We Are The Mob We Are Cheering For, or The Theater of Audience Flattery
June 17, 2017
If you remember SCTV, you’ll also fondly remember Joe O’Flaherty’s parody TV talk show host Sammy Maudlin. Sammy peopled his stage with off-key singers and lame comics, but eked out cheap applause with the decrepit show-biz trick of flattering his audience. See how hip and smart we are? See how hip and smart you are because you’re watching us?
The current Shakespeare in the Park production of “Julius Caesar” is all Sammy all the way. Audiences deliver standing ovations, I think chiefly because a Caesar costumed as President Trump is slaughtered in a particularly savage way. It’s the old Sammy Maudlin trick: they’re really applauding themselves. Trump the President is just like Caesar the dictator. We get it. See how hip and smart we are?
To be fair, Sammy and his audience had the decency to be fictional.
Don’t these people understand the play they just watched?
Brief digression: our American artsy world is overrun by scavengers who lack the wherewithal even to craft TV sitcoms. Most of these poseurs garner street cred by parroting the fashionable politics of the day. Some pimp off the works of past geniuses to stage headline-grabbing sensations.
Some do both. There’s a fad in Europe for directors who stage Mozart operas featuring nudity, foul language, bloody slaughter and all the other contemporary badges of authenticity. Since a lot of our American artsy types live and die to mimic European stupidities, it’s inevitable some here will likewise violate Shakespeare.
Back to “Julius Caesar.” Here’s what happens: a bunch of noble Romans whine and bicker. They spout eloquent speeches about duty, country and freedom, but with the possible exception of Brutus, it’s the old standbys greed, jealousy and fear that drive them to assassinate Caesar.
(If you’re interested, there’s a somewhat stodgy and stagey 1954 “Julius Caesar” movie starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, John Gielgud and one of my favorite actors Edmond O’Brien as Casca.)
These individual characters are wonderful, but Shakespeare’s most striking character is the Roman mob. Anyone can convince this mob of anything. Pompey used to be great, but at the play’s beginning Caesar has killed him, so now Caesar is great; then Brutus and the other conspirators kill Caesar, so they’re great; and then Antony reminds the mob how sad they should be that the conspirators stabbed to pieces their previously beloved Caesar, so the mob chases the conspirators out of Rome and for good measure burns down the city. And why not?
Of course, Antony’s famous funeral oration is a masterpiece of crowd flattery. Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher could pick up a few tricks. But Antony faced a tougher challenge: compared to our contemporary editions, Shakespeare’s was the Einstein of mobs.
Reader Flattery Alert: I’m sure you see where I’m going. A gullible and fickle contemporary mob applauds a play showcasing a gullible and fickle ancient mob. This sophisticated contemporary mob has bought the notions that Alabama home boy Jeff Sessions is a Russian secret agent, or that the Comey it hated ten seconds ago is now a hero, or that the billionaire soon-to-be President of the United States paid cheap prostitutes to pee on a bed in an obviously bugged Moscow hotel room.
Ah, you may say—that’s not a mob. That’s an audience. That’s different.
I have been in many live theater audiences, performed for many theater audiences, and sat in theater audiences watching my own work on stage. There is a collective character to a live theater audience. It is a group of individuals, yes; but it is itself also a discrete entity distinct and apart from any individual or group of individuals within it.
It has a character of its own. And like the characters it sees and hears on stage, the audience can be motivated by greed, jealousy and fear to develop a conscious emotional connection with the greedy, jealous and fearful characters fighting things out on that stage. If you don’t believe me, go read Aristotle’s “Poetics.”
For decades we have been noticing the ascendancy of self and its corollary self-consciousness. We glory in our self esteem. We snap selfies. Some of us read a magazine actually called “Self.” Some of us stage consciousness-raising sessions, the goal of which is to ratchet one click more our relentless consciousness of our selves in all our selfy selfiness.
But self-consciousness is not self-awareness. A self-aware person remembers when he declaimed passionate opinions he now regards as ignorant and idiotic. He remembers all the times the crowd was wrong and he caved in and now he feels bad about it. He is painfully aware of his partial knowledge, his limited reasoning ability, and his emotional frailties.
(Lest the reader find sexist my use of the non-inclusive pronoun “he,” feel relieved to know I’m really talking about my self—so it’s okay—right?)
A self-aware person resists any human temptation to join the mob cheering the assassination of the hated public figure du jour not only because assassination is immoral but also because he blushes to remember how wrong he has been so many times before.
His hard-won self-awareness mandates indifference to the mob’s opinion. He is skeptical. He eschews gullibility. He resists flattery. His examined life has “woke” him not to his own special hipness and smartness but to his own merely human limitations.
And he makes a lousy audience member for anyone who incites political assassination.
Here’s some unfiltered Shakespeare, from Sonnet 110. To me, William Shakespeare was a self-aware person occasionally willing to write about—what else—himself?Alas! ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made my self a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offences of affections new;
Most true it is, that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely…