Sunday, March 15, 2020

Sunday Reading

Going Native — Steve Coll in The New Yorker on Trump’s knee-jerk nativist response to a global pandemic.

In late July, 2014, near Monrovia, Liberia, two Americans, Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, contracted Ebola. They had been working in a missionary hospital, trying to ameliorate an outbreak then racing across West Africa. The Obama Administration dispatched an air ambulance to carry them home, swathed in white protective gear, for treatment at Emory University Hospital, in Atlanta, and this touched off a media spectacle. The chyron story line was: Ebola comes to America. (Brantly and Writebol soon recovered.) Donald Trump, who was then less than a year away from announcing his run for the Presidency, weighed in on Twitter: “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. . . . THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!” He tweeted about the epidemic dozens of times during the next months, and called for a ban on travel from West Africa (“STOP THE FLIGHTS!”). The White House’s Office of Digital Strategy later concluded that one of Trump’s tweets, to the two and a half million followers he had at the time, was a “crystallizing moment” in the Ebola crisis, as Amy Pope, Obama’s deputy homeland-security adviser, put it, and that Trump had “created a level of anxiety in the country.”

He was just getting started, as we now know too well. Last Wednesday, the President sought to reassure the nation in a prime-time address from the Oval Office, as the COVID-19 outbreak was poised to morph from seriously worrying into the stuff of a bad Hollywood pitch: Italy a sixty-million-strong detention camp, the stock market in free fall, March Madness called off, Disneyland shuttered. The hope that Trump might someday grow into the dignity and gravity of his office was never realistic, but in this speech he put his narcissism and his reflexive nativism on exceptionally discordant display. “The virus will not have a chance against us,” he said, promising that he had put in place “the most aggressive and comprehensive effort to confront a foreign virus in modern history”—as if diseases had nationalities. He declared that “testing and testing capabilities are expanding rapidly,” only to be contradicted the next day by Anthony Fauci, the respected director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who told a House hearing, “The system is really not geared to what we need right now. . . . It is a failing. Let’s admit it.” (Last week, South Korea, with less than a sixth of the population of the United States, administered at least ten thousand novel-coronavirus tests a day, while in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only some thirteen thousand tests had been administered since January.) On Wednesday, Trump advised the “vast majority” of Americans that the risk they faced was “very, very low.” Fauci had already testified, however, that “it’s going to get worse,” and that, if the response proved to be inadequate, “many, many millions” could be affected.

Trump won the Presidency while pledging to wall America off from the world; the COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced his deep-seated belief in this impossibility. Quarantines and travel restrictions are a necessary part of a science-led approach to containing such outbreaks, because they can delay the spread of a dangerous virus, protecting hospitals from crippling surges of patients and buying time for researchers to develop treatments and vaccines. Trump often praises himself for his decision, announced on January 31st, to limit travel from China, a policy that public-health officials had recommended.

Yet travel limitations are only a part of what is necessary to manage a pandemic; coördinated action by governments is at least as important. Last week, Trump blamed the European Union for allowing the virus to spread on the Continent, and, as he announced a thirty-day ban on travel to the U.S. from European countries (the United Kingdom and Ireland, among a few other countries, were excepted—a decision with no grounding in science), implied that he was defending the nation from the epidemiological equivalent of a European invasion. He reportedly did not consult the E.U. before announcing his restrictions, a churlish decision that will do nothing to ease European leaders’ exasperation with him. On this, as on so much else in his foreign policy, Trump’s needless provocations have undermined U.S. security; it is absurd to suggest that the United States can contain this pandemic behind its own borders without extensive help from allies in Europe, Asia, and Latin America.

On Thursday, Joe Biden gave a speech on the crisis that sounded like the start of his presumptive general-election campaign to unseat the President. “This virus laid bare the severe shortcomings of the current Administration,” he said. “Public fears are being compounded by pervasive lack of trust in this President.” Biden’s victory over Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday was one of the great Houdini acts of American politics, the result of his strong support among African-Americans as well as, evidently, the desperate desire of many Democrats to be rid of Trump by whatever means may be the most plausible. But, in the life cycle of a Presidential campaign, November is a very long way off, and the role of the present crisis in the election is no easier to predict than the trajectory of the pandemic itself. The promise of Biden’s normalcy—his respect for science, knowledge of world affairs, capacity for gentleness and empathy, boring social-media feeds—will surely be enough for many voters, come what may. Yet it is unusual to win the White House simply by not being the man who currently occupies it.

