December 2004

Nathan Thomas

Scene4 Theatre and Politics

As I wrote last month's column, the American election was yet to come.  As I write now, it's so "yesterday's news." Now the world knows Mr. Bush will be the president for another four years.  Liberal friends moan and sigh; conservative friends smile and whistle happy tunes.  The jokes I've heard about Republicans in my estimation tend to be funnier than the jokes about Democrats.  But then, humor belongs to the 'loser.'  Curiously the election crisis in the world isn't in the U.S.A., but in the Ukraine.   

All of this has led me to think about the curious connections and byways of theatre and politics, which I offer here in no particular order.

* I'm regularly astonished about the reaction of many non-show people to actors and/or show people when they speak out on political subjects. "(S)he's just an actor what does (s)he know??!?"  I can't count the number of times I've heard that sentiment expressed.  Yet in a representative system, isn't the purpose that everyone has equal right to say what they think?  Why should an actor have less right to speak about a political opinion than a lawyer, journalist, or any other passerby? Somehow there continues to be an idea that "dumb" actors simply can't know what's going on. And, since actors are "liars" anyway, they certainly can't be trusted.

I swear this mystifies me.

* I find it interesting there has been a conjunction between theatre and politics from the beginning.  Tragedy was first viewed as part of a civic competition in ancient Athens.  We don't know much about Thespis, but Aeschylus likely involved himself in civic affairs.  He was a soldier, fighting against Persia.  Aeschylus lived in Athens at the dawning of its democratic period.  It would be difficult not to imagine him as a participant in the political life of a city in which he was a leading competitor in a very public competition (the Great Dionysa) and a veteran.   

* I worked with Polish director Jan Skotnicki in the spring of 1986 when Gorbachev came to power in the old Soviet system.  Jan was fond of saying, "Government always tries to control theatre.  Theatre never controls the government."  This from a man who'd been followed by the KGB for a time.  But it's true, in a way.   

* Different people advance different theories about why Stalin ordered the execution of Meyerhold.  I'd argue it was mostly politics.  Meyerhold knew Trotsky, and they had at least a nodding relationship, if not a friendship. And both Meyerhold and his wife, Zanaida Raikh, knew the political revolutionary group from their days in St. Petersburg at the end of the tsarist period. When Stalin decided to crush any possibility of conflict within the Bolshevik organization, Stalin had to destroy not only his foes, but also the people who knew the foes.  Recent archives point out that after WW II, Stalin admitted at a dinner party that probably Meyerhold didn't have to die. But that's not what Stalin thought in the 1930s.  Meyerhold knew the "wrong" people he (and Raikh) had to go.

* Show people tell the stories.  Politicians make the rules.  It's much better to be the story teller.  Think about it.  Walk down almost any street in the world.  Ask someone to quote something by Queen Elizabeth or King James.  Even if you help by starting the quote, I doubt if any could do the job.  Probably there'd be a scad of people who don't know who King James was. Start "To be or . . ." and see how many people can finish the line.  Who was the ruler when Sophocles wrote?  Do you know?  Do you care? Who were the politicians in Norway when Ibsen wrote "A Doll's House?"  How many people will remember Nicholas II in centuries to come as they enjoy a production of "The Cherry Orchard?"  People will remember James Tyrone and Willie Loman long after names like Calvin Coolidge and, yes, even Franklin Roosevelt are meaningless.

It's better to be the story teller.

©2004 Nathan Thomas

Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College.

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