PLEASE NOTE: This event has taken place.
Tuesday 6th May 2008
Wickham Theatre, Department of Drama, Bristol University
THIS EVENT HAS TAKEN PLACE
It was an honor for me to be asked to give the Glynn Wickham Lecture by the Society for Theatre Research and the Bristol Department. of Theatre, Film and Television - not only because I am a national outsider, only living and working fully in the UK for the last two years, but also because of the historic role Professor Wickham played in jump-starting our discipline in the 1950s, a time when in both this country and mine, the quest to seek legitimacy for the serious study of drama and theatre, and the establishment of a separate discipline dedicated to that purpose was a highly difficult and political act. It was not my intention to speak about disciplinary politics, except perhaps indirectly, but I did want to begin by affirming my appreciation for the efforts of earlier scholars such as Glynn Wickham to secure for my generation a place in the academy where we can research and profess the subject that we love. Although I never met Professor Wickham, he was imprinted on my mind early in my postgraduate days when The Medieval Theatre was prominent on the reading list for our doctoral exams at Stanford University. Indeed, along with A.M. Nagler and Oscar Brockett, he was most often associated in my early exposure to the discipline with the development of theatre history and the legitimation of the discipline.
As I understand the protocols of these lectures, they alternate each year between a practitioner and a theorist or historian. I am here as a hybrid of the latter two categories, for I am only a historian if we include the recent past. In fact, as a scholar of contemporary theatre, one of the key problematics for my work is precisely the designation of when some event or series of events enters the past. I'm always looking sideways, trying to catch the flash of the present as it careens into the past or alternatively to arrest the movement long enough to understand it. In this struggle I have taken a lesson from my American colleague Joseph Roach, who writes about a deep eighteenth century (in opposition to the more common notion of a long eighteenth century). The deep eighteenth century, according to Joe, "is the one that isn't over yet. . .experienced by its subjects as uneven developments and periodic returns" (2007: 13). This offers me a clue to the blur of the present both by way of genealogy and future imagining.
I might say in the spirit of this line of thinking that the moment of 1968 isn't over yet, but increasingly I think I might have a hard time. The results of early May UK elections give one indication of strong winds of change that don't remind of the climate of 1968 at all. On the other hand, Guardian chief political correspondent Nicholas Watt commented that "the Tories achieved their best results in the capital since the success of 1968 paved the way for a general election victory by Edward Heath two years later." This reminder of the turbulence of that earlier time, a time when people were passionately engaged in a highly conflictual but simultaneously dissensual politics may prove useful to the discussion at hand.
For now, let's just say it reveals the itinerary of my personal and scholarly journey, since like playwrights David Edgar and David Hare, I was born in 1947, and my youth was spent in the heat of that earlier political moment. My first trip to the UK in 1970 sealed my fate as a theatre academic as I marveled at a wide range of theatre experiences, most important to me at the time being David Storey's The Contractor. I was fed up with Arthur Miller, Edward Albee, and even Sam Shepard at that point; agreeing with Herb Blau who said of himself about that time, "I have not been very well disposed to the American drama: no ideas or shallow ideas, rare complexity or power of mind" (2002: xix). So with the easy dismissiveness of youth, I plunged into a dissertation on David Storey and a research focus on contemporary British theatre. For it was not only the drama that drew me: I also felt that British theatre was a lively institution that counted in the public sphere, that it was part of a struggle for a socialist future at a time when you still couldn't say the word 'socialist' in the States without provoking derision or dismissal, and that it had a future, while at home I felt theatre was increasingly marginalized, considered only as 'entertainment' by educated classes who preferred film and ignored by a popular culture that was dominated by Hollywood.
Forty years later, as you can imagine, some of this schematic characterization of my two countries, one of origin and one adopted, has changed considerably, but some of it has stubbornly remained - drama is still by and large better over here (with notable exceptions such as Tony Kushner and August Wilson,) and the public sphere in the UK still incorporates theatre as one of its modes of discourse while in the States it seems to me nearly irrelevant to public life. As for a political discourse on the Left, it is now sorely lacking on both sides of the Atlantic. But these are still at the level of sweeping statements, chosen to give you a quick look at the terrain I want to discuss and to provoke some instant agreement and disagreement among you.
