Collective Action: Theatre and Politics

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Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in early 2009. The play was about ten minutes long; it was free to all spectators, but a collection was taken at the end for ‘the people of Gaza’, via an organisation called ‘Medical Aid for Palestinians’. Free entry, followed by a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians is, in fact, a condition on any performance of Churchill’s play. The play text itself consists of seven speeches by unspecified adult relations, parents perhaps, of seven Jewish girls. The speeches correspond to different times in the prehistory or history of Israel; in each speech, the adult relative debates or agonises over what the girl should or shouldn’t be told. The play was billed as a response to the Gaza War of 2008–9, which ended shortly before the first performance. The publicity material suggested (although this is not explicit in the play text itself) that the final, seventh speech was that of a contemporary Israeli relative during the Gaza War. In any case, in the most controversial and concluding part of this speech, the seventh relative says:

Tell her we’re the iron fist now, tell her it’s the fog of war, tell her we won’t stop killing them till we’re safe, tell her I laughed when I saw the dead policemen, tell her they’re animals living in rubble now, tell her I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out, the world would hate us is the only thing, tell her I don’t care if the world hates us, tell her we’re better haters, tell her we’re chosen people, tell her I look at one of their children covered in blood and what do I feel? tell her all I feel is happy it’s not her. Don’t tell her that. Tell her we love her. Don’t frighten her.1

The controversy surrounding Churchill’s play – and the wide range of responses it provoked – could hardly come as a surprise: the play was accused of anti-Semitism in some quarters, just as it was praised for its accuracy and insight in others. Reviewers also took the opportunity to discuss, albeit in passing, the role of political theatre. Readers familiar with the British press may not be astonished at the outcome. The Guardian’s critic found Churchill’s play ‘a heartfelt lamentation for [ … ] future generations’, which confirms ‘theatre’s ability to react more rapidly than any other art form to global politics’. The Sunday Times described it as typical of the ‘enclosed, fetid, smug, self-congratulating and entirely irrelevant little world of contemporary political theatre’. 2

The term ‘political theatre’, together with the idea that political theatre could be an independent theatrical genre, is frequently associated with the pioneering work of Erwin Piscator, who published a book called The Political Theatre in 1929.3 Clearly, though, the political significance of theatre stretches back before the twentieth century. Broadly speaking, the topic of this chapter is the relationship between theatre and politics. To understand Churchill’s play and the controversy that surrounded it, one would have to research the play itself, its alleged invocation of antisemitic tropes, the history and context of the Gaza War, along with that of the playwright and the Royal Court Theatre, not to mention the singular and incendiary role that Middle Eastern conflicts play in the British public sphere. The point of this chapter is not to attack or to defend Churchill’s play – or any other specific attempt to combine theatre and politics. Nor do I offer an account of whether plays ought or ought not to encourage political actions of various kinds. Given the volume and variety of material on this subject, my aim is rather more modest: to give a sense of some of the different issues that arise when thinking about theatre and politics and to explore one of the better known accounts of this relationship. Churchill’s play, together with the reactions it produced, reminds us that political theatre is still with us, that it still provokes, that it touches on the most controversial, most inflammatory issues of the day. It also reminds us that the relationship between theatre and politics is often not a matter of eternal rules, but frequently of specific encounters between playwrights, companies and spectators at a specific place and time, which deserve consideration in their own terms. The analysis of political causes and effects for some particular performance, or set of performances, might want to take into account facts about how that performance is funded, who creates and performs it, who sees it and how it is received. Nonetheless, there is a place for some analysis at a theoretical level. We’ll begin by making some distinctions that will help to give a shape to the discussion.

