How “Right” is Right?
Conservative Voices in Theater
It began with Churchill, as it so often does. Not Winston, of course—Caryl. We were discussing the politically layered script Top Girls in a playwriting class. There was a pause in the discussion, and my professor looked at the fluorescent lighting above his head. “Come to think of it, I don’t think there are many conservative playwrights at all,” he said. We all stopped for a second, considering this. Were there any theater artists we could think of who produced political work that read conservative?
I found myself at a loss. I couldn’t think of any artists or companies in the theater that had been branded conservative. We could conjure many overtly political playwrights—Churchill, Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, and Suzan-Lori Parks. But all of those important figures have somewhat similar [liberal] political views. Does the word “political” begin to equate to “liberal” when it is attached to a playwright? Is that a good thing?
This topic is of particular interest to me, a person with a divided history of sorts. I come from East Tennessee—a red state through and through—but now an Emerson College student, I live in Massachusetts, which is rather liberal, particularly in Boston. In many ways, my two homes could not be more different. Growing up in Knoxville, TN, my experience with theater was limited to whatever was on stage at the local churches, the annual Nutcracker, and the big-budget Broadway shows that were being bussed through on their third or fourth touring cycle. When moving to Boston, the scene expanded hugely with regional theaters like the A.R.T. and the Huntington just a subway ride away, not to mention the proximity of New York.
All things considered, I have acclimated well to my new surroundings. I have always been the black sheep in my family when it comes to social politics. I hold an interest in the “other,” and that is why the theater community is attractive to me. I do not need to agree with what I see on stage, I merely hope it makes me think. But I remember the time my sister came to visit, and I took her to see the touring production of August: Osage County which I had seen on Broadway the year prior. With her by my side gasping at every f-bomb and sexual reference, I became suddenly aware of just how “liberal” theater can be, even when it is not aiming to be political.
Looking at the popular programming for regional theaters during the last several years, a theme emerges. Theatre Communications Group annually releases the most popular productions in theater seasons from all over the country. In the last several years, popular play titles have included Next Fall, In the Next Room or the vibrator play, Time Stands Still, and The Motherfucker with the Hat. Musical titles feature Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. I would be interested in hearing a convincing argument that makes the case that any of these plays represent a conservative worldview.
It makes one wonder: why has the political tone of the theater become seemingly unilateral? It is difficult to approach this subject without making erroneous generalized statements that cannot hold their own water. Some may say that the artist has developed a keener interest in humanity in all its various forms and is therefore more willing to accept political views of welfare, personal choice, and alternative lifestyles. Others may say that the theater-going audience is comprised of liberally minded people who would shun anything expressing conservative worldviews. Can there be any proof for statements like these?
We could conjure many overtly political playwrights—Churchill, Bertolt Brecht, Tony Kushner, and Suzan-Lori Parks. But all of those important figures have somewhat similar (liberal) political views. Does the word “political” begin to equate to “liberal” when it is attached to a playwright? Is that a good thing?
As a person who lands, give or take, almost dead center on the political spectrum, I begin to wonder what it would look like to mix up the theater scene a bit with some conservative voices. Personally, over the past several years I have found myself inexplicably attracted to the marvelous talents of Adam Rapp, Suzan-Lori Parks, Stephen Adley Gurgius, and Kirsten Greenidge, amongst others; although I do not act, write, speak, or even think identically on a political scale like these artists, I see undeniable value in their work and love being challenged by their writings. I imagine I would be equally challenged by a well-articulated, hyper-conservative playwright.
Have we closed the doors to people who don’t think like we do? How could a community so loving and open-minded deny anyone their right of expression, whether they agree with them or not? I think it would be fascinating and motivational to see a conservative playwright head-to-head with someone like Tony Kushner—maybe a David Mamet/Kushner debate? After all, people of any political standing have creative sensibilities. Wouldn’t it be gratifying to leave a theater having a conversation about a political viewpoint that you had previously not taken seriously?
Perhaps I’m just travelling the wrong circles. Maybe there is a burgeoning conservative theater scene that has not crossed my path. I turn it over to the global forum of cyber-space: what political views do you see expressed most frequently in the theater? Is there room for more political diversity in the work that is being presented on the American stage? And if you feel resistant to the idea of conservative theater, why? Do you feel the same way about all political theater?
