If your liberal heart is mighty sore, if no amount of strongly-voiced castigation and disapproval of President Trump is too much, then documentary-maker Michael Moore’s The Terms of My Surrender is for you. Left-wing politics has come overtly and brashly to Broadway—the only things missing are Trump piñatas to bash the hell out of at intermission.
The title of this show—which, be forewarned, is more political rally than song and dance spectacular, or piece of theatre—is baffling and makes no sense.
The terms of Moore’s “surrender” are non-existent, or easily negated anyway. The terms are that President Trump be removed from office, so there would be no surrender while Trump is in office. And, can you really imagine Michael Moore “surrendering” after that?
The show, which is aimed at people who feel just like Moore, isn’t about any terms of any kind of surrender, as much as it is the history and present of Moore’s resistance to not just Trump, but the abuse of power as he sees it, in all its forms. Surrender is anathema to Michael Moore, and he wants it to be an anathema to you.
This show is both a devotional worship service, and a call to action. The Terms of My Surrender is a mix of predictable rabble-rousing and a self-congratulatory lap of the field with a sheen of humblebrag. The audience doesn’t care, Moore is the guiding star of their grievance and their activism (armchair and street).
Given pro-Trump protesters searched out the Public Theater’s Julius Caesar to belch their fury out, will they feel even more energized to target the far more overtly political and condemnatory Moore? Perhaps: they were not there at this performance; the only catcalls were flattering (“We love you!”) from supporters.
In light of how Moore perceives Trump’s presidency, it’s no surprise that the show begins in apocalyptic terms with a burst of Carl Orff’s ‘O Fortuna’ from Carmina Burana. The stage’s predominant decoration, as conceived by David Rockwell, is an American flag projected in various colors and permutations behind him.
Before the first part of the show gets underway, following a tableau of images from the 2016 presidential campaign, a figure resembling Trump is seen in shadow, but it isn’t Trump, it’s Moore. Trump’s image is then projected behind Moore as he lets rip.
His main point is that Trump has been misunderstood, and we should get with his program.
First, Moore—dressed casual-smart—channels the collective disbelief and depression of Trump’s detractors that he is actually president. Preaching to the choir and already converted, he runs through his list of Trumpian transgressions and political infractions, like the Muslim travel ban, although intriguingly missing from this list are Trump’s misogyny, and the threat to LGBT and women’s rights.
Moore majors instead on class and financial inequality, and how good Trump was at rousing a disenchanted and disenfranchised section of white Middle America. This is a section of America that Moore himself is used to addressing, and so the part of the show when he sets out his own vision as a 2020 presidential candidate doesn’t seem such a strange proposal. Nothing does after Trump’s successful campaign.
There is nothing fresh in The Terms of My Surrender, but it is Michael Moore delivering it, and his charisma means the fury comes with one-liners and magnificent eye-rolls.
The challenge he faces bringing it to Broadway is to how to make two hours (and no intermission) of political speechifying into a piece of theater.
The fans who have come to hear him speak wouldn’t need much gilding of the invective lily, but occasionally a desk—supposedly his home desk—pops up. A funny skit saw him run through things banned by the TSA; the pièce de résistance, emerging from his suitcase, was a Muslim woman.
There is a mock game-show, in which Moore challenges “the smartest American in the room” in a quiz against “the dumbest Canadian.” This is meant to prove that the dumbest Canadian is more intelligent than the smartest American—the quiz follows a rundown of how intellectually lacking Americans are—but the night I saw it the American won.
The winner was a student from Sarah Lawrence College, who also tried to be funny, and the Canadian was a lawyer who tried to as well, and the whole thing was excruciating.
Moore also tells us his phobia is dancing, which does lead to a very Broadway finale that plays on his fear of being arrested for placing calls night after night to the office of Governor Andrew Cuomo threatening to kill him.
