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The Drum One Beats and the One who Beats the Drum

ART TIMES November 2007.


There are three kinds of political theater. The one kind tends to produce some of the worst work, and the other kind tends to produce some of the best work. The third kind is the most insidious of all.


The first kind, the one that produces the worst work, is the kind of play that gets written or production that gets mounted because someone has adopted some political agenda or other, and they want to beat that drum for all they’re worth. This is the kind of play that gives political theater a bad name. This is the play that is all message and no art. In these plays, the character or characters that serve as the authorial mouthpiece are just that—all mouth, no heart, no brains, no sensibility. In these plays, the action is a carefully arranged demonstration of the authorial message—all precooked with a healthy dose of drumbeat, but with a few important ingredients, such as probability, necessity, and humanity unfortunately omitted. Think of early Brecht, of agitprop, of a great many contemporary political plays.


The second kind, one that often produces superb work, is the kind of play that gets written not because someone wants to beat a drum, but because they are interested in the people who do, and in the kind of conflicts that develop in the political realm. The best of this kind of writing is the classic rock-and-a-hard-place confrontation, when two ideologies are embodied in highly interesting, believable people and meet in circumstances where there is no easy way out, where something has got to give. Think of Sophocles’ Antigone, or Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.


The third kind of political theater is the most insidious. It is the vast body of work that appears to have nothing political about it at all. This is the kind of play that seems to want to isolate itself from the wider world, that wants to look at human beings in a very interior, isolated kind of way, or that wants to operate from a framework that keeps social and political complexities firmly outside the frame. Any such matters function solely as plot devices and foils for character. Think of Noel Coward’s Private Lives; think of The Sound of Music.


If you’re going to do political theater, the second kind is what you want to do. Doing the first kind either makes you look stupid, if you haven’t done your homework, as so many people who do that sort of thing have not, or results in a first-rate, bang-up, high-voltage sermon preached to the choir where preachy is certainly the word of the day. The third kind is what happens when you try too hard to avoid doing something political, without quite realizing that we can no more tell stories about human beings without dealing with their political relationships than we can tell stories about frogs without dealing with the fact that they hop.


The essence of politics is power. Power relationships are fundamental to human beings. Theater exists to show human fundamentals in action. Trying to portray human beings without portraying the power relationships that exist between them, and the ways human beings respond to those relationships, is like trying to portray human beings without dealing with how they love and hate. There are two ways to try to dodge the issue; one is to pretend that the issue doesn’t exist; the other is to pretend that it’s the superficial political issues that matter, not the fundamental human behavior. The one way to do what must be done is to recognize the fundamental politics involved in your story and and be honest with it.