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
Theatre seeks expansion; religion favors contraction. Thus, theatrical presentations are constantly new (even if the material is old) and religious services are constantly repetitious.
I'm not in Theater, but have thought about this for years. Here is my current theory:
Aristotle spoke of Reason and Passions (Feelings). He said that Reason must rule over the Passions, rather than vice versa. Not to the exclusion of the Passions! But so that the Passions fuel our Reason, rather than trying to use Reason to make the world conform to our Passions. For example, when designing a car, you should try to make safety and economy look hot, rather than make a hot looking car that crumples under impact or puts the owner into the poor house. Because Truth does not care about your feelings. This philosophy has largely guided Western Philosophy for 1000 years or so, and has allowed it to thrive and advance.
But Post Modernist philosophy rejects this. "Cogito ergo sum" means that the only Truth is the Self. This seductive philosophy leads to the notion that whatever we feel is more valid than outside facts. Man creates his own Reality. Anything you want is O.K. Western Pop Culture has fallen to this notion. Particularly since the 50s with the oncoming of Marxist Critical Theory.
The Arts largely deal with emotions. So it attracts people who have more affinity for Passions. When predominant culture is more Rational, it will act as a buffer. Artists would generate Art that appealed to the prevailing sentiments, or fall away. True talent may be recognized, perhaps posthumously as in van Gogh's case.
I have to run to a dr's appointment, so I will end this here, but I think the general gist is there. It's something for you to digest and consider, anyway.
Firstly, a "conservative world view" does not mean playing it safe. It means the aristocratic view of life, a promethean view of life--not heroic necessarily, but dignified, skeptical and civilized--but at the same time complex, intellectual, profound. I despise--and I mean despise--the "left" monopoly on the arts particularly in playwrighting and this general view that one must have some sexual preoccupation, come from a dysfunctional family, hate life in general, or be just another proletarian-love-story with minority-du-jour window dressing to be "relevant".
I am a playwright from "the right", based in Europe (US born). English theater is going the way of Broadway--either big loud shows, revivals, or just nihilistic junk--the more four letter words the better.
Those on this comments board who have said there are conservative leanings in much playwrighting today must be living on some other planet. A conservative artist is NOT interested in showing mundane family values and writing Little House on the Prairie for stage....This is not the point. It is about achieving a far higher aesthetic standard while showing the intellectual force of certain timeless values. But I cannot stand the idea that an artist from the right somehow wants to propagandize on behalf of ....I don't know...Republicans, Mussolini, General Franco or Baptist Churches. It is about recovering a standard.
It would be nice if conservative something or other really earnestly funded artists from "The right". But so many of them tend to be illiterate themselves, not much chance. I, for one, am not giving up.
Great blog. I am a mildly conservative playwright, although not religious. Nearly everyone I know in NY theatre claims to be liberal, and as a result there is a group think mentality that overwhelms the entire business. Most artistic driectors look upon themselves as progressives, but a truly progressive theatres would produce plays that have a distinctly different point of view regarding our society. The plays that are produced are often quite the same in their politics (if they have politics), and that is left wing politics. A theatre company that went against the grain would produce plays that were at least somewhat conservative in their points of view. But in NY (and in America's urban area) that will not happen in the near future. We must not forget, however, that one of the great conservative playwrights (at least to me) is Tom Stoppard, still writing, although getting on in years. He has written very passionately about life under Communism (EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR), and his interest in Eastern Europe under the Soviets has long been quite strong. If he were an American playwright just starting out he would probably not be produced. But he is Stoppard, and thus will be produced until the end. I think that sadly we have to go outside America to find well known conservative voices.
While Stoppard calls himself "a conservative with a small 'c'" I'm not sure Stoppard's politics coincide with conservatism as Americans understand it. Yes, he had an "interest in Eastern Europe under the Soviets" but that was in part because that is where he was from, He was born Tomás Straüssler to a Czech-Jewish family. The anti-communism in his plays, to me, seems less about any interest in free-markets (or religious values) and more about basic human rights: intellectual and cultural freedom or freedom from violence and intimidation (Rock'n'Roll, Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, Brazil) or the rights of organized labor, (Squaring the Circle which is about the Polish Solidarity Movement.) Also remember that Stoppard's India Ink contains within it an implicit criticism of the racism of the old British Empire.
