The Playgoer: Put the politics back in "political theatre"

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Friday, March 17, 2006

Put the politics back in "political theatre"

Apparently in London, Royal National Theatre head Nicholas Hytner recently stirred up some debate in venturing there may be a need for a "good, mischievous right wing play." This article follows up with reactions.

I think this is a good impulse--a little "mischievous" itself, maybe. But think about this in the context of our current controversy here. We are now asking ourselves: "How far can our 'political theatre' go if we are so petrified of causing offense? Of making the audience--or an audience--uncomfortable?"

Ask yourself--when was the last time you, your beliefs, were truly challenged by a piece of theatre? When you felt "uncomfortable" in the good way, the way that made you think and question yourself for days afterards?

My hunch is there's not a lot of that going on lately, in our prominent theatre institutions, at least. (Let alone Broadway.) And what that reveals is a very small spectrum politically of the theatregoing demographic--and of the "theatre community" itself (i.e. the artists). Most of our "political theatre" falls within a rather safe "40 yard lines" of a kind of liberalism that may be offensive in the Red states, but is brain-candy to those of us between Park Slope and Washington Heights.

Expanding the specturm means being able to do a play critical of Israel, even if some will say inevitably accuse it of aiding and abetting terrorism somehow. That expands to our left. But how about to the right? Why not? Would we equally support the "free speech" of a ruthless Waugh-like satire of entitlement programs, feckless liberals, and faux-hawk foreign policy?

Of course, I always wonder--where are these plays? Any time I hear conservatives rail against liberal domination of the arts (or the academy for that matter) I want to ask: "Well, have you submitted a play? Would you be willing to suffer ten years of debt and poverty for a grad school that doesn't guarantee you a six-figure salary?" Maybe conservatives are too smart (ok, practical) to get involved in this self-destructive business.

Still, Hytner is right. A healthy political theatre is a diverse one, not a club. The best thing to come out of the "Rachel Corrie" scandal might be to remind us how insular we've become, to all sides.


parabasis said...

I'm not sure i've ever really had this experience, Playgoer... don't get me wrong, i've seen plenty of right wing and conservative theater, but none that was particularly provocative in any interesting way (Oleanna, a worthless cartoon of a serious issue comes to mind as does in novels the casual, knee-jerk anti-progressivism of Philip Roth's American Pastoral).

I was wondering if you had seen the article by (I think) Ross Douthat (a somewhat spiky conservative) about how bad almost all conservative art is, and longing for the days of "A Dance Through Music and Time" and what not. It can be found here needless to say, I don't think all of the artists he labels "conservative" really count but it's an interesting article nonetheless.

Ben Kessler said...

To my mind, classifying plays as "left"- or "right"-leaning is part of the problem infecting this discourse. A play needs to exist on a separate plane of communication from a political candidate's stump speech. Unfortunately, most contemporary plays don't; most playwrights today are content to write about Issues, not the complicated Truths with which flesh-and-blood people grapple daily. As a result, theater has become a mere extension of the New York Times's op-ed page. The question to ask about any play in order to judge its quality isn't, Where does it stand?, but rather, Is it true? Another part of the problem, however, is that, in a blue state in 2006, this--dare I say it?--spiritual perspective would be construed by many in the theater biz as inherently "right-wing."

Mark said...

I haven't seen The Passion of the Christ, as I imagine it's something I would not enjoy, but at least that's an attempt to react to the cultural sphere by putting something else in the cultural sphere--as opposed to finger-wagging scolds (Jesse Helms, Joe Lieberman, etc.) who want to react to their perception of the cultural sphere by acting in the political/legislative sphere, which is totally wrongheaded.

Ben Ellis blogged about this a week or so ago, about how there was nothing in the world stopping the columnist who complained about "the forgotten Rachels" (Israeli victims of suicide attacks) from writing as many plays as he wanted to about them. They might find it a better use of their time and I know we'd all appreciate the break from the scoldings.

Anonymous said...