What I really want to talk about is the character of political theatre - its fluid and chimerical fortunes. The title of this talk, 'What is Political Theatre Today?' frames the discussion in terms of a presumption that what counts as political theatre changes depending on the context and time under consideration. Taking account of how and why this might be the case is my main task, and after discussing the meaning of the phrase, 'political theatre,' I then want to discuss several issues related to our present moment: first, the tension between various forms of theatre such as text-based, physical, devised, or site-specific, to name the most familiar and their political purchase: second, the assertion by a leading German theatre scholar that we live in a post-dramatic age; and third, the ramifications of the information age and the hyper-real for theatrical culture.
There is a persistent and, I fear, escalating desire to uncouple or bracket off the term 'political' from theatre, especially within the academy. The attacks on the concept come from several different quarters, and have serious and compelling analyses to offer as to why this might be desirable. I'll be opposing this tendency which is frequently simplified in the press and other journalism in terms of the tensions I just outlined. But first, we need to know what the concept entails.
Political theatre is often discussed without any real delineation of the meaning of the term 'political'. Newpaper critics label this or that performance 'political' readily enough, but scholars also often assume we all know what the term means. A few exceptions may prove the rule and I'll begin by describing three of them.
In 1986, David Ian Rabey spent several pages of his introduction to British and Irish Political Drama in the 20th Century discussing the term, emphasizing that "all theatre is political," but that overtly "Political drama emphasizes the directness of its address to problematic social matters, and its attempt to interpret these problems in political terms [. . . .]Political drama communicates its sense of these problems' avoidability, with implicit or explicit condemnation of the political circumstances that have allowed them to arise and continue to exist" (1-2). There are several things worth noticing here - the slippage between political and social that renders them almost but not quite interchangeable; the repetition and lack of clarification in the formulation that "political drama [. . .] interprets problems in political terms", and finally that the assertion that all theatre is political, citing George Szanto's Theater and Propaganda, is structurally similar to other familiar claims from the sixties such as 'The personal is political.' When moved beyond slogans, they had a specific meaning for their time, but quickly became often repeated but seldom investigated clichés.
For example, second wave feminists like me wanted 'the personal is political' to address the lack of seriousness with which women's lives and concerns were often treated and to assert the appropriateness of looking at issues of reproductive rights, domestic labor, and psychological issues such as depression or eating disorders as legitimate foci for analysis and activism in the public as well as private arena. In addition, questioning the western division of public and private, it pointed out that private matters like child rearing had public consequences, and had been customarily excluded from what was considered political. Yet in terms of the public consequences of the phrase itself, it also became a touchstone for individualist assertions of entrepreneurial advancement (think Caryl Churchill's Serious Money or Top Girls).
In the case of the pronouncement that all theatre is political (or for that matter that everything is political), pundits and activists and scholars were hoping to draw attention to the way that phenomena frequently taken for 'normal' or private, or apolitical were actually hegemonic, powerful and conservative, in the meaning of that term which emphasizes a force field which keeps things as they are. The difficulty was that this insight too passed into the slogan, and in the broad sweep of its claim, usually failed to make the careful specific denotation of the term as it was embedded in various practices. Nevertheless, this was an excellent argument in its time, and I will call it here the 'ideological definition' of the political, because it was based on ideological critique.
In 1999, my colleague Baz Kershaw published The Radical in Performance; Between Brecht and Baudrillard. By this time, two terms of Thatcher rule and the collapse of 'really existing socialism' in the East had changed the intellectual climate considerably in theatre as well as within the society at large. As Max Stafford Clark commented on the early 90s, "a lot of the common assumptions held by playwrights, directors and people anywhere left of centre began to be requestioned" (83). For Kershaw, taking stock of the intellectual changes of the past two decades, it was the success of postmodernism as a critical paradigm and the consequences of adopting the slogans I addressed earlier - all theatre is political or the personal is political - that interested him. Calling this the "new promiscuity of the political," Kershaw described what he was seeing at the end of the twentieth century: "Since the personal became political, in the 1960s, the political has found its way into almost every nook and cranny of culture. Identity politics, the politics of camp, body politics, sexual politics - the political is now ubiquitous and can be identified in all theater and performance. Such promiscuity, though, breeds a new kind of uncertainty" (16) [. . . .] Threatening to plunge us into "a miasma of ideological relativity," where "it all depends just where you're standing when." He worried that "the general contribution of theatre and performance to social and political histories may become impossible to determine" (17).
