February 2023

From The Archives



Michael Bettencourt

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.

* * *

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. (....)


Originally published in the January 2014 issue
of Scene4 Magazine. Read the complete article,
and explore Scene4's entire 22-year archives,
 in The Archives



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