The "All the other Rachels" thing started at the blog Solomonia back in 2004, in reaction to my cantata about Rachel Corrie, "The Skies are Weeping." It was then picked up by other blogs like little green footballs, free republic and fuckfrance. You can actually purchase "All the other Rachels" posters at some far right web sites.

Here's an excerpt from an article about "My Name is Rachel Corrie" and "The Skies are Weeping" from the November 1 issue of the Jerusalem Post, which takes up aspects of the "other Rachels" dialogue:

"Philip Munger, composer of The Skies are Weeping, was more receptive to the idea of an artistic production about Israelis killed in the conflict. "Someone should [write one]," he said. "I'm not stopping anybody from writing any music about any Rachel they want." He said a website with pictures of Israelis killed during the intifada "really shook me, I just started crying."

Paul disagreed with the idea of writing a play or musical work about an "Israeli Rachel," however, saying such a work risked exploiting the victim's memory and suffering. Referring to Rachel Corrie, he asked, "Would she want her name to be used for a performance, to be used to attack Israel? The Jewish community wouldn't write a play about an Israeli 'Rachel' - it wouldn't be provocative like that."


My standard response when "The Skies are Weeping" is dissed as being anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic is that the work is critical of some aspects of Israeli policies in the occupied territories. Having seen "My Name..." and read the script a few times, I'm certain that is also a fair description of the play.

Anonymous said...


I just got this from Angela Godfrey, the Israeli peace activist who produced the readings Thursday in Jerusalem. I had e-mailed her, saying I'd heard her on "Democracy Now"s broadcast:

"Dear Philip, so glad you heard it and that it went out. Hope it was okay.
The memorial reading went excellently, quite full room because (a) the
Swedish Theological Institute brought all their staff and a group which had
left the West Bank because of the Jericho-led situation made them feel safer
in Jerusalem, so I then went on afterwards to guide them. So the audience
was some 40. The external mike on my video camera was not working because
I'd lost a cable the day before when recording Jeff on tour, so the quality
is not good enough to record. Also, I didn't wear make-up (guarding the
image of the activist!) which was a mistake -- on camera and probably in
life I look really wrecked these days. So I shall hopefully find time in
the next few days to re-record about 5 minutes which can then be uploaded
online to the States for the memorial montage of events round the world. If
not, a photo or two may suffice -- a professional was in the audience
photographing me and audience members, some of whom read some of the
post-death writings that I included."

Anonymous said...

I agree with Ben Kessler -- 95% of the way. At a certain point artists are "right" or "left." Oleanna is a right-wing play. Tom Stoppard is a reactionary writer (to wit, the speech about "political" art in The Real Thing which is a mirror of the critique it offers). Far Away is a left-wing play. Sometimes these distinctions are really important to talk about. I Am My Own Wife is a deeply reactionary play about an innocent American learning that foreigners cannot be trusted, especially when they claim to be oppressed. Martin McDonagh's plays, which make light of political engagement in favor of bloody nihilism, are right-wing plays. Understanding this helps us understand the art. And also helps us understand why both these plays were so praised, and why both these writers -- one who wrote about censorship in Quills, the other who wrote about it in The Pillowman -- have not spoken out against Jim Nicola and New York Theatre Workshop.

Guess the only censorship they care about is the potential of their own, in the marketplace, if they take an actual stance on political issues they write about.

Anonymous said...

What drives the establishment crazy about blogs is that regular people get to express their opinions in a public, rather than private, forum. Power usually doesn't have to deal with the fact that "powerless" people have a voice too. A voice which they inherent condemn as "shrill" while they rant and rave and attack all they want.

Also, the equation of emotionality with immaturity is appalling. Already we see this spin from the Republicans -- "Hillary is angry, Americans don't elect angry candidates." WASP stiff-upper-lip codes of conduct are not universal truths. Passionate emotions and their expression are not a sign of immaturity.

Anonymous said...