Three distinctions

Politics in the narrow and the broad sense

A first distinction to make is that between what I’ll call ‘politics in the narrow sense’ and ‘politics in the broad sense’. The narrow sense of politics covers what one might expect to find, for example, in the ‘Politics’ section of a newspaper: parliamentary debates, elections, domestic and foreign policy, taxes, budgets, the internal affairs of specific political parties and organisations, and so on. If one hears, as is often claimed (at least in England), that it is ‘rude to talk about politics’, then presumably it is this narrower sense that the speaker has in mind. But there is a broader sense of ‘politics’ – much broader than the affairs of government: this broader notion covers the power relations between people and the organisations and institutions that shape their lives and that, to some degree, give them meaning. Thus, to take an obvious example, a church might be political in the narrow sense – it might express views about fiscal policy or immigration rates – but it certainly will be political in the second sense, because it organises groups of people and structures the relations between them. Obviously, the kinds of activities that fall under these two categories are not distinct from one another, and each can and does have a great impact on the other. Thus, say, government legislation can affect religious organisations or power structures in the workplace, just as churches can and frequently do have an effect upon how the members of their congregations are likely to vote. Finally, the question of what counts or ought to count under ‘politics in the narrow sense’ is itself a highly charged political question and is liable to depend on the context. Thus, for the Greeks, certain religious and artistic duties (theatrical festivals, of course, counted as both) were self-evidently affairs of the polis, whereas, in modern Western democracies, religious and artistic institutions are often held to be beyond the purview of politics in the narrow sense.

When it comes to politics in the broader sense, a theatrical event obviously is already a political event, so the question is not whether theatre is political but in what ways. The fact that theatre at least typically (if not necessarily) requires more than one person may be seen to give theatre a specially political dimension as an art. Compare the potentially solitary activities of playing the piano, looking at a painting or watching a film. There is no standard, theatrical event involving just one person. Indeed, when Hannah Arendt writes that theatre is ‘the political art par excellence’, it seems that this is partly what she has in mind. Theatre offers action and interaction among characters and, of course, the audience.4 It both represents and is already an instance of politics in the broader sense. Primarily, our interest in this chapter is in politics in the narrow sense. But discussions of political theatre must not ignore the attempt of theatre not only to convey certain political messages to spectators, but also, in order to do so, to gather them together in an ordered group of some kind. In sixteenth-century England, Robin Hood plays – traditional plays in which Robin Hood’s followers are imprisoned by the sheriff, but then turn the tables and imprison the sheriff himself – were eventually suppressed by Henry VIII. The idea was partly to discourage the notion of robbing the rich to feed the poor and the ritual overturning of authority (i.e. the content of the plays); but it was also to stop certain kinds of people gathering together, playing, marching, revelling and so on.5

Politics and political philosophy

Second, it may be helpful to draw a distinction between politics (in either the narrow or the broad sense) and political philosophy. Political theatre might be theatre that ‘does politics’ or theatre that ‘does political philosophy’; those two things are different. Political philosophy is the attempt by philosophers to think systematically about politics. Where that is politics in the narrower sense, philosophers typically address questions that directly affect some element of government. Well-known examples include questions of authority (who gets to tell whom what to do?) or questions of resource distribution (who gets what?). There are also, as one might imagine, plenty of further questions about what those questions, in turn, might mean, assume or imply.

The relationship between politics and political philosophy is not altogether straightforward. It is clear that, in principle, if a political philosopher argues that the redistribution of resources is justifiable only under certain conditions and in a certain way, then that would (if it were taken seriously by those in power) have an impact on politics in the narrower sense. However, instances of such direct influence are extremely rare; where there is influence from political philosophy to politicians, it tends to be indirect and to require the transformation beyond recognition of the philosophy in question.6 In any case, politics in the narrower sense has always involved ad hoc decision-making in response to specific circumstances – decisions in relation to which no political philosophy could offer anything but the slightest hint of guidance. What, for instance, would a utilitarian view suggest should be done about the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Although this is the usual, contemporary sense of ‘political philosophy’, plenty of philosophers also want to think about the relations between people indicated by politics in the broader sense: philosophers of this kind might ask, say, what kinds of power there are operating in a particular social context or what kinds of concepts and ideals guide or inhibit the activity of the people concerned. A philosopher might therefore be political in the latter sense, without necessarily drawing any conclusions about political philosophy of the narrow kind. Indeed, it would be possible to draw from a political philosophy of the broader kind the view that politics of the narrower kind (and the philosophy devoted to it) is somehow an inappropriate or fundamentally unworthy activity. Nietzsche, it has been suggested, might represent a view of this kind. Alternatively, one might form a view that government policy should not have any impact upon labour contracts or religious organisations, in which case one’s political philosophies in the broad and narrow sense would be forced into some kind of alignment.

Although it is helpful to keep ‘politics’ and ‘political philosophy’ apart from one another, the distinction shouldn’t be overemphasised. Evidently, one’s political philosophy can and should be influenced by politics, and vice versa. What’s more, a claim about what ought to be done in the narrow sphere of politics may well appeal to or imply a broader philosophical or theoretical outlook. A politician may claim to have no particular guiding philosophy, but such a philosophy may be implied by her actions, or derived retrospectively by looking at the way in which she has voted. One does not need, in other words, an explicitly articulated ‘political philosophy’ in order to display, in one’s actions, theoretical views about politics that can be reconstructed externally.