The book advocates the replacement of notions of political theatre with the notion of 'radical performance.' Note in passing the shift from theatre to performance which is important but a side-issue to this particular discussion. The purchase Kershaw thinks the adjective 'radical' produces when used in place of 'political' is that it broadens the scope of the political because the "radical is bound to be evoked vitally by any paradigm shift," and thus contains seeds of hope, and because, following Raymond Williams, the "idea of the radical can encompass both the fundamental change and the uncertainty of outcome signaled by the post-modern and post-modernity" (17). Kershaw is quick to note that the 'radical' is not limited to the left or right, and can produce liberating or oppressive effects. But that is true of 'political' as well, and it is not the grounds of my disagreement with him here. I want to retain the word 'political' in tandem with theatre or performance because of the associations it has with both a structure and a history.
I'll spell this out, but first I want to mention a third book published last year (2007) by Peter Billingham called At the Sharp End. As did Rabey and Kershaw, Billingham takes up a direct discussion of the term. He describes post-war theatre as political in that it carried "with it a sense of the oppositional and interventionist." In this he sounds a bit like Kershaw. He defends against criticism the big epic plays of the 70s and 80s by Howard Brenton, Edward Bond, and David Edgar as complex analyses of the post-war revolutionary Left, but at the same time he wants to extend the political umbrella to some of that new postmodern work Kershaw also highlights. In the case of Billingham, it makes the unlikely but interesting grouping in his book of David Edgar and Tanika Gupta with Mark Ravenhill, David Greig and Tim Etchells of Forced Entertainment. He argues that these five artists are struggling to engage with the "challenges and opportunities presented by living within contemporary multicultural Britain. "This is where the sharp end of our times is," he tells us in a reprise of his book title.
You can probably see that in taking these three books from three successive decades, I've set up an old-fashioned dialectic and pseudo-resolution. An all-embracing and committed definition of political theatre is countered by a post-modern shift to a notion of the radical that emphasizes open-ended creative freedom but dares not (or chooses not) to speak the name 'political.' In 2007 we find a scholar re-committed to the idea of political performance, linking up an older sense of the term (oppositional, interventionist) with something that stretches to include a group like Forced Entertainment, of whom Billingham writes that "Etchells and the company try to re-dress some of the devastating impact of mass globalization upon our contemporary world" (14). This is presumably oppositional and interventionist in its fashion.
I do not really find the situation quite this tidy, and I set up this model rhetorically in order to privilege the word 'political' by showing it still has purchase in contemporary scholarship. I want to retain the word 'political' in relation to theatre and performance and now it's time to say why: because it brings with it a valuable structure and a history. The history part is probably pretty obvious: in the west from Aeschylus' The Persians forward to Gregory Burke's Black Watch or Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo's Guantanamo: "Honor Bound to Defend Freedom" there has been a tradition associated with self-reflexive performances invoking the audience as citizen-subjects and subjecting current or past events involving the state, community, or group to examination and critique. There's an archive of these performances, in both traditional forms such as documents, and in Diana Taylor's revision to include the repertoire of bodily practices that are the sources of cultural memory (2003). There is also a strong tradition of theatre and performance scholarship that focuses on and analyzes the politics of performance. Here I would place much of my own work on feminist, epic, post-marxist theatre as it appeared in the UK over the last thirty years. My first monograph was on Brecht and British Epic Theatre (1994). I would prefer not to lose the sense of continuity and relational if not common critique that marks much of that scholarship and links me to scholars such as Ted Braun, John Bull, Richard Boon, Mary Luckhurst, Elaine Aston, or Derek Paget, and to a new generation of scholars such as Chris Megson, Dee Heddon, Jen Harvie, and Lynette Goddard, to name only a few.
In terms of structure, I believe the word 'political' brings with it a certain concept of human relations as structures of social meaning and organization, and that these structures are ubiquitous and always present, although they are also chimerical and fluid. Referencing precisely these structures seem to be an important way of keeping them visible and preventing them from going unremarked, becoming the ideological unmarked that Rabey mentioned back in 1986. It's a different kind of ideological unmarking I fear now, not the identity mantras of gender, sexuality, race, and class that have grown too familiar to some in recent years, but the relegation of politics to something so corrupt and humanly ruined, or alternatively as something like a cyborg, a monster machine now impervious to ordinary human interventions, that the challenge and the responsibility of politics will be permanently rejected or lost. So that keeping alive in discourse the language of politics in connection to theatre and performance still seems to me something worth preserving. In this I suppose you could say I'm a conservative.
