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"Political theatre" is a term that has been used to refer to three different things: theatre that comments on political issues, political action or protest that has a theatrical quality to it, and any action by politicians that is intended to make a point rather than accomplish something substantive.
Politics in theatre
In the history of theatre, there is long tradition of performances addressing issues of current events, especially those central to society itself. This encourages 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 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 theatrical 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.
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. In 2014, Chicago's Annoyance Theater produced Good Morning Gitmo: a one-act play by Mishu Hilmy and Eric Simon which lampoons the US Detention Center at Guantanamo Bay.
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."
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.
Theatricality in political activity
Some political activity involves theatricality in order to make a larger point or to boost publicity for one's cause. This has been referred to as "political theatre" or "guerrilla theatre". In the United States, the Youth International Party in the late 1960s became widely associated with such gestures. These included the running of a pig, Pigasus, for president in 1968, and co-founder Abbie Hoffman's frequent wearing of American flag T-shirts and socks, which some viewed as flag desecration.
Activity by politicians and government officials that is considered pointless or even disingenuous is sometimes referred to as "political theatre" or "political posturing"; in the United States, it is sometimes also referred to as a "Kabuki dance". This includes attempts to pass legislation that has no chance of being passed, and, in the United States, political conventions whose outcome is preordained.
- Howard Brenton
- Dario Fo
- Jean Genet
- Jerzy Grotowski (Art as Vehicle)
- Harold Pinter
- Erwin Piscator
- Political cinema
- Social criticism
- Teatro Campesino
- The San Francisco Mime Troupe
- Henderson, J. (1993) Comic Hero versus Political Elite pp.307-19 in Sommerstein, A.H.; S. Halliwell; J. Henderson; B. Zimmerman, eds. (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.
- Hayford, Justin Review: Good Morning Gitmo. Chicago Reader. Retrieved on November 24, 2014.
- 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.
- Pace, Erin (November 30, 1994). "Jerry Rubin, 56, Flashy 60's Radical, Dies; 'Yippies' Founder and Chicago 7 Defendant". The New York Times.
- MacDonald, Carey (November 6, 2012). "Through the Lens of an Anthropologist: Abbie Hoffman's Socks". University of Connecticut Libraries.
- "The Pointless Debate Over Obamacare". Bloomberg View. July 18, 2013.
- 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 978-0-8135-1850-3 ISBN 978-0-8135-2017-9
- 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.