These brief distinctions and discussions may enable us to look more clearly at what might be implied in a discussion of theatre and politics. If an act (including a theatrical act) is ‘political’ it may be affecting politics in its narrow or broad sense and it may be an attempt at discursive or reason-based activity which takes politics as its subject. So strikes and sitins are not obviously contributions to political theory; but, first of all, they are obviously political acts in the narrow sense; and, second, if they are sufficiently widespread and powerful, it may be that political theories should adapt in response to them. Conversely, a highly theoretical tract on the foundations of government may be an esteemed contribution to political philosophy, yet have little or no political impact in the narrow sense. If we speak of ‘political’ theatre, or of the relationship between theatre and politics, then keeping these distinctions in mind may be useful. A play that has an impact on politics in the narrow sense is not the same as a play that offers spectators new conceptual tools with which to theorise about politics (in the narrow or the broad sense).

Politics in text and performance

So far we have discussed politics in the narrow and broad sense, together with the distinction between politics and political philosophy. However, the distinction we shall use to structure the remainder of our discussion is that between politics in the play text and politics in performance. As frequently in discussions of theatre, it is useful to keep these apart when thinking about theatre and politics, even if a crystal-clear distinction isn’t always possible. Theatrical performances, as we have said, are inherently political in the broad sense, because they bring together groups of people, structure them and direct their attention towards certain kinds of action. But a play text itself doesn’t do that. Similarly, there may be features of play texts that are not inherently or intentionally political, but that can be brought out as such in a particular performance or that can be interpreted in such a way by an audience. Thus, for example, the text of Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children relates to recent political events directly in virtue of its words – an Israeli adult speaking of her happiness when confronted by pictures of dead Palestinian children. But each performance asks audience members whether they would like to contribute money to Medical Aid for Palestinians – something that the play text itself doesn’t directly ask of the reader. A performance of Seven Jewish Children is therefore also a fundraising event for a particular organisation as well as an attempt to bring people together to think about a particular issue from a particular point of view. We’ll begin with politics and play texts, before moving on to politics and performances.

Political features, themes or interventions in play texts are widespread and well documented. Some take the form of specific protests or interventions in the narrow world of politics; others explore certain theoretical themes and conflicts; others, needless to say, merge both. In much modern discussion of ‘political theatre’, the phrase is regularly used almost as a term of abuse. Often, the notion of ‘political theatre’ is taken to be an unwanted or unwelcome intrusion on the part of playwrights and directors into politics in the narrow sphere – unwelcome either because playwrights are considered ill qualified or because political plays are considered somehow inferior. One cause of hostility to political theatre is the fact that, at least in the English-speaking world, ‘political theatre’ is code for ‘left-wing political theatre’; thus, an objection to theatre that mixes in politics can often amount to an objection to left-wing views, appearing in a theatrical guise. Of course, there is no reason why a play that is overtly political should be left wing; but in as much as this is the complaint that lies behind objections to political theatre, it is more a matter of politics than of theatre.

A different but equally common argument against theatre mixing with politics (in the narrow sense) is an aesthetic claim about art and its purpose. The idea is that art should have something eternal about it; it shouldn’t be put to use for a particular narrow purpose. By meddling in current affairs – in issues that will fade from the public consciousness in a matter of years – the playwright ensures that a play won’t have any longevity, thus won’t be any good by the standards of posterity. This is a common enough criticism that we should take some time to consider some objections to it. First, as a descriptive claim about theatre and what it is and isn’t for, this is misleading. There is nothing odd or peculiar per se about theatre being used instrumentally. Theatre theorists use the general term ‘applied theatre’ as a broad term to indicate the use of theatre for particular practical purposes.7 Applied theatre is widespread, although it often escapes the heading of ‘theatre’ altogether. Frequent examples include theatre as training or as therapy. As for the former, roleplay training techniques may be used to help people learn to deal with certain typical situations: I have had training as a teacher, which uses techniques of this kind; I have also made use of it to train graduate students. Therapeutic theatre is also widespread; it is given a brutally frank treatment in David Foster Wallace’s story, The Depressed Person. The ‘depressed person’ takes part in therapeutic applied theatre, during which