What then do I think politics actually is? In keeping with this seemingly conservative bent, I want to call on Michael Oakeshott who has, I believe, the best articulation of politics I know. A conservative political theorist, Oakeshott nonetheless offers a mobile, almost content-less definition worthy of our postmodern experiences:
|Politics is the activity of attending to the general arrangements of a collection of people who, in respect of their common recognition of their manner of attending to its arrangements, compose a single community[. . . . ]This activity, then, springs neither from instant desires, nor from general principles, but from the existing traditions of behavior themselves. And the form it takes, because it can take no other, is the amendment of existing arrangements by exploring and pursuing what is intimated in them. (1962)|
What I especially find valuable here is the recognition that people find themselves in certain relations with others in media res, and then attempt to rearrange, transform, or in some cases strengthen the existing arrangements, and this effort is always a negotiation with sociality, even if it is violent or unilateral. It can describe a high-level legislative deliberation in a democratic state, or it can describe a dispute over a back fence or a tower block or a blog with an opponent whom one does not know or perhaps who speaks a different language. Looking at these arrangements as arrangements that proceed through both micro and macro practices, one finds small adjustments and occasionally huge seismic shifts in the ways these politics work. It is this notion of politics that I wish to map onto theatre and performance; it is this structure I do not want to lose sight of now or in the future. Note that just as with Kershaw's concept of the radical, this concept of the political can be used to describe left or right, repressive or liberatory arrangements. It can be employed in order to look at humans' responses to commodification and mass mediatization (often occurring at the level of micropractices in fact), or it can apply to the urgent and ongoing challenge now to face up to and assess the threat of global warming and the destruction of our biosphere.
The advantage of working with a definition of political such as Oakeshott's is that it allows different forms of aesthetic production to be understood as political depending on the time, place, and context of the event. Agit-prop street theatre can be discussed as easily as Martin Crimp's new play The City. In both cases, you can argue for or against their effectiveness as political theatre in the contemporary moment. The reasons brought forward, however, will construct a relationship between spectators experiencing a performance and the external arrangements within which they live, ranging from arrangements of the state such as laws and legislation, to negotiations with neighborhood schools or parents' groups, or perhaps with the cyber-space pal they met on Facebook. What is perceived to be political will be a product of these very arrangements under a self-reflexive lens in combination with the shared understanding of the current meaning and history of a term like 'political theatre.' Like theatricality, political performance is the result of the negotiation between a certain way of doing and a certain way of seeing. It is as Brecht knew well, a triangular structure in which artists show spectators a third term, and the relations between those terms to produce theatricality and also sometimes, political frission.
This formulation is not the same as saying everything is political; rather it says that there is a political modality that shapes our experiences and that it is valuable to pay attention to it, as it morphs and changes day by day. But you could also choose to ignore it. Artists may willfully or unwittingly stimulate spectators to experience or reflect on this modality in their work, or alternatively spectators may bring to the performance a conscious focus on the political modality. The judgment that a piece of work is apolitical may not be wrong, but it would need to be explained. Such an explanation might be that in the view of the spectator, the piece was not concerned with and did not address the arrangements and their modifications that Oakeshott names as central to politics, or that while they were present, they were not the most important aspect of the production. To take an example, Sarah Kane's work has been understood to be concerned with deeply personal psychological states and to reject political formulation by some critics and spectators; others have claimed that her vision was precisely an attempt to pay attention to the arrangements of contemporary life and therefore highly political. While I prefer this second way of receiving her work, both responses are valid and might come from two spectators sitting next to each other at the same performance. But if we didn't have the concept of political theatre to hand, those two people couldn't discuss their reactions in relation to political discourse.
One of the problems that arises when scholars or journalists talk about political performances is that there are a variety of types of these performances on offer; for most commentators, there is a judgment about effective or ineffective, valuable or tired, vacuous or obvious or stellar political qualities. These judgments are often based on a preconception about what political performance should be or do, or what forms of political performance are not effective or relevant in today's world. In the remainder of my time with you, I am going to look at some of these judgments more closely and with the help of Oakeshott's conception of the political, attempt to answer some current questions about the saliency of the term in contemporary theatrical practice.
I am going to cluster some of these ad hominine arguments, overheard in theatre lobby bars, into a series of tensions marking discourse about political theatre and performance. Old-fashioned vs new or cutting edge is one such tension; text-based vs physical or non-narrative offers a second tension; mediatization vs local, community-based, or embodied might give us a third. The first tension is essentially about content, and manifests in the judgment that party politics, movement-based politics and identity politics are all 'over.' That their historical moment is past, that there are no programs to advocate, and that identity politics are now old hat. The second tension is rehearsed in the suspicion of the literary and the preference for devised work, or work which finds its major expressions through physicality or visual expression. If a play might go so far as to argue a thesis or proffer an explanation, it is especially suspect, and the creativity and novelty of companies such as Frantic Assembly, Kneehigh, or Punchdrunk capture new audiences and seem like the theatrical way of the future. The third pair of tensions poses commodification and mediatization as infecting most cultural products but especially those that are linked to state or global structures and subsidies. Contrasting performances that are community based or in alternative spaces such as galleries or site-specific performances, or those that are rooted in specific geographical or cultural locations are therefore privileged. I have characterized these tensions with one dominant and one recessive term - it is possible to flip the terms of all three and privilege the opposite, although that is less in evidence now than these first inflections.
