The ideology of theatre ~ theatre notes

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The ideology of theatre

Playwright and critic Walter A. Davis has a brilliant and thought-provoking essay just up at MCW News which takes apart the tired old left/right binaries which infect discussions of political theatre. It's a must-read for anyone interested in (or depressed about) the possibilities of theatrical art. And it's absolutely applicable to ideologies at work in Australian theatre.

Jumping off the My Name Is Rachel Corrie controversy, which is virally spreading through the US media, Davis inspects the actual play, which he predicts will be clutched to the bosoms of all those wishing to tattoo "progressive" on their ideological foreheads, and isolates the conservative gene which resides fatally inside all documentary theatre - its refusal, finally, of aesthetic and political imagination. Davis' argument reflects Howard Barker's stentorian criticisms of what he calls "the theatre of journalism":

On those rare occasions when a play succeeds in preserving the conditions of genuine art, it offers its community a challenge that goes far deeper than controversial comments on a given political topic.  For such works cleanse the doors of perception, thereby transforming our relationship to ourselves and the world.  We feel and experience everything in new ways, ways fraught with anxiety but also with the pulse of transgressive discovery.  Ideology no longer retains its habitual and automatic control over our minds. It is in this sense that Hamlet and Marat/Sade and Three Sisters are political in a way far more radical than The Permanent Way to Victoria Britain or Guantanamo or, to strike closer to home, the confused Messianic (and non Benjaminian) aesthetic of Angels in America or the self-congratulatory sexual posturing of The Vagina Monologues.

In transforming the very terms of our experience radical works of art exposes their audience to the pervasive ways in which we are prisoners of ideologies that severely limit our possibilities of thinking and feeling.  Plays that perform such a function need never directly address a political topic in order to be political in the deepest sense by making it impossible for us to experience the world the way we previously did.   The popular concept and practice of political theatre, in contrast, severely truncates this possibility.  It offers us no more than a quick ideological fix on some current issue.  As a result we are more the slave of ideology—be it liberal or conservative, religious or secular, or whatever—than we were before.  All such dramas do is incite the faithful so that we’ll fall into line the next time we’re polled on some issue or asked to contribute cash to some politician campaign.

Thanks to Superfluities for the heads up.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for pointing out this extraordinary essay.

Scott Walters said...

I loved the connection you make to Barker, who I think makes his point more powerfully and succinctly than Davis.