The article explores the phenomenon of celebrity presidents being former actors, playwrights or showbusiness figures. Notable twentieth- and twenty-first-century presidents, including Ronald Reagan, Václav Havel, Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky form the basis of this case study. Emphasis is given to the transformation from theatrical endeavors to the presidency, reframing political life as a theatrical event in terms of Yuri Lotman’s notion of theatricalization and Guy Debord’s perception of contemporary society as a spectacle. Utilizing Michael L. Quinn’s application of the Prague School’s writings on phenomenology and semiotics to the conundrum of celebrity in performance, the article scrutinizes how these presidents enact their presidential role, while also allowing their personal attributes to predominate. Consequently, these politicians alter political discourse by incorporating entertainment elements, modifying norms of political representation, the role of a popular leader and communication methods. In contrast to the Reagan and Havel era, modern technology permits Trump and Zelensky to embrace an innovative “distributed aesthetics” approach. Owing to its virtual nature, this method overcomes temporal and spatial limitations. This phenomenon concurrently renders celebrity presence ubiquitous and heightens the illusion of intimacy between ruler and populace when it all transpires within what Christopher Balme terms the global public sphere.
Keywords: Ronald Reagan, Václav Havel, Donald Trump, Volodymyr Zelensky, presidents, actors
History holds striking examples of rulers who were actors, such as Nero, Louis XIV, and Gustav III. It also tells of monarchs who were playwrights, such as Frederick II, Catherine II, and Gustav III, to name but a few. However, the ways in which theatre and politics interact have continued to change over time.
Examining the historical evolution of performing rulers, it is interesting to see the shift in monarchial representation from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century. In his era, the Sun King was perceived as a divine figure, one receiving power directly from God. However, during the Enlightenment, with the “disenchantment of the world” as a background, a “humanizing” of the monarch occurred. Performing royals, such as Gustav III and Catherine the Great, started being perceived as human beings who were close to their people (Berlova 180).
In Peter Burke’s 1992 book, The Fabrication of Louis XIV, he argues that the modes of persuasion employed by twentieth-century rulers bear a striking resemblance to those employed by the Sun King himself. However, Burke cautions, “the image of modern rulers, and still more the image of modern regimes, does differ from that of Louis XIV and his contemporaries in certain important ways. The most obvious of these differences is technological” (Burke 199–200). Burke further posited that the advent of what he termed as “new electric media,” comprising photography, cinema, radio and television, erases social distance and creates an illusion of intimacy between rulers and their subjects, as well as contributing to and reinforcing the leader’s popularity (Burke 201–03).
In the wake of Burke’s original insights, the unprecedented surge in technological innovation has significantly altered not only daily life, but also the modern ruler’s role in terms of the scope of their popularity and methods used to fabricate and disseminate their public image.
Today, leaders like Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky aim to establish even closer connections with their citizenry than did their eighteenth-century counterparts. They do so primarily by means of social media and “distributed aesthetics.” Yet, this virtual closeness is abstract, if not illusory. Such perceived intimacy does not eliminate the inherent “aesthetic gap” between democratic citizens and their political representatives, as identified by Frank Ankersmit. Trump’s claim that he could entirely bypass such distance through direct, unmediated relations with “the people” was not realized during his term (Perucci 129). However, one tactic Trump and other performing presidents have used to avoid this problem is the creation of Spectacle in accordance with Guy Debord’s concept, a topic which will be developed later.
This article explores the phenomenon of “performing presidents” in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, analyzing figures such as Ronald Reagan, Václav Havel, Donald Trump and Volodymyr Zelensky. I will first investigate the intricate relationship between political life and theatre and demonstrate how the perception of life as a theatrical event framed within the context of show business can encourage a reevaluation of political realities. Following this, I will provide a brief overview of the four performing presidents listed above, examining their transition from roles as actors or playwrights to their tenure as presidents and a subsequent reinterpretation of their political lives in terms of a theatrical event. Finally, I will delve into the enactment of presidential roles by celebrity figures and enhance my analysis by employing Michael L. Quinn’s semiotic and phenomenological approach to the problem of celebrity in performance.