I do think someone brings up a good point in the comments I wish they had expanded on - I believe musical theatre as a vast generalization is more conservative then straight theatre. There are obviously exceptions, as with anything, but I think the mass appeal desire of a for-profit broadway industry leads to this. Most musicals represent the traditional family and really the only "liberal" view I see coming through over and over is people falling in love despite their differences, but wasn't Jesus the first one to advertise that? Obviously shows such as Book of Mormon and Spring Awakening break that barrier and were successes on broadway but he also mentions Next To Normal, which I have a hard time finding distinctly liberal views with... A family trying desperately to stick together despite this disease (that they hide from public eye) ripping them apart. Aside from the underlying message about a lack of understanding and research into mental health I don't find that particularly liberal. I guess that's not to say musical theatre is conservative, more so that it walks that middle line displaying ideology from both sides without skewing too far one way or another. There will always be Hair and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but consider some of the most enduring musicals: Carousel, Grease, The Music Man and I think you'll find some pretty conservative views, and that's not even mentioning the likes if Godspell or Children of Eden. I wonder if that's one of the reasons for the incline in non-traditional casting we are seeing in regional theaters revivals of these classics : trying to find some way to break the mold and make them fit in our liberal-leaning modern theatrical world. That's just my opinion though.
This is an interesting point to expand upon, Carolyn. I'm not quite as familiar with the classics of musical theatre as I am with straight plays, but I think the point about what makes something "commercial" is really interesting when talking about political theatre. For example, the musicals that seem to do really well and last longer than, say, a year or two on Broadway area almost always considered "Family Freindly" titles. (Need we mention Phantom, Wicked, Lion King, etc.) There are clearly exceptions to the rule here: Chicago isn't exactly family-friendly, but it also isn't operating on a very political agenda. Which brings us to a question of defining "conservative" theatre, which can take on many different forms as has been shown here in these comments. Does conservative mean "playing it safe?" Expressing traditional values? Or is there such a thing as a theatre that has a politically conservative stance? Maybe there's a play that makes a case against a hot button issue like federal healthcare, raising taxes for the wealthy, abortion, etc. Are there many representations of these kinds of plays?
Concerning musicals, looking at the successes of Spring Awakening, Bloody Bloody, Book of Mormon, and of course Hair, I'm wondering if even the landscape of musical theatre is moving towards a more liberal place. When Book of Mormon consistently brings in as much money as Wicked, there seems to be a change occurring. And as for Next to Normal-- I understand the argument presented here that it is a story about a "normal" family trying to stick together. But I find that there are themes here that read more liberal: a mom addicted to pills, a son coming out as gay, the siblings cussing at each other and their parents. Do all of these things happen in everyday life? Of course. And that's why the show rang true with so many of us. But, just like the case with August: Osage County, it doesn't seem to reflect any kind of conservative values. In fact, it speaks more to the crumbling traditional nuclear American family than anything, at least that's what I took from the experience.
Money and Message. All you have to do is look back six weeks at Mitt Romney - leader (if so briefly) of the Republican party. In two (or six) years of campaigning, the ONLY things paid for by the Federal Government he was on record saying he'd definitely push to cut were the NEA and PBS.
This has been a refrain for decades now by Republican leaders - that of all the things we value enough to spend taxpayer money on, art is absolutely at the bottom of the list. Repeating this refrain over and over has the double effect of training conservatives that art is bad (limiting those who want to go into the theatre in any aspect) and driving conservative or centrist artists towards the liberal end of the spectrum.
How am I supposed to identify with a party who has 'you are worthless' as a key platform element?
Hmmm... you choose Mamet to represent conservative playwrights? Without the f-bomb his plays are all one acts.
I would say it really depends on what your definition of 'conservative' is. I have absolutely met conservative playwrights who were also successful (think West End London / screenplay Oscar-winners) but their plays didn't necessarily overtly argue for less federal regulation or make pro-life arguments. If you think of 'conservative', however, as simply a piece of art or creative work that maintains rather than challenges the status quo, I think there is definitely work like that being produced. A lot of "history" or biographical plays are like that, as are more traditional tales of "rags to riches" or good and evil. In my opinion, most musicals are pretty conservative. Throwing in a few expletives and referencing sexual acts does not necessarily mean a play is either 'liberal' or challenging.
