Over the years I have written often about politics and theatre. For me, this has been an analysis of whether theatre, as an art form, can be used to spark political change. I have also written about the politics of theatre itself as well as politics being its own genre of theatre. What follows is more of compendium than a nicely laid-out argument, but I hope you will find some of it nourishing and useful.
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Written with unabashed optimism
First, a self-definition: to me, "political theatre" is theatre that advances progressive/leftist politics, a politics in opposition to a conservative status quo (being fully aware that the meanings of "progressive/leftist" and "conservative" vary from country to country and historical period). Second, political theatre aims to convince its audience, both inside and outside the theatre, that the values of the status quo should be changed into the progressive/leftist values in order to achieve some version of social justice and a redistribution of power. In short, "political theatre" is theatre aimed at righting a wrong and creating the conditions for liberation. The methods can range from the cool anatomizing of Brecht to fervid street theatre, but the aim, more or less, is the same: use theatre to move society toward an exercise of power associated with peace, justice, and equality.
(To be sure, political theatre can also come from the right, but its purpose would be to reinstate some supposedly lost set of values and practices, revolutionary, to be sure, but in a retrograde fashion. This essay doesn't take up that branch of the political theatre family.)
A good example of this is the essay written in the last issue by Arthur Meiselman about Lester Cole and his autobiography, Hollywood Red (a book I have read as well). Cole quite clearly wanted his art (both as a screenwriter and playwright) to forward his Marxist politics. While he had to twist and turn a lot to do this, he never veered from his principled belief that art could generate positive political change.
Given these definitions, and speaking from the perspective of the United States (which is the only one I know), political theatre does not "work," if by "work" we mean that theatre, or a theatrical piece, moves an American audience towards the left. We do have the anecdote about Odets' Waiting for Lefty galvanizing people to leave the theatre in a revolutionary fever, but that was hedged by a lot of irony (the taxi drivers' strike at the heart of the play had already been settled) and also took place at a politically heightened time in our history. But in general, American audiences do not go to theatre to seek political understanding or motivation -- they go to escape political considerations, to be entertained; or they go to be moved, but only internally, in a kind of gastro-intestinal practice of art.
And this is because American citizens do not look to their artists for guidance in the debates about power because they know that American artists by and large do not work from a strong, interwoven connection with the causes of their historical place and time. They have been cordoned off (often by their own choice) into aesthetic camps where their work as artists and their work as citizens have only the most tenuous relationship, if any at all, and this estrangement does not make them trustworthy guides.
Furthermore, American theatre artists are not very good at political theatre. They lack the gene for artistico-political sophistication one finds in Europe or Latin America, and too often they mistake the stage for the pulpit or the lectern (not to mention date themselves -- can Waiting for Lefty be done as anything but a museum piece? -- or sound simply foolish, like that much-gasped at monologue in Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter about American race relations). Plays "ripped from the headlines" end up becoming past tense as soon as the headlines turn. And too often they become indictments not of the audience but of the non-audience, who are not there to defend themselves (or be executed, depending upon one's level of rage), or they appeal to an amorphous "humanitarian sentiment," exhorting us to better ourselves.
But I'm not willing yet to give up on theatre being used for political purposes, that is, as a contributor to the debates about power that govern our lives -- but it has to be done more subtly, more in keeping with the transformative power that live theatre can have on an audience rather than trying to adapt for the stage the borrowed techniques of the sermon and the lecture.
A more fertile approach to political theatre must begin with the desire of the playwright to use his or her theatre to raise questions about current beliefs and, most importantly, to present possibilities for existential liberation. When the playwright writes from this foundation, then the theatre can "work" politically, even though not tied to agenda politics, because it is about the effect a particular political/historical situation has on the flesh and blood of human beings.
It is one kind of action to do an agit-prop presentation on the loss of jobs because of globalization. It is another to do a play about the "lived reality" of the effects the job loss has on a family's ability to care for itself and live out its dreams, where perhaps the breadwinners, suddenly seeing a broader horizon than themselves, go off to protest in a move that, for them, proves liberating and refreshing.
The theatre is a wonderful way to present these kinds of liberating "lived realities." They cannot only honor the present but also convey possibilities/alternatives to that present (even if that consists of seeing no possibilities for change, which can be just as eye-opening and igniting). Plays like these can have just as strong a political message as a piece overtly constructed to bring a message or argue a point or anatomize a hypocrisy because they present alternate possibilities in the exercise of power in a way that feels lived and earned.
There are many things in American theatre that stand in the way of creating works like this. One is the American penchant for wanting psychological explanations and "back story," which is an essentially conservative desire and very limiting in terms of characters and stories. Another is a mistaken (and conservative) belief that only the "dark side" of things can hold elemental human truths and things must therefore be "edgy" and caustic to be true.