Politics as Theatre
In his pivotal book Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman blames the domination of television for “the dissolution of public discourse in America and its conversion into the arts of show business” (5). This book was published while Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States—a figure who, decades before, in 1966, had ascribed a metaphor to the emergent state of political discourse: “Politics is just like show business” (Postman 125). Postman pushes this notion further and terms his era “the Age of show business,” arguing throughout his text that within the confines of TV culture, visual imaginary assumed primacy over the substance of the discourse, and performance art began to prevail within the political sphere.
In 2001, Arthur Miller pointed out the populace’s dependence on mass media culture in On Politics and the Art of Acting, observing that “the mystery of the leader-as-performer is as ancient as civilization but in our time television has created a quantitative change in its nature; one of the oddest things about millions of lives now is that ordinary individuals, as never before in human history, are so surrounded—one might say, besieged—by acting” (Miller 2).
The notion that life, including politics, imitates theatre and the two dynamically interrelate is far from novel. Examining this relationship in the context of Russian culture between the latter half of the eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, Yuri Lotman coined the term “theatricalization of life,” noting that
theatre has erupted into life and actively rearranged people’s daily behavior. . . . What could look pompous and funny yesterday when it belonged only to the sphere of theatrical space, has become the norm of speech and everyday behavior. . . . There are a large number of examples showing how people in the second half of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century used to fashion their own behavior, everyday language, and in the final analysis the fate of their life according to literary and theatrical standards.183
Russian stage director, playwright and theatre theorist Nikolai Evreinov introduced the term “theatricality” (teatralnost) in 1908, advocating for the notion of interdependence between life and performing art from an anthropological perspective. Evreinov posited that people are born to perform, it is their intrinsic instinct, and, therefore, the human is a “theatrical creature” (193). Similarly, sociologist Erving Goffman, in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, maintained that each individual embodies a social role imposed by fate or chosen personally. Likewise, Judith Butler contended that gender is performative as it materializes through iterative speech and interactions.
Considering these perspectives, one may assert that being a president and performing the role are not dissimilar activities, particularly when the president possesses acting or playwriting abilities, celebrity status and a trajectory from the entertainment industry, as exemplified by the four presidents discussed in this article.
According to Postman, “it is difficult to say exactly when politicians began to put themselves forward, intentionally, as sources of amusement.” He documents American politicians who, from the 1950s onwards, appeared on TV shows, commercials and even had cameos in TV series. “By the 1970s, the public had started to become accustomed to the notion that political figures were to be taken as part of the world of show business,” and “in the 1980s came the deluge” (Postman 132).
Performing Presidents Take the Stage
While not the first politician to be connected to show business, “Ronald Reagan was the first actor to jump from the screen to the stump to immediate credibility as a presidential contender” (Mann XIV). Initially serving as the governor of California (1967–75), Reagan later became the president of the United States (1981–89). With a Hollywood career spanning 52 films behind him, Reagan expertly leveraged his charisma and acting experience in politics. Jonathan Charteris-Black encapsulates Reagan’s political image by noting that “his communication was marked by a largely positive lexical content and relaxed and easy-going style, often humorous, that incorporated enough one-line quips and anecdotes for him to gain the nickname the Great Communicator” (139). Reagan’s playful style, self-parody and adaptability to different situations contributed to the fusion of politics and entertainment.
Václav Havel always remembered what Jan Patočka once told him: “The real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him” (Disturbing the Peace xv). Being an accomplished playwright in Czechoslovakia and abroad, writer, philosopher, dissident and former political prisoner, Havel led the peaceful overthrow of the communist regime and also the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia. In 1989, destiny appointed him the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic (1993–2003). Havel’s absurdist plays made allusions to totalitarian reality and espoused universal truths. As a “reluctant president” (the title of Michael Simmons’ biography of him), Havel remained true to his conviction of viewing the world through a prism of theatre and of tending to stage life in accordance with dramatic structure. He even saw his rise to power as a play’s dramatic twist: “I sometimes think God strikes back—as if I’d written an absurdist drama and put God in it . . . so God has put me here as president” (Rocamora 288).
