Beyond Neurosis

What Kind of Political Theater Are We Really After?

"If people are rotting and starving in all directions, and nobody has the heart or brains to make a disturbance about it, the great writers must," George Bernard Shaw argued in his essay "The Problem Play—A Symposium." Shaw the critic was frequently enlisted to come to the aid of Shaw the dramatist, and no cause was closer to both sides of his theatrical soul than the legitimacy of political drama. For him the stage provided a forum to investigate the big issues of the day. His particular focus was trained on the plight of the individual conscience in the ever compromising scheme known as society. Yes, he could grow tendentious on the subject of the artist as agitator. He once floated the notion that "A Doll's Housewill be as flat as ditchwater when A Midsummer Night's Dreamwill still be fresh as paint; but it will have done more work in the world; and that is enough for the highest genius, which is always intensely utilitarian." Inveterate devil's advocate that he was, his own comic instincts weren't so rigidly pragmatic or proselytizing. Yet the shambles of world affairs would not allow him to sit idly by pondering dandified daydreams.

It's tempting in these turbulent times to take up Shaw's mantle and demand more political engagement from our artists. Engulfed as we are by the coverage of the chaos in Iraq and the ongoing threat of terrorism, it's hard not to wonder what kind of rarefied world our playwrights are living in. Suffice it to say that the great wealth of work seems strangely removed from anything approaching the urgent reality of our daily headlines. But critics should be clear on how they'd like the theater to respond. Are we merely looking to theatricalize the same journalistic images that CNN and its rivals have transformed into Nielsen rating packages? Or is it a bit of didacticism that we're after, a cup of moral advice sweetened by a dose of drama? For those with a broader view, perhaps it's simply a reply to the question Art Spiegelman poses in the current issue of Theater: "How does one express that real life is actually a deeply political issue?" Needless to say, the way we define political commitment in the theater makes all the difference in where we'll find it.

The season has actually offered us more substance than the usual flimsy filler of playwrights' neuroses. Significant revivals of Euripides' Medea, Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Jean Genet's The Blacks have demonstrated the wide dramaturgical range of social drama. As for contemporary playwrights, the political lineup may have been sparse, but it was formally diverse. Caryl Churchill elliptically (too much so for some) took on the subject of genocidal culture in her poetic shard, Far Away. Suzan-Lori Parks, writing in a self-consciously Brechtian fashion, reimagined Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter as an African American abortionist in Fucking A. And A.R. Gurney (O Jerusalem) and John Patrick Shanley (Dirty Story), two boulevard wits not known for their foreign-policy views, tackled with mixed results the daunting subject of the Middle East.

Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A: borrowing from Brecht, mos def
photo: Michal Daniel
Suzan-Lori Parks's Fucking A: borrowing from Brecht, mos def

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Arturo Ui: Pacino's epic slog
photo: Joan Marcus
What, if anything, can be said of this eclectic group? Perhaps most important is the obvious point that resonant political drama need not pose any direct connection to our immediate public crises. Two and half millennia may separate us from Medea, but the tragedy still offers the most trenchant analysis of the way in which cruel injustice can transform a victim into a deadly perpetrator. Writing in an age of reckless imperial rivalries and disastrous wars, Euripides knew that the world couldn't be conveniently divided between the wholly guilty and the wholly innocent, and that the suffering wrought by unchecked oppression could easily spiral into anarchic depravity. Beginning with a trite domestic situation—the story of a marriage gone bad—the snowballing tale leads us to contemplate the twisted justice of motivated atrocity. Deborah Warner's celebrated BAM-to-Broadway production, which starred the seismic Fiona Shaw in super-quake mode, went to great lengths to make the production speak to a contemporary audience, though anyone who has glanced at newspaper reports from the Balkans or the Middle East would have little trouble relating.

The most compelling of this season's political plays underscores the old saw that thematic content should be inseparable from dramatic form. The metatheatrical pageantry of The Blacks, for example, doesn't simply articulate Genet's insight into the performative aspect of race—it is that insight. Far Away tries to capture the way carnage has become bureaucratized in public and routinized at home. Churchill's style—spare, angular, and increasingly loopy—ingeniously omits what its characters have become socialized to ignore. Both works register profound theatrical meaning in the manner of dreams—a dance of self-standing (and often surreal) actions, not a classroom of rational exposition.

Challenging political drama strives to teach you how to think rather than what to think. Brecht's Arturo Ui misses this point by belaboring its insight into the essential phoniness of its eponymous fascist leader (played by Al Pacino as a compendium of his mobster roles). Clearly, the character is just a ridiculous gangster, the top man in an aptly named organization known as the Chicago Cauliflower Trust—a deadly figure no doubt, but deadly boring at three hours of cartoonish reiteration.

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