WHAT IS POLITICAL THEATRE?

09/12/2019 at 8:27 am Leave a comment

AiWeiWei

image credit: “Fuck Off” (2001) Ai Wei Wei

All theatre is political, due to the implicitly ideological nature of representation, and its relationship with the societies surrounding it. However, this notion of ‘political theatre’ as a specific aesthetic approach to performance has emerged over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and this essay will identify formal markers used in the process of critically reading and responding to the ‘political’ within theatre forms. These forms manifest across a matrix of performance content, in aesthetic and contextual aspects which occur as an event-based media. As such the ‘political’ attributes of a theatre composition are fluid, shifting even within the day-to-day presentations of a single production, as the relationship between the work and the society surrounds it is also subject to transformation. There are structural, societal and aesthetic systems through which power is disseminated, which date back to the origins of Western Drama right into contemporary theatre practice. Linking these systems to specific key works from Europe in the 20th Century; Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and Sarah Kane’s Blasted, a thesis will emerge regarding the ephemeral nature of political theatre as resistant to any formal or ideological boundaries, instead examining the context for these works as phenomenological spaces which bear a specific relationship within the cultures they inhabit.

To begin, it is important to acknowledge the limitations from which this paper must adhere. Cultural and ideological biases are inherent to the hegemonies from which this analysis of theatre takes place. The essay will trace the emergence of drama into contemporary performance practice in broad terms from Ancient Greece into Contemporary Europe from the perspective of a white Australian male artist. The essay must therefore recognise that notions of ‘political’ are contentious within the context of a colonised country, and limit commentary to reflect a strictly Eurocentric view, in order to develop a theoretical framework which can be applied to postcolonial and intersectional approaches to cultural, social and political theory and apply this framework to engage a geographically specific approach to political theatre for the Australian context. Without discounting the significant contributions made by First Nations Artists throughout the region to the field, the essay will not be discussing these factors directly, instead drawing parallels between the politics of European performance work to extrapolate an approach which is appropriate for the Australian milieu. There is no ‘general theory’ of political theatre, however this essay will submit that it is possible to gauge the politics of performance work through a matrix of phenomenological analysis, combining aesthetic, cultural, contextual and socioeconomic facets on a case-by-case basis.

The long record of theatre as a political instrument goes back to its origins in Ancient Athenian Society. As a major public event, theatre was a representation and reflection of the society which surrounded it, as such it has a fundamentally political aspect. Pavis observes that conflict and drama are inextricable “The life of the polis, the city is punctuated by conversations, wars and compromises” (233) and theatre operates to engage and understand (or denounce) the systems through which these events take place. War – that inimitable crux of political discourse, provides the subject matter for almost every major tragedy of the Ancient Greek canon, and as Aristotle states in his Poetics; the tragic form is “an imitation of an action, and the action is performed” (11). It is therefore inevitable that both politics and theatre be examined as phenomena, or event-based systems. War occurs as a result of political calamity, and tragedy proffers to imitate this such that the events of real-life may elicit some deeper truth by way of representation. Lehmann, observing Aristotle’s notion of anagnorisis conflates this ‘moment-of truth’ with the invariable unknowability of the cosmos (40) – a function of plot central to Aristotelian form – reflecting a much wider paradox which the intersection of theatre and politics locates. He concludes that if mythos is the framework, then “(representability) transcends the frame… by no means contradicts the insight that human reality can only be dealt with under the premise that it remains unrepresentable” (173). By accepting the impossibility of the task – the unfathomable breach between the reality of phenomena such as war and the limits of representation, it is then possible to identify where and how ‘political theatre’ takes place; as that gap must be filled in the mind of the audience. In the case of Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane, the ‘unrepresentable’ aspects of violence, the scale of which was unprecedented in their respective regional junctures, is found through formal innovation, that is: The aesthetic qualities of the work (also unprecedented) aim to represent the unfathomable horror occurring around them. Just as Sophocles left the bulk of the action occurring offstage, for Beckett and Kane, there is as much ‘meaning’ to the work generated in what the spectator does not see unfold as what they do.

This metaphysical tension between the subject and its depiction manifests several ways during theatre events and we can trace the dynamics of representation across the experience of the spectator. This journey begins before a play has begun, sometimes months or years in advance – theatres are cultural and socioeconomic systems whose survival is linked to the act of self-promotion. For example, the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) presented Waiting For Godot in November 2013, however the publicity for the show would have begun over a year earlier; audiences would have enjoyed the prospect of the iconic lead roles to be played by renowned actors also known for their participation in Hollywood action films. While the text and staging may not be greatly altered from its original iteration; the event of this performance, at a glamourous harbourside theatre in an affluent city is very different to one witnessed in Paris in 1953, a city still rebuilding from Nazi occupation and the aftermath of World War II. The STC’s own publicity celebrates the play’s notoriety offering something of a blithe understatement that the play “caused a lot of fuss” and as actor Richard Roxburgh (playing Estragon) more astutely observes:

“Perhaps more than any other modern play, it changed things. It re-imagined the very architecture of storytelling in theatre, and challenged all prior expectations of narrative, plot and dialogue” (2013).