In his last book, To the Castle and Back, which is a memoir of his time as president, it is interesting to see how Havel steps out of his role and gives an acute and critical examination of himself and his performance as president. By doing so, he consequently differs from the other more television-centric presidents featured in this article. “The important thing is to be conscious of that role and to be able to reflect upon it and one’s relation to it” (Havel, To the Castle and Back 86). This distancing by Havel from his presidential role will be discussed in more detail later. But regardless of such a self-critical attitude, some observers argue that during his term Havel was more of a showman than a politician (Simmons 214).
In contrast to Havel, “the reluctant president,” Donald Trump eagerly attempted to present himself in a spot-lit role as a leader and savior of his nation. Being a self-proclaimed billionaire from the realms of real estate and show business, his political career (2017–21) was preceded by ownership of the Miss U.S.A. beauty pageant (1996–2015), brief cameos in various films and TV shows, and co-producing and starring in the reality TV series The Apprentice (NBC 2015). As an outsider in politics, Trump employed show business tactics to reshape political discourse, resulting in a bizarre, yet unique approach that tended to emphasize how much fabrication went into crafting his image. According to Stefan L. Brandt,
what makes Trump’s populism so effective (and so explosive, for that matter) is that it employs established parameters from a variety of mass communication forms—in particular, the genre of reality television (next to components of the stand-up comedy and the sitcom).305–06
Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelensky, also hails from a successful show business career, encompassing roles as a showman, actor, comedian, film director, scriptwriter and producer. Beginning his career in the KVN comedy competition at 17, Zelensky later formed the Kvartal 95 team, which evolved into the comedy outfit Kvartal 95. This group produced TV shows, including the popular political cabaret Vechernyy Kvartal. Zelensky also starred in romantic comedies and the 2015–18 television series Servant of the People, playing a history teacher unexpectedly propelled to the presidency via social media. In 2019, Zelensky’s own ascendance to the presidency mirrored his former character’s. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Zelensky’s trajectory exemplifies Karl Marx’s observation that history occurs twice: first as tragedy, then as farce—yet reveals the reverse is also possible; history can enter as farce and later manifest as tragedy (Zaretsky 2022).
Arthur Miller wrote about such American presidents as Washington, Jackson, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Truman, asserting that without the dimension of war
their dominance would never have shown itself; it is the dimension of that solemnity which only a surrounding of death can lend to our imagination. As a war leader, a president rises to the stature of tragic figure touched by the arcane, the superhuman, entrusted as he is with not only the lives of our sons and daughters but the purity of the ideals which justify their sacrifice.80
The context of the war in Ukraine has shifted Zelensky’s presidential role into that of a tragic war leader. With his acting, directing and playwriting skills, Zelensky has advocated for his country on the global stage since the beginning of the invasion, in the process garnering military support and international acclaim.
Next, the factors that enable the transition from the realm of theatre and show business to the world of politics will be considered and how performing presidents reframe or, if one uses Lotman’s term, “theatricalize” political discourse and reality itself.
Catapulting from Show Business to Presidency
A crucial factor in this transition is the status of celebrity. In describing charismatic celebrities with the elusive quality of “It,” Joseph Roach notes that
most of us also think that It necessarily entails glamour, and so it does, but not for long. Most of us think that It is rare, and it is quite, even to the point of seeming magical, but It is also everywhere to be seen. In fact, however elusive this quality may be in flesh, some version of it will, at any given moment, fall within our direct view or easy reach as mass circulation image.1
As noted previously, prior to their presidency, each of the four presidents examined above possessed charisma and had already achieved celebrity status, a critical element for success in the performing arts. Another vital factor, as discussed by Roach, is mass circulation, which is essential for transitioning from acting to a position of power that demands voter support.
Ronald Reagan, already well-known as a Hollywood actor, began his political career in the 1950s by actively traveling the country for General Electric. As the company’s spokesman, he incorporated politics into his speeches during plant visits, refining his political skills. Unsatisfied with merely appearing in movies and TV series (as, for instance, a host on General Electric Theatre), “he also liked to get around the country in person, talking and shaking hands with the public as much as possible” (Mann 100). He needed this in-person experience to forge himself into a Great Communicator, which would later become his trademark.
