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In the history of theatre, there is long tradition of performances addressing issues of current events and central to society itself, encouraging consciousness and social change. The political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres had considerable influence on public opinion in the Athenian democracy. Those earlier Western dramas, arising out of the polis, or democratic city-state of Greek society, were performed in amphitheaters, central arenas used for theatrical performances, religious ceremonies and political gatherings; these dramas had a ritualistic and social significance that enhanced the relevance of the political issues being examined. One must marvel at the open-minded examination of controversial and critical topics that took place right in the political heart of Athenian society, allowing a courageous self-examination of the first democracy trying to develop and refine itself further. Political Theatre challenges an audience member's own beliefs, encourages them to critically assess their own moral values.
Shakespeare is an author of political theatre according to some academic scholars, who observe that his history plays examine the machinations of personal drives and passions determining political activity and that many of the tragedies such as King Lear and Macbeth dramatize political leadership and complexity subterfuges of human beings driven by the lust for power; for example, they observe that class struggle in the Roman Republic is central to Coriolanus.
Recent political drama
In later centuries, political theatre has sometimes taken a different form. Sometimes associated with cabaret and folk theatre, it has offered itself as a theatre 'of, by, and for the people'. In this guise, political theatre has developed within the civil societies under oppressive governments as a means of actual underground communication and the spreading of critical thought.
Often political theatre has been used to promote specific political theories or ideals, for example in the way agitprop theatre has been used to further Marxism and the development of communist sympathies. Russian agitprop theater was noted for its cardboard characters of perfect virtue and complete evil, and its coarse ridicule.
But Marxist theatre wasn't always this directly agitational. Bertolt Brecht developed a highly elaborate and sophisticated new aesthetics--epic theater--to address the spectator in a more rational way. Brecht's aesthetics have influenced political playwrights throughout the world, especially in India and Africa. Augusto Boal developed the Brechtian form of Lehrstücke into his internationally acclaimed Theatre of the Oppressed, with its now-widespread techniques of --'forum theatre' and 'invisible theatre'--to further social change. Boal's work in this area has contributed to the emergence of the Theatre for Development movement across the world. In the sixties playwrights like Peter Weiss adopted a more 'documentary' approach towards political theatre, following on from the example of Erwin Piscator in the twenties. Weiss wrote plays closely based on historical documents like the proceedings of the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt.
Less radical versions of political theatre have become established within the mainstream modern repertory - such as the realist dramas of Arthur Miller (The Crucible and All My Sons), which probe the behavior of human beings as social and political animals.
A new form of political theatre emerged in the twentieth century with feminist authors like Elfriede Jelinek or Caryl Churchill, who often make use of the non-realistic techniques detailed above.. During the 1960s and 1970s, new theatres emerged addressing women's issues. These theatres went beyond producing feminist plays, but also sought to give women opportunities and work experience in all areas of theaterical production which had heretofore been dominated by men. In addition to playwright, producers, and actors, there were opportunities for women electricians, set designers, musical director, stage managers, etc. These NYC based groups included the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, It's Allright to be a Woman, Spiderwoman Theater, Women's Interart Center, and the New Feminist Theater.
The Living Theatre, created by Judith Malina and her husband Julian Beck in 1947, which had its heyday in the 1960s, during the Vietnam War, is a primary example of politically oriented Brechtian performance art in the United States. Their original productions of Kenneth Brown's The Brig (c. 1964), also filmed, and of Jack Gelber's controversial play The Connection and its 1961 film rely upon and illustrate the dramaturgy of Brechtian alienation effect (Verfremdungseffekt) that most political theatre uses to some extent, forcing the audience to take a "critical perspective" on events being dramatized or projected on screen(s) and building on aspects of the Theatre of Cruelty, which developed from the theory and practice of French early surrealist and proto-absurdist Antonin Artaud.
In American regional theatre, a politically oriented social orientation occurs in Street theatre, such as that produced by the San Francisco Mime Troupe and ROiL. The Detroit Repertory Theatre has been among those regional theaters at the forefront of political comedy, staging plays like Jacob M. Appel's Arborophilia, in which a lifelong Democrat prefers that her daughter fall in love with a poplar tree instead of a Republican activist.
John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular theatre company 7:84, argued that "the theatre can never 'cause' a social change. It can articulate pressure towards one, help people celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence… Above all, it can be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination".
In another context, that of real-life politics, or what some refer to, more pejoratively, as "Realpolitik", in recent speeches U.S. President George W. Bush has denounced some political action taken by Democrats opposed to his agenda as "political theatre".
The Iraq War is the focus of some recent British political drama; for example, Stuff Happens, by David Hare. David Edgar and Mark Ravenhill also satirize contemporary socio-political realities in their recent dramatic works.
Contemporary Context of "Political Theatre": Theatrics as Protest Politics (as opposed to Politics in Theatre)
All of the above refers to politics in theatre or theatrics in poliltics, but a more contemporary meaning of the term "Political Theatre" refers to theatrical acts of protest performed by surprise in public to draw attention to political issues. The practitioners most famous for the art are Abbie Hoffman and other Yippies. Bare-breasted women at Occupy protests, the 2012 campaign of Presidential candidate Vermin Supreme, and (in some cases) flash mobs are other examples.
- Caryl Churchill
- Howard Brenton
- Dario Fo
- Jean Genet
- Jerzy Grotowski (Art as Vehicle)
- Guerrilla theatre
- Harold Pinter
- Erwin Piscator
- Political cinema
- Social criticism
- Teatro Campesino
- Henderson, J. (1993) Comic Hero versus Political Elite pp.307-19 in Sommerstein, A.H.; S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, B. Zimmerman, ed. (1993). Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis. Bari: Levante Editori.
- Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, eds. Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester, Eng.: Manchester UP, 1985), ISBN 0-7190-4352-2; John Drakakis, ed. Alternative Shakespeares, New Accents Ser. (New York and London: Routledge, 1985), ISBN 0-415-02528-1.
- Richard Pipes, Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime, p303, ISBN 978-0-394-50242-7
- The Living Theatre is currently still functioning and has produced a new production of The Brig; see its website: The Living Theatre. Retrieved 18 Sept. 2007.
- "Daughters in Love Fuel Mom's Dismay," Detroit Free Press, November 14, 2006.
- John McGrath, A Good Night Out, Popular Theatre: Audience, Class, Form (London: Nick Hern Books, 1991), ISBN 1-85459-370-6; The Bone Won't Break: On Theatre and Hope in Hard Times (London: Methuen, 1990), ISBN 0-413-63260-1.
- Bottaro, J. El Teatro Politico de Protesta Social en Venezuela, 1969-1979. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2008.
- Broyles-Conzalez, Yolanda. El Teatro Campesino: Theater in the Chicano Movement. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.
- Fischer-Lichte. Theatre, Sacrifice, Ritual: Exploring Forms of Political Theatre. London: Routledge, 2005.
- Filewod, Alan, and David Watt. Workers' Playtime: Theatre and the Labour Movement Since 1970. Currency Press, 2001.
- Godiwala, Dimple. Breaking the Bounds : British Feminist Dramatists Writing in the Mainstream Since c. 1980. New York: Peter Lang, 2003.
- Jezer, Marty. "Abbie Hoffman: American Rebel" (p.xiv, Introduction). Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1993 ISBN 0-8135-1850 0-8135-2017-7
- Meier, Christian. The Political Art of Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993.
- Patterson, Michael. Strategies of Political Theatre. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2003.
- Piscator, Erwin. The Political Theatre: A History 1914-1929. New York: Avon, 1978.