How I Found a Flicker of Art in the Artless Soul of Trump

"Transparent Falsehood" is a satire full of “outtakes of humanity” for a man who has none.

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Wyatt Fenner as Barron and Ezra Barnes as the Orange Menace in "Transparent Falsehood." Photo: Francis Krow.

Trump wasn’t supposed to win; mercifully, I was never going to think about him ever again once the elections were over. But the cosmos had its own agenda — and once this putative president assumed his throne, I knew I had to put aside my other, more elegiac work (a play on English photographer Eadweard Muybridge) and focus on the chaos (euphemistic for disaster) unfolding all around me.

But where to start? How do you engage a subject whose audacity outstrips the imagination? Trump thrived on chaos; his campaign was a veritable Ponzi scheme of lies, old and new, that were often recycled from top to bottom, and resurrected back up again, from bottom to top, once the older exhumed lies had a chance to catch their breath. The audacity of hope was now converted into the mendacity of the shameless, and nothing I could write would ever match the sheer invention of this man’s inveterate and colorful corruption; a heedless unscrupulousness, as uncaring as it was poignantly un-self-aware. As if overnight, we were transported into a new Dark Age where facts were summarily banished and replaced with patently self-serving lies.

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Now, it’s hard enough for a writer to respectfully render reality. But to somehow compete with a fabricated universe of fraud and unfounded lies seemed beyond daunting. How do you construct a play about something so protean that it changes daily — nay, hourly; something so inconstant and balefully unpredictable that it defies narrative as we know it? Unlike the stock market, which hysterically twitched and quivered, in response to each and every one of Trump’s galvanic and thoughtless whims, I was determined to find a more steadfast and reliable way to tell my story. Here I was, trying to write something to express my visceral disgust at Trump and his White House, and all the time the cast of characters kept changing, pulling focus from one set of depraved understudies to the next. Worse yet, my main protagonist was not only incapable of learning his lines, or sticking to one story, his unreliable character insisted on going off-book to promulgate ego-driven, improvisatory riffs that only further reflected his own insecurities. More than once, I confess, I found myself humming a slightly demented version of a song from The Sound of Music:

How do you solve a problem like Trump?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Trump?
A flibbertijibbet! A will-o’-the wisp! A clown!

But I persevered. So strongly and stubbornly did I feel the need to expose this prevaricator in his own shape-shifting element, that I staunchly kept searching for a structure to accommodate and sustain all his unnerving and disorienting contradictions without capitulating to his rules. At all cost I had to somehow distill the essence of Trump and his toxicity before he succeeded to poison me and my sensibilities.

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Without reverting to overly clever satire or ephemeral one-liners — which Saturday Night Live and the late-night shows splendidly provide — I wanted to create something about Trump that could live outside and, in fact, beyond him. Something durable, not disposable, like him and his sadly Manichaean win-or-lose worldview. Only that could serve as my revenge: a work of mystery about someone who defied, denied and defiled all metaphor and mystery. A man whose only true romance is with lying itself.

So I worked and struggled to divine a flicker of art in the artless soul of Trump. Initially I was shocked and bedazzled by the unremitting and sensational outpouring of current events. But something instinctually told me to avoid this overt and incessant political bombardment, and to focus instead on a more private, contained Trump. A smaller, more manageable Trump, caught outside the public sphere and the bluster of politics, yet still consistent with — almost derived from — everything we’ve come to know of The Donald through his tireless media circus. Presently I found myself writing and inventing “outtakes of humanity” for a man who I thought had none. A document he would no doubt detest.

So now the play was writing itself: Trump putting Barron to bed; Trump preparing to go out for the night with Melania; Trump attending Parent’s Day at school; Trump having Seder at Mar-a-Lago. Naturally the politics of the outside world would now and again impinge themselves upon the play and necessitate rewrites, but these touch-ups often had a short shelf life as they were invariably replaced by more urgent, shocking news like a passing summer storm. Yet the bedrock of the play held fast.

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The first draft of Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty finished, I now felt compelled to put it on. I’ve always thought that the role of theater was to be an exigent sounding board for what happens around us. Theater is immediate; more than the other arts, it lends itself to a kind of living analysis, a social vivisection. It is a breathing organism that communes with subject and spectator alike, and always in present time, not in a mediated form. Given all that was transpiring in the world, it seemed urgent to get this particular piece produced and seen — not as simple agitprop, but as legitimate theater attuned to the turbulence around it. Here, finally, was a play, imperfect as it may be, that in many ways was more presumptuously finished than the world it depicts. It is, I hope, a wishful stage for what might one day unfold, both a pre-cautionary tale and woeful fable.

Transparent Falsehood: An American Travesty, directed by Richard Caliban and featuring original music by Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, runs through May 19 at Theater 511 (511 W. 54th St.). It stars Ezra Barnes (Breakfast with Mugabe, In White America) as Trump; Wyatt Fenner (Bent, directed by Moisés Kaufman; Romeo and Juliet directed by Darko Tresnjak) as Barron and Jared; Stephanie Fredricks (Wonderful Town on Broadway with Donna Murphy and Brooke Shields) as Melania; Chuck Montgomery (Hal Hartley’s Fay Grim) as Steve Bannon; and Latonia Phipps (Katori Hall’s Children of Killers) as Ivanka.