Reagan’s public triumph occurred during his nationally televised speech, A Time for Choosing, in October 1964, in support of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater. Although Goldwater lost the election, the event propelled Reagan into the political limelight (Holden 31). Remarkably, such success was largely due to his previous experience as a sports broadcaster in Iowa, where he honed his storytelling abilities and mastered the art of narratively visualizing events.
Reagan’s next big step was when he announced his candidacy for California governor during a professionally produced, thirty-minute television broadcast statewide on January 4, 1966. Although he appeared relaxed and confident, he made an error in welfare statistics when he gave the number of California residents on it as 15.1 percent instead of the correct 5.1 percent. This drew immediate criticism, mainly among democrats, who labeled him an amateur. Despite this setback, Reagan’s charisma and ability to connect with his audience, particularly women, remained undiminished (Holden 113–14). This polished TV address foreshadowed Reagan’s successful 1980 presidential campaign.
Havel didn’t have Reagan’s fame of being an actor. Following the peaceful Velvet Revolution, which only lasted 10 days in November of 1989, he was nominated for the presidency. However, there were concerns about his level of recognition. Despite Havel having been banned as a playwright in Czechoslovakia for 20 years, his plays had nevertheless been staged internationally and distributed underground in Czechoslovakia. But, regardless, Havel was still not well-known to his country’s general public. The most powerful communication medium at this point in time was television. Through a struggle with the director of Czechoslovak Television on December 16, 1989, Havel was able to read out a statement to millions of people during a live evening news broadcast. This was a breakthrough in the fabrication of Havel as a presidential figure. However, he appeared nervous on camera and was skeptical of the medium (Keane 366–68). Three years prior to this, the philosopher and humanist Havel had written that “man must in some way come to his senses. He must extricate himself from this terrible involvement in both the obvious and hidden mechanisms of totality, from consumption to repression, from advertising to manipulation through television” (Havel, Disturbing the Peace 11).
Havel’s greatest asset was his ability to view life through the lens of a playwright and to stage it as a theatrical event. As John Keane notes, “the revolution itself was proving to be a great spectacle. It enchanted both observers and participants alike, and so Havel, a master dramatist and compulsive planner of his and others’ moves, climbed eagerly on to a stage already clotted with countless actors” (352). Havel chose the Prague theatre Laterna Maika as the headquarters for the Civic Forum commission. The revolution deployed itself on the stages and in the lobbies and dressing rooms of the theatres of Prague, with its core participants coming from the theatre community, and it was framed as a theatricalization of life, similar to theatricality of the French Revolution of 1789.
As president, Havel continued to stage life as theatre, aligning with Evreinov’s concept of humans as “theatrical creatures.” For example, Havel enlisted a friend, painter and costume designer for film and theatre, Theodor Pištěk, to redesign the uniforms of the guards at Prague Castle (Rocamora 292). Havel also involved theatre professionals in his administration, a strategy later adopted by Zelensky.
In Havel’s late writing project, To the Castle and Back, and the play, Leaving (written in 2007 and released in a cinematic version in 2011, directed by Havel himself), he views his presidency with a Brechtian effect of estrangement. This view is full of self-irony about the media’s image of him as president. Leaving alludes to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard, Beckett’s Endgame and, above all, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Its genre is tragicomedy, and it has elements of farce. In his memoir, Havel writes “my story was completed in a way that was most like a fairy tale, if not pure kitsch” (Havel, To the Castle and Back 24). Moreover, Havel not only ironizes his “star” status, but by using a playwright’s technique, such as the estrangement effect and the grotesque, he further subverts his presidential role. This subversion makes it vivid that the role of being president is just one among other social roles, which can be enacted for a while and then left behind. Although for Vilem Rieger, the main character in Havel’s Leaving, the departure from his official residence and parting from his longtime role as Chancellor turns out to be tragic.
