When Belgium’s Valentijn Dhaenens opens his Bigmouth this week in Toronto, audiences will see and hear the Canadian premiere of a one-man show inspired by 2,500 years of oration, with snippets of important speeches, sermons, war declarations and eulogies throughout history, from Socrates to Joseph Goebbels to Muhammad Ali to Osama bin Laden. We spoke to Dhaenens from the road, in East Lansing, Mich.
You flew into Detroit last night. Did you see the Republican Party debate on television?
I didn’t. I wasn’t aware of it.
I bring it up because your show is Bigmouth, and Donald Trump absolutely fits that description. What’s your take on him?
Trump has a quite aggressive way of putting things, and clearly lots of people have the urge to listen to this man. He’s saying the things that many people wish to say, but it isn’t politically correct. It’s a technique that has been used in history, of course. There have been lots of big mouths like Donald Trump before.
Is he dangerous?
From a European perspective, we can’t imagine Trump ever becoming president. We look at him and think, ‘This isn’t possible.’ He’s an American cliché – something out of a movie. The media has a big role in this and it’s always spectacular. But I think when it comes to the point of voting, people will not vote for him as much as you would think now.
A lot of your quotes and speeches and references in Bigmouth are American. What’s your own relationship with that country?
I was raised in Belgium, but my books and my music and the movies I watched, half of it was American. I was brought up on American culture in the 1980s. We all watched The A-Team, Knight Rider and MacGyver.
The very best America had to offer at the time, yes.
[Laughs.] Well, also I really think European morals are influenced by American media, as well as the stuff we love about America.
So, in the show you use the song America, from West Side Story. ‘I like to be in America,’ and all that.
Right. But for me, it’s more like America wants to live in me. I was brought up on Disney movies, and the good endings. I feel like I’m half-American, like most people in Europe. After the Second World War, something huge happened. We entered the American empire a little bit. It was a new era and a new culture, and we were all very attached to it.
But America has been humbled since then. Has the romance worn off?
In some ways, yes. When I became an adult, I had side thoughts about how things are done. I started reading a lot about the Vietnam War. So, yes, there are two sides to it. And when you look at history, there are similarities with the Roman Empire and America. Sometimes, I think we’re seeing the end of it.
And so we have Trump promising to make America great again. In Bigmouth, you span history and nationalities, but what is it that ties all these wordy guys you quote together? And it is all guys, right?
Yes, apart from one. Ann Coulter is at the end. It’s all about human beings wanting to be a god. When you have the abilities and the language skills, I think it’s hard not to try to become a god, and it’s this urge that puts all these men together. On the other side, their audiences want to be seduced. They have an urge to have a leader. I still have a question with that. Where does that urge to be led in a certain direction come from?
Isn’t it based on fear?
Not always. You know, when you lose your children in war, for instance, there aren’t many ways to comfort the parents. I use something from Pericles, and the words he used in 400 BC. The words give parents of dead soldiers hope, and they’re told it is for a good cause. It can be a big lie, but we haven’t found another way to comfort people.
Okay, but I’m curious how we, or you, get from Pericles to Ann Coulter.
Small steps, really. The Greeks invented the speech, or the rhetoric, and the way we influence people and manipulate people. And the thing is, we still use the same techniques today.
Bigmouth plays at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre, Jan. 19 to Feb. 7.Report Typo/Error