Political Theatre

Poster design from the new American Stage adaptation of Moliere's Tartuffe.
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How Plays With Messages of the Moment Become Enduring Classics.

The American Stage Theatre Company recently debuted its reworking of Moliere’s satire of religious hypocrisy, Tartuffe. The farcical comedy debuted in 1664 to immediate popularity – but it was quickly censored by King Louis XIV, under the influence of the French Roman Catholic Church.

Victorian costume design for the title character of  Molière's Tartuffe.

Victorian costume design for the title character of Molière’s Tartuffe.

Moliere was far from the first dramatist to get mixed up in politics. It’s a tradition that stretches back through Hamlet and Aristophanes, and probably back to some wry shaman casting satirical shadows on a cave wall. But in the modern era, theatre became a particularly powerful medium for challenging convention and championing new ideas – and even in our digitized, postmodern age, the live stage holds unique power.

Another recent example was the Federal Theatre Project, a New Deal program that, from 1935-1939, funded theatre, radio and other performances. The program was created to keep artists working during the Depression, and helped democratize exposure to live theatre by spreading performances of classics and new standards around the country.

But it also sponsored the production of new plays, a few of them highly political. The most famous of these was probably Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a warning about the risks of fascism in America that satirized the rise of charismatic populist (and eventual FDR opponent) Huey Long. The play has recently been revived by the Berkeley Rep theatre company, who call it “eerily prescient.”

Of course, playing politics with government funds is always risky, and the Federal Theatre Project was shut down by 1939, after legislators – not including Long, who died in 1935 – objected to its occasional political slant.

Far less beholden to Washington purse-strings was the Teatro Campesino, a troupe founded in 1965 by the United Farm Workers. Using farmworkers as actors, the group initially entertained farmworkers from flatbed trucks with performances of Mexican folk humor and religious dramas. But soon, the group began touring, and tackling political subjects from Vietnam to Latino identity. Teatro Campesino, unlike the Federal Theatre Project, is still going strong today.

“Drawing a line through history is very important to helping us understand human failings and flaws. To me, that has the potential to bring about self-awareness, and that can bring about better solutions than just reactively passing more laws.”

But why, when television and radio were already reaching tens of thousands of Americans at a time, did these politicized stage plays have such immediate and lasting impact? Probably the most famed theories of political theory come from Bertolt Brecht, who believed in shocking audiences into a critical mindset through exaggerated performances and fantastical staging – a process he dubbed ‘alienation.’ Being in the room for those moments – rather than just watching them on a screen – accentuates their impact.

Poster for Sinclair Lewis' It Can't Happen Here.

Poster for Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here.

(A bizarre side-note: Probably Brecht’s most enduringly popular work is “Mack the Knife,” with his lyrics set to music by Kurt Weill for 1928’s The Threepenny Opera. Among its less sterling legacies, the song spawned a series of 1980s McDonald’s commercials encouraging viewers to get some “Mac Tonight.” Brecht would have been utterly appalled.)

But exaggerated shock isn’t the only way for theatre to influence minds. Our guest editor Stephanie Gularte, the Artistic Director of American Stage, pointed out to me that naturalistic theatre can carry powerful political messages – thought perhaps of a more subtle variety. “Theatre is about human behavior, and that has implications for politics.”

One of the most prominent examples would be the work of Arthur Miller. His 1953 play The Crucible recounts the story of the Salem Witch Trials, as an allegory of that era’s McCarthyist anti-Communism. But the play’s exploration of such basic human motives as jealousy and fear mean that it can give audiences insight into much more than a single political moment. And again, the immediacy of theatre helps those insights stick.

For Gularte, the fact that politically-minded theatre can also be enduring hinges on those glimpses of a deeper human nature.

“Drawing a line through history is very important to helping us understand human failings and flaws,” she told me. “To me, that has the potential to bring about self-awareness, and that can bring about better solutions than just reactively passing more laws.”

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