But there are antidotes to these strait-jackets. American history is a deep lode for liberating storytelling. By sifting our past with a fine comb we can examine how we got here and re-remember that our American history, as skullduggerous as it is, also boasts of large spirits and broad humanities that we can salvage and enlist as we try to restore "America" to that version that had dedicated itself, rhetorically as well as through action, to unalienable rights and inclusive liberties. (Remember a time when religion, through the Social Gospel, actually preached a righteous crusade against corruption, poverty, and capitalistic greed?) Americans know so little of their own history, and their ignorance puts them at the mercy of the ideologue revisionists and political raptors.
But I don't just want to create historical dramatizations, a higher level of the costumed interpreters at Colonial Williamsburg. I also want audiences to understand their own part in their own bamboozlement, their complicity in their own amnesia. Unless they feel some sense that they have made choices that they can also unmake (another way to think of "redemption"), then they cannot participate in recovering their own history.
And there is communal theatre, where companies involve their communities deeply in creation and performance and give everyone a sense of ownership that is not proprietary but custodial and healing. (And let us not forget Augusto Boal's Forum Theatre.)
Real emancipatory theatre (which is what I mean by "political") will happen when audience, creators, time and place, and history all interlace not only to review what has happened but to look beyond our given moment to see what is possible, what can be changed, how the better angels of our nature can gain the upper hand as we try to figure out what is to be done, how power can be used to forward the human condition, not destroy it.
Of course, this would be a very different kind of theatre than what we have today -- Boal's Forum Theatre is never going to be presented at mid-town Manhattan because somebody out there still needs a diet of dysfunctional family dramas, one-person coming-out confessionals, and "buddy" plays that trace the inevitable declines of growing up after college.
But that does not stop us from rehearsing our own new political possibilities and re-imagining a theatre less industrial in its model and more embroidered into the everyday lives of people. Theatre that people actually depended upon to help them sort out their thoughts and potentialities would be a political theatre unlike anything we see today in the United States -- a useful art.
Now that is a sweet thought.
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Written upon further reflection
The more theatre I see these days, the more I see that theatre, at least in our era, is not built to make political change happen.
In 2006 in this journal, Bill Ballantyne wrote a deft summary of a play's gestation ["Writing A Play"]. In his concept of what drives a play's writing, Ballantyne foregrounds the power of imagination over rationality so that the play "[reminds us] of our humanity. We are all frail. We are all weak. We all have faults. Let us unbottle them, heart to heart, and celebrate our common lot." Humanistic in its celebration of shared imperfections, but also a prescription for political quiescence. The audience leaves the theatre musing on its collective frailties, reminded of mortality and, in that reminder, finding some measure of individualized solace for life's inevitable entropy.
If Ballantyne's analysis is right (and I think it is), then the theatre is no place for politics because the theatre's frail humanitarian box cannot really contain the explosive polarities of politics, which is really about how the holders of power want to keep holding onto it. Documentaries and novels and histories and biographies can dissect this better than theatre.
Theatre may be able to examine the effects of politics' explosions, but it is always an examination of the heart's precincts, the inner courtyards of human experience. The horizon is constricted, the words' audibility falling off after a few dozen meters, the audience's attention inevitably linked to how much these characters reflect back to them about themselves, how much "identity" knits up the space between stage and seat. "Tell the truth but tell it slant" as Emily Dickinson says. Theatre as Rorschach.
This makes theatre closer to poetry than anything else since poetry's ambit is always closer to the inner organs than to the outer storms of the political world. But theatre is always lesser than poetry because audiences can tolerate less strangeness, less disjunction in form and delivery.
Distance in other art forms, like poetry or sculpture or (post)modernist painting, can actually work to make us feel closer to the art because it makes us re-work ourselves, the effort to make the strange less strange building an affinity to the work. Not so in theatre, which is why theatre remains the lighter-weight art form that it is, the hydrogen or helium of the artistic periodic table.
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So, is there any form of theatre that can have political effect?
The answer is "yes" -- but not one that is immediately obvious since it does not take place in a theatre.
As I wrote in an essay several years ago for Scene4, the most influential theatre artist of the 20th century was Edward L. Bernays, often called "The Father of Public Relations," who died at the age of 103 in 1995 and who began his work in the "engineering of consent" (as he called it) during and just after World War I. (He worked on Woodrow Wilson's Creel Commission, otherwise known as the "Committee on Public Information," to foster public support for America's entry into the Great War.)
