The empire suspects its heyday may be over. There are no obvious scapegoats, just a general sense of weirdness and rot. The city walls are porous, everyone is sleeping with everyone, and alliances are betrayed with the flutter of a fake eyelash. The barbarian Goths are not only at the gates, but embedded throughout Rome.
The Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is perhaps Shakespeare’s least admired work, a revenge play that, unlike Hamlet and King Lear, doesn’t reflect on revenge, merely stages and exhausts it. While the play is often read as a parody of a low-brow genre that trended among Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Julie Taymor’s 1999 movie adaptation is earnest. It starts with a somewhat democratic election and ends in a slapstick bloodbath: Titus tricks the queen of the Goths to eat her own sons by baking them into pies, then he murders his daughter.
The film was co-produced by Steve Bannon, the former preppy Goldman Sachs banker who now poses in shabby shorts on a leather couch, inviting photographers into a home that looks like the set for a low-budget rococo porn. “Darkness is good,” he says, branding himself, like he branded Breitbart, with the motto “Honey badger don’t give a shit.” He plays the part of the renegade contrarian who appears to have an ironic relationship to his own will to power, calling his office in the West Wing “the war room” and saying that as Chief White House Strategist his mission is to “deconstruct the administrative state.” As theater, it’s brilliant.
In Titus, as in so many other Hollywood productions, America mirrors itself in the Roman Empire. Only this time it is not about glory, but about a spectacular fall. The empire drowns in self-indulgent outrage. It’s a terrific movie. Psychedelic and flamboyant. The furs are fake and the lipstick cheap, the costumes as self-referential as the film itself, insisting that everything is theater and that nothing hinges on authenticity. Tamora, queen of the Goths and the story’s main MILF, matriarch, and mistress, wears Medusa cornrows and golden armor that doubles as a push-up bra. With clumsy makeup and tired, un-airbrushed skin, she is the object of everyone’s desires—for vengeance, love, and servility. The emperor lies wrapped around her with his girlish behind exposed to the camera, his hand cupping one of her breasts, his head nestled on the other. She is reclined and smug, her hand resting maternally on his forehead. The emperor is the queen’s fascist puppet, as malleable in her tattooed arms as the two hooligan sons that she suckles like the she-wolf of the Roman origin myth. The boys run around as if in the prime of MTV, with bleached hair, moon boots, silver pantsuits, and shoulder pads, dancing and dry humping to their own hardcore soundtrack, and raping Titus’ daughter at their mother’s request.
The senseless plot is interrupted by trippy fragments: still lifes of bathing athletes, sacrificial lambs with human heads, frozen face-offs in storms of twirling disembodied limbs. Political events are punctured by homages to artifice. In one of many chaotic attempts at sabotage, Titus and his nephew send arrows through a ceiling that looks like the ceiling of the Pantheon, disrupting an orgy, piercing an inflatable breast. Everything is gold and glitter and glam rock. Incestuous, homoerotic, and hyper-symbolic. It’s tacky in a self-conscious and irreverent way. An up-yours to the keepers of good taste. Honey badger don’t give a shit.
There are many dodgy elections in Shakespeare, but this one is particularly messy. When the old emperor dies, his two sons are on the campaign trail, rolling through town each with their own entourage and jazzy soundtrack. The factions merge in front of Mussolini’s house—a sleek modern structure that references classical Roman architecture in a way that isn’t nostalgic or reactionary, but futuristic. The parties juxtapose each other as if in an American western: Bassianus, the virtuous but naive liberal whose political loss is often read as a sign of Rome’s degeneration, arrives in a pale cabriolet, while Saturnius, the wannabe fascist, pulls up in a black pimped-up pope mobile, cheered on by a crowd that waives German flags and looks like it’s en route to an ironic leather party. Saturnius is a parody of fascist aesthetics with an androgynous twist: his leather jacket has red plush linings, and he wears poorly executed drag queen makeup that gets more and more extravagant as his hysteria builds. Saturnius snags the sovereignty but looks unconvincing on his oversized iron throne. The newly elected leader is so alone and exposed on his podium that it’s almost endearing, despite the vileness of his toddler tantrums.
In the first scene, a boy sits alone at a ’50s-style breakfast table, playing war with his action figures. A paper bag covers his face, he’s in a frenzy, there’s ketchup everywhere. An airplane crashes in milk, the game escalates, he grabs his head, his eyes roll back, and then a man-sized action figure manifests, crashing through the forth wall.
The soldier grabs the kid and carries him down into a dark basement, representing, perhaps, a boyish and war-hungry collective unconscious. As if beneath the choreography of power, tantrums rule the world. The modern house goes up in flames as the soldier flees with the boy, carrying him down through a black void and into an arena that looks like the ruins of the Colosseum. Invisible spectators roar, the boy picks up his action figure from the sand, and Titus, a returned war hero, enters the arena alongside tanks and motorcycles and an army of soldiers in ancient armor. All times coexist. Shakespeare’s plot is sandwiched between two meta scenes: the boy entering and leaving the play. He is the audience’s complicity.
