Words are meant to lead. The mother of a baby alpaca will repeatedly click her tongue and make a noise similar to, but quieter than an alpaca’s alarm call. The baby, or cria, learns the mother’s voice first, and knows what and who to pay attention to within moments of birth. The cria will be able to walk within the first hour or so; those noises from the mother must be understood in case the herd happens to move to a different spot. The kid must find her mother during the journey. A newborn straggler would become an easy lunch for predators.
The ‘words’ of the alpaca mother are, “come here kid” and “stay with me”. Words that command the cria to follow. While a baby will take months to learn the human version of this same communication, the alpaca will pick up just a few more ‘words’ before reaching the limits of its lifetime vocabulary. Humans have a much more complicated relationship with language.
Rhetoric, the use of language to persuade, is a primary component of daily life. We place most of our trust in leaders who use the language well. I recall the opened-mouth fascination of watching Mario Cuomo’s speech from the 1984 Democratic Convention, or Reagan’s ‘Shinning City on a Hill’ Speech. Barack Obama wrote and delivered superior speeches that moved the soul on both an emotional and intellectual level.
Lets take a side track for a moment and talk about Theatre of the Absurd. It ties in with the topic at hand. So, if your family were farmers in certain parts of Europe it is possible that during both WWI and WWII your farm was destroyed by the fighting in the wars. After facing the reconstruction of your property for a second time you start to wonder – What’s life all about? Each bloodied soldier sitting on your crops could tell you their version of truth but none of it matters because you still have to bury the bodies, rebuild the fields and the fences and regrow the garden from scratch. Trying to make sense of this puts you in a state of existential shock. Your existence seems to be without purpose, illogical, out of harmony, useless, devoid of reason, meaningless, hopeless, chaotic, lacking order, and uncertain. Playwrights try to illustrate this frustration on stage through the use of Theatre of the Absurd.
A key theme in this genre is the futility of language. When language doesn’t convey commonly understood meanings, communication becomes futile. Illustrating that on stage is baffling and frustrating to the audience who search for meaning in the words. The characters proceed on to the next event whether the communication is clear to the audience or not. It’s like the farmer watching the soldiers destroy the family farm again. No explanation is provided that answers the question, Why? Or, What is life about? Or, How can God exist in this horror?
Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker is an example. The audience watches domination and submission games played by the characters who engage in somewhat mundane conversations. One of its main themes is about family bonding without the help of dialogue between the two brothers. They speak, but what is spoken is not understood, resulting in isolation. There are long moments of silence in the play which create a menacing feeling. The characters deceive one another and themselves. Self deceptions are repeated throughout the play, creating an artful motif. The menace, lies and solitude suggest a world where the foundations of co-existence: time, place, and identity are as ambiguous and as fluid as is the language.
So, now we have a President and Republican Congress invading our farm. When Trump speaks, the futility of language is exposed. He deceives everyone along with himself, mostly with lies and delusions. Consequently, he feels isolated, even from his wife. He communicates through incomplete thoughts tweeted to the world in the middle of the night. His un-indicted and soon to be indicted co-conspirators pretend like it all makes sense. They proceed on to the next event as if nothing odd has happened. It’s like one big improvisational absurd theatre piece playing out for the world right in our own back yard.
A playwright gives a play structure, there are themes and metaphors and plot. The play may be enigmatic in meaning, but at least there is a structure to the story telling process. Events occur throughout the play in some sort of formalized manner, following at least some of the basic conventions of the theatre. Meanwhile, on Trump’s stage, the conventions of leadership have been torn asunder to such a degree that even a fairly conventional speech to congress can’t be taken at face value, or any value for that matter. He has teased the audience way too much with lies and misdirection. He has reached a point where his shtick no longer represents an artful tale of existential questioning. The time has come for the director of the production to say: We stopped being credible a long time ago, let’s go back and fix it. The essential function of Trump’s absurd communication is not sufficient to lead anyone anywhere, not even a cria to her mother.