Two days after this year’s US presidential election, Teju Cole signed an op-ed piece in the New York Times that drew parallels between Eugène Ionesco’s Rhinoceros and the rise of Donald Trump. Ionesco’s play, inspired by the author’s own experience of fascism in his native Romania, suggests that political upheavals can be as baffling, disorienting and unexpected as his absurd premise, in which an epidemic of “rhinoceritis” transforms rational human individuals into mindless, violent herd animals.
Cole’s essay struck a chord echoed by other post-election commentators. An exasperated Tabatha Southey bitterly mocked journalistic “safaris” into Trumpland that sought to “humanize” Trump’s electorate. No, Southey countered, there was nothing more to “understand” about a Trump supporter than their tendency to violent anger, racism and misogyny. In a broader assessment of global politics in this new “age of anger,” Pankaj Mishra argued that “liberal rationalism” is under grave threat from such figures as Trump, who “strut across a bewilderingly expanded theatre of political absurdism.”
As theater directors confront the “political absurdism” of our present conjuncture, we may expect a general revival of Rhinoceros on the stage. Another Ionesco play, however, captures an equally significant aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the tendency to misrecognize one’s neighbors and, in the process, to misapprehend oneself. We can cite in this regard the failed assessment of the Republican candidate by the mainstream media, who all but wrote off his chances of winning, and the enduring confusion about the demographic identity of Trump’s supporters. In the election’s aftermath, commentators scrambled to put a face to this electorate, which many identified as an angry and disillusioned working class. Subsequently, as more complete polling data came in Trump’s electors began to look like a broad cross-section of the US population. To put it in tweet form, we were all in bed with the Donald.
In The Bald Soprano, a married couple arrives at the house of Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the two are shown in by the maid. Strangely, however, as the husband and wife wait for their hosts, they can’t recall where they have met before. The two soon establish a series of increasingly absurd “coincidences”: they are both originally from Manchester, and each traveled to London not only on the same train but in the very same compartment, and in facing seats. Next, they learn that they both reside on the same street in London, and in an incremental process of careful cross-verifications, each provoking the same outbursts of surprise and amazement, they determine that both of them live in the same building, on the same floor, in the same apartment, and sleep in an identical bed “covered with a green eiderdown.” “How curious it is and what a coincidence!” says the lady of these last details. “It is indeed possible that we have met there, and perhaps even last night. But I do not recall it, dear sir!”*
The couple finally discovers that they both have a daughter with one white and one red eye, which provides them with sufficient proof that they must be married and living together. At this point the man and woman approach each other and they solemnly embrace. Stage directions say that the clock strikes once, very loudly, and specify that “this striking of the clock must be so loud that it makes the audience jump.” The couple does not hear the bell, however, and this disjunction alerts us to another distressing problem of misapprehension: should we, the audience, be amused by this seeming farce — or should our hair be standing on end?
“Donald, it’s you, darling!” exclaims the woman at the end of the dialogue, and the name rings like a gong struck by Ionesco from beyond the grave, another reason for the audience to start, rather than laugh at the scene. When the maid subsequently appears and addresses the audience, she only adds to our confusion. But she delivers what may be the political statement of our times, a warning to Trumpists and opponents alike, and a challenge to the president-elect’s governing ego, were it possible to inject into his consciousness a seed of healthy méconnaissance: “Donald is not Donald” (19).
Trump has put the id in president; he may in fact be the first surrealist chief executive of the United States. When this blustering, orange-haired Ubu demagogue is inaugurated on January 20, it will be almost exactly one year to the day he boasted on the campaign trail, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” The future POTUS seemed to be riffing from André Breton, who famously said, “the simplest surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”**
“Bitter victory of surrealism,” as the Situationists put it. Noting that modern business tactics had coopted the avant-garde, the agit-art group claimed that new radical art practices were needed to confront the social ravages of consumerism and the violence of an empire in its death throes. France, in that fateful year of 1958, was confronting the rise of its own strongman president. Ionesco’s Rhinoceros premiered in Paris soon afterward, proving, in spite of the Situationists’ doubts, that absurdism could make a strong political statement by reviving surrealist aesthetics. Is it too much to hope that political theater can do the same today?
For the time being we may be stuck with crowd-pleasing musicals. In any case, the prospects for French radical aesthetics in the US look dim. In a cautionary tour of pre-election Appalachia – a “safari” in Trumpland, as Tabatha Southey would put it – Chris Offutt recently described how the Republican governor of Kentucky has been dismantling the state’s public education system. For Offutt, the objective of this policy is clear: uneducated white men tend to vote Republican.
The governor’s own reasoning seemed more sinister. He took direct aim at French literary studies, implying that an American outbreak of rhinoceritis would be best promoted by removing Dada, Surrealism and the Theater of the Absurd from college syllabi. Was the governor aware of the subversive potential of foreign-language instruction, too? After all, The Bald Soprano, Ionesco’s first play, was inspired by taking a course in the French Assimil method. But the governor’s explanations were as obscure as his motives. In his laconic turn of phrase, austerity measures are not so much choices as a confirmation of the inevitable or the joining of a stampede. Trumpism, it seems, is a triumph of the inexplicable. ‘“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than French-literature majors,”’ the governor drily explained. ‘“There just will.”’
* Eugène Ionesco, The Bald Soprano and Other Plays (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 18.
**André Breton, “Second Manifesto of Surrealism,” in Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1969), 125.