Taking these somewhat superficial tensions to a deeper level, I am going to turn now to focus on a recent book that has had a large impact on the field of theatre and performance studies, and which is one of the sources of the move to disconnect politics and theatre. Originally published in German in 1999, it wasn't translated into English until 2006. Hans-Thies Lehmann's Postdramatic Theatre had already been making the rounds of Anglo-american circles through German theatre scholars and others who were able to access the original German. It offers a comprehensive discussion of western theatre in the postmodern moment, and argues that a paradigm shift has occurred in which the primacy of the text, the narrative character of theatrical presentation, and the relationship between the performance and its spectators have changed fundamentally and radically. It is the last section, the Epilogue on the political, that I want most to discuss, but first I'll try to outline some of the central claims of this sophisticated and complex book.
It is not true that Lehmann rejects theatrical writing. Rather, he describes and advocates a non-hierarchy of elements of which text is only one and which is interwoven with visual, aural, sonic and other elements, and in which the performance situation is itself revealed or exposed in the event. Chris Balme, introducing a special issue of Theatre Research International on postdramatic theatre in 2004 provides an excellent key to the Lehmann's landscape : "The main protagonists of postdramatic theatre are familiar. . . . Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor and Heiner Müller represent a first wave. Groups and artists such as The Wooster Group, Jan Fabre, Jan Lauwers, Reza Abdoh and Forced Entertainment [and I might add Sarah Kane] have become a dominant presence in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Their work has pushed and blurred the boundaries of theatre and performance art so that today a sharp distinction is probably obsolete. Despite manifest differences, we also find common strategies. These include a preference for the visual image over the written word, collage and montage instead of linear structure, a reliance on metonymic rather than metaphoric representation, and a redefinition of the performer's function in terms of being and materiality rather than appearance and mimetic imitation" (1). Lehmann emphasizes a sensory overload in postdramatic performance that provides a plethora of sensations and a deliberate density of signs. This "parceling of perception" as he calls it requires spectators to decide which of the stimuli they wish to respond to and focus on while making it clear that they cannot achieve a totality and "feel the frustration of realizing the exclusive and limiting character of this freedom[. . . .]It becomes crucial that the abandonment of totality be understood not as a deficit but instead as a liberating possibility of an ongoing (re-)writing, imagination, and recombination, that refuses the 'rage of understanding'" (88). Notice the slippage between the descriptive and normative here as Lehmann admonishes his reader to understand that the abandonment of totality must be understood not as a deficit but instead as a liberating possibility. And it is here that he will try to reanimate a sense of the political in relation to performance.
For Lehmann and many others now, post-Brechtian theatre means that while the theatre still concerns itself with questions opened by Brecht concerning the consciousness of the representational apparatus within representation, it "at the same time, [it] leaves behind the political style, the tendency towards dogmatization, and the emphasis on the rational we find in Brechtian theatre; it exists in a time after the authoritative validity of Brecht's theatre concept." You can easily see that the state of the nation play, or perhaps a play like Howard Brenton's current drama about Harold Macmillan, Never So Good, or last year's highly successful Frost/Nixon, or the verbatim play about the suicide of arms inspector David Kelly, Justifying War, would be dismissed as dogmatic when seen through this lens although they are in fact highly elliptical and far from totalizing treatments of their subjects. There is something else at stake here.
It is tempting to launch into a charge that Lehman groups together and dismisses as dogmatic and closed theatre events that can be thought of alternatively as discursive and open if highly structured, not necessarily linear but dramaturgically clear, self-reflexive of their apparatus to greater or less extents but not coercive of the perception of their spectators - and that therefore they may be engaging in terms of address that still have some political efficacy in this postmodern world in the same way that newspaper readership is dwindling but not obsolete, and that the public or rather the publics gather their impressions about the arrangements of the sociality of which they are a part from a variety of sources including hearsay in chatrooms but also from multiple channels ranging from web-based archives to local libraries, blogs to kitchen-table conversations over dinner, from images, arguments, music, graffiti, headline news and sometimes the wry comment of a smart-ass adolescent child. I say this would be tempting, and I suppose to a certain extent I have given in to temptation in my last paragraph, but this really isn't where I want to engage Lehmann's argument.