Bernays, who was a nephew of Sigmund Freud (his father was Ely Bernays, brother of Freud's wife Martha Bernays, and his mother was Freud's sister, Anna), combined Freud's ideas with the study of crowd psychology by Gustave LeBon in France and Wilfred Trotter in Britain to create methods to control and direct public behavior. As he asked in his 1928 book Propaganda, "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it?" And he answered his own question in the affirmative by a career dedicated to, as the title of first book in 1923 declared, Crystallizing Public Opinion.
Bernays did not see his work as negating democracy but actually making democracy possible by getting disparate and disunited people to work together in ways that would quell their instincts toward aggression by uniting them in common acts:
The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country....We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society....In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons...who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.
His work as a "public relations counsel" (the title he preferred) has been well-documented, and the documentation shows how well mass-marketing in a mass culture works to herd people's desires in one direction or another, whether it's to buy soap or to "engineer consent" for the war in Iraq.
It's not the point to defend or criticize what Bernays did and started. It's to show that the effects of Bernays' form of theatrical manipulation far outstrip the influence of any other artist or artistic production, both in breadth (the millions of people) and depth (how we are all, in America, to one degree or another, a mass citizen of a mass culture). The twentieth century (as well as our own twenty-first century) had the shape and tenor it did in large measure because of the ideas and practices started by Bernays.
And then there is what I call "necro-political theatre," the manipulation of death and tragedy for political gain, such as happens in New York on every September 11, an event now dramaturged and honed to a razor-sharp timing, producing a long and successful run promoting a managed message of doom and uplift.
And power performs its own theatre as well. I recall attending a rally years ago in Central Park against the World Economic Forum (WEF). Hundreds of police officers employed what I can only call a round of fascist theatrics as bold a lesson in the power of spectacle as any overblown Broadway chandelier-crasher. They had crammed 59th Street from 4th Avenue to 6th Avenue (the southern edge of Central Park) with dozens of police vans, NYC Corrections buses (with their cyclone-fenced interiors ripe for rowdies), patrol cars, unmarked cars and vans -- an impressive display of automotive tax dollars at work.
Even more fearsome, though, was the squad of perfectly aligned, stomping-at-the-bit cavalry from the NYPD stables, these centaurs groomed and rampant. In front of them stood, at a perfect symmetrical lean, forty or so motorcycles, all faithfully attended by their drivers, the metallic version of the equines behind them. At some signal, the riders got on their bikes, and in formation peeled off like some road-bound version of the Blue Angels, revving their motors to drown out the speakers.
Then, as the time got closer for the march, those hundreds of officers, in riot helmets, flanked by people on the rooftops and not very well-concealed plainsclothesmen in the crowd, and scouted by police helicopters circling vulture-like overhead, began inching in, inching in, their ranks getting more and dense until a long blue channel appeared that blocked the marchers from the view of the pedestrians, isolating them, squeezing them along, keeping everything ordered and buttoned.
No, it was not Nuremberg or Leni Riefensthal or the Cossacks in 1905, but they made no secret of the power of state power not only to project its power through spectacle, choreography, and scripting for ritual but also to define what images would be publicly available for memory and as the truth. (For instance, in the next day's New York Times, the front page sported the photograph of a long-haired young man being arrested. The caption read that out of 7000 estimated marchers, police had arrested 36. But despite the overwhelming peaceful nature of the march, the Times did not say that 6964 marchers had marched without incident, and it did not show a picture of marchers with signs or babies in carriages or anything humanizing. The fables had to be upheld.)
Aristotle may have ranked spectacle as the least important of the six elements of tragedy, with plot and character being most important, but Authority reverses the ranking. Spectacle is most important for its project, plot and characters (with their attendant nuances) the least useful.
And on that day, for those that cared to watch, Authority served and protected the established order with its own forms of pageantry, steeped in blue and dressed in visored Plexiglas, inching, inching, inching us along until we, branded as "protestors," marched in our proper files down the memory hole.
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What is to be done?
A title of an essay of mine sort of sums up these thoughts: "Politics is an egg that theatre cannot hatch." Which puts me in the same place as John L. Sullivan, the director in Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels, who longs to make a socially relevant movies but ends up finding out that laughter is a better contribution to social betterment than a movie about the downtrodden titled O Brother, Where Art Thou?
I think the best thing, politically speaking, that a writer can do is simply try to tell the truth and reveal the obvious -- not hector, not lecture, not judge, not despair. This is not such an easy mandate, since Authority wants to bury the obvious under ideology and Consumerism wants compulsiveness to overawe rational thought.
Peeling back the onion, taking off the seven veils, exposing the Emperor's new clothes -- whatever metaphor proves useful in setting out the course of a life's work.
Staying true to telling the truth may be the most political action we can expect artists to take, at least in this country at this time. As they say in the New York City subways, "If you see something, say something."