It is this re-imagining which is central to understanding the spectator’s journey – sixty years earlier, the audiences’ expectations of theatre were as yet unchallenged. The formal reinventions which Beckettian theatre heralded could not possibly have been promoted months in advance because they remained unknowable. Therefore the relationship which a theatre event bears to the society which surrounds it is a key to the politics of representation, as Barthes observes these languages of creativity occur within historic circumstance and are thus conversant within a specific cultural framework from which the events take place (Pavis, 85). To offer a similar understatement in response to the unnamed STC publicist: for a Parisian in 1953, notoriety was nothing to celebrate.

However stringently director Andrew Upton adheres to the text, the choices behind presenting Godot in this specific manner are informed by the economics of managing a flagship theatre company with corporate stakeholder responsibilities to maintain, many of whom are indifferent to the philosophical implications of the work. But it is these philosophical implications – despite the very different historic and material circumstances surrounding this production -with which the hypothetical spectator becomes concerned. If we are to accept Adorno’s assertion that Beckett “obliterates the meaning that was culture” (Zazzali, 2016) – then context is moot, it matters not who performs his plays or where or when – only the space between the representation and the unrepresentable is foregrounded, in the mind of the hypothetical spectator, as they grapple with a confluence of events in an unspecified theatrical landscape “a road, a tree, a mound (etc)” (Beckett, 12). Aristotle’s mythos is eliminated in favour of a bleak and boundless reality. Beginnings, middles and ends are inconsequential, time is distorted and history is a few remnant scraps of dust scattered throughout the dialogue. These fragments are all the framework an audience has to position the work: geographical features put the players somewhere in Europe, occasional biblical references offer the possibility of some remote morality amidst a prevailing wind of abject destitution, suffering and violence – the scale of which was unprecedented during wartime Europe – history itself had become terminal in the eyes of artists who rejected conventional dramatic form (Jurs-Munby, 2006).

What, then, is left for the spectator to interpret? This paradoxical (in)action of waiting manifests as a variety of empty behaviours “distractions in the form of word games, play acting, and anything else that can divert their attention” (Zazzali). Further, the performance will generate a range of comedic gestures; passing of hats, boots, pants falling down, profanity and cursing all drawn from vaudeville and slapstick traditions (Frost, 2013) but arranged specifically as a deviation from the omnipresent looming violence and systemic hopelessness the play operates under. The events of the play oscillate between laughter and despair, and this constant flux of the human condition is what Beckett’s distorted reality purports to embody. With everything else in decay, we remain undeniably human, and the unknowable truth of our mortality is what Waiting For Godot offers its audience to consider.

In Brechtian terms, this process occurs through Gestus, which Mumford describes as a confluence of physical expression, a meeting point between the behavioural ‘self’ as a product of material circumstances (172). It is the locus of representation between performer and audience, however small or large, it is the means by which a theatre event unfolds. Walter Benjamin describes “this strict, frame-like, enclosed nature of each moment of an attitude, which, after all, is as a whole in a state of living flux, is one of the basic dialectical characteristics of the gesture” (3). For the characters in Godot these gestures and frenetic diversions result from the systematic violence they endure as a result their woeful situation. Arguably the suffering is universal as human experience, and therefore not in spite but by virtue of a lack of narrative structure, an impossible truth about human society is exposed. It is the absence of ideological explanation which endures – and recognising the experience of ennui which Beckett is representing without structural clarification or context; the spectator must make up their own.

Examining the STC production of Godot within this framework allows the spectator to situate the event across a matrix of formal, aesthetic and systemic hegemonies, to observe where along the spectrum it occurs as ‘political theatre’. The internal representational dialectics of the work as it resists conventional form gives audiences one axis from which to position their reading. It is a revolutionary play which marks a seismic shift in formal theatre aesthetics. Paradoxically, it is this very quality which has driven the work into the mainstream, and the production, while largely true to Beckett’s text, has a distinctly commercial relationship with the society and culture which surrounds it. As Zazzali notes, bringing Hollywood actors into the mix as a drawcard is something of an anathema to “Beckett’s refusal to partake in the culture industry”. This is not an isolated tendency within the company to co-opt politically subversive texts as a box-office attraction. As Hamilton argues of their vaunted production of The Maids in the same year, the use of celebrity casting is “a cultural development entangled in commodification” (2018, 445) and therefore upholds the hegemonic structures to which the work ostensibly intends to undermine. The protagonists were described as “too comfortable? Perhaps” (Frost, 2013) and this perhaps is the ultimate reflection on the socioeconomic and cultural milieu from whence this production came.

