It is June, and I am at Anthology Film Archives watching a man dressed as a woman speaking Japanese, and I am thinking of the president and a German.
We are watching An Actor’s Revenge, a 1963 film directed by Kon Ichikawa and starring Kazuo Hasegawa as an onnagata, one of a cohort defined in the Kōjien dictionary as “male actors who perform as women or such female roles in theater performances.” In the movie, Hasegawa plays Yukitarō, an onnagata working in a kabuki troupe passing through the town of Edo. Yukitarō wants to fulfill a lifetime mission and avenge the murder of his parents, as one does. Conveniently, all three men responsible live in Edo. Hasegawa also plays the role of Yamitarō, the socially conscious cat burglar who acts as a Greek chorus. One of the layers here comes from Hasegawa’s own career: He played the role of Yukitarō in the original 1935 film. (How many actors play the exact same role in both the original and the remake?) The plot involves moments of méconnaissance common to farce. The female burglar falls for Yukitarō, as does a powerful man’s daughter, and neither make clear which character they’ve fallen for, since Hasegawa is always in women’s clothing.
An Actor’s Revenge brought to mind Bertolt Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, translated as “alienation effect” or “distancing effect,” though some who object to the vague translation refer to it as “the V-effect.” Inspired, in part, by Chinese theater, Brecht’s theory was that he could make an audience pay closer attention by calling attention to the artifice of theater, making that artifice (ideally) melt away and leaving the audience with only the meat of the play. Specifically, Brecht wanted people to avoid identifying with characters and becoming so emotionally invested that they were unable to track what a play was about (“zomg I love her — she can’t DIE now in this factory lacking adequate ventilation”). In an early essay called “Epic Theater and Alienation,” Brecht described the effect:
What we are looking for is a kind of representation in which the familiar is striking, the normal amazing. Everyday things should appear strange, and much that seemed natural should be recognized as artificial. If you give an unfamiliar quality to the actions, then all that they lose is a familiarity that is derived from fresh, naïve observation.
Brecht’s checklist of ways to achieve this effect include making the light sources visible, speaking stage directions out loud and, most famously, speaking directly to the audience and breaking the imaginary “fourth wall” that theater posits between actors and spectators.
Features of kabuki presentation like the onnagata do much of this work with slightly less fuss. A male actor portraying a female character while remaining visibly male makes it fairly hard to think of that character as representing a fixed identity — we see the character through others’ reactions to that character, as who they decide that person is at any given moment. This does not achieve exactly what Brecht sought through the V-effect, but it gets us to a similar place: a story that is held in place by how that story is being told.
The unintended V-effect has become a feature of Trump’s White House. Efforts to conceal activities from Americans are so clumsy that whatever is being concealed quickly becomes the topic. During the run of An Actor’s Revenge at Anthology, Sean Spicer announced the ban on filming, recording, or photographing White House press briefings. Some news outlets sent court sketch artists in place of photographers, instantly making Spicer and Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders look like defendants on trial.
As often happens with Trump’s theatrics, this attempt to play at truth-telling while obscuring the truth summoned the ghost of his predecessor. If you are an Obama loyalist, maybe you can see his press briefings as the work of a straight shooter, but Trump’s distancing effect brought something else to the surface. ABC’s Jim Acosta wrung his hands on camera, describing the off-camera briefings while standing in front of the White House, asking, “What country is this?” for what might have been the 300th time. And breaking the fourth wall of journalism here brought down other walls. If Obama’s last press secretary, Josh Earnest, was forthcoming with answers, this affective behavior was as important as the answers themselves to someone like Acosta. If Trump suddenly removed the thumbscrews and installed an eloquent and affable press secretary, would Acosta and his friends breathe a sigh of relief and start reporting on what that secretary was saying? A reporter can, and will, find out what the government is doing without the pageant of the briefing, which largely results in criticism of that pageant, not the policy.
Spicer is our onnagata here, a press obstructionist playing liaison, the liaison playing obstructionist. Any reading of Spicer helps Trump, as his inversion of the V-effect seeks to highlight the theater so effectively that it blinds the audience from seeing anything behind the theater. The more time Acosta spends stamping his foot on the White House lawn, the more completely the press briefing is exposed as a scripted farce. This is something larger than simple misdirection or distraction. If the White House briefing is boiled until it has no meaning but still remains in place, it acts as a bollard in front of the White House. This theater of security — which is also Spicer’s actual role, a thug protecting thugs — suggests there is something worth securing. All these layers — Trump playing Trump, Spicer playing cop — need only harden and delay those seeking to cut through them. Whether there is anything behind the layers matters only if those layers fail and the American theater of theater is still standing, all four walls intact.