#URStage: Theater in the Trump Era - From Creon to Lear, the Tragic Hero is Clear

by Lindsey B. 

#URStage is a column devoted to publishing the real world issues facing artists today, on and off the stage. If you are interested in contributing, email us at onstageblog@gmail with #URStage in the subject line. 

Based on the first part of this article’s title, one might think this piece will be a call to action to save the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities from Trump’s budget cuts as early reports from The Hill and Washington Post indicate is a real possibility, not to mention the possible loss of PBS.  The topic of the arts suffering under his administration is certainly relevant and alarming, and we do need to publicize what that loss would mean.

But, I am not a journalist on the front lines of Washington, but instead a high school English teacher. This post is about Trump’s first week in office and parallels in great classic drama, that anyone with a passion for classic literature will see, and unfortunately, if Trump’s budget cuts for the arts happen, future generations will not. 

As my teaching colleagues and I prepare to take 150 high school students to see Shakespeare’s King Lear at The Guthrie in April, and I prepare students to attend the performance, this week’s headlines read like lines of a classical drama.  While I wouldn’t point out these parallels in a bipartisan classroom, I believe my students, or future directors will.

Sophocles’ classic Greek play Antigone is the third in the Oedipus cycle depicting Creon, a king in his first few days of office suffering from hubris, paranoia, and fear of traitors to his “ship of state”.  On his first day in office, he makes an edict that leads to his tragic downfall: no man shall bury the body of Polyneices, a traitor to Thebes.  Creon’s edict and rash decisions lead him to imprison his own niece, and no advice from his advisors or son can stop his nearsightedness. He loses his niece, son, wife, and ends the play begging to be killed because he realizes his hubris. I cannot read an article about Trump’s immigration ban  or executive orders to build the wall with Mexico, without seeing the parallels in classic literature. When the fear of enemies comes before the good of the state, real consequences happen.  When advisors are ignored and edicts are issued without careful thought, individuals are effected. 

Shakespeare’s Lear, is leader whose vanity causes tragedy.  When Lear decides to divide his kingdom among his daughters, he foolishly asks each of his three daughter to profess their love for him.  I’m reminded of this scene this week as Trump’s vanity has caused him to create alternate facts to establish that his inaugural crowd size rivaled his predecessor and his CIA speech drew applause that rivaled Peyton Manning’s at the SuperBowl.   Trump’s obsession with establishing his importance seems to outweigh the other aspects of the office, at least in week one.

Lear foolishly believes the flattery of his selfish daughters Goneril and Regan, and punishes his honest daughter Cordelia.  Trump too, seems to respond well to flattery and bribery and has recently nominated Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, although her lack of experience is glaring, especially her lask of understanding concerning the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  DeVos admits it’s possible her family has reportedly donated over $200 million to republicans.  

Seems like Trump could use a little less personal drama and a little more classic drama.