In Titus, hands are metaphors for what it means to act and be acted upon. Early in the story, Titus sits alone in a courtyard, next to a giant cracked hand that must have fallen off a sculpture of a God, foreshadowing the scene in which his own hand is chopped off and placed in a ziplock bag, later to be carried in his daughter’s mouth, when she herself has had her hands amputated and her tongue cut out. The mute daughter might not know the meaning of the word “complicit,” but that doesn’t matter because her powers have nothing to do with her wits. As the story unfolds, she becomes both victim and co-conspirator, and the audience begins to suspect that it is her blank stare and severed arms that will either rein her father in or push him to full-blown infanticidal madness.
Suggesting that Titus is hand-obsessed because Shakespeare’s father was a glove-maker would be as pathetic as making fun of Trump’s tiny hands—a joke that, over the course of the presidential campaign, felt sadder and sadder, like an admission of the impotence of the ridicule itself. A mirroring. Every late-night TV host did it, and each one looked as depressed by it as the next.
Bannon was met with that same kind of mockery when he emerged from Trump Tower freshly crowned, looking half moved to tears, half like he had just strangled a hooker. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine with a face like raw meat, eliciting pathetic jokes about his bad skin and greasy hair—jokes that missed the point. His ugliness is his mojo. Like the alt-right in general, Bannon’s ethos hinges on his ability to create discomfort. He is the prophetic pervert who sees naked emperors everywhere. More a punk than a conservative, he is a walking micro-aggression, a face in which his followers see someone who can exfoliate an airbrushed public sphere. A baroque inversion of liberal neatness.
But then it turns out that Bannon might not have been the puppeteer after all. Just a moneyman. Though he may have funded large parts of the enterprise, he did not get the final say in its execution. For starters, he wanted the movie to be set in outer space. Still, the production is a fruit of his love of Titus Andronicus, a revenge play without a message. A tragedy that offers neither catharsis nor redemption, and where there are no good guys, only more or less charismatic bad guys, and more or less extravagant acts of sabotage. It is a theater of cruelty, reminiscent of an authoritarian regime, but not quite that. More like democracy distilled to flimsy farce. The character’s actions seem random, unmotivated, and they slip out of ideological categories because their battles are not about power but about artifice and taboo.
Bannon at some point called himself a Leninist, saying that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” People laughed at this, seeing it as an ahistorical contradiction, but it makes perfect sense if one considers that the political right-left axis is really a circle, where the extremes are joined in their refutation of a modernity that, in its worship of personal freedom, has lost access to the thrill of uniforms, myth, rallying cries, and chains.
The Eurabia theory gets a lot of traction in online circle jerks such as Breitbart. The theory is that the Arab World and France have conspired to take over the West and erode European culture in a slow coup carried out by warriors disguised as refugees, taking advantage of multicultural naïveté and declining European birthrates. In this story’s steamiest iterations, Eurabia is the offspring of an affair between European feminists and the Muslim Brotherhood—between blind, secular do-gooders and Trojan horses stuffed with sensuous men of an archaic religion. Light and progress invaded by dark reaction. The idea is that this clash of civilizations is willed by certain self-annihilating European women, often exemplified by Nordic politicians who argue for generous refugee policies: powerful women importing brutes because they subconsciously regret castrating their own men. This is the Eurabia-theorist’s jealous fantasy: the white woman looking eastward, pining for premodern cock.
If fascism is the triumph of form over content, then Titus is about the triumph of feeling over form. It is a mannerist unraveling of civil society, privileging pathos over logos, rhetoric over philosophy, poetry over politics, drama over doctrine. It could be read as a sore mockery of liberalism’s lack of sensuousness, catering to appetites for fatalistic mega-narratives in a manner akin to Breitbart’s media strategy, which is to only pursue stories that couple large-scoped narratives with emotional appeal, creating a world-view built on feeling. Breitbart’s editor says he doesn’t publish one-off stories, even if they could be the best stories on the site, because the alt-right mindset is only about large rolling narratives.
“I was wrong,” Titus says. “Earth is a world of feeling, not of form.” Bannon and his ilk know how to work with the implications of that insight. They know that the persuasive power of their rhetoric stems from apocalyptic and myth-drenched narratives that resonate with the irrational emotions through which people orient themselves in time and place—emotions that are incompatible with most housebroken political programs. Their success might depend on the extent to which they manage to monopolize those realms, and on the extent to which Titus is right when he says that “Feelings are the linchpin on which we rise. Or fall.”