In 2014, as a Twitter provocateur and fearmonger during the Ebola epidemic, Trump auditioned a political voice that he now exercises in full, to extraordinary effect. He presides over a social-media and talk-radio ecosystem that inspires intense devotion among his following, even as it spreads misinformation that will inevitably complicate the efforts of those who seek to navigate the pandemic by searching out reliable facts. On Friday, at a White House press conference, he declared a national emergency—“Two very big words”—a move that, he said, would free up fifty billion dollars to fight the outbreak in this country. He added, “I don’t take responsibility at all” for the slow testing rate. The President is steering the country through a challenge of yet unknown magnitude, one in which honesty and accountability will be at a premium. We know that he will not change. One way to survive the pandemic may be to tune him out.

Theatre In a Time of Plague — Daniel Pollack-Pelzner in The Atlantic.

As with everything that the coronavirus leaves in its wake, the suspension of operations by most major theaters around the country feels surreal—though surely both inevitable and necessary—and follows yesterday’s announcement that Broadway will turn off its lights for at least the next month. Only two days prior, the producer Scott Rudin had offered $50 discount tickets to his Broadway shows, including West Side Story and The Book of Mormon. “I can’t pretend that great theater is the panacea we’ve been waiting for, but in the meantime we could all use a few hours away from the evening news,” Rudin said in a press release, implying that his shows might, in some form, offer at least emotional inoculation from a pandemic.

Whether theater provides an entertaining diversion from “the evening news” or might be the cause of further suffering, however, is a debate that goes back at least to Shakespeare’s day. Elizabethan theaters were frequently shuttered in London during outbreaks of the bubonic plague, which claimed nearly a third of the city’s population. The official rule was that once the death rate exceeded thirty per week, performances would be canceled. (As an infant, Shakespeare himself barely survived an outbreak that killed his older siblings.) Like New York’s governor Andrew Cuomo, who has banned gatherings of more than 500 people, London officials in the 16th century worried that people flocking to town to “see certayne stage plays” would be “close pestered together in small romes,” creating the means “whereby great infeccion with the plague, or some other infeccious diseases, may rise and growe, to the great hynderaunce of the common wealth of this citty.”

In the first decade of King James I’s reign, the plague meant that London theaters were likely closed more often than they were open, and Shakespeare’s troupe, The King’s Men, had to rely on royal gifts and provincial tours to replace their lost box office. (No such luck for Broadway shows on tour; my family’s tickets to Frozen were canceled—regrettably? mercifully?—this weekend in Oregon, where the governor has banned gatherings of more than 250 people.) In The Year of Lear, the scholar James Shapiro notes that nascent epidemiologists weren’t the only ones who blamed the spread of disease on tourists breathing the same foul air in enclosed entertainment venues; religious zealots also came after the theater’s purported immorality: blasphemy, lewdness, cross-dressing. One Elizabethan preacher proclaimed that because “the cause of plagues is sin” and “the cause of sin are plays,” then “the cause of plagues are plays.”

Conversely, plagues may have caused plays. It’s long been thought that Shakespeare turned to poetry when plague closed the theaters in 1593. That’s when he published his popular narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, in which the goddess begs a kiss from a beautiful boy, “to drive infection from the dangerous year,” for, she claims, “the plague is banish’d by thy breath.” Love poetry, it seems, could be spurred by the plague, and—the seductive fantasy runs—even cure it. But Shapiro suggests that another closure of theaters, in 1606, allowed Shakespeare, an actor and shareholder in The King’s Men, to get a lot of dramatic writing done, meeting the demand for new plays in a busy holiday season at court. According to Shapiro, he churned out King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra that year.