… other members of her small group had role-played the depressed person’s parents and the parents’ significant others and attorneys and myriad other emotionally painful figures from her childhood, and had slowly encircled the depressed person, moving in steadily together so that she could not escape, and had (i.e., the small group had) dramatically recited specially prepared lines designed to evoke and reawaken trauma, which had almost immediately evoked in the depressed person a surge of agonizing emotional memories and had resulted in the emergence of the depressed person’s Inner Child and a cathartic tantrum in which she had struck repeatedly at a stack of velour cushions with a bat of polystyrene foam and had shrieked obscenities and had reexperienced long-pent-up wounds and repressed feelings.8

In addition to therapy and training, theatre may be applied to awarenessraising, such as the use of so-called ‘AIDS-plays’ to raise awareness and promote debate about AIDS and HIV.9 Some of these take place in front of a ‘street’ audience, who do not realise that what they are watching is a play and are therefore not engaged in assessing the performance as a work of art.

Those who object to political theatre on the grounds that, being instrumental, it is bad art are assuming, of course, that it is the production of ‘good art’ that’s at stake. In some of the cases just discussed, the success criteria are obviously completely different and the artistic achievement hardly comes into consideration. Needless to say, where theatre has been primarily used as a quick and economical mass tool for education or propaganda – as, for example, were the ‘Blue Blouse’ troupes who spread the word to workers and peasants after the Russian Revolution – it would be open to the creators and performers simply to accept that aesthetic value has at most a secondary or instrumental role in their plays. But this still leaves political theatre open to the charge that it is bad art. This, as we have seen, depends on the notion that good artworks last the longest or stay relevant, and I shall now turn to some objections to this claim.

First, the idea that a play that focuses on achieving a certain practical political outcome – fundraising, changing how people vote, demanding industrial action – must therefore not have any duration as an artwork assumes a dichotomy between political relevance and endurance, such that the playwright must choose between the two. One response, then, would be to deny that this dichotomy exists. A play might have a great deal to say about its own time, using contemporary issues as a focus, but also have resonance with later spectators – just as, by analogy, a historian might hope that her work would both educate readers about some particular issue and, perhaps, tell them something general about human affairs. Still, one might think that a play that looks to bring about a highly particular, focused set of actions with respect to a particular deadline – an election or a protest – might lose much of its significance once that deadline is passed.

Thus, a second thought accepts the dichotomy – i.e. that a play must be either eternal or politically relevant – and argues that aesthetic value should lie with the latter. George Bernard Shaw claims that Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House, which highlights (amongst other things) the plight of wives and daughters who are not afforded the same legal rights as their husbands and fathers, will probably not endure in the way that A Midsummer Night’s Dream has endured; that doesn’t matter, Shaw suggests, because the former will have ‘done more work’ and is a better play.10 In his own work, Shaw did not shy away from claiming to be encouraging specific, political actions from the spectators of his plays: his first play, Widowers’ Houses, is (he wrote) ‘deliberately intended to induce people to vote on the Progressive side at the next County Council election in London’. 11 If we accept the dichotomy, then it is a necessary concomitant of the view that artworks should be eternal that they shouldn’t deal exclusively or primarily with current affairs. As Shaw’s claims illustrate, the reverse is also true: if you think dramatists should have something to say about contingent features of their world, then obviously you won’t think that the best artworks are those that audiences at all places and all times can easily relate to. Following Shaw’s line, if plays can have an effect on politics in the narrow sense, then the view that plays should be judged solely by their longevity is as much a conservative’s view of politics as it is an aesthete’s view of art.

A final word about longevity and aesthetic value: there may be many reasons why a play endures (or not), which don’t have much to do with the subject matter of the play or the intended political effect on the audience or, in general, the aesthetic qualities of the work. If Aristophanes’ comedies rely on untranslatable Greek puns, then they will find it harder to appeal to audiences once Greek has become a dead language. That does not, it seems to me, make his plays any the worse. It is a contingent fact about the language he uses, which has now become obsolete. Furthermore, plenty of the Greek works that do speak to us are liable to contain references to contemporary events that are missed by the modern audience. To take one minor example: Oedipus Tyrannus opens with a plague devastating the city of Thebes, which acts as the catalyst for Oedipus’ terrible discoveries; when it was performed, in Athens, a plague was devastating the Athenians, killing many of their finest citizens.12 That people can appreciate the play without knowing about some of the contemporary events to which it may have referred strikes me as an accident of history as much as an aesthetic triumph on the part of the playwright.