Instead, I want to draw attention to a notion of the avant-garde that is assumed and somewhat although not entirely down-played in his analysis. Perhaps one way to look at it is that he is citing a form of 'high art' and culture as his favored exemplars of postdramatic theatre, and because of his specific German position, it may look to him like the whole picture. Given the high status of the arts and the extraordinary amounts of subsidy lavished on them in Germany, it is easy to see why the most valued forms of theatre may be avant-garde, experimental, or what Balme noted as the folding of theatre into performance art. This postdramatic theatre is interesting and challenging and for many of my sophisticated colleagues and oftentimes for myself, it offers a more satisfactory experience than some other more traditional forms of theatre, but it is not the only place where one can "attend to the arrangements of a collection of people and sort out what is intimated by them."
My American colleague David Savran has addressed the sociology of theatre in the U.S. in his 2003 study, A Queer Sort of Materialism, Recontextualizing American Theatre. He speaks about middlebrow culture as opposed to both highbrow and lowbrow, taking his categories from an influential essay by Russell Lynes that appeared in Harper's in 1949 and was picked up by a range of cultural critics. Folding this discourse on the taste of the time into Pierre Bordieu's notions of cultural capital and symbolic power, he traces a genealogy of American theatre that is relentlessly middlebrow. While elite culture has bi-furcated between large institutions such as opera and ballet, and what he calls the "consecrated avant-garde" that trades on "its purported authenticity and its continuing resistance, to some extent at least, to commodity culture," theatre has occupied the middlebrow cultural territory of an "anxious relationship between the commercial and the artistic." Among the traits of the middlebrow theatre are "the promiscuous mixture of commerce and art, entertainment and politics, the banal and the auratic, profane and the sacred, spectacular and personal, erotic and intellectual" (15). This discussion of the distinctions of taste in relationship to performance has a further application beyond the United States if we recognize that various national cultures have differentially participated in the stratification of taste with regard to art. Germany has a different set of relationships between its publics and its arts than does the US, and the US is also not the UK. Yet of course, these western nations do share a history of modernism and postmodernist cultural critique.
One of the great unfinished projects of cultural studies is the theorization of the relationships between elite, popular and mass culture. From the Frankfurt School and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies forward, the seriousness and legitimate study of mass and popular culture entered into the academy. This has been a good thing as film studies, media studies, fashion, food, and teenage culture have been subjected to our cultural studies lenses. But it has sometimes meant that something that might be called 'middlebrow' drops out of the equation. Concern over mass culture, and in particular its link with commodification and mediatization has dominated our thinking about the postmodern condition to such an extent that I think its critique has overdetermined the way we understand the public sector. Although commentators frequently point to a splintering of consensus and the multiplication of niche cultures that form widely differing publics, less seems to be made of the variety of ways they may productively interact with or resist what is on offer. Now, in his powerful new book on Theatre Ecology, which I am only just now reading and trying to absorb, Baz Kershaw talks specifically about this aspect, although he is less optimistic than I about the political possibilities still available on the conventional stage. His method is a "paradoxology" whereby we must pay attention to seemingly contradictory formulations where both/and replaces either/or as an axiomatic principle. So he writes that over the last twenty years, theatre has proved resilient, its audiences have grown, and their makeup has become more diverse; "on the other hand, the lack of cohesion brought by the expanding heterogeneity of actual audiences, the separation of theatre generally from any particular social formation, suggests a dispersal of power--except perhaps in relation to the metropolitan elite enjoying the opera[. . . .]We have the spectacle of a fragmenting populist democratization, a growth in access through which the power of the actual audience collective as part of a social formation - middle class or otherwise - is supplanted by the authority of the individual consumer, with those possessing the greatest spending muscle possibly using the 'highest' of arts - opera - for a display of opulence as a way of buying into increasingly centralized power[. . . .]Thus, through its audiences, British theatre was reshaped in the paradoxical image of a highly hierarchical 'democratised' estate (172)." Kershaw's use of all the categories of class, mass and distinction to grasp the complexity of audience makeup and its relationship to economic principles operating in/on the culture industries can be used to avoid privileging only one kind of theatre (postdramatic) or proclaiming the bankruptcy of others (such as more discursive and rhetorical forms of political engagement). Here I part company with Baz, however, because while he thinks the British theatre may have become part of "a combination of unaffordable luxuries" that produce a "paradoxical ecological pathology," I'm not ready to concede that yet.