I've been a playwright my adult life, and I've taught Drama/Theater/Playwriting at various colleges. Theater, as it stands, is undeniably conservative with regards to 1) plays that are selected for seasons, 2) the composition of most theatre companies and 3) theater artists in general (yes, that's a generailzation, but show me a conservative "voice" in theatre and I'll show you someone who's not in theatre). Look at most regional/national/Broadway theatre company and you will find work that is definitely, and without question, liberal. The cheap jokes (God, Religion, Conservatives (Dumb, Thick, Stupid) and any sort of Traditional Values) are mocked for laughter all the time. You don't need to go get all historical, listen to the voices of the playwrights themselves speak about their work, or listen to any "talk back" and you'll usually never hear "the other side" represented. I'm just stating my own experience. Conservative ideas are viewed as hideous. And people who espouse them (Dumb, Thick, Stupid or worse "Middle-American") are viewed likewise. You can point out any one or two particular "conservative" playwrights (Mamet is the only contemporary one that comes to mind), but the landscape is not filled with them at all. I believe the people "in charge" of what we call theater like to write these wonderful anecdotes about the intellectual landscape THEIR theatre wants to examine. But what that really means is a revival of "Angels in America". And the big joke surrounding anything that involves "religious freedom" in theater means plays that make fun of Mormons, Jews and Christians (Islamic satire anyone?) because they're the (only) ones who can take a joke. I've been involved in conversations where "the other side" always points out that one or two instances where someone actually DID poke fun at a liberal ideal (Portlandia is fabulous). But just take a look-see at plays being performed, plays that win grants and the politics of the playwright. If they had the SLIGHTEST tinge of conservatism, trust me, we'd already have heard about it. Theater is on the same par with bicycle messengers who all wear the same outfits, all ride the same single-gear bikes and all frequent the same bicycle bars-----yet swear by their non-conformity. My two cents.
HowlRound might be interested to learn that there is actually a "Republican Theatre Festival" now in Philadelphia. One problem, though - some actors are refusing to play Republicans if they're treated seriously on stage . . . others are simply leaving the roles off their resumes . . . .http://ht.ly/f6STw
I remember a few years back when I was Literary Manager/Dramaturg at Arena Stage and my boss David Dower asked me a similar question - "can you pull together a list of "conservative" playwrights/plays?" He asked me, knowing that I
was a political/religious/social conservative. And I had a similar trouble in regards
to finding people and plays to populate my list.
I can't answer the questions postulated here from a playwright's perspective
because I am not one. I can only give my experience as a conservative theatre
artist, a dramaturg who loves the theatre and all of its possibilities.
It is somewhat fascinating to be on this side of the spectrum. I often have the
experience of being in meetings, rehearsals, festivals and conferences where
comments or statements are made with the assumption that everyone around you believes the same way you do. I’ve been in conversations with those in the field who look at me as if I've sprouted a third head (or at least lost 100 points in my IQ level) when they learn of my religious beliefs. I have sat through theatre performances where the subject has nothing to do with religion or politics, but where searing jokes about my beliefs are inserted in order to get a cheap laugh.
I have also had deep, intelligent and fascinating conversations about my beliefs and perspectives with wonderful people. I have had the opportunity to
engage and think about ideas, viewpoints and beliefs that are vastly different
from my own. And I have had the amazing opportunity of being specifically invited into conversations due to that fact that those in attendance know that I bring a different point of view to the table.
So, what is one possible answer as to why there are not more conservative (whether politically or religiously or both) playwrights, or theatre artists, in mainstream theatre? Again, I answer only from my personal experience. But, I
will say this. It’s not particularly welcoming. Or easy. And it can be really
really frustrating. It is wearying to never know when you are going to walk into a meeting, a rehearsal or a performance and suddenly become the butt of every joke. And the challenge of continuously trying to prove that being of a conservative frame of mind does not make you money-hungry, art-hating, close-minded, and anti-diversity is overwhelming.
