On Being a So-Called Political Playwright
Proposed. The McCarthy era maintains a lethal, if invisible, grip on the American theater. The bugaboo may no longer be Communism, but there are plenty of ideas forbidden, still. To be a political playwright in the United States is to be censored—financially. It would be better, I sometimes think, to be thrown in prison, at least then someone might notice. PEN might come to one’s defense. (I have been in prison for antiwar actions, only for a day or two, strip searched, handcuffed for eight or more hours; I am not taking prison lightly). Financial censorship, like the blacklist of old, is the slow suffocation method—neither you nor your work is allowable, allowed. Just as torture under democratic governments has been engineered not to leave marks, so censorship, because economic, remains invisible.*
Here is a short list of subjects you are unlikely to see on the institutional or commercial American stage: abortion, treated fairly, objectively, or even mentioned, for that matter, and other reproductive rights; corporate malfeasance, especially related to any bank or corporation that sponsors a cultural institution (and haven’t the anti-union, Tea Party creating Koch brothers just endowed Lincoln Center, for but one example); pro-contemporary labor union organizing plays; man-made climate change addressed as the scientific fact it is. Also, these truths about the Iraq war: the U.S. invaded under false pretences; the war, which killed, wounded and displaced millions of Iraqis, was illegal and immoral; more U.S. combat veterans will soon be dead at their own hands by suicide than were killed in fighting. You won’t see plays about drone warfare in Pakistan or Afghanistan, or about illegal detention and torture at Bagram Air Force Base and other black site prisons, or plays about the National Defense Authorization Act signed into law by President Obama on New Year’s Eve that allows for the indefinite detention of American citizens arrested on American soil; nor will you see plays that critique the idea of American Exceptionalism (i.e., the solipsism that any thing the U.S. does is good because we do it and we are good). You won’t see plays that address the growing income gap, the depth of American poverty and our lack of upward mobility, or the fact that so many of our citizens have no health insurance; nor will you see any play that looks at the health care insurance industry, and the quality of health care it provides, in a critical light. You won’t see plays that speak to the issues raised by the Occupy Movement, like the burden of student debt (especially, I might add, for would-be artists graduating MFA programs) nor will you see plays that advocate nonviolent resistance to any of the above injustices. You won’t see many plays that portray Palestinians in a favorable light and none that critique Israel’s Occupation, or the American government’s support of it. Nor plays that address the growing drum-beat to bomb Iran (and because of the lack of plays that addressed the war in Iraq few theater goers will be able to note that in the case of Iran, too, the intelligence is being fixed to suit a pro-violence agenda).
“Audiences and critics don’t want to see plays that are about anything,” an institutional theater producer said to me several years ago. “Your play is too risky,” said another.
Recently, I co-edited a book Acts of War: Iraq & Afghanistan in Seven Plays. The plays we chose, by British and American playwrights (my play Prophecy, included), each speak to more than one of the forbidden topics above. Only David Hare’s The Vertical Hour made it to Broadway, for a short run, where it was not received well by the NY critics; it was later staged, and better reviewed, in London. All four plays by American playwrights were produced at small theaters, in two cases outside the U.S. One play was dropped from The Great Game (a series of plays about the history of the wars in Afghanistan produced by Nick Kent of the Tricycle Theater, London) for being too anti-war. One play (mine) was viciously attacked in a large, Friday, New York Times review—though it was running to sold-out audiences. Economic censorship applies in each case.
In virtually every other location around the globe, the theater is expected to be a moral force. Theater is a way of speaking truth to power, often when there is no other. Only in the United States do we believe in “entertainment” separate from social and political realities. Only in the United States do living room couches dominate center stage. Only here do we persist in the wrong belief that political theater is “issue theater” and that “issue theater” is most likely bad art that appeals to few.
All political theater, so-called, shares an underlying assumption: the social order may be unjust, the particular war may be wrong, but/and there is within the individual and within the social contract, always, the possibility for transformation, for change. We are not doomed to constantly relive the failures of the past; we are not predetermined predators.
