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Comedy and Tragedy Masks
03.18.05
Arts and Culture:
History of Political Theater
More on This Story:
History of Political Theater

The stage has forever been a place where political issues have been examined. The ritualistic and social significance of the earliest Greek performances in central arenas brought relevance to many controversial topics, a pattern that has not subsided to this day. According to Wikipedia, "Political theater is drama or performing art which emphasizes a political issue or issues in its theme or plot.... Political theater can also be defined as exploring themes more universal and central to society itself, especially when that society defines itself as politically conscious."

The history of such stage productions is far too broad to list every instance of political theater over the years, but you can read about a handful of the highlights below.



Greek chorus
ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Aristophanes (447-385 BC) was thought to be one of the greatest of all comic dramatists of his day, and one of the earliest recorded writers of political satire. His plays are an unequaled source of information about politics, personalities, morality, literature, and everyday life in Athens.

In the plays of Aristophanes the whole panorama of Greek society passes before us, each phase touched with the poet's inexhaustible humor. One play is opened with a meeting of Parliament, and the whole machinery of government is presented in caricature — president, ambassadors with high-sounding titles, luxurious envoys; elsewhere a magistrate with his archers of the guard perform their functions, and the punishment of the stocks and of scourging is administered on the stage. The proceedings of the law courts are continually before us, and we are familiar with the ways of the smooth-tongued advocates and the insolence of lawyer-youths.... In the BIRDS, and the two latest plays of Aristophanes... avoiding party questions, he rests the idea of his plot upon general satire, exaggerating to a degree that passes anything attempted in regard to politics, and the whole becomes a genial mockery of human nature itself. — Alfred Bates, THE DRAMA: ITS HISTORY, LITERATURE AND INFLUENCE ON CIVILIZATION, 1906
Many of Aristophanes' plays satirized the well-known citizens of Athens and their conduct in the Peloponnesian War. Called by Bates the "spokesman of the peace party," four of his plays are passionate calls for peace. One of them, LYSISTRATA, revolves around the women of Athens who decide to withhold sex from their husbands until the men outlaw war. "Although the play is lighthearted, it was written out of the poet's grief over the thousands of Athenians who had recently lost their lives in the terrible defeat at Syracuse." The sentiment is still relevant today; in March 2003, participants in all 50 states and on six continents held readings of Aristophanes' LYSISTRATA as a protest against the possible war with Iraq.

Queen Elizabeth I
THE POLITICAL BARD OF AVON

Thought of as "our national playwright" in countries around the world, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) can be called an author of political theater. His history plays and tragedies repeatedly examined the essence of political leadership, the lust for power, and — as Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright put it in CHANGING STAGES — "anatomy of opportunism, moral ambiguity, expediency, and hypocrisy." The authors unravel the evidence:

Shakespeare is fascinated by politics, charting the world of secular power with an avid curiosity, showing a very highly developed sense of the workings of bureaucracy and power. No one who has brushed against the world of realpolitik in any government of any colour could fail to recognise Polonius, and Elsinore will be immediately identifiable to anyone who visited or lived in Eastern Europe under Communism. The world of bugged hotel rooms, the ever-present secret police, the smug strutting arrogance of the Party's apparatchiks, the friends who lower their voices and look about them before speaking, the fear of prison, the familiarity with those who have experienced it, the swaggering display of the privileges of the nomenklatura, these all belong to the world that Hamlet finds so 'out of joint.'
In his book, SHAKESPEARE'S POLITICS, Professor Allan Bloom takes the classical view that the political shapes man's consciousness. Bloom considers Shakespeare as a profoundly political Renaissance dramatist and argues that Shakespeare's ideas and beliefs need to be recognized in today's society as a source for the serious study of moral and political problems.

Image from BRUNDIBAR, Maurice Sendak
THE EMERGENCE OF EPIC THEATER

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) offered a challenge to Aristotle's ancient approach to theater as a spectator activity. He sought to stimulate the minds of his audience, integrating economics and politics into his plays, in hopes that those watching would respond with intellect, not emotion. As Eyre and Wright describe him, "He was a brilliant man of the theatre, highly receptive to the avant-garde of his day, quick to improve it and somewhat too precipitate to turn it into theory. He was a communist: not a left-winger, not a liberal, nor a humanitarian. From his twenties onwards, he thought and worked in terms of Marxist dialectic and he really wasn't kidding."