Luckily for me, there have been enough wonderful moments, developments and conversations with my colleagues that have convinced me that it is a challenge worth pursuing.
Janine- thank you for this honest reply to this piece. I have already found myself in similar positions (both degrading and exciting) that you speak of, and I look ahead knowing there will be many more repeats to come.
I think this is what troubles me most: the idea of this community not being welcoming to a certain group of people based on their beliefs or politics. I, too, am a religious person, and it truly is shocking how insensitive people can be about it because we are "in the theatre." What about being a part of this community says we all think the same way? How boring would that be?
What is beautiful are the moments of honest interaction where two people with conflicting ideas can exchange thoughts. That, after all, is where drama lies.
Thanks for toughing it through the rough patches and being open about the experience. I hope we can all work towards a deeper understanding of those who are so different from us.
Great article, and a great reply from Janine. I'm also conservative and religious and have had many of these same experiences in theater. interesting thing about the bond that develops during a show, that it transcends all other differences in a shared experience and common goal, and brings together people who might otherwise never agree on a single thing. Regarding the differences I have with my theater friends, I have camped myself between two quotes: "But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they're still our friends and this is still our home." - Atticus Finch"I have never considered a difference of opinion, in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend." - Thomas Jefferson
If such minds can overcome opposing worldviews to find and cherish value in friendships, then I will as well.
1.) I remember a theologian at a TCG conference saying that she valued theatre because it "helps us imagine the infinite possibilities." As well, we all know that theatre "works" when we identify with one or more characters and we safely walk in the shoes of another. That's an inherently anti-conservative point of view. regardless of the content of the play.
2.) On the other hand, just because a play strives for shock value in its language or on-stage imagery, does not make it liberal. I would posit that a lot of post-Shepherd, post-Mamet writing is essentially reactionary in its impact.
It's a bit amusing to me that this post has spawned a comment thread full of formalist noodling and conjecture, as well as skirmishes over lefty ideological niceties - meanwhile the author's point basically stands: there are very few playwrights who present themselves as politically conservative. This point has been made before, of course (many times, in fact). But it's still worth pondering.
It does strike me, btw, that the one flourishing form of conservative theatre today is stand-up comedy. That's often quite conservative. Perhaps something about simply having more than one voice onstage undermines the conservative position?
I agreed, though perhaps in an overly academic voice, that the conversation is well worth having--formalist noodling or not. At the end of the day, though, what conservative sensibilities prompt someone to go into a profession for which there are so many roadblocks and so little potential for monetary gain? I don't know about Mamet, but even Kushner says he can't make a living as a playwright. How does the conservative philosophy of "let the market determine the value" promote participation in playwriting? The market is pretty rough on arts organizations, and only getting rougher, especially when it comes to new plays. Have you read Outrageous Fortune? Maybe there are more liberal playwrights than conservatives because (other than Reclaiming the Seven Mountains of Culture) most conservatives wouldn't do the work for the pay. Don't get me wrong--I have several conservative playwrights in my MFA program, and they are very interested in creating plays that are written for the benefit their own conservative communities--but even they tell me that those very communities are sometimes the most discouraging of their desire to write plays as a way of carrying the conservative message. For myself, I just want more theatre, and more new plays. I don't care who is writing them or why, just so long as they get written, produced and then about by audiences who want to participate in the ongoing cultural conversation.
I think it might be hard to argue that centuries of classicism and neo-classicism were not inherently conservative and that the extremely lengthy history of censorship in theatre has not been conservative leaning. Therefore the trend toward liberalism is fairly recent by comparison and will take some time to swing back in the other direction--none the less, the point is well taken and the conversation well worth having.
It is also worth pointing out that many of the contemporary complaints about the antics of theatre practitioners start with the likes of Plato, Plutarch and Socrates. It is a rather ancient debate, but like the plays, it persists because it is always relevant. Who are we? What are we trying to say? Who do we want to hear? To what purpose? This is the conversation that is at the heart of the theatre. When we stop arguing about the answersm that's when theatre will be dead.
The flaw in this discussion (as in most political discussions) is assuming that the political spectrum is one-dimentional (horizontal), whereas in reality there is a vertical dimension as well. Picture a diamond, with the traditional left and right points but also an upper point (which combines the best of the traditional left/liberal and right/conservative viewpoints) and a lower point (which combines the worst) (fascism, absolute dictators, etc).