Given that the bubonic plague particularly decimated young populations, it may also have wiped out Shakespeare’s theatrical rivals—companies of boy actors who dominated the early-17th-century stage, and could often get away with more satiric, politically dicey productions than their older competitors. Shakespeare’s company took over the indoor Blackfriars Theatre in 1608 after the leading boy company collapsed, and started doing darker, edgier productions, capitalizing on a market share that was newly available. In addition to business opportunities, the plague provided a powerful stock of dramatic metaphors. As Shapiro points out, references to the plague and its bubbling sores, called “God’s tokens,” surface in Shakespeare’s scripts from the period. In Antony and Cleopatra, a Roman soldier fears that his side will fare “like the token’d pestilence / Where death is sure.”

The ghost of a 17th-century plague victim haunts Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches, probably the best known work in recent decades to respond to a plague—the AIDS epidemic that ripped through Broadway in the 1980s. Kushner’s HIV-positive hero, Prior Walter, is visited by his ancestors, prior Priors, who tell him of the “spotty monster” they faced in earlier eras, and prepare him for a revelation to come. The angel that crashes through Prior’s ceiling at the end of the play heralds an era of painful renewal—both for AIDS survivors, and for the theatrical community that rallied around Kushner’s work. The red-ribboned organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS now follows many a Broadway performance with a fundraising appeal. If a plague could cause a play, perhaps a play could help to stop a plague.

The fear that remains, however, is that the very qualities for which live theater is celebrated—communities coming together to witness human stories, responding in bodily synchronicity with laughter, tears, gasps, and coughs—could accelerate its danger. In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written just after the end of the 1593 outbreak, the friar who’s supposed to tell Romeo that Juliet is only pretending to be dead gets prevented from delivering his message because he’s quarantined with a fellow priest who’s been helping the sick: “The searchers of the town, / Suspecting that we both were in a house / Where the infectious pestilence did reign, / Sealed up the doors and would not let us forth.” Romeo never gets the message, of course, and he kills himself before Juliet revives.

Adapting Shakespeare’s play for the musical West Side Story, the playwright Arthur Laurents thought that a plague was too implausible a contrivance to bring about tragedy. In Laurents’s version, he rewrote the ending so that Maria’s messenger—her cousin Anita—is rebuffed by Tony’s racist pals, who assault her. You could see that assault staged in graphic detail, projected on a giant video screen in Scott Rudin’s Broadway production. But as the coronavirus spreads, the quarantine plot twist that Laurents disparaged may come to seem all too plausible. And a screen may soon be the only way to see the tragedy Shakespeare understood centuries ago.

Of course, it’s not only communal narratives that are being lost, but also the livelihoods of thousands of theater workers across the country. Shakespeare’s model provides little solace: Write while you wait out the closure; lean on wealthy patrons for bailouts; exploit your rivals’ demise. But maybe his plays themselves offer a remedy. I’d been planning to take my students at Linfield College, where I’m a Shakespeare professor, to a new adaptation of Measure for Measure at Bag&Baggage Theater in Oregon this weekend. Instead, we’re following the theater’s lead: “We’re continuing to wash our hands (à la Lady Macbeth) as frequently as we can.”

The most heartening lesson from Shakespeare’s era is that the playhouses will likely survive and reopen, again and again. What plays to perform when they do? There’s naturally been a lot of attention to Naomi Wallace’s 1997 play about the bubonic plague, One Flea Spare, a bitter diagnosis of gender and class divisions that rupture like one of God’s tokens when strangers are quarantined together in 17th-century London. But I’d nominate a play about communities of care that form in crisis: Water by the Spoonful, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner. Hudes grew up in Philadelphia as AIDS and crack devastated her neighborhood, and the twin pincers of the Iraq War and the so-called War on Drugs rendered brown people disposable. Instead of despair, however, she offers a vision of recovery. The play is set in an online chat room for crack addicts, and then spills into the messy, physical world as virtual acquaintances learn to support one another’s bodies in need. It ends with an extraordinary scene of hand-washing—not as guilty expiation or necessary precaution, but as a ritual of healing.

Doonesbury — All you need is love.