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.

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.

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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