Political theater is neither bad theater (were Ibsen, Brecht, Genet, Miller, Fornes, Churchill, Euripides bad playwrights?) nor is political theater about issues, any more than any play is about issues. All plays are about something. The question is whether or not that something matters very much. Let me put it another way. The world-view of a playwright, and of a play, is contained not within the dialogue, it is not about what the characters say. The world view of the playwright and the play is contained within the structure; it is revealed by what the characters do and how they do it—by the nature of their moral choice making. All political theater, so-called, shares an underlying assumption: the social order may be unjust, the particular war may be wrong, but/and there is within the individual and within the social contract, always, the possibility for transformation, for change. We are not doomed to constantly relive the failures of the past; we are not predetermined predators. Human nature and human societies are in constant process of flux. In this, the imagination has a crucial part to play. Whatever we are able to imagine, we might yet be able to become. If we cannot first imagine ourselves as other than we are, we will never be able to change our ways. The arc of history may be long but it bends toward justice, to quote Dr. Martin Luther King; so, too, the arc of the necessary play bends toward social and psychological revelation and change (in classical Aristotelian terms: recognition and reversal). By which I mean to say, the necessary play contains within its structure an analysis that opens up possibilities for justice. (So many economically successful modern American plays, I think of the tradition including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, August, Osage County batter us into submission: we are no good, and mainly because of the women in our lives).
But the theater could envision a life that is simpler, in which we show greater compassion for both the self and the other; a life based on renewable energy sources, not oil, in which we use less, and replenish more, or climate change will ravage, first the poor in low-lying tropical places, but, eventually all of us. Does not such a theater have a valid role to play? Theater can show us how we change; it can detail how perception is altered. For this is what important art must be. Instructive, enlightening, enlivening, illuminating of personal and social responsibility and possibility. The audience then would leave the theater more awake than when they arrived, not dulled as if they’d sat for two hours giving blood.
Because I wrote the introduction to Acts of War, I spent a lot of time mulling over the plays. I was looking for shared strategies among these seven playwrights, who write in very different styles, but who were each critiquing in bold and compelling ways the wanton, uncalled for aggression of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the effects of such aggression upon the human spirit. They were each looking for redemptive actions, too; ways in which characters came to face the truth and grow. I call these plays representative of “a theater of witness.” Another way of saying it is that each of these seven plays represent an “aesthetic of justice,” to borrow an apt term from Judith Butler.
If you go to Kickstarter or to United States Artists.Org (where participating artists must have won a nationally recognized award) you will see a slew of projects that have a strong social component: they are about envisioning social change, a more equitable, just, sustainable environment, with fewer incarcerated people, fewer deaths by American fire power, less poverty and greed. These are the arts projects conceived outside of the institutions; they are artist driven, and funded by artists’ friends and followers.
Each of the seven plays in Acts of War recognizes violence not as inevitable, but as avoidable. Each play understands the deleterious effects on human character of war. Each play honors the dead by creating characters who hear the voices of the dead, and who feel culpable. Each invokes dramaturgical devices that alter characters’ and audience perception of what is. I came to these conclusions: “Without the exploration of contemporary history’s impact on the psyche, characters are unredeemed, and society stays mired in the fatal violent sacrifice of the young that is and always has been war. With insight, new ways of being almost suddenly appear. Thus the potentiality latent in a theater of witness must not be underestimated. Audiences who are deeply moved, whose perceptions have been altered, who are immersed in ambiguity, who recognize the other in themselves and remember the dead, who have come this far together, in the communal seeing place of theater, have been changed. They feel more alive, courageous, more affirmed in their connectedness, more able to be present in the world.”
Standing between a witnessing theater that embodies an aesthetic of justice and a vital audience that wants to part-take in such experiences is the economic censorship hobbling institutional theaters. Here, we begin to see a grass roots movement of artists in defiance. If you go to Kickstarter or to United States Artists.Org (where participating artists must have won a nationally recognized award) you will see a slew of projects that have a strong social component: they are about envisioning social change, a more equitable, just, sustainable environment, with fewer incarcerated people, fewer deaths by American fire power, less poverty and greed. These are the arts projects conceived outside of the institutions; they are artist driven, and funded by artists’ friends and followers.
The Occupy Movement, as an umbrella for all movements directed toward social justice, might yet grow large enough to sustain a theater that speaks to it. A thriving theater requires a social will around it, for which it can be both responsive and visionary. Once we had a Federal Theater Project in this country, run by an extraordinary woman named Hallie Flanagan. Federal Theater was killed by Congress in 1939, at the very start of what became the McCarthy era. How many American playwrights know the history of Federal Theater (where Arthur Miller and Orson Wells got their start and Susan Glaspell worked)? How many have read Flanagan’s Arena?How many of us know how to take sustenance from our past in order to fight for a sustainable future?
*In his definitive study of torture, Torture and Democracy, Darius Rejali makes this point: democratic governments don’t want to leave marks, as torture is supposedly anathema. Princeton, 2007.