Here’s the blog post I wrote about political theater BEFORE yesterday’s conversation on the subject on the 2amt Twitter stream:
I have a confession to make: whenever I encounter the the word “theater” and the phrase “social justice” anywhere near each other, my mind closes so quickly I can’t even remember it being open.
Now, I’m about as liberal as it’s possible to be. For example: I actually don’t believe it should be legal to make a profit off of either health care or education. If I was the boss of the country, furthermore, I’d set a hard ratio for CEO-to-employee salaries of approximately 7 to 1, raise the highest tax bracket to 75% (for starters), legalize both same-sex marriage and marijuana possession, and remove all references to God from our money… before lunch on my first day in office. I very much like social justice. Heck, I love it! See what I mean?
The thing is… I also love theater, too, and I have to be honest and say that when theater comes with a social justice agenda of some kind, I really almost always can’t stand it.
Theater, for me, is far more effective and vital when it’s focused on asking questions, not dictating answers. To get and keep my attention, a play has to evoke, invite, suggest, hint, symbolize. Social justice, however, seems to concern itself — in the main — with demanding, protesting, asserting, defending, insisting… all of which becomes very tedious when you have to listen to it, over and over again, for a couple of hours. When we make theater like that, it’s no wonder that our audience base shrinks.
Theater doesn’t only live on one side of the Senate aisle. It doesn’t belong to any one political party or ideology. For my money, theater should be the opposite of ideology. If it isn’t, it doesn’t work well.
So please don’t take this the wrong way, but if you’re making “theater of social justice” (*shudder*) no matter how much I agree with whatever you’re probably going on about, I’m just not going to come. And if that makes me a bad progressive, so be it — I’ll hope to be a better theater practitioner instead.
After yesterday’s conversation, I feel I need to add a bit more.
I want to be clear in saying that I don’t think ALL theater should be interrogatory. There’s room for many kinds of theater in the world, of course. I’m really saying something more nuanced than that, or I want to be. I’m saying that my personal preference is for a Theater of Inquiry rather than a Didactic Theater. (Apologies to the company of that name in DC, if they still exist… but I really don’t care for the term.) I’m also saying that MOST of the time, but not always, Theater of Inquiry is more effective. Finally, I do also believe that Theater of Inquiry is what we need right now in America. We get more than enough didactic speech in the culture and political wars in which we’re embroiled at the moment, everywhere from our news pundits to our houses of worship. Hell, even our American Idol judges talk that way. It has grown tiresome.
I also want to clarify that I don’t believe all political theater is or must be didactic. A great deal of it seems to be, but my impressions might be colored by the fact that I see most of my theater in DC. (In the 2amt discussion, however, others around the country concurred with my assessment.) Political theater that’s genuinely interrogatory— that comes with an agenda other than personalizing or humanizing the issues—can work in theory… and sometimes works in practice, too. More often than not, however, I get the sense that theater of this variety secretly does have an agenda — usually a liberal one. Again, I’m as liberal as it gets… but that just bores me. I already know what I think; I come to the theater to discover.
Ultimately, if “political theater” is about exploring how an issue of interest bears out in a personal realm—same-sex marriage tearing a family apart, for example—why must it be considered political theater at all? Seems to me that what you’ve really got there is ordinary theater, plain and simple. The politics are almost incidental. In fact, they’d almost better be, or the relationships in the play won’t ring true. Yes, the personal is political, and vice versa… but the political isn’t what makes the play actually work, I think.
Next, I want to respond to what I’m going to call the “Shakespeare exception” that several folks raised on Twitter. (They also raised a “Greek plays” exception, but they amount to the same thing.) They noted that many of Shakespeare’s plays are political, particularly the histories… and it’s hard to say that those plays don’t work. For the most part, I agree—they do work, brilliantly. (Not telling you anything you don’t know, of course.) I just don’t think they’re political.
Wait… what? Shakespeare’s work isn’t political? Not to my reading it isn’t political… or not only political. To see him through that lens, and only that lens, is to minimize his genius. He’s never operating on only one level. His work is political, and psychological, and symbolic, and philosophical, and a great deal more as well. Besides… to compare Shakespeare with the agit-prop polemic that passes for political theater now? You might as well compare Chateaubriand with a McDonald’s hamburger.
Which leads me, finally, to the last argument I encountered: that at some level, all theater is political. If this is true, however, I have to ask: of what use is the term “political theater” at all? It would seem to be one word too long. (For an interesting exploration of this conversation from an entirely different angle, see Parabasis.) I think it’s more accurate to say that all theater can (if one insists) be assessed for its political content and implications and ramifications… but that conversation would get old eventually, and in many cases—like the Thanksgiving dinner guest who goes on about how lovely the napkins are—it would really miss the point.