Understanding theatre as a phenomenon therefore means that the hegemonic systems in operation at the juncture of the event are inextricably linked to its reading. These hegemonies fluctuate, working across military, socioeconomic, and aesthetic systems in a variety of ways too complex to address in the context of a single essay. Foucault argues history itself has its own hegemonic structures delineating language systems, educational platforms and course content, through which the subject matter of this essay is no exception. As mentioned earlier, a discussion of ‘political theatre’ made at an Australian University which deals entirely with European content is entwined with semiotic systems which favour a Western perspective. To interrogate this question is in the realm of a privilege deeply rooted in patriarchal and colonial military histories with which Australian culture is still coming to terms. As Pavis observes: “the question is whether the theatre serves the status quo” (234) and this question can be applied to all manner of hegemonic systems. In the case of Beckett, what was a total disruption to aesthetic and formal convention in 1953, now serves the status of the European Canon and the prestige of those who seek to preserve it.

From within this cultural hegemony, and acutely aware of its implications, the playwright Sarah Kane emerged in the 1990s. Where Beckett’s dramaturgy offers expressionist landscapes where systemic violence is largely hidden but always present; Kane’s are expressly violent representations of militaristic power systems, framed without the aid of Aristotelian mythos. In the case of Blasted, bereft of context from which to locate the violence the spectator is left exposed like a raw nerve to the brutal legacies of war. The sexual violence is hyper-explicit, as are characters’ cannibalism, and a range of other horrific events which occur in a postdramatic framework  (Bicer, 76, 2011) – it is not intended to be realistic, but rather a representation of the violence which is real – finding form for the unrepresentable, to return to Lehmann. The playwright notes:

“For me the form did exactly mirror the content. And for me the form is the meaning of the play, which is that people’s lives are thrown into complete chaos with absolutely no warning whatsoever. (Bicer, 77)

The director Thomas Ostermeier observes her work resists both social and psychological dramatic systems but neither do they allow the director to “return behind the postdramatic horizon” (180). In phenomenological terms, Kane’s text upends aesthetic conventions so irreparably that his method, appropriating the “relentlessness” (17) of the everyday into ‘new-realism’, reaches such an extreme that systems of dramatic or postdramatic are inadequate descriptors. He adds “everything that has happened in dramatic literature between Shakespeare and Beckett and Kane has only been an aberration of bourgeois theatre” (181), an observation which implies (if little else) he regards Kane as the only significant playwright of her era. It’s a difficult observation to reconcile, given the categorical rejection Kane’s ouvre makes regarding systemic patriarchy, and representations of male violence across the theatre aesthetic canon and broader cultural media paradigm.

“Blasted and its deployment of shock provide an allegory in the role of proximities and boundaries in their figuration of the adjudication of sexual violence… the aesthetic argument is that the horrors of ‘foreign’ violence in the play feed back into the audience’s experience of ‘domestic’ violence in ways that demonstrate the artificiality of these boundaries” (Van Rijswijk, 114, 2012)

Eyes gouged, hands amputated, children eaten, these are not new events in the theatrical trope. But the violence is not tragic, it is not a part of a wider narrative or self-contained plot, it cannot be reconciled, equivocated or made into symbolic peripeteia. There is no grand revelation which it signifies. It simply is. The playwright is interrogating the perception of, and the dissonance which surrounds the narrative of violence, foreign or domestic; it is the very representation of this violence at issue – whether through ‘canonical’ narrative-based theatre or mass media news broadcasts – and Kane literally (and figurately) seeks to explode the cultural systems by which this process occurs.

It is notable that Australian theatre companies have shown a marked resistance to staging Kane’s plays. She rejects the status quo wholly, and the Australian performing arts sector has (at best) a fractious relationship with its place in colonial narratives and the violence implicit to them. A company like the STC, heralding corporate partnerships with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Commonwealth Bank, does not have the luxury of being unequivocal about the status quo; when such companies have a direct stake (via the logic of capitalism) in political and socioeconomic inequity of which colonial violence is a cornerstone. Their flagship venue partner, The Sydney Opera House, is sponsored by Honeywell; which also has contracts with the US Department of Defense and the Israeli military including drones and missiles used against civilians throughout the Middle East.

