This is not simply the by-product of lazy artists but, rather, of the increasingly difficult economic realities of creating theatre. The systematic governmental defunding of the arts since the days of Reagan has led most theatre companies to rely on corporate and private donors. Because theatre artists rely on those with power and money for a platform, they are effectively forced to create relatively unconfrontational political art, where the trick is to appear political (typically through representation in the stories, as if simply saying that people of color/queer people exist is tantamount to making a political statement) without actually putting forward a political perspective that challenges the powerful and privileged people seeing the plays. This has led to an increasingly irrelevant political theatre that is totally ill-equipped for life after COVID.
The nature of political theatre is to be disruptive. This principle has guided every major political artist but is quickly being forgotten due to the current nature of the theatre industry. When political theatre preaches to the choir, it removes its potential to disrupt. Indeed, by having such a laser focus on bringing “awareness” to issues, much political art forgets to have a point of view. Art in the current landscape tells us that we live in a racist society or that violence against women exists, but it doesn’t tell us how to fight back. So, we’ve left behind activist theatre and are now engaging in an empty journalistic theatre.
This creates a political theatre that only challenges the ideas of those who, by and large, will never see the plays and allows those who will see the plays to pat themselves on the back for how progressive they are.
This style has been irrelevant for several years, but it has never been more so than in the current moment. We watched George Floyd’s murder; we don’t need to sit in a theatre and be told that police violence against Black people exists. We watched the government fail to protect the vulnerable during the pandemic; we don’t need to sit in a theatre and be told that the government is corrupt. We don’t need art to just raise awareness, we need art to give us a way forward. This is impossible without radically changing both the aesthetics and expectations of political art.
If we look at the greats of political theatre, such as Augusto Boal—the founder of Theatre of the Oppressed, a practice that uses theatrical techniques to give people tools for recognizing and resisting oppression—and Bertolt Brecht—a Marxist poet and playwright who used his plays to critique the established order of the day and called on his audience to enact change—we can see how they applied a more coherent political perspective to their work, which helped them cut through the noise and disrupt the established order. Brecht, as I’ve written about previously, put forward an aesthetic for political art that we’ve moved away from. This aesthetic is not just an artistic one but a political one. It is drawn primarily from his reading of the political theory of Karl Marx. Indeed, Brecht once remarked that it was only after reading Marx’s Capital that he finally understood his own plays.
In the decades since the end of World War II, we have seen a de-Marxing of art. Since the McCarthy era purges, activist-artists who use their art to paint a picture of how the world could be and/or rile people up to change it, which was so common in the thirties, has steadily been disappearing. In addition, expectations for political art have changed. We no longer expect art to give us hope, solidarity, and a fighting spirit, but instead to showcase our struggles. We see beautiful and moving plays that show suffering in communities without offering a perspective on how this pain could have been alleviated through political means. In other words, these plays collapse this suffering to being individual and cosmic, rather than the structural result of political policy. An increasingly passive “political” art has emerged that tells the “good” members of the ruling class—the “cultured” and “progressive” sector who attend the theatre—that as long as they know people are oppressed, they don’t have to change anything about the way they live their lives.
But I believe the goal of political theatre must be to disrupt and to put the struggles of the current moment into a political perspective. In the words of twentieth-century political folk-singer Utah Philips: “The earth is not dying, it is being killed, and those who are killing it have names and addresses.” That level of political directness is what is needed to rescue political theatre from irrelevancy. In order to save political theatre, we must “re-Marx” it.
To combat this de-Marxing and to re-Marx the theatre, I want to offer two pleas to my fellow political artists who are struggling with how to address the current moment of uprisings, plague, and economic crisis.
In order to save political theatre, we must “re-Marx” it.