My argument is that a plurality of forms, all of which can be considered 'political' in Oakeshott's sense, best serve the hunger I believe exists for understanding and comprehending the present world through aesthetic experience. In a recent Guardian blog from March of this year, Lynn Gardner takes up the question of the middle class that illustrates my point. She quotes Jonathan Church in an interview with The Times when he had just taken over as Artistic Director at Chichester, perhaps a quintessential bourgeois venue: "Yes the audience here is older than average. But they're theatre literate. They're passionate. They built and supported the theatre and they're thirsty for new work. This is the only regional city I've worked in where 'new play' isn't two swearwords. So I think this audience is brilliant." Church has credibility in saying this because for four years he ran the Birmingham Rep and worked to make multicultural Birmingham a major part of the Rep's target audience. Often considered left wing, he is allowed to appreciate a niche audience in Chichester. Gardner's comments were less interesting than Church's in the end, but she triggered a discussion that involved a range of bloggers on the role and value (or not) of middlebrow spectators and tastes. She speculates, "If theatres enter into contracts with audiences that really put the audience at the centre of their work, perhaps they will discover that the much derided traditional middle-class, middle-aged audience isn't as adverse to risk and innovation as they imagine." Comments that followed ranged over references to the Globe theatre with its tourist and widely populist audiences, to the Royal Court and Dominc Cooke's proclamation that he wanted to produce for bourgeois audiences, and to this blogger from Manchester: "The audience who shows up to an outdoor event like Manchester's Feast will contain large amounts of the middle-classes but more importantly it will also contain large amounts of working class and ethnically diverse people which reflect the community the festival takes place in." Another voice joins in "It is in fact precisely the middle-class ticket buying public that has enabled the careers of so many of our contemporary, challenging, radical, confrontational playwrights. As far as street theatre is concerned, I think it makes sense to observe that the majority of people who become aware of open air events and seek them out are undoubtedly middle-class, and for many of them such events make sense because they have small children and so want spectacle and intellectual stimulus alongside the flexibility to be able to walk away and find a Pizza Express when grizzling time comes around."
I've taken the time to quote at length from this blog not because I find it so very incisive, but because it illustrates a variety of perspectives toward a variety of types of theatre events in a range of performance venues. For me, this is the kind of evidence that suggests that highly experimental, avant-garde work is not the only kind of work that serves to make up a political theatre. Recently David Edgar's latest play, Testing the Echo, has been touring around the country from Salisbury to Edinburgh to Warwick, to the Tricycle, and tomorrow [7 March] opens its last run in Birmingham. Written for Out of Joint, Edgar is probably the epitome of the thesis-driven, narrative-based, coherent argument-making political writer. This play takes up the current debates on citizenship and being British, and characterizes a multicultural society struggling with the issues and values surrounding life in Britain at the moment. While it has a dramaturgical shape (certainly not linearity) and a set of characters, it does not have a strong narrative and most certainly does not put forward a sustained thesis, or even a point of view beyond the careful balancing of legitimate but diverse values and experiences, captured in the phrase repeated by several characters after expressing something they feel deeply, "Although for you I'm sure it looks different." If the play has a political goal, it is to enable its audiences to consider how differently positioned subjectivities might find themselves engaged in this moment in attending to the arrangements of a collection of people who, in respect of their common recognition of their manner of attending to these arrangements (of democracy, citizenship, family, workplace, and the law) engage in the amendment of existing arrangements by exploring and pursuing what is intimated in them. I can't help but think there is still a place for this type of political theatre, and a strong one at that, and I want to call it by its name.
However, this is not a rear-guard action aimed at shoring up a declining political theatre. First because I don't think it is in decline. From 2001 forward, our various publics have become more not less engaged with public issues and questions in the theatre ranging from the role of government in the war to the nature of political leadership to the internalization of our surveillance society (I'm thinking here of the multi-authored Catch that closed the Royal Court season last year). Second, it's not a rear-guard action because the kinds of postdramatic work championed by Lehmann and praised by Kershaw or Alan Read (who I'll discuss shortly) also seem to me to be valid aesthetic explorations of Oakeshott's basic premise about attending to arrangements. Indeed, what I am most interested in is a plurality of theatrical approaches to the political question, and not to have my discipline or our artists give up on the notion that there is a call on artists and intellectuals to operate critically in the public sphere and to understand that call as political.
