Monday, April 05, 2004

Some loose thoughts on theater and politics

This is meant as the beginning intellectual wanderings in what will be an ongoing thing. I’m interested in the relationship between theater and politics, and I’m actually focusing on it this summer at Lincoln Center, so I thought I’d start to get some issues on the table and begin talking about here at Parabasis.

So I’m reading this back issue Lincoln Center Theater Review from 1999, and there’s a great interview with Stephen Daldry. Daldry is most famous in the states for directing “An Inspector Calls”, but he’s also been the director of the Royal Court Theater, and is a trustee of the Old Vic. He’s also a film director (Billy Elliot, The Hours and the I’m-almost-positive-it’s-doomed-to-a-noble-failure Kavaleir and Clay).

Anyway, the interview is great. He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s got a really fascinating perspective and, being British, he cares deeply about the relationship between politics and art. There’s one concept, however, that I’d like to debate him on. Here’s the key graf:

“The theater that I would want to be a part of needs to be at the center of dissent. I believe that most serious theater is a form of dissent of one sort or another. By that I don’t mean party-political, but simply questioning and challenging and upsetting and exploring and investigating the role of society. If a theater’s not doing that, it’s part of a different sort of tradition, and entertainment, which is also important and vital and useful and theaters are very good at it. But you do need to choose your theater like you choose your church, to quote George Devine. Different churches have different uses, and the church that I want to be a part of is a theater that is engaged, heavily engaged, within a questioning society.”

I agree with Daldry about the kind of theater that I want to be a part of, although I wish he’d choose his films like he chooses his theater, I mean, boys can be dancers is hardly a message of dissent. What I question is this dichotomy: we have political, dissenting theater, and we have apolitical entertainments. I think every play has at its center some questions, issues for explorations, whatever, that are political in nature. Sometimes (most of the time, probably) these questions are engaged in a form of dissent. Sometimes they agree with the national consensus.

I once had a professor who, in my freshman drama survey said “All plays are political, if you don’t see it, it’s just reinforcing the status quo”. I think this is also overly simplistic. There’s a politics at the center of just about any play, and if you don’t see it, maybe you aren’t looking hard enough.

Anyway, I also think that if you focus solely on a script’s politics, you’re really limiting your options. First of all, you run the risk of running straight into agit-prop land, and great theater should ask more questions than it answers. You also come up with a simplistic world-view. Characters aren’t (in general) solely extensions of their political and historical conditions, and focusing on how they’re representative of this or that phenomena isn’t particularly helpful to getting a specific detailed nuanced and truthful performance out of the actors.

These are just a few of my thoughts. I’m still trying to figure out what I think. Because, as you can tell, I’m a pretty politically active person. And I’m also an artist. And I tend to direct not-overtly-political plays with a political consciousness. I’d love to hear your thoughts, so e-mail me at, or post in the comments section, and I’ll try to use that to build this discussion further.


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