My current play, which I am about to submit to various theaters, is partially about this newer way of looking at things. My hope is that it will get produced, and will expand the thinking of both theater artists and audiences. (And just as Mamet is known as the most "right" playwright, I hope eventually to become known as the most "top" playwright!)
This echoes some of what's already been said, but of course a play can be politically conservative without taking politics as it subject: any storytelling that reinforces certain "traditional" family structures or sex roles, for instance; or narrative that positions certain kinds of capitalist success as a supreme goal; or a comedy that positions certain non-normative behaviors or figures as humorous by virtue of their failure to conform to conventional standards.
More importantly, while I enjoy political satire and commentary as much as the next guy, it's often the case that the most successful theater gives each of its characters sufficient integrity and inner life such that none of them is a straw man in the playwright's ideological pageant -- so that an audience might not only find validity in each character's viewpoint across the political spectrum, but might also plausibly differ about whether the play, or the playwright, is liberal or conservative.
An imperfect example (because there's never really any doubt where Kushner stands) is Millennium Approaches; while Roy Cohn is a monster, he isn't always wrong.
I'm struck by the ways in which this column might connect to Jacob's piece about mainstream theaters and palatability. I've not fully baked the connections yet but the conflation of "conservative theater" with a specific political party (Republicanism) seems to overlook the many layers of "conservatism" in American theater that have little to nothing to do with how artists or audiences might vote or engage in political activism. The focus here seems to focus on subject matter/content not its delivery, its formal properties. I'm not saying that experimental artists are inherently liberal (politically or personally) but I am (cautiously) intimating that traditional dramaturgy, particularly linear realism, might tell a liberal story but often does it conservatively, in palatable, (too?) neatly understandable forms. So the difference between a Mamet and a Ruhl (let's take The Vibrator Play specifically) comes down to subject matter and playwright worldview, making one an assumed "conservative" and the other a "liberal." As far as the building blocks of story-making they are much the same (and again, I'm referencing this specific one of Ruhl's works; other texts of hers would not be useful in this comparison). That sameness ensures that both scripts are published, multiply produced, and disseminated through the largely conservative (as in market-majority driven) commercial and non-profit theater worlds. Before we worry too much that the theater neglects "conservative" voices, we need to take a serious look at the vast nature of that term's terrain.
I concur, it makes more sense to take a play and it's expressed moral values or political beliefs than the assumed or known beliefs of the writer, director or actor. To me, conservative used in theater's context is about formulaic or bland expressions of emotion, or, a work that is completely apolitical and lacking in challenging basic assumptions about the human condition.
David Mamet is an avowed conservative playwright. Terry Teachout, the conservative theatre critic, is also now a playwright of sorts. And some of the greatest playwrights are quite elusive politically. Chekhov? Shakespeare? Sophocles? I wouldn't bet on how they'd vote on any particular issue. Perhaps political ambiguity as a value is what is truly missing in the current theatrical scene.
It would be rather difficult to peg someone's political leanings that came from a completely different political system/philosophy/context.
Something tells me that even within their own contexts they valued their political ambiguity, however. In fact you could argue that political ambiguity is central to their artistic achievements.
I don't think any of them are all that politically ambiguous - it's just that their politics don't fall down along the lines we draw because their history, politics, and government are/were completely different from ours.
I think that there's no shortage of right-wing content, if you know what you're looking at-- the thing is that it's rarely expressed in an explicit, partisan manner. I got a nativist, isolationist, anti-foreigner. anti-immigrant vibe from Caryl Churchill's Fen: though it's a beautiful play, the characters' problems are always blamed on the "Pakis", the Japanese, the French, the Russians, and the "Argies" (though to be fair, it was written during the Falklands War.) Likewise, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen takes a rather revisionist stance, actually falsifying history in order to draw some moral equivalence between the Nazis and the Allies during WWII (and if one looks at Frayn's notes, he apparently relied heavily on David Irving, the notorious Holocaust denier and neo-Nazi for his research.) And that's just two plays I have seen in the last twelve months.
The fact that Churchill's characters make nativist comments hardly means the playwright agrees with them.
