Henry Fuseli

Dispatch from Lesser Pandemonia

The nation cringes from the brinksmanship of election denial and the threat of a president who won't leave. Isn't there a show about that?

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, BUT THE EVENTS OF THE PAST WEEK have left me more than a little wrung out and hung up to dry. It’s as if we’ve all tumbled into one of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next or Nursery Crime novels, in which real life and fictional life coexist, and characters from one scamper into the other with reckless abandon, upsetting applecarts both real and imagined as they either sow or stop chicanery, which has a nasty habit of spreading like a literary plague. Something Rotten, perhaps; or The Well of Lost Plots.

The world of politics has always borrowed freely from the worlds of fiction and theater, but rarely with the force and impact of right now. We’re in Melodrama Land, teetering precariously between tragedy and comedy, and not at all sure which is going to prevail by the time the final curtain falls. Any competent critic would point out that the plot to this play is outlandish. And any competent observer would reply that of course that’s true, and yet here it all is, actually happening, and it’s just a little too Stephen King for comfort, thank you very much.

Quick recap: Yes, we had an election, which went roughly according to predictions. Early returns, based on ballots cast in person on Election Day, favored the President in some key states. But later votes, tabulated from mail-in ballots and other forms of delivery, swung the vote in favor of the challenger. This occurred in spite of a concerted effort on the part of the party in power to suppress the vote through various tactics: In spite of this, more people voted than ever before. As the tallies made it obvious that the incumbent had lost, the President – who had prepared for this eventuality with a host of apocalyptic and spurious warnings that his challengers were preparing to steal the election – simply refused to accept the vote and concede the election. The members of his party stood solidly behind him in this fiction, and the wheels of orderly transition screeched to a halt. As the words “potential coup” began to be whispered across the land, the president’s brinksmanship brought the nation to the edge of constitutional crisis. What could be more unnervingly theatrical than that?

But, wait: Something’s pressing down upon the body politic! John Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare,” 1781, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches, Detroit Institute of Arts.

As we journey into the dramatic possibilities of this sobering series of events, let Henry Fuseli be our visual guide. Fuseli, the Swiss and later British painter of the 18th and early 19th centuries, was something of a rock star of his day as an artist. As a teacher he influenced both John Constable and William Blake, which suggests a creative tension between traditionally formal balance and radically ecstatic genius. He also was enamored with the theater, especially Shakespeare, and painted many vivid scenes from the plays, both comic and dramatic: Lady Macbeth taking the daggers from her husband’s trembling hands. Romeo stabbing Paris at Juliet’s bier. Titania and Bottom tripping the light fantastic. If anyone can make visual sense of These Dramatic Times, Fuseli’s our guy.