A Tragedy for Our Times

This has not been a good year. 

I know that so many have it far worse, especially the sick and those who have not been able to be with loved ones at the end of their lives. And yes, I have work, my health and a roof over my head. But I live alone and there are days when the isolation feels unbearable.

It’s not just to do with being alone, though. I spend most of my life by myself and work from home; the major difficulty is the onslaught of news – or, rather, no news other than Covid-related news, or the rants of a president who cares more about self-promotion and fighting Twitter instead of the virus.

It’s at times like this I have to remind myself why I decided to come to the USA in 2008. It was November 4th, the eve of my 50th birthday and I stood in a bar, crying in front of a TV screen as I watched the news: Barack Obama, a black man, had been voted President of the United States. Tears of joy. I wanted to be part of history; to be in what seemed like a progressive country that appeared to have made steps forward in fighting its history of devastating racism.

Fast forward to November 8th 2016. I am standing in Mr Biggs Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen in NYC. I am watching a TV screen as the votes of each state come through. And when Hillary Clinton concedes defeat to Donald Trump, I cry again. Tears of disbelief. Of despair. I wake the next morning and my first thought is that I have awoken from a bad dream. My heart is so heavy, it has to be coaxed out of bed. I finally drag it into submission, acknowledging that whatever my personal opinions, Trump got the gig. Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe he will be surrounded by experts and advisers who truly will, in the words of the campaign slogan, Make America Great Again.

Today, my body feels barely able to withhold the weight of my heart.

In isolation, I have to keep reminding myself of the greatness I have discovered here in spite of the president, not because of. There is a range of talent – in music, theatre, all the arts, that is truly breath-taking on a daily basis. In New York City, and in particular my area, Hell’s Kitchen, there is a sense of community that I have rarely found in one of the many countries in which I’ve lived. My seven years in Paris probably comes closest; elsewhere, loneliness has invariably been my doubles partner.

The beauty all around me is still apparent: the sunsets I see over the Hudson from my apartment window every night continue to fill me with wonder and remind me that the sun will rise again; the Midas touch that alights upon the glory of Central Park in the fall will soon be there.

And the people will come back, too. Released from incarceration, NY will come back stronger because, as the Governor of NY state Andrew Cuomo says, we are #NYTough, #NYStrong, #NYSmart; nowhere is this more true than in New York City, a place that has entered my soul; its presence there, and my feeling a part of it in the shadow of something much bigger than anything of us, is what helps me get by.

There is currently a level of toxicity in our lives at a time that should be uniting us; where leadership should be strong, it has been petulant and weak, ignorant and arrogant.

I have been reminded of King Lear and, while some believe the president does not deserve the accolade of being a Shakespearean tragic hero, to me there are many comparisons that bear examination.

Why do bad things happen to King Lear? Because he is easily flattered and doesn’t recognise true, honest love and loyalty when he sees it. He descends into madness because of the bad things that subsequently happen to him; and then, because of his madness, he puts into action even worse things that are eventually his downfall. Lear has many flaws – arrogance, ignorance, lack of judgment, and each contributes to the other; he has narcissistic personality disorder.

To me, it all sounds very familiar – although the president would probably be flattered at being compared to a king. That’s ego for you.

King Lear was apparently written when Shakespeare was in lockdown during the plague of 1606, when all the theatres were closed. It would be nice to think, at this time, with Broadway dark and looking unlikely to reopen anytime soon, that playwrights are busy scribbling away the next generation’s masterpieces.

Every time I read or hear an Obama pronouncement, it still fills me with hope. His presidency was not without its problems, but his humanity and ability to lead in times of crisis shines through – still. I miss him. Especially in a week like this one when I feel the shutters of hope in so many areas of life have come down.

There is an election coming up in November; I am not optimistic about the result, and the thought of another administration under this president is truly distressing. Just four words come to mind, the final ones from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”

CNN’s Don Lemon said that there are two viruses in America – Covid-19 and racism, and the street riots have been labelled not protests, but an uprising.

This is a time of disturbing unrest and it’s not being helped by a man purporting to be a leader throwing his toys out of the pram when Twitter picks him up on peddling misinformation. His response? A threat to close them down for threatening his free speech. Does he really not see the irony?

And then they picked him up on his glorifying violence by threatening to send in the guns to shoot the raiders and looters protesting the tragic, unnecessary and despicable murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

How does this calm an already incendiary situation? Small wonder the black population of America is angry. Enough is enough.

I can only repeat: The horror! The horror!