propel himself into politics big time. He wanted The Birth Certificate.
Trump’s move was populous; it was cheap and cheerful. And it played, as all great performances must. It was catnip, giving voice to the primal fears of those who doubted the President’s legitimacy anyway.
In my book Obama Music – part look at Obama, part personal memoir – I went in search of Barack Hussein Obama, a man whose accent didn’t sound to me like he had come from the Southside of Chicago he hailed as his “hometown”. That’s where I was born and raised. I just couldn’t believe anyone named “Barack Hussein Obama” (what was his real name?). I couldn’t buy the slogan “Yes We Can!” which sounded like something that Disney concocted.
I recognised right away that his book about his father was also a way to introduce himself to the world. Because he wanted the world. And that somehow – with his beautiful wife and daughters and lovely mother-in-law – he himself could build a new Theatre Of Dreams in that ongoing saga otherwise known as the United States Of America.
A Harvard law professor and head of its Law Review, a prestigious position, he knows what it means to be “the only black guy in the village”. “You don’t come in hard”, he has said. “You don’t make sudden moves, shake anything up.” Because he could be stopped by cops; still have to put his hands on the steering wheel in that surrender posture that black boys are taught with their mother’s milk so as not to be shot dead. “Watch them follow me”, he told a colleague once, after he had finished a lecture and had begun to walk away. Sure enough, the audience followed him, wanting more of the performance, needing one last turn.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for nothing, clearly just to have his glorious presence in Stockholm. And he must have known it.
The Obama White House was star-studded and beautiful; so that when he cried after talking about the young kids murdered by a lunatic with an automatic rifle at a place called Sandy Hook, his enemies did not believe his tears. They wanted to wake up from the nightmare of seeing him and his wife and his kids and his mother-in-law occupy.... The White House.
Yes, he used drones, and deported hundreds of people and he did a lot of the stuff US Presidents do because that’s what a President of the United States does. He couldn’t remake the job. He must have thought that by killing Osama Bin Laden – America’s Most Wanted – he’d at last be able to walk down the Main Street of Hometown America.
Instead the Navy SEAL who led the operation left his traditional anonymity; broke with protocol re: the Commander-in Chief and wrote a book about what he’d done. The mystique, the magic, the bullshit and the lies that make up the American Presidency was continuously denied Barack Obama.
Now America has Trump with his penchant for the colour of gold, like something out of the bad old days of the 1890s Gilded Age. Oscar Wilde would have written a play about him. Maybe he is writing it in some alternative universe.
Streep did something else beautifully and effectively at the Golden Globes: she never uttered Trump’s name. Not once. Samuel Johnson wrote that worse than someone saying something bad about you is no one saying anything at all. The Golden Globe audience – the world – got the subtext, and the whole thing went viral.
“All the world’s a stage” Shakespeare wrote and we’re naïve not to think so. The surge of populism sweeping the US, the UK and Europe is another piece of theatre, played by those elites who are, like Trump, a kind of germaphobe, making the sacrifice: for you.
The signal in the noise is what this new theatre is forcing us to confront: the 140 character universe where the most powerful person on earth unloads his id and we have to read it. This makes any notion of “unity” ludicrous. The lead in a play is always the centre of attraction.
President Obama will have an Act Three, with perhaps the soon-to-be former First Lady this time in the leading role. Donald J. Trump will create a new spectacle: a combination of stupidity; intuition; zeitgeist with a malignancy and a dangerous naivety that has dragged the Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave into a new Act. Let’s hope it’s not Act Three in a three-act play.