- OnStage Columnist
Recently the AMERICAN THEATRE magazine featured an article on the need for nuanced theatre. As political discourse as become more strident and polarized, nuanced theatre has fallen into decline.
Many people believe that the theatre should involve itself in political controversy. But the nature of that involvement is at issue.
The danger is that theatre can easily turn into propaganda. It can preach platitudes at the audience, or give the audience members opinions that they already have accepted.
The ancient Greeks developed a far more sophisticated model of theatre. The German philosopher Hegel is known for his theory of the dialectic. According to this theory, which involves the process of thesis-antithesis-synthesis, history creates many conflicts. Yet out these conflicts are born new realities, or syntheses.
Hegel correctly found the dialectic present in the tragedies of ancient Greece. The Antigone of Sophocles presents the conflict between the monarch, Creon, and his niece, Antigone. Creon issues an edict to the effect that Antigone’s late brother, a perceived traitor to the state, shall not be buried. But Antigone defies the king, and buries her brother.
Both Creon and Antigone have valid concerns. Creon believes in the social necessity of law and order. Yet Antigone, the rebel, is concerned with moral law, as distinct from the law of the state.
What Sophocles has done is effectively present both sides of the case. This dialectical approach to human conflict has been echoed in the best modern dramas. Both Ibsen and Shaw studied Hegel, and put their studies into practice.
In Shaw’s masterpiece Saint Joan, Joan of Arc, is opposed and ultimately killed by the forces of church and state. Neither side is villainous. Nor is either side totally correct. The clerics and nobles who prosecute Joan recognize, as Creon did, the necessity for saving society from lawlessness and chaos. Yet the future of humanity is also dependent on such visionary individuals as Joan of Arc.
The serious drama has since had mixed results in presenting the dialectic. Brecht, who discovered Hegel through Marx, was better in some plays than others at presenting both sides. Tony Kushner is intellectually aware of the dialectic, but tends to be heavy-handed in dealing with ideas.
Curiously enough, the musical The King and I is a good dialectical drama. It is based, indirectly, on the inaccurate books of the teacher Anna Leonowens. Yet the librettist-lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, who studied law and philosophy, was fair to both sides.
Leonowens, who considers the west to be morally superior, and the Siamese King Mongkut are locked in cultural conflict with each other. Nevertheless both antagonists are presented as thoughtful and caring human beings, however flawed they both may be.
The dialectical drama is necessary to democracy. It does not present easy answers, or confirm the beliefs that audience members already take for granted. It rather forces them to think, and to assume their work as citizens in finding solutions.