Since Reagan and Havel’s time, our society has undergone significant changes. Guy Debord’s 1967 characterization of the twentieth century as “the society of the spectacle” still resonates today: “The whole life of those societies in which the modern condition of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation. Images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream, and the former unity of life is lost forever” (12). Debord discusses the distortion of reality and its substitution by an absorbent image-making and fictional world that easily subjugates people. In 2023, when we live in the Age of the Internet and social networks that profoundly influence our reality, this concept is more applicable than ever.
According to Christopher B. Balme’s book, The Theatrical Public Sphere, new media can be seen as the prevailing phenomenon within the global public sphere (175). Balme introduces the concept of “distributed aesthetics” to re-examine the relationship between performance and the public in the Internet age, citing Edwina Bartlem, who argues that “distributed aesthetics implies creative modes of operating in, and experiencing, the spatial and temporal flows of information networks” (176).
Trump and Zelensky’s use of social media platforms to fabricate their presidential image and as a means of interacting with global audiences inside the transnational public sphere can be argued to fit within “distributed aesthetics.” In the context of mass media culture, both leaders employ “spectacle,” albeit with different goals—Zelensky striving to protect his country, while Trump aimed to “Make America Great Again.”
Robert C. Rowland notes that “Trump’s campaign was extraordinary not only for the gaffes the candidate inexplicably survived, but also because it succeeded even as it ‘violated every norm’” (x). Michael Kazin labeled Trump, who consistently presented himself as a celebrity and outsider in politics, “a brilliant specimen of performance art” (Rowland 7). On June 16, 2015, when Trump announced his presidential campaign, he utilized reality TV aesthetics, “designed to effectively entertain audiences and create an impression of authenticity” (Brandt 303). He arrived at the announcement site by riding down an escalator at Trump Tower. According to Peter Erickson, “for Trump, riding the escalator is a symbol of social mobility and power.” However, “the fact that Trump rode down the escalator, rather than up it—as if he were condescending to come down, rather than inviting us to come up—turned the symbol on its head” (Erickson).
Trump’s presidential campaign primarily relied on tweets and rallies. By extensively utilizing Twitter, he augmented the “space” of his “spectacle” and was able to instantly reach the world audience within the transnational public sphere. Rowland argues that for a president like Reagan, Twitter would have played only a minor supporting role because his message, which included ideological argument and mythic narrative, was too complex for the limits of this medium. In contrast, Trump’s nationalist-populist message did not necessitate reasoned arguments, making Twitter an ideal instrument for his ongoing performance on the global stage that was unencumbered by the constraints of physical space and time (Rowland 19).
Trump’s “distributed aesthetics,” which set him apart in relation to all other U.S. Presidents, consisted of rallies even after he became the president. They were attended in person, in addition to being broadcast online and on TV. Jenna Johnson writes that “Trump’s rallies often feel like rock concerts. There are groupies who travel to as many rallies as they can and camp out at the front of the line.” Rally-goers wear red, white, and blue, and sing chants like “Build that wall.” This transgression of the boundary between politics and theatre aligns with Lotman’s concept of the theatricalization of life, but it can also be viewed through Debord’s concept of life as an “immense accumulation of spectacles,” which may be visually appealing but lacks actual content.
The television series, Servant of the People, significantly influenced real-life events and arguably contributed to the success of Zelensky’s presidential campaign. Its first season aired in 2015 and was seen by more than 20 million people in a country with just over 40 million (Onuch and Hale 144). Its third season was timed to be broadcast during the actual presidential campaign in 2019. Zelensky’s character was presented at that point as an ordinary guy who had become president and was selflessly struggling against corruption for his country’s betterment. In his voters’ eyes, Zelensky as a candidate fused with his fictional character, which proved performing art’s capacity to transform real life. Moreover, in 2017, Kvartal 95 Studio, Zelensky’s television entertainment company, which produced Servant of the People, registered as a political party, using the same name as the series. During Vechernyy Kvartal New Year concert, only minutes from the start of 2019, Zelensky announced he was running for president of Ukraine. Recognizing that Zelensky’s campaign “represented something new and distinct, observers emphasized the role of the media in Zelensky’s bid for the presidency, calling it a ‘virtual campaign’ due to its reliance on social media platforms” (Onuch and Hale 159).
