Theatre Thoughts: Philosophy and Politics

As is so often the case, my thoughts have been sparked off by a blog...

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Theatre, the arts, as a political weapon is nothing new; Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed is one of my favourite examples; 

"[Boal] set up a number of groups to practice Theatre of the Oppressed, and the ideas of ordinary people from these groups were put forward to become law. In four years, thirty bills of law were created using this method, and thirteen of them became law. This process became known as Legislative Theatre."
CHADDERTON, 2013, P.201

However, using theatre primarily as a political tool, in the style of the Dadists, I think misses the point of theatrical performance. Yes it can be political but if a play is purely based in politics you may as well watch Prime Minister's Questions (there's more overacting, booing and hissing in half an hour of that than you'd get in your average Christmas pantomime!) Theatre also has to entertain and engage, it can question and provoke but without the element of entertainment it would be a very dry pastime. 

Unfortunately, there is no way that theatre can become completely divorced from politics, or the pervading influences of the day. Everyone involved in the production of a play brings their own opinion and point of view to the performance and it simply cannot be helped. Derrida believed that "the author was merely a cultural construct: the product of an age, class, sex, socially determined expectations and appetites, and so forth." (STRATHERN, 2000, P.46) Therefore there is no art that is not politically motivated at some level, whether that was the creators intention or the intention that the viewer places on it after the fact, because we are all a product of our environment. This also has echoes of Barthes' 'death of the author' but his deconstructionism determined that even the language we use is subject to inherent bias and subsequently language itself cannot be trusted. 

I believe theatre has to reflect society in some way, otherwise the audience cannot recognise themselves within the action, cannot empathise, and therefore cannot experience catharsis, which Aristotle believed was the main point of theatre. Arguing with myself here, though; there is the old adage 'write what you know' - if every writer did that, then the vast majority of writing would be drearily similar. We would have no fantasy, no dystopian visions of the future, little historical fiction, etc. However in every genre, there has to be something for the audience to understand, surely? I can't imagine a play in which absolutely nothing makes sense or is recognizable, but would still resonate with an audience.

I've lost my train of thought now... hang on...

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I like the notion that "...the very architecture of a theatre... are bourgeois and support capitalism." (VILE, 2016.) A traditional theatre places the actor in a position of authority over the audience who sit below the stage in a very Nietzschean power balance. If the bourgeois, or the ruling classes, decide to have an actor say a certain thing at a certain time, then purely because of the set-up of the theatre, the audience are more inclined to believe what they hear: there's a reason why public speakers stand on podiums! Interestingly, the Ancient Greeks, who believed that theatre was a unifying, educational force, staged theatre primarily in the round, with the actors placed below the spectators (I realise that this is for reasons of acoustics, but I think it is an interesting point nonetheless!)

Along this thread of thought, it is then also interesting that much modern theatre takes place in non-traditional spaces; studio theatres, location etc. which subvert the ruling paradigm of a proscenium stage with the audience literally (and metaphorically??) in the dark. Is this an example of the arts attempting to pull away from politics? And by doing so, are we just witnessing the emergence of an opposition party? Political by dint of it not being political?

This is probably not what the original author intended to be conveyed, so, sorry! Also, this blog probably doesn't make much sense: my thoughts run away sometimes and I have to sprint to keep up!


Chadderton, D. 2013 The Theatre Makers. Abergele: Studymates
Strathern, P. 2000 Derrida: Philosophy. London: HarperCollins
Vile, G. 2016 Where I am Going Wrong as a Critic [ONLINE] Available at [Accessed 20 January 16]


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