Monday, 30 October 2017

Political Theatre is Obvious


...that the only important theatre is political theatre.

It's equally obvious that all theatre is political and that it's simply a question of refining the definition. Politics is the study of power relationships, the mechanisms of control and dominance, but it is also the specifics of government and ideologies at all points in history. A political play is usually seen as more like the latter definition - The Absence of War (1993) by David Hare which exposes the machinations of the British Labour Party, Shakespeare's remarkable propaganda piece Richard III which supported Tudor claims of regal legitimacy, George Bernard Shaw's 1928 The Apple Cart and its monologues explaining various political philosophies. And it is in GBS' ideas that the importance of this specific kind of political play is revealed as crucial.

Shaw argued that plays ought to be useful: he knew that Shakespeare could provide better poetry, but the script that addressed a social issue - and became redundant for later generations - had far more worth. Brecht agreed with this diagnosis, and English Edwardian drama was full of now forgotten examples of these 'issue plays': Houghton's Hindle Wakes (marriage between social classes and women's emancipation), Galsworthy's Strife (strikes) and Justice (which persuaded Home Secretary Winston Churchill to reconsider the validity of solitary confinement in prisons) and even a sequel to Ibsen's Dolls House by Henry Arthur Jones called Breaking a Butterfly that returned Nora to good grace.

Brecht makes the strongest argument - at least in this theories - for the importance of political theatre. As a Marxist, he had a revolution to encourage, and he saw theatre as a useful weapon. early experiments with video, which he would use to project relevant statistics behind the action, gave way to a more elegant dramaturgy. By the time his Berliner Ensemble did his version of Coriolanus, he was able to adapt a classic to examine the importance of the proletariat rather than yet another great man's tragedy.

Anyway, political theatre goes back to performance's earliest incarnations. The mighty Oresteia is a trilogy that celebrates the rise of Athenian democracy, a symbolic enactment of the city's introduction of justice and, its patriarchal companion, the pardoning of young white men with promising careers ahead of them. Euripides has plenty to say about the antics of the state in The Trojan Women, Aristophanes parodies popular politicians in his comedies. Roman theatre might have been a bit more circumspect - the tyranny of the emperors didn't take well to satirical commentary, and the Mystery Cycles of Christian theatre were focused on the heavens, not the carry on of the state. However, even the most abstracted tragedies of the neoclassical era had an edge: as studies of political power relationships, they also reinforced the dream of aristocrats that fate, ruling the world, determined their social status.

The British critic Dryden had an interesting opinion on that: the downfall of a great man, in tragedy, signified that fate was no respecter of status, thereby making the tragedy all the more universal. That might be for another time.

During the 1990s, the Labour government decided that art was a good way to change society, and thus instrumentalism became policy. There was plenty of funding, for a while, and theatre became the place for big ideas to strut their stuff. Even now, companies like Kali support the work of artists from minority (not a term I like much) groups, presenting experiences to the public through the magic of the stage.

In an age when theatre is struggling for an audience - a fact that is probably something to do with the post-modern anxiety about stating things as facts and, instead, being all complicated and clever about it - the political theatre offers a certainty and clarity. A good, clean message, fitted to an appropriate format. 


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