Political Literacy in the Theatre

C. Austin Hill

 There is, of late, a quote circulating the realms of Facebook and Twitter.

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

The quote is attributed to Brecht, though this seems to be disputable, as no information is given as to the locus of the quote itself.  The sense of the quote certainly FEELS like Brecht, and moreover, it carries a lesson that must be heard by EVERY theatre practitioner.

So frequently in my rehearsal rooms, or in my classrooms, I hear theatre artists decry politics.  There seems to be an idea that one must learn their craft in a hermetically sealed bubble, lest the influences of the banal and mundane workings of the outside world impose themselves upon the art.  In the theatre, though, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

The fact is that ALL theatre is political.  The Public Theatre’s Oskar Eustis has said that it can be no coincidence that theatre and democracy were invented in at the same time.  He says “I think that theater is the democratic art—it's no mistake that they were invented in the same city in the same decade. It's the proper place to exercise democratic virtue, for the contesting of different points of view, identifying with other people, what citizens need” (http://www.timeout.com/chicago/theater/angels-butterflies-oskar-eustis-and-david-henry-hwang-at-the-u-of-c).  

As such, the theatre needs to constantly aware of those very needs, points of view, and conversations.  The theatre, however, isn’t an entity of its own…it needs practitioners to operate in the best interest of the public. 

I’m not even talking exclusively about overtly political theatre—the works of David Hare, for example—nor do I propose that theatres produce only (or even frequently) plays addressing social issues.  I mean to state that EVERY SINGLE piece of theatre is political.  Every production speaks to a public (or we should hope that it does), and every programming choice should be made with this in mind.  I tell my Intro to Theatre students that, as a theatre artist, I am consciously aware of my job to build a bridge between the intentions of the playwright (as best I can interpret them) and the meaning of those intentions to my perceived audience—how I can make the material BEST resonate in the hearts and minds of theatregoers. 

Therefore, as theatre artists—regardless of what part of the industry we operate within—we have a responsibility to be (or to become and stay) politically literate.  Your opinions don’t need to match my opinions, your issues don’t need to be my issues…but you have a responsibility to the art form to HAVE opinions and issues.  It is unacceptable for a theatre practitioner to be unaware of current events—even if they are working on a period production.  We need to know how an individual word in a production may resonate differently today than it did yesterday.  How much more visceral is the word “refugee” now than it was a month or two ago?  How much more loaded are ideas of freedom, or marriage, or race-relations, or police violence, or religiosity now than they were at other times?  If you are making theatre, you need to know what is up.

While I can’t authenticate the previous quote by Brecht, this one I can.  It comes from his Essays on the Art of Theater (1954):

“It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality.”