Yes, but on the other hand, saying, for instance, that if Tony Kushner doesn't speak out on this story, we have to assume that he doesn't support free speech in the theater or free discussion of the Middle East, is, in fact, shrill. If you want to blog--in other words, to have a public forum for your thoughts--then you'd better be able to take the heat, which means not flipping out if somebody busts you for it. Sorry to pick on Playgoer, who has done a sterling job on this topic and I'm sure was perfectly happy to take the heat, but I'm not sure I buy the extreme power/powerless, establishment/blogger dialectics set up above. Having a blog doesn't automatically make you a firebrand any more than working for a print media outlet makes you Part Of The Problem. And let's not forget that the truly powerless people in this country are a long way from being able to have blogs, computers, or a wall to plug them into.

Alison Croggon said...

I absolutely agree with the above anon. (How many anons are there?)

I have said often, and I truly believe, that the true conflict these days is between complex ideas (ideologies, if you like) that understand human behaviours and relationships as complex, many-faceted and contradictory, and those that interpret through simplistic and binary explanations (Good/Evil, Them/Us, etc etc). You can lump examples of both left and right under either of those headings. I believe that they are the two main responses to the complexities and pressures of modernity: one is to attempt to understand them, the other is to retreat to fundamentalisms of various kinds - religoius and political, mostly. And it happens that most of the simplismes belong with the right wing, though not wholly: we have simplismes on the left as well. To me, they seem like reflections of each other.

Clearly I believe that art that matters is art that expresses those complexities and contradictions. Certainly the other kind bored me rigid, whatever its ideological colour. I've been much more bored lately by earnest left wing theatre than any other kind.

Anonymous said...

"saying that...if Tony Kushner doesn't speak out on this story, we have to assume that he doesn't support free speech in the theater or free discussion of the Middle East, is, in fact, shrill." Why is that shrill? After he spoke out so much on behalf of Munich when it was attacked, it would be expected that as America's leading public intellectual of the theatre, he'd have something to say about this.

"but I'm not sure I buy the extreme power/powerless, establishment/blogger dialectics set up above. Having a blog doesn't automatically make you a firebrand any more than working for a print media outlet makes you Part Of The Problem. And let's not forget that the truly powerless people in this country are a long way from being able to have blogs, computers, or a wall to plug them into."

No one said that. What was said was that power doesn't like blogs because blogs give voices to "powerless" people. That is pretty accurate, and is in no way a wholesale condemndation of power or valorization of "the powerless." And actually, there is a lot -- though not enough -- of internet access for the poor in America, at libraries and community centers.

Anonymous said...

isaac - i think you're wrong to dismiss oleanna as a cartoon. i think it's an amazing exploration of the way the ground disappears from beneath your feet when everyone around you starts to believe in different fundamental values... the fact that it happens to be written from a 'right wing' perspective (or, in fact, that it may have been intended as a polemic, and appears to over-simplify a particular real world situation..) doesn't make it a bad play. Just as Kazan's giving names to McCarthy doesn't make 'Waterfront' a bad movie -

Anonymous said...

there's plenty of right-wing drama around... friends, the OC, sex in the city, everything by andrew lloyd webber... just it generally does rather better than the left-wing stuff (by being aspirational and feelgood, or pastiche, or whatever,,,)

parabasis said...

I'm not exactly sure I see the link between Kazan giving names to McCarthy and "On The Waterfront". I don't think Oleanna is a bad play because it is a *right wing* cartoon, I think it is a bad play because it is a cartoon (I dislike Kushner's "Bright Room Called Day" for the same reason on the left, even though I agree with it)-- an unfair fight between a ridiculous caricature of a woman who is brainwashed by feminists, turned into a monster by them, and seeks to (and suceed at) victimizing a guy who, regardless of his faults, is at least reasonable and human and what not until she turns him into an unreasonable monster at the end. And I say this as a reaction to both the Mamet directed production, which I saw (in which the audience hissed and booed audibly when the student said "My group says...") and the play itself (which contains ridiculous lines like "my group says...").

