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On Politics and Theatre

ART TIMES Dec, 2003

So-and-So Theater Company presents Peter Playwright’s blistering satire on totalitarianism. Somebody-Else Repertory’s production of Such-And-Such-A-Play is a scathing indictment of racial hatred. Andrew Actor presents his one-man performance that takes a bold stand against social injustice. Why does it always occur to me that such people look like fools?

Well, of course! Is somebody going to come out with a lyrical paean to the beauties of totalitarianism, or a forthright declaration in favor of racial hatred, or a scathing denunciation of social justice for all? How much courage does it take to support what everybody supports? How much risk is there when you’re preaching to the choir? Of course the struggle against these and many other evils is an ongoing affair, but here’s the point: are the totalitarians in your audience? How many practitioners of racial hatred buy theater tickets? Do you really have very many patrons who support racial injustice? Aren’t we really preaching to the choir when we do this sort of thing?

We can do politics and social issues in the theater, but we would be well advised to do it without making ourselves look stupid. We do that when we do work that is really just propaganda for our own views and feelings and those of the audiences we serve – sermons written by the pastor for the good of the deacon. "Know your enemy," said Sun Tzu, which for us means to know, to understand, and to present at full emotional and intellectual force the very position we oppose. Write a play about a racist that leaves the audience with the full conviction that they, too, could be just as racist. Stage a play about a criminal that makes us secretly want to commit his crimes right along with him. Perform a play about a fascist that makes us feel in our own hearts the dangerously sweet, insidiously powerful appeal of fascism. There is nothing more powerful in the service of the right than a true and profound understanding of the nature and appeal of evil.

That being said, we can even take it to a higher level. The best political or social theater occurs when the playwright and the company find the intersection of a rock and a hard place, when good and evil are knotted together. There are tears in the social fabric where both sides of the ragged edge have a valid claim, where the pain is divided with agonizing equality, true justice is very, very hard to find, and truth, like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Some of the most enduring plays in the repertory are explorations of precisely such places; the granddaddy of them all, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, is a perfect case in point. When a wife kills a husband because the son-of-a-bitch deserved it, where do the loyalties of their child lie? Talk about a rock and a hard place! And Furies coming after you to drive the point home to boot! Now that’s a hard day at the office.

Or take another classic locus of rock-and-a-hard-place writing: Sophocles'Antigone. Despite the title, the play is as much about Kreon as it is about his niece. It’s not just that he has twice as many lines and probably twice as much stage time. It’s that he stands for something, as does Antigone, and those two stands are diametrically opposed, and the focus of the conflict is one with very powerful emotional associations. Both of them destroy their lives in the name of their beliefs; Antigone quite literally so, when she hangs herself rather than face slow starvation in her tomb, and Creon when he destroys the life of his niece and his son’s life as well – the law of unintended consequences taking its toll.

To cite another example: I would love to see a production of Ibsen’s A Doll House that really tackled the core of the play head-on, which is two-fold: First, it’s an issue of security versus independence; second, that the price of our own growth can be the pain we inflict on others. This would be a production that gives Torvald’s side full philosophical value and emotional weight; that lets us see the price he pays for mis-loving his wife, along with the price Nora pays for taking charge of her own existence.

In short, whenever we want to bring the political and social fabric into the materials of our work, let’s remember: everybody always pays. There are no cheap seats in the theater of life. We all pay full price for what we get, whether we like it or not, and whether we like what we get or not. So no cheap shots! No preaching to the choir! Full steam ahead! With our eyes and ears open, and perhaps with our mouths shut, at least at first. When we do that, we do not look like fools; indeed, when we do that, we fulfill the true potential of art to better the world.

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