Beyond Neurosis

What Kind of Political Theater Are We Really After?

Arturo Ui, admittedly not the high-water mark in the playwright's massive output, lends credence to Italian critic Nicola Chiarmonte's remark that Brecht's work "is almost always too long and wordy, almost always overburdened by the moral the author wants to force on it, which then remains hanging there, outside the theatrical image in which it ought to embodied." For his theoretical brilliance and radicalized stagecraft, the German auteur remains the face of 20th-century Political Theater. His best plays, however, transcend their ideological premises and offer a vision of lowercase political theater rooted in consciousness-raising ambiguity. Chiarmonte correctly locates Brecht's originality not in his "banal didacticism," but in his ability to concentrate meaning into stage metaphors such as Mother Courage's wagon, which serve as emblems of the author's complicated, and often highly ironic, critique. Arturo Ui lacks a set of wheels of its own. And for all of director Simon McBurney's slick diagramming of the contemporary associations with the Bush administration's anti-terrorism excesses (including video effects of the U.S. Constitution in flames), his monotonously stylized production never found its momentum in the epic slog.

Still, it's easy to sympathize with McBurney's impulse to editorialize when staging Brecht in Bush country. After all, where else can we turn for radical perspective in these John Ashcroft-patrolled days except to our free and emboldened artists? But as refreshing as subversive theatrical gesture may be, the theater needs to do more than promulgate propaganda. Not only does this kind of directorial opining preach to the converted, but it often fails to interrogate basic assumptions—one of the reasons the left has had such difficulty articulating a cogent opposition to Bush's hegemony. If the new terror-era has taught us anything, it is that we are in a transitional historical period, where the usual slogans and formulas don't automatically apply. Programmatic bombast, whether from the left or the right, is the last thing anyone needs, though don't bother telling our talking heads babbling their beloved sound bites into the cable void.

Critical, rather than dogmatic, thought is what our culture sorely lacks. Nowhere was this more obvious than in Bush's Bible-banging during his prime-time news conference held before the start-up of "Shock and Awe." This lethal spectacle of sentimentality—where not particularly obvious questions of national security were reduced to demonstrations of character authenticity—revealed the damaging impact simplistic dramatic forms can have on our thinking. The function of serious theater and criticism is to wage war on the clichéd structures of perception that perpetuate the untruths we tell ourselves. If the arts have any social utility (mootest of all points), it perhaps lies in the cultivation of a pattern of mind that, valuing complexity, rejects the appeal of soppy testimonials, quick fixes, and reductive slogans.

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

Political theater in its earliest incarnation originated from a spirit not of doctrinaire certainty but of desperate inquiry demanding new paradigms. The Greeks weren't serving up comfortable solutions, but reframing moral questions within tragic designs. Though their vision was centrally concerned with metaphysical matters like fate and the gods, they recognized the polis as forming the organizing principle of identity. Politics was simply an integral part of the natural order.

The heirs to this ancient tradition are the dramatic poets who accept the interdependence of the inner and outer life. Shakespeare, Buchner, Ibsen, Shaw, and Churchill come instantly to mind. Brecht too, though not for his (in Chiarmonte's words) "polemic illustrations of preconceived notions." Rather, for the bleak lyricism with which he observed characters like Mother Courage muddling through the dark of her selfish survival. With their strategically interrupted narratives, his plays help us apprehend the changeable nature of the misery surrounding us, while ruthlessly documenting the modern farce of complicity.

One of the greatest of 20th-century German critics, Theodor Adorno is remembered for his much misunderstood remark that "it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz." But within another of his statements lies the true imperative of political theater: "Art is not a matter of pointing up alternatives, but resisting, solely through artistic form, the course of the world, which continues to hold a pistol to the heads of human beings."

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