Trump broke the rules of theater and paid a price

Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a theater critic for The Times of London and regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics. Her website is The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

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Theater critic Kate Maltby: Trump tried to narrate his own debate, write his own review

Trump left Clinton's failings as a lead performer unaddressed, she says

CNN  — 

It was all in the curtain call. Like an actor at the close of a successful show, Hillary Clinton surged forward into her audience, shaking hands with well-wishers. By contrast, Donald Trump hung back on the stage, his family forming a praetorian guard around him. This was a man who had ended his performance twice as distant from his viewers than when he had confidently begun.

Kate Maltby

Even when he strode into the media spin room – an act unprecedented for a general election candidate in the era of TV politics – Trump walked the gamut of cameras like a reluctant British royal on an official walkabout, uncharacteristically incapable of projecting his persona into the scrum.

So low was his voice that foreign camera crews gave up the effort to capture sound, leaving their viewers a stream of silent images of a talking head in a distant crowd. It was all a bit desperate. Unlike Clinton, he had forgotten one of the golden rules of theater. When the show is over, leave the stage. And never, ever, try to write your own review.

As a theater critic, I’m used to big performances. What can be harder to find is the subtle supporting act, the discreet player who can quietly convince while letting a co-star dominate the stage. Ahead of Monday night’s debate, both participants were under pressure to tone down the matinee idol pretensions and blend into the background.

Trump needed to lose the histrionics, prove himself an adult participant in policy debate and keep the spotlight on Clinton and those awkward questions about emails. Clinton, by contrast, needed to sidestep the drama while provoking Trump into the kind of front stage meltdown that might prove his unfitness as commander in chief.

Clinton, of course, has been playing supporting actress for most of her career (the clue is in the name.) Once it was Bill Clinton who razzle-dazzled us, while his careful wife fed him his lines. Perhaps that’s why she nearly pulled it off this time – if it weren’t for those long, slightly faltering, detail-heavy speeches. (Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony does not rout Brutus by knowing the percentages on the Chinese trade deficit.)

In classical Greek drama, secondary characters expose the tragic flaws of a protagonist with a series of quick-fire questions known as stichomythia, with one-liners batting between them. Two and half millennia later, that back-and-forth is still the core of any confrontation in Western drama. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton will never have the flexibility to debate in the tradition of Sophocles.

QUIZ: Are you more like Clinton or Trump?

Donald Trump, on the other hand, knows all about getting attention. He knows less about how to avoid it. From his first sighting at the Hofstra University venue – tieless, his shirt unbuttoned, ready for a cage match – he set gossip flying about his eventual appearance. There was even a rumor that he might drop by the press room pre-debate. It all felt like the type of immersive modern production where you catch choreographed glimpses of the actors in the corridors while you’re still ordering your pre-theater drink. But when the lights were rolling, it looked more like a Nativity play kid desperately pulling focus.

If he wants to do better next time, Trump needs to drop the habit of narrating his own performance. “I think my strongest asset, maybe by far, is my temperament,” he told us Monday. “I have a winning temperament.” Regardless of whether we agree with the content of the statement, simply reiterating it won’t convince anyone.

There’s an adage in storytelling, known to every college creative writing class, and yet invariably forgotten by politicians. Show, don’t tell. If you want your character to look heroic, show him rescuing a child from a blaze or saving civilians under fire – but whatever you do, do not let him announce to an audience: “I am a heroic character.” If you are a politician, and you want to portray judgment and temperance, behave with dignity in debate – and don’t bother to tell us.

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    These, of course, are rules of theater, not politics. And while the first live TV debates were framed as acts of theater, nowadays they’re less transient than anything that happens on Broadway. Instead of trying to change the mood of a moment, 21st-century politicians will plan their debates in the hope of inspiring a popular GIF or a viral zinger (especially Clinton – no aspect of her performance at the House Select Committee on Benghazi has so permeated the consciousness as those well-rehearsed eye rolls.)

    So perhaps it matters less how opponents interact with each other than whether they can simply get their own sound bites into their airtime. But if Trump wants to do better next time, he should start by letting Clinton take center stage.