Textual politics

Setting aside the idea that, because of concerns about longevity, engaging with politics necessarily damages the value of the play, we can ask in what ways a play text could engage with politics. To do so, we’ll consider four ways that a play text might want to contribute to politics: statements; morals; questions; commands.

Statements and moral

A ‘political play’ may be one that makes a statement – a factual claim – about a contemporary political issue. The play amounts to a communication of a certain kind of knowledge – or, at least, the attempt to convey a certain kind of belief. Such beliefs may be about concrete political current events or they may be about general political views or theories. There are, broadly speaking, two ways of construing how such a claim could be made. First, it could be a claim that the author is making, through the play, to the audience. Second, we might prefer to leave out the author and speak of a play making claims in its own right. (There are many different ways to understand this, but the basic thought is that plays can end up ‘saying things’ or ‘meaning things’ that the author didn’t necessarily put in there.) Thus one might take Churchill – and some reviewers certainly did – as making a claim about what Israelis think about the death of Palestinian children during the Gaza War; or one might prefer to leave Churchill out of the picture and speak of the claims made in the play. In what follows, I’ll speak primarily in the first way – that is, in terms the playwright making political statements through the play; but it seems to me that these remarks apply more or less to the second construal as well.

In as much as political drama is a matter of an author making statements through the play text, it is open to some familiar objections and concerns. We have, in previous discussions, already found reasons to be suspicious of the ability of theatre to transmit an author’s beliefs. We saw, in Chapter 2, that deriving an author’s claims about the world from a play text or theatrical performance is hardly a simple matter. To state the obvious: writing a play in which a character makes a statement is not the same as making that statement yourself, nor is it (contra Aristotle) the same as stating that characters of that kind always or typically make statements of this kind. Take the controversial speech at the end of Seven Jewish Children, quoted above: does this represent Churchill’s view of how Jews think about Palestinian children, how Israelis think, how at least some Israelis think, how some Israeli settlers sometimes think? Is it her idealised portrayal of a way of thinking that informs Israeli foreign policy and represents a stage in the history of Israel, even if no individual would ever think or utter these words? Or is she equating what Jews suffered during the Holocaust with what Palestinians suffer in Israel? (‘I wouldn’t care if we wiped them out … ’) The answers to these questions are not forthcoming from the text or from theatrical performances of the text, and it’s not clear that they need to be for aesthetic purposes. But, obviously, if we want to take Churchill (or, more generally, her play) as making a political claim – the kind that could be true or false – then we’d want to be pretty sure which of these options to begin with. All of them may be wrong; but some are more plausible, and some are more incendiary, than others.

Even supposing we could derive a statement, we would still be faced with another familiar concern, stemming from Plato’s arguments against mimesis. The Platonic objection would be that playwrights don’t really have any special expertise when it comes to politics, so there is no reason why they should pretend to or why, if they do, we should listen. As discussed in relation to mimesis, Plato’s fear is that audiences will fail to appreciate the ignorance of the playwright and will be taken in by various elements of the performance. Where the play makes claims about politics, the thought that an ignorant and opinionated artist, especially a gifted one, could influence the views of an audience becomes a cause of some concern. The use of theatre – and of art more generally – as propaganda in the service of certain authoritarian regimes has helped to give a modern twist to this ancient concern.

Contrary to this Platonic thought, though, it’s not clear that all contributions to politics must be in the form of making statements, or of the amassing and communicating of knowledge. If what politics needs is another discursive article or another set of statistics, then perhaps theatre is not the best forum for such a contribution. But there are many instances of ‘contributions’ to politics in the narrower sense, which don’t take this form and which probably wouldn’t have been nearly as effective if they had. A black woman who refuses to give up her seat on the bus is not obviously communicating knowledge to those around her.

A further thought, which might now count against the Platonic objection, relates to our conception of democracy. Plato expresses his views about theatre in The Republic, which, as we have seen, is primarily a discussion of politics. Ideal political activity, for Plato, is philosophically informed and based on knowledge – but poets don’t know. Then again, it’s not just the poets who don’t know what they’re talking about; it’s the people, too. Thus, citizens without any special training shouldn’t have any say in the running of the ideal city. Plato, then, is consistent in his view that neither the people (in general) nor the poets should be able to influence political affairs. However, if we now hold that democracy is legitimate – that the general public, no matter how much or little they know, must have a say – then the case for being suspicious of political theatre in this sense looks a bit shaky. Why object to a playwright expressing political views in a play text, and not object to that same playwright casting a valid vote in a general election, or to her standing for public office, to be elected by the very public whom, as a playwright, you feel she is liable to mislead?