Whether or not Churchill agrees with nativism and xenophobia of her characters, it's the overwhelming ideology of the play, since there's no countervailing sentiment or alternative explanation for their predicament other than foreigners being the cause of England's problems. Indeed, the only foreign character in the play is a Japanese businessman who conforms to the nativism of the other characters. The political sentiments were very similar to that of the National Front party at the time it was written.
Ian, I have to reply; that is simply a bizarre reading of Fen, and of Churchill. Time literally bends in this play - ghosts wander in and out - and there is no "ideology;" Churchill's whole point is that political, indeed perhaps all mental, existence is a kind of "fen," i.e. a bog or miasma. True, a Japanese businessman is buying up the territory (as actually happened in East Anglia during the time frame of the play), and this stirs up nativist feeling in the locals. There is no countervailing voice - but then why would there be? No real political "process" ever gets started. But to jump from that observation to some sort of political case against the playwright is - well, it's simply lacks any critical foundation, I'm sorry.
Never mind that the extreme-right in the UK at the time would have seen their world-view validated were they in the theatre at the time.
Coming late to this conversation - but delighted to see it happening. I have to agree with Tom here - because a character espouses a certain political viewpoint does not mean the play does. For example, the xenophobic characters in "Fen" are often presented as relics from a time that has passed, who have lost the ability to communicate with the younger protagonist (although I think it might be questionable to give anyone in Fen that role) characters.
Hi Meg. My sense that even if the more extreme expressions of xenophobia come from the older characters, the younger characters don't pose a contrasting attitude, while at the same time, a less racially charged, yet nativist subtext comes through in that everyone's economic situation is presented as eroding due to foreign investment (as represented by the Japanese businessman in the opening scene) or foreign regulation (as represented by the European Economic Union.) So, yes, I did find the overall political tone to be right-wing populism-- that said, I'm still a fan of your production, even if I don't share what I perceive to be the politics of the play.
Of course, the far-right tendencies in the plays and playwrights I just mentioned are British, not American-- and there are certain things, like public funding of the arts, that British right-wingers support but are not supported by American right-wingers, in part because the two countries still have different views regarding both the roles of market economies and the commons.
I would argue that there is a great deal of theatre (particularly musical theatre) that puts forth a more conservative worldview. ("Conservative" being different than "Republican" in this case).
do go on.
This is the wrong question.
There are conservative political point of views espoused in all sorts of media in this country. One only need to look to the movies and television, where the conversation is one way from creator to audience. Theatre is more democratic, often giving voice to those without it, often on the community level -- the practices of Augusto Boal, for example, are inherently opposed to American conservatism. "political diversity" isn't diversity. More rich white guys don't need a voice, there are plenty of them already, and they nearly drown everyone else out: except in non-commercial theater. Mamet wouldn't have a career if there was no room for conservative voices.
Dramatic writers more interested in making money will go to Hollywood, that's where the money is to be made. Writers interested in other things will go to the theatre, it's a less commercial form. Less business, more artistry. Theatre is collaborative, theatre is often democratic, theatre is fundamentally about sharing space. These are progressive, inclusive values.
"Poltical" theatre tends to challenge established norms. Some consider theatre inherently subversive. Conservatives, by the nature of being conservative, aren't interested in that. But those of us on the left, we cherish it. But all work is in some way political, and if it's not "political" and challenging the establishment, consider it to be supporting the status quo: that's where you'll find most of your 'conservative' voices.
Not meaning to necro this comment, but one would argue that the people who adapted Spring Awakening deliberately wrote Melchior's anti-conservative speech at the end, which modern audiences seem to love and why it won the Tony Award for Best Musical. People tend to enjoy anything that mocks conservative views, which is somewhat troubling for my friend who's looking to be an actor.
I have a play in the Republican Theater festival. I might suggest Havel as a playwright with conservative sensibilities, at least in terms of his challenging government's right to control political speech. And obviously, his anti communist leanings. I wrote a blog post ouching on it a while back. http://www.spotlightright.b...
To claim Havel as a conservative for being anti-communist is like to claim Woody Guthrie as one for being anti-fascist. Havel was a Green.
I don't know, I think the representation of government's role in individual's lives in Largo Desolato is very much in keeping with American conservative's fear of an overarching federal government.