It's a totally unfair fight between a compelling, funny, flawed totally human character and a one-note "feminazi" con artist who believes her own con. It's a play fundamentally about how stupid and awful feminism and political correctness are, that it also contains other interesting themes is (to me) beside the point. (And I'm not sure I'm buying... what are the fundamentally different fundamental values they believe? she believes that falsely accusing him (and it is clear in the Mamet-directed production that it is a false accusation) of rape is good and he believes it is bad? or what?) Mamet knew what he was doing. He wrote it during the, and openly in response to, the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings. It's an attempt at provocation that founders on his own reactionarism and misogyny.

Anonymous said...

(I was the "anonymous" who said attacking Kushner was shrill; in the interest of clarifying this complicated chain, I'm Damien.)

To the person who asked re Kushner, "Why is it shrill? After he spoke out so much on behalf of Munich when it was attacked, it would be expected that as America's leading public intellectual of the theatre, he'd have something to say about this." Two reasons: First, there's a huge difference between responding to personal attacks about his own work and interposing himself in a third-party debate. Second, and much more important, making up something that you know is a lie about someone in order to bait him debases the conversation. Everyone on this board knows very well Kushner's position on both free speech in the theater and the Middle East; to suggest that if he didn't speak up about Rachel Corrie, he must therefore be, essentially, a right-wing Zionist who doesn't care about the First Amendment is adolescent: It's like when teenage boys call someone a "fag" because he won't take a dare. More to the point, it's the same "you're either with us or you're against us" rhetoric that I assume most people here find deplorable.

And you lose me the minute you characterize "power" as a monolithic entity that feels one way about anything, including blogs. That's too simple a characterization

Mark said...

Something interesting about Oleanna is that reports of the London production, directed by Harold Pinter, are much different than the standard line here. Pinter (who no one's accusing of being a right-wing reactionary) worked with Mamet's "original text" (which I'd love to get my hands on) and from all accounts created something that was much more ambiguous. That's one of the difficulties of trying to judge plays independently from their productions, or even based on one production.

Anonymous said...

Pinter's politics are left, but his plays have elements many would describe as reactionary. Certainly one can argue that a misogyny runs through many of them.

Re: Damien's point about Kushner. No one was going that far -- claiming Kushner was "essentially a right-wing Zionist." That's a silly exaggeration of Playgoer's position, which is that an artist who cares about these issues and is connected with a theatre that is censoring a play, and who has spoken out against censorship in the theatre in the past many many times publicly, would be expected to speak up here. And if he didn't, it would be read -- not it "is" -- as implicit support. If you are known for speaking up -- whether in defense of your own work or work of others -- silence is conspicuous. And read by many as complicit.

Not everything can be decontructed. Of course power is not monolithic. But that does not mean one cannot usefully generalize about it.

Anonymous said...

as the anon who brought up oleanna - yes, i saw the london production. and it wasn't played as a cartoon -

re: waterfront:

"The film On the Waterfront represented the political and personal dilemma of its director, Elia Kazan, a noted liberal in the McCarthy era. Kazan rewrote the script shortly after his second testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee, to whom he identified individuals he knew to be members of the Communist Party before 1937. Shunned by many of his friends in the industry, Kazan worked out his own concerns in the film: to be an artist with a social conscience at a time when criticism of American society was suspect; to maintain the liberal commitment to labor unions when organized labor was politically unpopular; and to resist the Communist menace while suffering the notoriety of being an informer." [America History & Life]

"Elia Kazan's 1954 film about the struggle between corrupt unionists and longshoremen informants, 'On the Waterfront,' has been seen by some writers as a naked apology for Kazan and screenwriter Budd Schulberg's informing on communists during the McCarthy period. The film was more than this."


Anonymous said...

Dame Ian, what Playgoer wrote was "At some point we'll just have to assume [Kushner] supports NYTW's action. Or, perhaps worse, is suddenly indifferent to free speech in the theatre. And to open discussion of the Middle East(!)." You really don't feel THAT'S a silly exaggeration, given the preponderance of material on the public record from him on both subjects?