Lehmann himself attempts to describe a new politics appropriate to a postdramatic theatre in his epilogue. His key words are perception, responsibility, and risk. He emphasizes calling attention to the way spectators are implicated in the production of images and in the way the media use signs. Believing that "the mode of perception in the theatre cannot be separated from the existence of theatre in a world of media that massively shapes all perception," he worries that the media produce a rupture between the sending and receiving of signs, through bombardment, through passive reception, through disjointedness between representation and represented, through distance. And so he writes, "Theatre can respond to this only with a politics of perception, which could at the same time be called an aesthetic of responsibility or (response-ability)[. . . .] It can move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception. Such an experience would be not only aesthetic but therein at the same time ethico-political" (185-185). He urges theatre to break taboos because spectators need to recover access to their feelings; they need a "'training' of an emotionality that is not under the tutelage of rational preconsiderations. 'Enlightenment' and education by themselves are not enough" he writes. "It will increasingly become an important task for 'theatrical' practices in the widest sense to create playful situations in which affects are released and played out." He acknowledges that this notion was present even in baroque theatre, and notes the linkages to Lessing and Brecht, an irony Lehmann is much too smart not to take into account.
Turning, finally, to another opponent of political theatre, there is Alan Read's attack on David Edgar's last play, Playing with Fire, where he declares the play "not political in any sense[ . . .] other than it is about politics. Its subject is politics while this subject [. . .] appears to be escaping its politics" (39). Read's new book, Theatre, Intimacy and Engagement, has many things in common with Lehmann's perspective, so he wants to separate out the political from the theatre, crying "Down with political theatre"(27). Like Lehmann, he is in fact deeply concerned about the state of our arrangements, but he declares that "to politicize performance requires us to do away with the idea of political theatre, if not political theatre itself." He wants to accomplish this by substituting political terms with what he deems "less impressive, but perhaps more considered associations" (27). As an example, he prefers "plasma" to context, taking the word from Bruno Latour to mean a medium that can give rise to new endeavors, the equivalent to the archaic notion of ether, where, Read tells us, something remains to be done: that is, it is where ethical acts occur through new and renewed associations. Desiring to reacquaint performance and its politics, he states, "If there was anything that we could usefully describe as 'plasma performance,' I would prefer it for the time being, to a 'Political theatre' or a 'Social Theatre'"(46). Concerned as is Kershaw with the environment which is fast imploding, his subtitle is The Last Human Venue which he describes as that theatre, which now, for the first time, marks the epochal moment of human beings' awareness of their own extinction (272ff.). Here is another example of someone who is truly still concerned about the political, but who is attacking the vocabulary that makes its conceptualization thinkable.
As much as I admire this highly thoughtful and original book - in fact I've published it within a series that I edit - I think he is grossly unfair to Edgar, in a way that makes him a whipping post for a number of engaged and effective writers and groups. And above all, as has been my point all evening, I do not want the terms of political theatre to be occluded and replaced by another vocabulary. I am concerned that along with the inevitable negative reappraisals of 1968 that are rolling into full swing as the fortieth year anniversary commences this month, my discipline may be similarly throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Political discourse allows the conceptualization of the political. When neo-con Francis Fukayama proclaimed the end of history in his influential 1992 book, critics were quick to point out the difficulty of discussing the meaning of and relationship between events occurring over time if there was no 'history' as a conceptual category. Similarly, if there is no political theatre, the explanatory power to consider the aspects of theatre that treat our efforts as human beings to work out ways to co-exist on the planet and to set up and also to transform structures and practices that make for our collective life together are seriously weakened.
What is political theatre today? It is enormously varied: it occurs on national stages but also in whole range of purpose-built and adapted spaces, in site-specific venues or out in open ground. Some of it is devised; some of it emphasizes the physical, some of it engages spectators directly in co-producing the event, some of it places spectators in conventional rows, and some of it takes place in galleries or other installations where the spectators walk around. Some of it is discursive, some of it is poetic, some of it is musical, some of it is incoherent. These are not the features that separate a political theatre from a non-political theatre, nor are they in and of themselves of any determined political import. Instead, political theatre is that in which artists and spectators engage with each other in a mutual effort to comprehend the situation and the structures within which we find ourselves together as a collection of people on this planet. It helps if concepts and terminology such as democracy, citizenship, representation, the juridical and institutional, pluralism, multiculturalism, censorship, and even government, are not seen to be obsolete.
©2008 Janelle Reinelt
References for this text
Lecture Report Index
28th May 2008