Recently I've gone to see several theatre works (productions and readings) that have touted their ability to heal and teach. Earnest, good-hearted work on everyone's part. And, for the most part, dramatically inert.
Why is that?
Because they have forgotten to investigate and expose the politics of power that shape every human relationship.
My point is a simple one. Every interaction a human being has with another human being or the surrounding world is a political one, i.e., based on getting, or at least not losing, power. What we call "civilized behavior" is an attempt to blunt this reality through sentimentalities that stress redemption/salvation, "higher" moralities, our "better angels," or some other analgesic approach (what a professor of mine once called a "sentimentalized Christian ethos").
Sometimes the ethos really kicks in, often in catastrophes, where people, jolted out of their daily competitions into momentary selflessness, can accomplish great things.
But more often we get faux renditions of the ethos, such as on the local news programs, which always have a meta-narrative underneath their presentations, where evil is punished and selflessness commended, where "old-fashioned" values trump modern selfishness, and so on (even down to the weather, where meteorological conditions are chastised if they are not "well-behaved" — talk about asking King Canute to stop the waves!).
And theatre is not immune from this impulse to make reality "make nice" and give us narratives where the shortness and brutishness of life is somehow palliated into moments of triumph or revelation or the improvement of the spirit. And why not? Why not have a "feel-good" about feeling good? What's the harm?
But "what's the harm?" is not the right question. For me, the question is (in terms of theatre) why make theatre that does this? Why make theatre that does not at least attempt to unsettle the audience and then resists the impulse to settle all accounts so that the audience member does not leave completely intact and no worse for wear?
Well, there's certainly money to be made in not upsetting the audience, in doing what my friend calls "Hippocratic theatre," that is, theatre that "first does no harm." And there will always be audiences that crave only this, who only want a good sit-down and a larf before they head back into the dark night.
But theatre, to me, gets "real" when it stops trying to educate and reform and be useful and instead journeys honestly through the unlimited ways we fashion and re-fashion our realities to take what advantage we can of each other — because taking advantage, always jockeying for the inside rail, is what humans do best: it is our singular species talent. We are political animals — we practice the politics of animals — and we are endlessly entertained by our power maneuvers, no matter how bloody and nasty they get.
I am the gatherer of occasional non-theatrical references to theatre, such as when Saddam Hussein said of the invasion of Iraq that "this is all a theatre; the real criminal is Bush," or when generals and others refer to the "theatre of war" or the "theatre of operations," or a recent article in The New Yorker about the Alito hearings that analyzes the confirmation process in dramaturgical terms. Usually it's easy to read these theatre references as disparagements — people are not being "real" because they're putting on masks or taking on roles, so theatre is all about fooling and misleading people.
There is duplicity here, but there is more as well. For instance, why be duplicitous? Why describe an event of physical harm (a battle or even a medical operation) as taking place in a "theatre"? Because the will to power, not the urge for healing, drives all the make-believe and gesturing and role-playing: the surgeon wielding the scalpel in defiance of mortality, the general moving troops like chess pieces, the senator scoring points off the captive nominee, and so on. This is why we use the word "theatre" to locate or identify events of "great pitch and moment."
Even on the lower frequencies we are drawn to stories about power like spectators to a crash site. In relationships, we may want to see the happy ending, but what makes the journey there worth watching is not the ending but the sexual politics of who gets to be on top. In reality TV shows about boardrooms and models and geeks and beauties and singers and dancers, winning comes second to the spectacle of the scorpions in the bottle or the callous slasher/critic or the thrill of the hunter on the trail. (And note that these "reality" shows are very tightly scripted, and that the "through-line" they script to is the one they know will sell the products at the act break: power — winning it, losing it, stealing it, using it).
So why make theatre that tries to save, redeem, purify when, in the end, that is not what excites us about the human comedy? Leave salvationing to the cathedrals and mega-churches — they have more money and talent in that line. The problems with Hippocratic theatre, my friend points out, is that if one "first does no harm," chances are that one will end up doing nothing very good.
So, I'm all for more theatre that doesn't do us any good, that shows us how frightful we are as creatures on this earth, that picks over the ways we pick each other over — in short, that takes seriously the dramatic template that emphasizes things being at stake, rising spirals of confrontation, surprises and twists when the world knocks our egos for a loop. We don't need more palliative care — we have enough of that, embedded as we are in a consumer culture that daily anodynes us. We need fresh, raw, brutish, comedic, desentimentalized portraits of ourselves — not because they will make us better people but because they won't make us better people, because they will tell us truths and then leave us the fuck alone to figure them out (or not) on our own.