Weighty Matters, Light Verse: John Lithgow Inks ‘Dumpty’

One day, reaching for this book will be a good way to revisit the escapades of the Trump presidency -- and to be glad that they're over.

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Satirist, actor, raconteur and #NotMyPresident supporter John Lithgow.

In the introduction to Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse, a new collection of satirical poems, actor-writer John Lithgow confirms unapologetically that he is “preaching to the choir.” Lithgow knows that his audience consists primarily, perhaps entirely, of those who share his distaste for the current administration. He makes a pitch, however, to any followers of Donald Trump who unaccountably find themselves perusing Dumpty:

Pause for a moment and contemplate your own contradictory leanings.

This is a collection of 33 poems of various lengths, concerning a variety of persons and events from the first two-plus years of the Trump regime. There are entries on specific figures in and about the administration, from Stephen Miller to Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Sean Hannity. The shortest poem is a single quatrain on the vice president called “Hentsy Pentsy.” The longest — 10 pages — is “Seven Days in November,” detailing the president’s doings following the 2018 midterm elections.

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Lithgow never loses sight of the fact that he’s primarily a performer. In interviews to promote the book, he enthusiastically recites his verses; he also recorded an audio version of Dumpty. In a recent interview on Pamela Paul’s Book Review podcast for The New York Times, he explained that he considers himself not a poet at all, but rather a clown. If so, he’s a relatively refined one: an erudite court jester striving to make sense of the occupancy of the Oval Office by a man who, when it comes down to it, is a fellow entertainer (albeit one working in a significantly lower-brow mode).

It makes sense, then, that this book grew out of a 2017 performance Lithgow gave in Central Park to help raise money for NYC’s Public Theater. Singing the Major-General’s patter song from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, he substituted a stanza of his own, including the lines:

In spite of all my service in remote Afghani-stin afore;
No officer has screwed the pooch as much as Michael Flynn-afore

It was William Schwenck Gilbert, then (along with Michael Flynn), who primed the pump for Dumpty. Lithgow certainly isn’t the first performer to make updates to the Major-General’s song, but his additions are clever, and the cleverness resonates on multiple levels. Savoy opera aficionados, for example, will detect in the “-’stin afore / Flynn-afore” rhyme a nod to Gilbert’s original, famously meta couplet:

Then I can hum a fugue of which I’ve heard the music’s din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense “Pinafore.”

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A slight digression: Gilbert, before teaming with Arthur Sullivan, made a name for himself writing humorous light verse that was eventually published in the anthology Bab Ballads. As Andrew Crowther suggests in his Gilbert biography, when the versifier moved into lyric writing for operettas with Sullivan, he turned a corner as a writer. “There was something in their art,” writers Crowther, “which chimed together.” It’s significant, then, that Lithgow started the Dumpty project not just with Gilbert’s words in mind but also Sullivan’s music. So it’s odd that he otherwise steers clear in this collection from writing song parodies — with the exception of a spoof of “My Favorite Things,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music, called “My Favorite Lies.”

Other Trump-era satirists have done wonderful work using pop songs and theater tunes. Randy Rainbow’s scathing song parodies and deliciously campy accompanying videos are irresistible. There’s a kind of rowdy, energetic audaciousness in a number like “Cheeto Christ, Stupid Czar,” for instance, that makes me want to put Rainbow’s video on repeat.

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Another parodist, comic novelist and Frasier scriptwriter Joe Keenan, has made a hit both online and in a series of regularly updated musical-comedy shows called Everybody Rise: A Resistance Cabaret, which have been presented in LA and NYC. In Keenan’s parodies, virtually every syllable adds something to the fun, with allusions and puns piling up like a line of falling dominoes. Take his parody of Funny Girl’s “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” written to mark Trump’s insistence this past Independence Day on having a muscle-flexing show of military force in Washington, DC:

Nobody, no nobody
Can stop my
Reign or my parade.