But that's not conservatism, that's just a fear. People on the left are just as afraid of government, if not more so, with the rise of the surveillance state, drones, limitations on free speech, "protest zones" at campaign events, and so on.
I don't hear a lot about conservative activists getting arrested very often.
David, do you realize that Václav Havel wrote Largo Desolato immediately after being released from prison for his work as an activist for human rights and intellectual freedom? The man had been imprisoned for writing and talking. At the time, Czechoslovakia was being ruled by a totalitarian police state. After the revolution, he was an advocate of democracy, human rights, labor unions, freedom of expression, and international cooperation.
Since when is fighting for human rights and intellectual freedom an exclusively liberal brand? Reagan fought for human rights and intellectual freedom for those behind the iron curtain. The first Bush brokered the Oslo accords - the grounds for what peace there is in Israel today - and led an international war to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, which virtually defined international cooperation. I haven't studied up on Havel but the claims made above do nothing to support the position that he is/was a liberal.
Except that claiming that Havel's Largo Desolato represents conservative values is to not understand the historical context of the play and to not understand Havel's own personal politics. The play is about a philosophy professor who was recently released from prison and is both being pressured by the government to denounce his earlier writings and from his supporters who expect him to continue speaking out-- this has absolutely nothing to do with any arguments regarding the power of the federal government in the United States-- since no one has seriously proposed legislation that would allow such a thing to happen in the United States.
Havel only became a Green after he retired from the presidency. Before that, he served as a non-partisan head of state of the Czech Republic and before that as the founder/candidate of Civic Forum which was really a coalition of all anti-authoritarian forces in Czechoslovakia.
Thanks for posting this.
These are exactly the questions we are working to answer in The Republican Theater Festival. http://www.philly.com/phill...
I'm not sure that the gap has as much to do with playwrights not being conservative (generally speaking), I think it's often the other way around and that conservative folks may be less likely to become playwrights. As a college counselor for Emerson who's done a bit of travel recruitment, I've found that (with the MAJOR exception of Texas), the general feeling towards education in the (performing) arts is more popular amongst liberal-types and in blue states.
Another thought is that theatre is largely regarded/used as a tool for social change which is moreso concern of left-leaners.
Aaron's correct to point out Mamet and Labute- I think there's a notable number of white male playwrights whose theatre, in its medium, is very White Straight Able-Bodied Male and they've largely been the showrunners. It's evening out, but Todd London's research demonstrates this truism. I'm aware I'm speaking in huge generalizations, but I'm talking about trends.
The trend in [lack of] arts education is a frightening one, and certainly worth pointing out. Why do the "bluer" areas of the country foster arts development in younger generations? Is it because they are closer to artistic centers like New York, Chicago, or L.A.? For example, when looking at this year's election map, the "blue" is densely populated around urban areas where theatre is more likely to be accessible. In this way, I think this discussion of conservative voices in the theatre is closely intertwined with Howlround's discussion of theatre for rural areas. "The spaces in between," so to speak, like my hometown, traditionally don't present artistic outlets that fosters a mind to think about a career in the arts period, much less the theatre.
Much of the 'conservative theater' that happens in the US doesn't happen in theaters; it happens in churches.
Another issue is that theater systems only evolve to a place where new playwrights get work and stage time when there is a critical mass of people that can support such work. People who live in dense urban populations tend to be liberal.
When the theaters of rural and middle America begin to produce their own locally-grown playwrights, we'll see politically conservative plays. Ironically, that can only happen when there is gov't support of the arts in smaller cities that can't support a large number of artists.
Thank you for your comment, Alan. Your points could not be more accurate. If all our playwrights come out of Brooklyn, for instance, then we really aren't showing a good sampling of our world, but rather a small sliver of it.
Government funding of the arts... There's a whole new blog post in there.
Maybe another question is whether we assume some playwrights are liberal, when some of the views espoused in their work wouldn't seem to agree: David Mamet, Neil Labute, for instance.
They're grappling with this idea in Philly right now: http://www.philly.com/phill.... Would love to hear from Philly theater folks about how it's being discussed and received.
And here's Howard Sherman's take on that festival http://www.hesherman.com/20... and this discussion.