Saying "we'll just have to assume...." is not the same as saying "Others may interpret it as meaning...." All I'm saying is that in a situation where there has been so much evident prevarication from NYTW, we all might do well to err on the side of not saying things we know not to be true.

And I like your name.

Anonymous said...

Damien, "At some point we'll just have to assume [Kushner] supports NYTW's action. Or, perhaps worse, is suddenly indifferent to free speech in the theatre. And to open discussion of the Middle East(!)." You really don't feel THAT'S a silly exaggeration, given the preponderance of material on the public record from him on both subjects?"

I don't think it's a silly exaggeration. What else would we asssume when he has always been so outspoken in the past about these issues? That he feels passionately about it but has layringitis? At most, I think there is only slight exaggeration here, to useful and somewhat "winking" effect.

Kushner has authority. I really do believe that people on the fence might have thought, "Well if Tony hasn't said anything, it must not be that big a deal."

parabasis said...

Okay, this is a little silly, but that it is performed as a cartoon with exaggerated charactarizations is not the problem. The problem is it is a reactionary right wing anti-female caricature of a serious issue played like an important, respectable "issue drama". At least when Tim Robbins wrote "Embedded" he actually did it as a cartoon.

Oleanna is more insidious. It makes you think you're watching a fair fight, when what you are watching is a one sided smack down. By the time the professor beats the shit out of the student, it's pretty clear that you're supposed to be somewhat horrified, but also sort of find it justifiable. After all, she'd ruined his career with a phony rape accusation... she was asking for it, right?

But it's not like we could expect much better from David Mamet, he's an interesting stylist, but not exactly a serious dramatic thinker.

Anonymous said...

I think Mamet is absolutely a serious dramatic thinker. I am hard-pressed to think of a greater American play in the last thirty years than The Cryptogram. And The Old Neighborhood, Edmond, The Woods, and Faustus, are all extraordinarily idiosyncratic, fraught, complex dramas.

But Oleanna fails ultimately. Mamet took the hysteria which distorted feminist ideology beyond acceptable bounds and MADE IT CONCRETE. Yes, some feminists claimed, for example, that all heterosexual sex was rape; but they didn't then go charge their ex-boyfriends with rape. Which is basically what happens in Oleanna -- a dirty joke is turned into a rape charge, and ideology is used to justify it.

I wish Mamet hadn't exaggerated the truth so much. Because his exploration of male narcissism in this play is really interesting, and true. He finds the contradictions of teaching, the necessity and inherent oppressiveness of authority, the inevitable sexualized interactions that are always lurking, on both sides, and threatening to emerge into a chaotic Oedipal nightmare. That first scene of Oleanna is an undoubted masterpiece of dramatic writing. Too bad Mamet closes up shop at the end to give his reactionary audience what it's hoping for, an easy answer to deliver them from the complexities he has located.

parabasis said...

Dear Anonymous,

Wow, someone besides me who loves "The Cryptogram"!

I actually kinda buy your analysis of "Oleanna" to tell you truth... it is primarily the second half of the play that's really problematic. The first half has a lot to recommend about it.

What I meant by "not a serious dramatic thinker" is that I don't think mamet's particular skill is in probing thorny issues/questions/what have you with his plays. He's not good at it. he is good, however, at writing compelling (if frequently identical) characters and he is excellent at style. These are not skills to scoff at, and I didn't mean to scoff in any way. There's plenty about Mamet that impressees me, but it's mainly his ability to *write* not his ability to *write about things*, if that makes sense.

This is most clearly revealed in his novels and non-theater-related essays, which are (for the most part) somewhat incoherent and terrible, but stylistically really thrilling and kind of compelling. (compare any Mamet essay to any David Foster Wallace essay and this becomes clearer)

And my favorite Mamet play, "The Cryptogram" is almost pure style in all its glory. And it is glorious. I'm not even sure that play really has characters (much like Pinter's "Ashes To Ashes") in the sense that I cannot remember anything about them other than one is female, one male, and one a child.