These robust lyrics provide a great moment for a cabaret belter. Even just reading them on the page, we get an extra kick; our memories beckon not only Bob Merrill’s original lyric but also Jule Styne’s melody and Barbra Streisand’s interpretation of both. We immediately visualize Trump standing on a tugboat, throwing his head back, braying about his prowess as Commander-in-Chief, with or without an armful of yellow roses.

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Unlike Rainbow and Keenan, Lithgow finds inspirations for his verses not in songs but in nursery rhymes, other well-known children’s verse (such as Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat”), and poems by “serious” poets, including Robert Burns and John Masefield. His verses aren’t stodgy, necessarily, but they don’t — to use Crowther’s word — always chime. There can be a soporific, sing-song-y quality to them, especially when Lithgow turns to anapestic tetrameter, which can’t help but to dredge up thoughts of countless “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” send-ups. (To his credit, his rhymes are mostly exact — although in the Major-General piece, he pairs “general” with “ephemeral.”)

What Lithgow does especially well is tell stories. In years to come, reaching for this book will be a good way to revisit the escapades of some of the characters in the Trump presidency that have already fallen into remote corners of our memory banks — Elliott Broidy and Scott Pruitt are two examples. Yet his storytelling talents fall short in at least one poem. “A Liberal’s Complaint” is an ad hominem tirade against Sean Hannity (“You media profanity!…You gross albino manatee.”) It’s missing any narrative sense at all; I found it to be the weakest selection in the anthology. Far more effective than hurling wild comedic insults at Hannity would be reminding us of the troublesome things the Fox News star has said and done in the past few years.

By contrast, “Seven Days in November” is arguably Dumpty‘s biggest success. (Lithgow did confess to Paul on her podcast, though, that his personal favorite is “The Ostrich’s Lament” — about Paul Manafort, he of felony convictions and a certain ostrich-feathered jacket). As a mini-epic, “Seven Days” makes good on its ambitious goals. I especially like a stanza in which Lithgow recalls Trump’s visit to Paris to join other world leaders in commemorating the centenary of the end of World War I. POTUS waits with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron for the arrival of the Russian president. And then:

When a shifty-eyed latecomer strode to the stand,
Teuton and Gaul coldly shook the man’s hand.
But Dumpty lit up like a bright chandelier!
His friend had arrived! The beloved Vladimir!

Here, Lithgow departs from his customary detachment from his subject. In one part of the poem, he boldly inserts himself into Trump’s thought processes and motives. Thrown into a funk by the results of the midterms, Lithgow’s Trump momentarily considers resigning:

He was seized by a thought that he couldn’t dislodge:
“To hell with this crap! I’ll just get outta Dodge.”

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Other poems go into rather dark territory, particularly ones alluding to the deaths of Jamal Khashoggi and Otto Warmbier. Some critics may feel that light verse is not the genre for dealing with such sobering matters. On Paul’s podcast, Lithgow himself admitted that crafting witty poems on disturbing topics is challenging, but he felt compelled not to exclude heavier subject matter. I admire the decision, even if what appears on the page provokes a wince or two.

Just as Gilbert did for Bab Ballads, Lithgow also serves as his own illustrator as well. His line drawings are elegant, intricate and whimsical. If his acting career ever falters — fat chance — he might find work as a political cartoonist. To illustrate “My Favorite Lies,” he draws Trump as Maria Von Trapp twirling on an alp while sporting an extended Pinocchio nose.

Dumpty concludes with events from spring of 2019, with the Robert Mueller investigation ending and William Barr settling in as attorney general. So, of course, you won’t find verses on the Ukraine phone calls, impeachment hearings, the Roger Stone trial and conviction, or whatever it is that Trump happens to be tweeting about at the moment you’re reading this. No word yet as to whether Lithgow will further chronicle the adventures of Dumpty. There will unfortunately be no dearth of material should he choose to do so.