The “distributed aesthetics” of Zelensky, who proved to be a master at social media and making direct video appeals to his public using a handheld mobile phone in the style of reality TV, enabled his ubiquity by removing the constraints of time and space and creating a sense of authenticity and intimacy between the candidate and his voters. This approach not only entertained but also built trust among the audience. In addition to his regular appearance on TV, Zelensky also toured the country with Vechernyy Kvartal concerts, in which his appeal to become president was not as explicit as in Trump’s rallies because of being framed within the context of a real theatrical performance.
As a result of his “virtual campaign,” Zelensky predominated the national media by means of circulating his image of make-believe president, an image that would soon become reality. It is noteworthy that after the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, although the Zelensky’s political context changed, his social media presence followed the same pattern developed during his presidential campaign (Onuch and Hale 162).
Next, the focus will shift to how the national leader role is enacted by celebrity presidents and how it incorporates a mythic element by blending reality and theatrical fiction.
The Glamour of Governance: Celebrities in Presidential Roles
Drawing upon the Prague School theory of acting, Michael L. Quinn distills performance into three principal components: “the performer’s personal characteristics; an immaterial dramatic character, residing in the consciousness of the audience; and a third, intermediate term, the stage figure, an image of the character that is created by the actor, costume designer, director, etc., as a kind of technical object or signifier” (154–55).
Quinn posits that in the case of a celebrity actor, the performer’s personal contribution to the acting sign, termed the expressive function, becomes the dominant aspect of the audience’s perception of the actor’s reference to fictional events. Essentially, the celebrity’s persona collides with the role of the president, generating “the spectacular energy that an explosive crash can release” (Quinn 155). This concept is exemplified by the fact during his days in film, “Reagan wanted complex roles, but he was best at playing himself. This would inhibit his Hollywood career, but would prove invaluable when he entered politics in the 1960s” (Mann 19). Within political theatre, individualization of the official role of president by its performer (similar to Stanislavski’s putting yourself in the position of the character) becomes the most valuable aspect because it creates a sense of authenticity, fostering the public’s trust in their leader. Consequently, the presidential role becomes synonymous with the person performing it, giving rise to phenomena such as Reaganism or Trumpism.
The performer’s personal information, which dominates the official role of president, can take various forms, including previous roles for presidents with acting backgrounds, or distinctive features such as voice, hair or physical mannerisms. Examples include Trump’s hair, which frequently garnered attention; Zelensky’s raspy voice, which became his trademark after he voiced Paddington Bear for the film’s version dubbed in Ukrainian; or a documentary on Reagan, another actor-turned-president, which was broadcast on Chanel 1+1 during his campaign (Onuch and Hale 172).
Prior acting roles of performers-turned-presidents contribute to the personal characteristics that shape their presidential personas. For example, during 1939–43, Reagan starred in several patriotic, anti-Nazi military films. According to Stephen Vaughn, Reagan’s popular appeal before, during and after the war “was strongest among moviegoers under age eighteen. Whether they or others who attended movies distinguished between Reagan, the private citizen . . . and the image they saw on screen is uncertain, but by late 1941, few Americans were more visibly associated with military valor” (103). Clearly, such roles helped support the “Valiant leader myth,” which Reagan later constructed for himself as a president. (Charteris-Black 141).
Similarly, potent aspects of Zelensky’s fictional character in Servant of the People, who exemplified patriotism and deep civic duty, became solidly incorporated into his own persona and were a tremendous advantage during his presidential campaign and subsequent tenure. Obviously, this could raise the age-old question of whether it is life that imitates art, or art that imitates life. People have wondered “whether the show had made the real candidate or whether the real candidate made the show” (Onuch and Hale 140). Zelensky, who came up with the initial idea and the concept for the series and often contributed to its writing and content, claimed that “his [Holoborodko’s] words are mine” (140).
