Political Theater Analysis

Marginalized Groups

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Another genre of political statement drama presents a variety of settings and characters and makes no attempt to re-create a historical event but nonetheless provokes serious consideration among the audience regarding a social issue. This kind of political statement play is probably the most common form of political theater; many playwrights throughout theater history have used the stage as a platform for espousing their political philosophy. Plays of this kind endeavor to raise public awareness or influence public opinion. In the last third of the twentieth century, the Western theater community experienced an explosion of “nonhistorical” political statement plays with the emergence of playwrights such as Tony Kushner, whose two Pulitzer Prize winning plays, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part One: Millennium Approaches), first produced in 1991, and Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes (Part Two: Perestroika), produced in 1992, challenged audiences to reexamine their opinions concerning the homosexual community and the phenomenon of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

Moreover, within the realm of nonhistorical plays, marginalized groups found a forum to voice their opinions and experiences. African American playwrights such as Amiri Baraka and August Wilson explored the African American experience in plays such as Baraka’s Slave Ship: A Historical Pageant (pr. 1967) and Wilson’s Fences (pr. 1985). British playwright Caryl Churchill, a foremost pioneer of feminist drama, wrote plays that examined the roles and expectations of women and blacks in society. In her experimental work Cloud Nine (pr. 1979), she mixes race and gender in...

(The entire section is 720 words.)

A Statement Through Production

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The third division of political statement theater can be found when a live production is used to make a statement—possibly one not even intended or inherent in the written play itself. In this form of political theater, the director and production artists are making the statement, not the playwright. It became popular during the twentieth century to set older plays in a contemporary setting, thereby making a political statement. The first important such production, and probably the beginning of the trend, was Orson Welles ’s 1937 production of a modern-dress Julius Caesar. William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600) itself combines history and tragedy, set against the backdrop of ancient Rome as it experiences political upheaval and civil unrest. The dichotomy between the liberal and conservative in the play makes Julius Caesar a popular work to use for political statement through production. In Welles’s production, Caesar represented Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist dictator, so that his murder in the play symbolically presented the hoped-for end of fascist rule in Europe. Most scholars contend, however, that Shakespeare’s works are too complex to be so easily compartmentalized.

Nonetheless, during his work with the Depression-era Federal Theatre Project, Welles and his producer John Houseman regularly made headlines for their avant-garde approaches to theater. In 1936, Welles’s production of Shakespeare’s...

(The entire section is 604 words.)

Theater for Sociopolitical Change

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A revolutionary new kind of theater, known generally as people’s or workers’ theater, evolved in Germany during the last half of the nineteenth century and into the 1920’s. The League for Proletarian Culture , formed in 1920 by a group of intellectuals, artists, and workers in Berlin, established the first Proletarian Theater as a part of the Workers’ Theater Movement (WTM). Many others would soon follow, but Erwin Piscator ’s Proletarian Theater was the most successful of these, laying the foundation for several important developments to come in the WTM.

The essential tenets of Piscator’s Proletarian Theater called for simplicity of design and subordination of artistic goals to revolutionary objectives. It was important that the theater be mobile, which meant minimizing the technical aspects of production. The plays were called “agitprop ,” an abbreviation for the term agitation-propaganda, and the idea was to stir up the workers to make them emotionally fit for revolution. The plays moved out of established theater buildings and into halls and meeting places throughout Berlin. This new play structure contained a montage of dramatic or even comic scenes, often punctuated by music, in a style similar to German cabaret or newsreels. Piscator envisioned a workers’ theater, journalistic in nature and highly stylized with personification of social issues, rapid scene changes, and propagandistic dialogue.

The WTM spread quickly to Britain and inspired many proletarian theaters in the newly formed Soviet Union. The largest and most widespread of these was a group called the Blue Blouses , which offered two main theatrical forms: the Living Newspaper and agitprop...

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Theatre of the Oppressed

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

No essay on political theater could be complete without a discussion of Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater director with a revolutionary concept of using theater directly to explore and influence governmental policies. Boal has traveled extensively through Africa, Australia, Europe, and North and South America demonstrating his theater techniques through workshops and lectures. As founder of the Theatre of the Oppressed movement, he writes, teaches, directs, and theorizes about applying the art of theater to solving social problems.

Theatre of the Oppressed began in the 1960’s when Boal would hold discussions following his plays to ask the audience members how they would have solved the problem differently. This custom progressed to a point where he asked the audience to stop the play at any time and propose a different direction for the plot. On one of these occasions, Boal could not understand the suggestion of one audience member so she went up to the stage to take the actor’s place in order to explain. This was the birth of what Boal calls the “spect-actor,” or spectator-actor. He contends that the audience members should not just be observers but participants. His Theater of the Oppressed theories coalesced in 1971 with the publication of his book, The Theatre of the Oppressed.

As Boal’s theories developed over the years, Theatre of the Oppressed evolved into three basic types: Image Theater, Invisible Theater, and Forum Theater. Image Theater occurs when acting teachers use games or exercises. Boal’s, on the other hand, is specifically geared toward finding...

(The entire section is 660 words.)


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Berghaus, Gunter, ed. Fascism and Theatre: Comparative Studies on the Aesthetics and Politics of Performance in Europe, 1925-1945. Providence, R.I.: Berghahn Books, 1996. A collection of essays about the intimate connection between theater and politics in Italy, France, and Germany.

Colleran, Jeanne, and Jenny S. Spencer, eds. Staging Resistance: Essays on Political Theater. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. A wide variety of essays on political theater and the work of Irish, English, French, Australian, and Asian directors and playwrights.

Goldstein, Malcolm. The Political Stage: American Drama and Theater of the Great Depression. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974. Good coverage of the American WTM, the Federal Theatre Project, the Group Theatre, the Theater Guild, and Broadway theater during the 1930’s.

Himelstein, Morgan Y. Drama Was a Weapon: The Left-Wing Theater in New York, 1929-1941. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1963. Comprehensive overview of the development of political theater during the Great Depression containing a very useful bibliography of plays, articles, and books on the subject.

Itzin, Catherine. Stages in the Revolution: Political Theater in Britain Since 1968. London: Methuen, 1982. Chapters cover important political playwrights, theater groups, and theater organizations in Britain, including Caryl Churchill, John Arden, and the Agitprop Street Players.

Scharine, Richard G. From Class to Caste in American Drama: Political and Social Themes Since the 1930’s. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991. A study of American political theater from the 1930’s through the postmodern period. Good coverage of World War II, the Cold War, and the Vietnam era, as well as civil rights issues for blacks, Latinos, women, and homosexuals.

Stourac, Richard, and Kathleen McCreery. Theater as a Weapon: Workers’ Theater in the Soviet Union, Germany, and Britain, 1917-1934. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986. A thorough overview of the WTM throughout Germany, Britain, the Soviet Union, and America.