Furthermore, this platonic criticism of political theatre does not necessarily sit well with the initial objection, namely that plays should be treating universal subjects and therefore should last through the ages. If you hold the latter view, then that may well be because you think that playwrights have something valuable to contribute to our thinking about such matters. But the first, Platonic criticism was that playwrights don’t know what they are talking about. If artists are supposed to deal with ‘eternal’ themes, then presumably their knowledge and treatment of such themes are open to the same criticisms as their treatment of political affairs: what expertise do they have about either? Plato is consistent, it seems, that they have none whatsoever. But the critic who claims that plays should keep out of politics because they should be dealing with eternal or universal themes presumably thinks that artists have something to bring to the table with regard to such themes. And if an artist is permitted to speak of eternal concerns, then why not of specific ones?

o speak of eternal concerns, then why not of specific ones? Finally, even if a relatively clear statement is conveyed, we should be clear that predicting an audience’s response to it – how politically effective it turns out to be – is a completely different matter. Whatever the intent of Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro – and he clearly intended to ruffle a few feathers – the speech in which Figaro denounces the aristocracy as lazy, conceited good-for-nothings was greeted with tumultuous applause by the aristocrats who had waited overnight to see it. Given the date of the performance (1784), they might have listened more carefully.13

One might take a political play to be encoding or expressing a moral principle or ‘moral of the story’, which relates in some way to a contemporary political issue. Obviously, if this moral principle is one that the author believes to be true and is trying to transmit through her play, then it is just a specific instance of the general statement, and what we have already said about political statements applies here too. But, as we have seen in our discussion of the school of morals, playwrights have taken themselves not merely to be communicating facts to their audiences, but in some sense training them or educating them to be better or more moral people. Aristotle’s notion of ‘catharsis’ has sometimes been interpreted in this way; versions of the ‘school of morals’ view have been repeated by various defenders of theatre, and were attacked by Rousseau in his letter to D’Alembert. Because we have discussed these arguments in detail in another chapter, I do not propose to repeat them here; but note that much of what was said in relation to theatre and general moral principles may also apply to specific political claims about what ought and ought not to be done.

Questions and imperatives

Hegel calls the work of art a question. Indeed, it may be that where political plays are asking political questions, they are easier to defend than where they appear to be making statements or claiming to offer moral training. If I make a statement to you, then the implication is that I know more than you; but in a typical case, if I ask you a question then I think you can help me with the answer. A question, as we noted in Chapter 2, is not the kind of thing that is true or false. Thus, if the political playwright thinks of herself as a questioner, then she does not have to answer Plato’s charge of where she gets her special information from. She’s just asking.

Asking questions can be an important philosophical and political activity. Plato’s Socrates – who in The Republic demands knowledge from the rulers – is perhaps the best model here. Socrates claims to know nothing and assumes that those around him know more than he does. But he is disappointed with the answers, and concludes that none of the Athenian experts really knows about the things that most concern him. Socrates’ insistence on asking why the Athenians are doing what they are doing and questioning their responses has obvious political implications. In one of the most important instances of this kind of conversation (in Plato’s Meno), Plato has Socrates question someone called ‘Anytus’; as a result of this questioning, Socrates concludes that politicians don’t really know what they’re doing – when they get a decision right, it’s really a matter of luck, not skill or knowledge.14 Written after but set shortly before Socrates’ trial and execution, the significance of this conversation – and the series of questions that brings about Socrates’ conclusion – is that Anytus will go on to be one of Socrates’ chief accusers and will try, successfully, to have Socrates put to death. Anytus, in other words, concludes that Socrates’ questions are a danger to the city.

