politics and theatre

Many of the plays that I admire most are overtly political — Marat/Sade (Weiss), Mother Courage and Her Children (Brecht), In The Heart of America (Wallace), Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (Churchill), Marisol (Rivera), and Bhoma (Sircar), for example. I appreciate plays in a different way than I appreciate film or literature. When I see a play and fall in love with it, I want to get involved with it, to grapple with the text and bring it to performance. The theatre is aural, visual, and immediate, which gives it a different flavor than a novel, poem, or movie. The thing I like most about these political plays is the way in which they make their message theatrical.

That is not to say they must be single-mindedly bashing you over the head with some (usually leftist) “point.” A good production of Brecht is not overtly Marxist, but shows the flaws in the way in which society works. Revolution is rarely made the action item of the day, for a generic revolution (as advocated by those Socialist Worker touts on Sproul Plaza) is not going to solve the immediate problem at hand. In Good Woman of Sezuan, Brecht posits that in order to avoid being poor, one must be cruel. When Shen Te comes into some money, she cannot possibly keep more for herself then for her starving neighbors. The poor are shown as opportunistic, and the rich are forced to exploit them, hardly the noble proletariat oppressed by Mr. Moneybags. Of course, that is one way to read it, but I think it’s akin to reading Hamlet as a play about sex-obsessed guy who can’t decide whether to kill himself or not, and then decides to kill his parents. These directorial choices are what make or break a play in terms of nuance.

Directors can spin a story many ways, and herein lies the problem with political plays in the professional theater. In professional theater, you have to satisfy the audience and give them their money’s worth, which leads to two possible outcomes when you produce a political play. If you want simply to entertain, then you produce the play with very little political investment, toning it down, if you will, to make it more palatable for the audience. You play up the jokes and play down the dog-kicking. If, on the other hand, your audience is a bunch of Cambridge or Berkeley intellectuals, they may want to come to the theater to be educated, so you turn your production into a mini-lecture, an intellectual exercise. The need to tell the message is killed, because the dominant need of the professional theater is to stay afloat and get enough subscribers.

The ART has fallen into both traps at different times. One of the first plays I saw there was Dario Fo’s We Won’t Pay, We Won’t Pay, which is a farce about the high price or groceries. It was a farce alright, but I felt about the same as after A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum on Broadway — sides aching and head empty. More recently I saw Mother Courage and although I was transfixed by some of the performances, the direction was opaque to me. There were terra-cotta Chinese figures, stylized fight practices, and ominous droning for the the scene changes, which I felt added a stylistic noise with no substance. What was worse, I came out of the theater with the thought “war is bad — look at how that poor woman went along with it and then suffered.” It was an almost Aristotelian take on a Brechtian play. I’m all for genre-bending, but I don’t think it follows that if you have the politics of the playwright then you necessarily experience a catharsis (as in Aristotle) from the play where others would be forced to muddle out the open question (as in Brecht).

These traps are also prevalent in the academic theater, where one might hope that the freedom of speech provided on campus might free the director from the commercial limitations of the professional theater. However, the most insidious trap of all is the open casting process for college productions. In order to a political play to have an impact, the actors must be invested in the message and the story that the director is trying to tell. In this case, they must both understand and desire to tell that story, a tall order for most campuses. The drama majors audition for plays on campus because they need practicum credit to graduate, because it’s their only opportunity to do a large-scale production that semester, and because their friends are auditioning. There are very few people who audition for a play because they know it and really want to act in it, and of those, even fewer are cast because they are not usually as well trained as the drama majors. The director is then faced with a motley crew of actors who are all good but who are not necessarily there for the same reason s/he is.

It’s nearly impossible to do with six actors, let alone twenty-nine. When I did Bhoma, I auditioned because it was an Indian play, I was the president of Dramashop, and I liked to act. I didn’t have a great investment in the politics of water in India, I certainly didn’t understand the play very well, and I had only read because we were selecting plays for that season. The other five actors in the production were probably there for similar reasons. In the end, our production was not as good as it could have been because we didn’t understand and need to tell the story we were telling. The barrage of cultural references and stylized choreography didn’t come together to form a coherent picture in our heads, and thus we couldn’t transmit that to the audience. In Marat/Sade, coordinating nearly thirty actors into sending a coherent message was not even part of the equation. Instead, the director asked us to individually work out our attitudes towards the ideas proposed in the play and to present a multiplicity of comments on the action. That too failed, since all fractional shades of interpretation are reduced to the lowest common denominator. I had really hoped the play would be more powerful than it was, but I don’t think there was a way for that to happen.

The upshot is that in order to really make a strong statement, to grab the audience and shake them to get them to wake up, to incite them to take action, you have to do it with a group of committed individuals, an ensemble that is there to do that play because they all want to say something. The cast of Marat/Sade was divided on how they wanted the audience to react, and thus we succeeded in confusing many of them. To do a play like that at a university with maximum impact, you would need to graft a political consciousness onto the actors. I certainly didn’t feel invested in the whole play, and I failed to articulate a coherent attitude towards revolution. I think that Berkeley’s decision to produce Marat/Sade was a good one, and I think the production was good, but it fell short of the play’s potential.

Perhaps what makes the play so good is that each production can capture some of the nuance and can make a political statement, but no production can get it all, and no production can live up to the potential evoked by reading through the script. The goal should be to tranform the possibility of interpretation into a possibility of change, to simultaneously say that here is how things are but yet they need not be this way. The whole enterprise has to be made concrete, but it’s a goal worth aiming for.

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