“the company describes its Jet Reaction Controls as providing ‘unmatched agility, maneuverability, and end-game lethality to tactical missiles and precision-guided munitions’.” (Quackenbush, 2014)

It is difficult to imagine how an Artistic Director might reconcile this kind of promotional copy with their own. Even the most self-interested and cynical artist might baulk at presenting Kane’s ardent conflation of ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ violence under such an overwhelmingly hypocritical circumstance. Should the spectator become aware that their production of the iconic play Blasted were sponsored by the very manufacturers of military hardware the author so vehemently eschews – it may, to borrow a phrase: ‘cause a bit of fuss’.

The spectrum of formal & aesthetic values of the ‘theatrical event’ pitted across a shifting socioeconomic background contextualising the society and culture within which the phenomena of theatre takes place suggests locating a generic ‘political theatre’ framework is not possible.  What is highly political at a premiere in Paris or London becomes less so if presented decades later at the edge of Sydney Harbour, the very site at which the unfathomably violent legacy of Australian Colonial History began. While we may learn from and borrow the aesthetic and formal systems from the European tradition; to continue them as if they are implicitly resistant to the status quo by virtue of their authorship– compounding the legacies of colonial violence by re-asserting European traditions as a canonical or structural certainty is naïve and insulting. Understanding and engaging with this violence, and our place in it is therefore the primary function of theatre as a political event, and one which therefore must incorporate First Nations perspectives as appropriate to the lands on which we would hope to stage a uniquely Australian Political Theatre.

 

 

 

REFERENCES

Aristotle 1996, Poetics, trans. M Heath, Penguin, London.

Aston, E & Savona, G 1991, Theatre as a Sign-System: A Semiotics of Text and Performance, Routledge, London.

Bakhtin, M 1928, ‘Literature as Ideological Form’ in P Morris (ed.) The Bakhtin Reader: Selected Writings of Bakhtin, Medvedev, Voloshinov, Edward Arnold, London.

Bernard-Donals MF, 1994, Mikhail Bakhtin: Between Phenomenology and Marxism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Bıçer, AG 2011, ‘Sarah Kane’s Postdramatic Strategies in Blasted, Cleansed and Crave’, Journal of International Social Research, vol. 4, no. 17, pp. 75–80, viewed 10 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=70239589&site=eds-live>.

Boenisch P & Ostermeier T, 2016, The Theatre of Thomas Ostermeier, Routledge, London.

Booker, C. 2018, ‘A particular thread of neo-Marxism took hold in 1968 and its outraged mindset is still with us’, Sunday Telegraph (London), p. 20, viewed 5 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=8Q3137735140&site=eds-live>.

Della Porta, D. 2017 Global diffusion of protest : riding the protest wave in the neoliberal crisis / edited by Donatella della Porta. Amsterdam University Press (Protest and social movements: 11). Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2879033&site=eds-live (Accessed: 5 November 2019).

Dentith S, 1995, Bakhtinian Thought: An Introductory Reader, Routledge, London.

Feuer, LS 1960, ‘A Neo-Marxist Conception of Social Science’, Ethics: An International Journal of Social, Political, and Legal Philosophy, vol. 70, pp. 237–240, viewed 5 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=pif&AN=PHL1004888&site=eds-live>.

Graver, L 2004, Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot / Lawrence Graver, Landmarks of world literature, Cambridge University Press, viewed 9 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2842775&site=eds-live>.

Ingram, D. 1999. ‘Twentieth-Century Continental Philosophy: Continental Philosophy, Neo-Marxism, in Columbia History of Western Philosophy. Columbia University Press, pp. 721–730. Available at: https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=hlh&AN=36086970&site=eds-live (Accessed: 5 November 2019).

Lehmann, HT 2006, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. K Jurs-Munby, Routledge, London.

Pavis, P & Brown, A 2016, The Routledge dictionary of performance and contemporary theatre / Patrice Pavis ; translated by Andrew Brown, Routledge, viewed 6 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat03332a&AN=uow.b2372115&site=eds-live>.

Quackenwash, M 2014, ‘Badhoneywell makes its Nationwide Debut’, Truthout, published August 31, viewed November 7 <https://truthout.org/articles/badhoneywell-makes-its-nationwide-debut/>

Van Rijswijk, H 2012, ‘Towards a Feminist Aesthetic of Justice: Sarah Kane’s Blasted as Theorisation of the Representation of Sexual Violence in International Law’, Australian Feminist Law Journal, p. 107, viewed 10 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edshol&AN=edshol.hein.journals.afemlj36.9&site=eds-live>.

Zazzali, P 2016, ‘Trying to Understand Waiting for Godot: An Adornian Analysis of Beckett’s Signature Work’, European Legacy: Toward New Paradigms, vol. 21, no. 7–8, pp. 694–704, viewed 9 November 2019, <https://search-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.uow.edu.au/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsmzh&AN=2017390425&site=eds-live>.

 

Entry filed under: Sydney THEATRE.

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