Over the course of his career, Brecht developed his so-called epic theater, in which narrative, montage, self-contained scenes, and rational argument were used to create a shock of realization in the spectator. To create a distancing effect, Brecht promoted acting and staging that would merely demonstrate what was being portrayed, thus giving the audience a more objective perspective on the action. In Brecht's plays, say Eyre and Wright, "lucidity reigns: nothing is worse than a jumble of confused impressions."

They go on to offer a look at Brecht's continuing role in political theater:

Throughout the 1960s and 70s, Brecht was revered by left-leaning theatricals as a sage whose slightest jottings could be relied on as a guide to morality, politics and life itself. In the 1990s the collapse of faith in Marxism put a stop to that. But although his Mao-like status hasn't lasted, his plays (or some of them) have quietly entered the theatrical mainstream. Whether they've entered as what they are, or in disguise, is harder to say. Some productions get praised for following his thinking to the hilt, others get praised for throwing his boring theories out of the window. Sometimes both are said of the same production.

Among Brecht's celebrated works are THE THREEPENNY OPERA, MAN IS MAN, LIFE OF GALILEO, MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, and THE GOOD PERSON OF SETZUAN.

Federal Theater Project
FEDERAL THEATER PROJECT

One of the most noted unions of art and politics was the Federal Theater Project (FTP). Created in 1935 by the New Deal government to provide work for unemployed artists, writers and theater professionals, the FTP was administered by the Works Progress Administration. The FTP, under the direction of Hallie Flannagan Davis, produced twelve hundred plays. It brought live theater to many who had never experienced it before — some 25 million Americans saw its dramas, musicals, ballets, circus and vaudeville performances and heard its radio performances. Over thirteen thousand Americans were employed by its productions, including hundred of African-Americans who were employed in special "Negro Units."

Among the innovative projects created by the FTP was the LIVING NEWSPAPER in which the headlines of the day were researched and dramatized. Topics in this series included BLACK EMPIRE, a drama about the fall of Henri Christophe’s kingdom in Haiti during the early nineteenth century, and TRIPLE-A PLOWED UNDER, about farmers’ troubles during the thirties and the ravages of the Dust Bowl.

The Federal Theater Project became the most visible symbol of what some called New Deal extravagance and came under attack from New Deal foes. Plays with political themes — like Sinclair Lewis's cautionary tale about fascism in America, IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE, and Marc Blitzstein's 1937 pro-union play, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK — aroused the ire of political and social conservatives. In one of the first in a long line of hearing about politics and arts, The House Un-American Activities Committee under the direction of Senator Martin Dies, began combative hearings about the FTP, looking into the "extent, character, and objects of un-American propaganda activities in the United States." As a result, funding for the FTP was cancelled in mid-1939. Its influence on American drama, including nurturing talents like Orson Welles, John Houseman, Paul Robeson and others is immense.

Image from BRUNDIBAR, Maurice Sendak
BRECHT LIVES ON IN AMERICA

The legacy of Bertolt Brecht found its way into subsequent examples of political theater. THE READER'S COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY explains: "The cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s led to a new demand in some quarters that theater be a vanguard of reform. Off- and off-off-Broadway groups served up caustic political commentary, and groups such as Julian Beck's Living Theatre combined radical politics with a revolutionary breakdown of the boundary between spectator and performer."

The Living Theatre was founded in 1947 by Beck and Judith Malina as an alternative to commercial theater but the 1960s marked an important shift in the company's history. It was at this time the Living Theatre developed a nomadic touring ensemble. In Europe, they evolved into a collective, living and working together toward the creation of a new form of nonfictional acting based on the actor's political and physical commitment to using the theater as a medium for furthering social change. In the 1970's, The Living Theatre began to create THE LEGACY OF CAIN, a cycle of plays for non-traditional venues. From the prisons of Brazil to the gates of the Pittsburgh steel mills, and from the slums of Palermo to the schools of New York City, the company offered these plays free of charge to the broadest of all possible audiences. In the 1980s, the group returned to the theater and today, The Living Theatre company divides its time between creating new works commissioned in Europe, and performing them in New York and on tour.

