Alexi Kaye Campbell’s Apologia is currently running at the Trafalgar Studios until November. The play was originally performed in 2009 and has an offhand reference to the election of Barrack Obama.
Trudi, a young American woman, tells Kirstin, an American who’s been an expat for decades, “we’ve just elected our first African American president. It’s exciting.” Kirstin replies, “I don’t know. Let’s see how things play out in the long run.”
Given the current political climate in America, which could be called a lot of things, but never “exciting,” a line like that was obviously going to get a big response. And it did. People laughed, even applauded, at Stockard Channing’s sardonic, knowing delivery. But that line never would’ve gotten laughs like it did, or a round of applause, when the play was performed eight years ago. There was no long run to compare Obama’s election to.
This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Politics has changed the way we respond to art for as long as there’s been politics and art, from the didactic drama of Brecht, to the Handmaid’s Tale adaptation being described as everything from timely, to worryingly prescient. It wouldn’t come as shocking news to hear that elements of the Trump campaign caused sales of of to increase, but is important. It speaks to how malleable art is; how a novel or a play or a TV series isn’t rooted in its time, place, or source material. Instead, it strikes a chord deep within the purpose of what art allows us to do: to understand the world in which we live.
A lot of art these days seems as being read as a warning. As the US continues its political turbulence, and here in the UK we turn our back to Europe, the world seems smaller, and lonelier, than it has in a long time. But that’s where art comes in. It helps us feel less alone. It helps us understand, or try to at least. Everyone seems to be publishing books about “post-truth” these days, and Trump is appearing everywhere, from the White House, to the theatre, with the infamous “Trump inspired” Julius Caesar in New York earlier this year. Caesar’s effectiveness, when applied to contemporary politics, isn’t just about Trump. It’s about the trajectory of the play’s eponymous ruler, whose confidence in their power is undermined as the play goes on, and with Anthony rallying “the fickle-minded mob by demonstrating an impassioned fluency and common touch that the loftier, more formulaic (nay robotic) Brutus lacks.” It’s almost impossible not to have this strike a chord, not to think that we’re here now, just as we’ve been here before. And things like Caesar, like 1984, might be warnings, they might be terrifying, but they help us understand the world, they help us face it with our eyes wide open, understanding what’s gone wrong, and what needs to be done to stop things from getting worse.
But not all art has to be a sombre, terrifying warning of how difficult things can be. Sometimes, it can serve as a reminder, or an elegy, for how far we have come, and for those that have been lost along the way. In Angels in America, recently revived at the National Theatre, Tony Kushner wrote that “the world only spins forward.” And that’s true, even if the planet sometimes feels like it’s been knocked off its axis. Angels in America isn’t a political rally the same way it was decades ago. Instead, it’s meaning has changed with time, with one eye on the past, and another on the future. But always with both eyes open. That’s what art lets us do, when times are trying, unexpected, and alienating. Art changes with us, never staying still, never being fixed in one place. It shines a light on parts of the world that might otherwise stay in darkness, or sneak up on us. It lets us see clearly, at times when clarity is in desperately short supply.
The fluidity of art doesn’t just mean clarity, though. It doesn’t just let us hold a mirror up to our situation. As I’ve said before, it allows us to feel less alone, something that’s becoming more and more important as the world gets smaller. Art is something that’s shared. When I heard Stockard Channing talk about “the long run” in Apologia, I was in a room full of people. A room full of people that managed to laugh at the state of the world. Art lets us experience the world together, as a group; it acts as cure, however temporarily, for the isolation and shrinking that the world is going through.