Trump’s emblematic phrase, “You’re fired!” which was uttered on the popular reality TV series, The Apprentice, when one of the contestants was eliminated from the competition, “soon became both the show’s tagline and Trump’s personal catchphrase” (Brandt 306). Within the context of the show, the celebrity actor was groomed and provided dialogue that portrayed him as an accomplished and decisive billionaire businessman. This representation, which it can be argued somewhat blurred the lines between reality and fiction, nevertheless shaped the viewers’ perception of Trump, subsequently influencing the persona he sought to embody during his presidential campaign.
Quinn contends that celebrity actors “come equipped with an intertext that includes several levels, only the most obvious of which is the conjunction of art and life in a particular role” (158). Which might be why, with performing presidents, art and life often intertwine on multiple levels, allowing them to create effective myths. For example, Reagan regularly fused reality with cinematic fantasy, as was evident during a speech when he referred to the science fiction film series, Star Wars, and appropriated the line from the film’s script, “The force is with us” (Charteris-Black 151). Another example of this occurred on July 20, 1992, during the separation of the Czech and Slovak states, when Havel resigned as president, in his speech abdicating the presidency, he commented on the dissolution of the country by quoting a speech from his own play, The Garden Party: “I’m not going to be the Liquidation Secretary” (Rocamora 312).
By fusing reality and fiction, performing presidents arrive at Quinn’s third performance component, the stage figure, which (as mentioned previously) is a character image created by the actor, costume designer, director and so on, as a technical object with a referential function (156). The paradox of celebrity presidents lies in their ability to make their stage figures, inspired by fiction, feel real. According to John Diggins, “Reagan has the actor’s ability to incorporate reality into the fantasy of his role” (116). Trump used a similar strategy to engage his supporters emotionally and make them believe in his “alternative reality,” which he created by his “narrative of a nation threatened by Others, including immigrants, refugees, Islamic terrorists, Black protesters, and ‘nasty women’” (Rowland 4–5, 111).
The stage figure being created by performing presidents becomes part of a larger narrative or myth that they embody, with audience participation enabling the conative function. According to Quinn, the acting sign in its visual representation forms a triangle featuring actor, stage figure and audience as its corners (156). In the context of performing presidents, audiences are primarily affected emotionally, as is seen with Trump’s fear-filled apocalyptic imagery at his rallies or, on the contrary, Reagan being famous for cultivating emotions of “hope, optimism and confidence” (Charteris-Black 139) among his audience, or Zelensky offering his nation inspiration during wartime.
“The rise of the celebrity politician from Ronald Reagan onward dissolved the boundary between politics and entertainment” (Perucci 127). In addition, the phenomenon changed and continues to alter communication methods, norms of political representation, as well as the role of popular leaders. Performing Presidents wield a keen understanding of the principles of show business and have insight of how to adeptly apply them in the political realm. They are skilled in utilizing media resources to establish informal and intimate connections with the masses, thereby earning their trust. Consequently, their official presidential role takes on highly personalized attributes and, ultimately, becomes an extension of the individual, who embodies their authentic self in the guise of a national leader. However, it is essential to always recognize that the theatrical nature of such enactments does not negate the reality that politics operate beyond the “make-believe” logic of theatre. And in keeping with this notion, let’s hope that the entertainment factor won’t overshadow the gravity of political decision-making, and that the burgeoning aspects of virtuality and celebrity in performing presidents will not entirely eclipse truth and the human values of our world . . . Or, to borrow from the title of Postman’s book, that we don’t “amuse ourselves to death.”
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*Maria Berlova, an independent scholar, holds two PhDs, from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS) and Stockholm University. In 2018, Berlova published her book, Theatre of the King. Gustav III and the Formation of the Swedish National Stage in Russian. In 2021, Routledge published Berlova’s second book, Performing Power: The Political Secrets of Gustav III (1771–1792) which focuses on the tight link between theatre and politics during the Enlightenment in Sweden and other European countries. Berlova specializes in eighteenth-century European and Russian theatre, as well as theatre perception. Currently, she is at work on her book project: Performing President.
Copyright © 2023 Maria Berlova
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