The San Francisco Mime Troupe heralds itself as "America's Finest Theater of Political Comedy," producing shows about the "burning issues of our time" in venues from public parks to palaces of culture in an effort to reach the broadest possible audience. The group does not do pantomime, but instead uses the word "mime" in the ancient sense: to mimic. The group of satirists seeking to reveal both the absurdities of contemporary life and their causes. Since become a collective in 1970, the group has been clear about its mission:

The SFMT delights in savaging the norms of mainstream American theater, with its naturalistic values, its emphasis on personal (or at most family) psychology, its settings confined to living rooms and patios. We admire the depths reached by 20th-century realism, but we also think it sanctions social inaction. Our characters are individuals but they are also members of social classes: conscious or unconscious participants in the unending wars over land and power and wealth which drive human history.
Image from AUNT DAN AND LEMON
THE WORLD OF WALLACE SHAWN

Playwright Wallace Shawn has been grappling with politics and philosophy in his plays for decades. In his Obie-winning 1985 drama AUNT DAN AND LEMON the modern tendency away from social responsibility is revealed lurking beneath a pleasant facade. Lemon, a reclusive woman who admires the Nazis, reveals how she came to her beliefs under the tutelage of her childhood mentor, Aunt Danielle. Aunt Dan, an article admirer of authority (and Henry Kissinger) inculcated an amoral self interest in Lemon.

Shawn followed AUNT DAN AND LEMON with two plays set in unnamed repressive regimes in Central America. In FEVER an unnamed character from the first world attempts to combat boredom with a visit to a country suffering though a civil war. The narrator becomes ill and in the midst of feverish dreams debates the roles of commitment and indifference in an unequal world.

THE DESIGNATED MOURNER tells the story of Jack and Judy, who live among an intellectual elite, being forced to take sides in a increasingly repressive police state. The battle between engagement, disconnection and nihilism is played out among the characters.

Actually, it might seem to be, you know, a little absurd to lock somebody up for five years and then have someone come to his house and shoot him—all basically because of a couple of essays he'd written several decades before—but you have to understand that no one person plans these things: person A decides the first thing, person B decides the second, you know, I mean, that's just how it works. --THE DESIGNATED MOURNER
Image from BRUNDIBAR, Maurice Sendak
ON BROADWAY AND BEYOND

In an article entitled "Tradition of political theater refuses to let film do all the talking," SEATTLE TIMES theater critic Misha Berson asks, "how can live drama speak directly, potently to such national concerns? And why does political theater face such an uphill struggle for hearts and minds in contemporary America?" To answer these questions, Berson looks to some contemporary productions around the country.

Actor and activist Tim Robbins, already the force behind several political films, recently produced the anti-war satire EMBEDDED about the madness surrounding the brave women and men on the front lines in a Mideast conflict. The San Francisco Mime Troupe presented their political musical-comedy for the summer: the anti-Bush western, SHOWDOWN AT CRAWFORD GULCH. At Seattle's Wooden O Theatre, Shakepeare's JULIUS CAESAR proved its continuing significance in a modern-dress staging. Also in Seattle, Brecht's 1941 satire THE RESISTABLE RISE OF ARTURO UI recasts Nazi leader Adolf Hitler as a mob boss turned business mogul in gangland Chicago. In New York, two high-profile revivals both have political themes: Stephen Sondheim's ASSASSINS tells the history of American political violence, while Tony's Kushner's HOMEBODY/KABUL examines a British family's experience in Taliban-run Afghanistan.

Sarah Jones has been mixing humor and politics on the stage ever since she started performing a series of one-woman shows. She has spoken out on free speech, in suing the FCC for censoring her song "Your Revolution," and is currently examining immigrant culture in BRIDGE & TUNNEL. Jones claims that she doesn't believe that art without politics can really exist, explaining:

I've never seen art for its own sake. Even Oklahoma!, as a piece of theater, is a statement that we don't want to challenge the pleasantness of America: "We like the story just as it is. We don't want to tell the story of the Trail of Tears." That's a political choice. — MOTHER JONES interview
Sources: IMAGI-NATION, MOTHER JONES, READER'S COMPANION TO AMERICAN HISTORY, SEATTLE TIMES, TheatreHistory.com

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