This surely is an arrestable offense, contends Moore, and the threat is a test because Glenn Beck once said issued the same death threat against Moore and did so escaping any kind of punishment or censure.
Moore also goes through three of the most memorable attempts there have been to injure him, including the time someone tried to stab him what looked like a math compass. His bodyguard was injured protecting Moore. There was another time somebody was arrested after making a bomb to blow up Moore’s house.
These are familiar stories—he told them to me in 2011, for example—but we hear, in this autobiographical show very little about Moore the person. We also hear nothing about the impact of the injuries suffered by his bodyguards.
We hear familiar stories of Moore’s formative years, but there is very little illumination on why he is as he is; there is nothing on his personal life, and there is little or no self-reflection, and certainly nothing that doesn’t make him appear anything less than saintly and principled.
There is no interrogation of the Left’s failure in countering Trump, apart from Moore needling Hillary Clinton about not going to campaign in Wisconsin. Fine, but that’s hardly a new point. All of Moore’s bugbears and point-scoring are familiar. He doesn’t challenge his own beliefs, or political orthodoxies, nothing surprises him. We are offered no new window into who Moore is beyond the bluster and usual talking points.
When I interviewed him in 2011 Moore told me he was “very conservative,” and that he sought to contrast his firebrand activism with an off-camera and off-stage shyness. There are none of these jolting moments of self-revelation on stage in a show that would be all the better—as a piece of theatre—if he had included them, or talked about them.
Why didn’t Moore and his director Michael Mayer begin at a point of what he hadn’t said when crafting The Terms of My Surrender? Instead, it feels more like a greatest hits, with easiest bases tapped, and added self-congratulation.
You do see flashes of Moore’s shyness on stage—he ducks his eyes and occasionally mumbles—but any searching self-examination or self-interrogation is absent. Like Trump (although he may not welcome the comparison), Moore knows his public image and doesn’t deviate from it.
Moore’s big point is that you, the individual, can make a big difference. He illustrates this with stories from his own activism life. It began with a speech at the Elks Club in Davison, Michigan (where Moore grew up), condemning the organization’s ban on black members (a story he told in his 2011 book Here Comes Trouble). The CBS Evening News called, and a lifetime of trouble-causing had begun.
It was a total accident, Moore pleads unconvincingly. He didn’t realize this would blow up as much as it did. Just like the time he ended up running for the school board; and look at him with his long hair with the older squares. And that time Stupid White Men blew up into a post-9/11 publishing phenomenon. Well, that was down to a librarian mobilizing other librarians.
All of these wow-what-happened-there protestations may be genuine; but, as well as buffering Moore’s credentials, they also ignore the fact that underpinning them are Moore’s words and activism which he has chosen carefully and emphatically to do. His fame and prominence hasn’t been one big accident. He has worked on it, and honed it. He seems to cherish his public position, and all the trouble he causes—again, just like his nemesis Trump.
Moore’s anger is at its most powerful when discussing the poisoning of Flint’s water supply, a despicable act overseen by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder that Moore nails with passion and precision-targeted fury; thousands of children have been left with permanent brain damage as a result of the poisoning, and Moore’s fury at the negligence of Snyder and his cohorts is beautifully delivered. (Unsurprising perhaps, as Moore himself introduced Flint to the world, and another period of its suffering, in the 1989 Roger & Me.)
Moore’s affability is the evening’s necessary oil: for all his anger there is a restated belief in American kindness and generosity; he tells jokes and is both self-effacing and self-aggrandizing. He offers solutions and ways to do things: the audience is given a telephone number to ring to discover that day’s targets of telephone activism.
There is a bit of old-school Broadway to finish the show. It comes out of nowhere and is totally bizarre, but the last sight of Michael Moore the audience sees is of him transported into his own kind of theatrical ecstasy—and it has nothing to do with contemplating the end of Trump’s presidency.
Michael Moore: The Terms of My Surrender is at the Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, until October 22. Book tickets here.