Whither the Political Theatre?

Last Monday, South African playwright Athol Fugard unloaded on the contemporary theatre scene for its lack of serious political engagement in an article in the Guardian, arguing that a combination of PC sensitivities to tackling hard topics, and that, “With so many young playwrights, the true craft of writing for living voices is not what it used to be. They write for attention spans of 10 minutes between adverts.” (There’s a pair of responses here and here.)

That’s a pretty harsh criticism from a playwright who seems above reproach on the topic. Like Vaclav Havel in the former Czechoslovakia, Fugard not only talked the talk, he walked the walk, violating apartheid-era laws by putting black and white actors onstage together, directly challenging the existing political order with his activism at the same time his plays explored the complex racial relations of his time and place. But honestly, if you assume that (a) there really is a major paucity of quality political theatre in America and Britain today, and (b) that this really is a problem, I can’t help but feel that it has as much to do the tradition of writers like Fugard as with the broader contemporary culture. In fact, I’d say it his tradition is really the single biggest problem. Because all too often, young playwrights lionize the dissident theatre of people like Fugard, without realizing that in a different socio-political dynamic, it amounts to little more than preaching to the choir, which is generally what political theatre in America and Britain is.

Context is everything when it comes to politics. In politically repressive environments, such as apartheid South Africa or Iron Curtain Eastern Europe, the theatre could serve as a place for the people–or some subset of them–to see artists challenge the status quo, to speak truth to power. In liberal Western democracies, anyone can speak truth to power–or lie, deceive, mislead, or autodidactically pontificate–more or less whenever they want, thanks today to magic of the Internet. And the greater public is left to choose what information and ideas to consume at its leisure. So what really is the point of producing a confrontational, issue-oriented play, such as one protesting the war in Iraq, if we can safely assume that the audience will arrive and leave more or less in agreement with the work’s sentiments?

The war in Iraq is an excellent example, because Fugard singles out David Hare as an example of the sort of work he thinks is representative of what we need more of. But what, for instance, is the point of producing Stuff Happens, Hare’s “insider’s” account of White House and Number 10 Downing Street political intrigue and mendacity leading to the invasion of Iraq? When I saw the play in Seattle in 2007, what struck me was how much the play represented Hare’s own biases, particularly as Briton. Why, for instance, is Tony Blair portrayed as a sympathetic (in human terms, if not political) but misguided stooge while George W. Bush & co. come off bloodthirsty monsters in their joint effort to use force to re-shape the Middle East, despite the fact Blair bought into that logic as well? And for that matter, you’d suppose Hare might have put aside the British pastime of French-bashing at least a bit when it came to Pres. Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister at the time, the latter of whom is portrayed as a duplicitous snob playing a game of realpolitik. Surely that’s partially accurate, but Hare has little sympathy for them despite the fact that–whatever their true motivations–they came as close as anyone to preventing the hundreds of thousands of deaths, and years of cost and suffering, the war has entailed.

In America, I’ve also often had a problem with how the work of August Wilson is held up as some sort of political beacon, the apogee of which came with the revival of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on Broadway last year, when Pres. Barack Obama himself brought the First Lady to the show. It was a beautiful moment of political theatre (the other sort), with the first African-American president watching a play by America’s greatest African-American dramatist, under the direction of Bartlett Sher, the first white director to get a crack at Wilson’s work…ever? It was a paean to a post-racial America that just plain doesn’t exist, anymore than a post-racial American theatre does. I’d hardly be the first to criticize Broadway for its limitations, but it probably deserved more notice that this year when Denzel Washington won a Tony for best leading role in a play, he was the first African-American actor to win since James Earl Jones in 1987. For the same role in the same play. Which–that’s right–was also by August Wilson.

That’s not to say that Wilson’s work isn’t deserving of a lot of praise (and I don’t want to hate on him here, either). His ten-part cycle of plays that sought to reclaim the African-American experience of the 20th Century was a massive undertaking with frequently moving results. But again, context is everything in political theatre, and the very historicity of works like Joe Turner or Fences allows theatre audiences–still overwhelmingly white–to be comfortable with their exploration of race issues precisely because they’re in the past. Instead of encouraging contemporary audiences to ask hard questions about contemporary realities, including their own responsibility for the present, Wilson’s easily allows for a sort of kumbaya experience where theatre-goers spend a lot of money to see just how far we’ve come in America.

The problem in both cases–and what I’m generally get at here–is that the sort of work that’s passed for political theatre for the past several decades has relied too much on telling stories, making moral arguments, and appealing to the biases of their audiences. In a closed society, where the people could legitimately be at odds with their government, stories like that can meaningful and important. In America and Western Europe, they now largely serve to reinforce the already existing opinions of their audiences, and often at the expense of actually challenging their audiences for their role, as members of democratic societies, for the very issues they seek to address.

That doesn’t mean theatre has to be violently confrontational to be good political theatre. Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment is one of the strongest explorations of race in America I’ve seen or read in years, managing to challenge the assumptions of pretty much anyone in the audience no matter their background, without being threatening or off-putting. And the best recent political work I’ve seen is the T.E.A.M’s Mission Drift, which showed in workshop as part of this summer’s Soho Think Tank Ice Factory series. Instead of seeking to make a political argument, in Mission Drift the company creates an intellectual conflict that’s not actively resolved, allowing for the city of Las Vegas to represent both the best and worst aspects of contemporary America, and in the process exploring American capitalism (the good and the bad), expansionism, and the current economic crisis.

In a sense it doesn’t seem fair to compare Broadway and regional theatre with downtown artists–plenty of readers will respond with a passive “duh” to the suggestion one does a better job exploring politics than the other. But all too often, even small and experimental theatre relies to heavily on producing work that appeals to its audiences rather than challenging them. One thing the American theatre has in common from the biggest houses to the smallest, most avant garde companies is a strong leftward tilt. The responsibility of artists who want to be politically engaged–who really do want to make a difference–is to tackle the assumptions not of their society, as Fugard seems to suggest, but of their audiences. Falling back on the safety of our shared assumptions and values isn’t just irresponsible politically; it makes the theatre downright irrelevant.

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