To take an example from the history of theatre: one historian has argued that the court plays performed in front of the absolutist king, Charles I, frequently found ways of asking questions like ‘what is it that makes a king?’ or ‘must one deserve to be a king?’ 15 Even asking such questions, let alone asking them in front of the king himself, has obvious political importance, no matter whether the plays offer answers or what those answers were. If questioning can be an important political and philosophical activity, then how does the political play as a question fare against some of the objections we’ve been considering? Regarding Plato’s concern about knowledge, we’ve said that asking a question doesn’t obviously rely on the questioner knowing more than the questioned. In the case of Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, one question we might derive from the text could be: what would Israelis who support the Gaza War think when confronted with footage of children who have died as a result of this war? This is not an illegitimate question and there’s no reason why someone would have to be qualified in any particular way to ask it. It may be, of course, that this is not the best question, or that it is merely one question among many, but clearly the playwright’s supposed ignorance is no longer the problem. If Churchill is telling us what she thinks an Israeli parent would say, then we should ask her how on earth she knows that. But if she’s asking us to think about what such a parent would say, or asking us what we think such a parent would say (if not that), then shutting down this question looks more difficult.

As well as avoiding Plato’s concern – that playwrights don’t know what they’re talking about – the model of the political playwright as asking a particular question may also do something to answer the other concern that we had about political statements: namely, how do we know which statements are being made? Often, it’s much easier to agree on what a playwright is asking us than it is to agree on what she is claiming to be true. And there’s also more acceptable room for error. Churchill might, one suppose, consider it a failure on her part if she was attempting to convey a particular statement in her play and most spectators took her to be claiming the contrary. But ‘getting it wrong’, in the case of the question, wouldn’t be such a disaster.

Another way of thinking about a political play would be as a kind of imperative, or order. Like a question, a sign that says ‘Beware!’ or ‘Keep quiet!’ is not exactly claiming any particular kind of knowledge. Like a question, an imperative is neither true nor false. Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy gives a founding myth for an Athenian jury-court that works together with the goddess, Athena, and will serve the city of Athens for all time. The terrifying, wild ‘Furies’ (roughly, demons of vengeance) who have been pursuing Orestes are tamed and put into just service of the city. Aeschylus offers, according to one interpreter, an ‘urgent plea for the avoidance of stasis [civil strife or civil war]’ at a time when tensions were high, following the assassination of a prominent democratic reformer: Gods and citizens must work together for the preservation of civil harmony, although the details, of course, are left unspecified.16 Needless to say, there’s a great deal more to the Oresteia than the plea: don’t let Athens be dragged into civil war! But when one recalls who would have been watching Aeschylus’ trilogy – thousands of Athenian citizens, many of whom would be directly involved, in one way or another, in the troubles – this interpretation has a certain plausibility. To make this plea, and imperatives like it (Stop! Help!), one does not have to be an expert of any kind. The main qualification for whether such a plea is successful is, first of all, whether you have an audience at all and, second, whether that audience is well disposed in the right ways to do your bidding. (This relates to the performance just as much as to the text – see, for example, the discussion of ‘Access’, below.) Of course, discerning the particular imperative being made in a particular play text is hardly a simple matter, and many critics might want to disagree, say, with this interpretation of Aeschylus: perhaps the reliance on the divine intervention in the Oresteia suggests that the plea is not addressed to the human spectators but to the immortals? But a broader imperative is often implied in a political play text, which is easier to spot. The theatre, as we have seen, is originally the ‘place for viewing’; hence, the imperative from the playwright is: ‘Look at this!’

Just like questioning, demanding that attention be paid to something doesn’t necessarily require prior knowledge or expertise (although doubtless that can help). If politics is partly about responding to the issues of the day, then making something an issue – demanding that people pay attention to it – is rightly considered political. Anybody who has been involved in administration of any kind, including political administration, knows that completely ignoring things is an important tool for ruling, directing or governing. Making things hard to ignore is thus a perfectly reasonable response from those who are ruled, directed and governed. So a play that purports to represent how peasants actually live – miserably, in filth – can raise awareness or draw attention to a social concern that would have been far from the mind of the average spectator; but even if the playwright in question didn’t really know about the condition of the peasants, a play that presents a starkly different vision of how peasants actually live from what spectators are used to might motivate them to find out more. Thus, it might bring about more knowledge or more concern, even if it was written in ignorance.17

This is not to say, of course, that there’s no such thing as a ‘wrong’ or faulty question or command. Questions can encode certain assumptions: the standard example is the prosecutor’s question, ‘When did you start beating your wife?’, which rules out the possibility that the wife was never beaten. Blundered orders, in particular, can cause severe harm to those who obey them (‘Charge for the guns!’). In both cases, we could well expect the questioner or commander to be able to justify what they have said in terms of some kind of knowledge. But in both of these cases, the harm done by the mistaken question or command is clear: a false conviction, perhaps, or the death of the soldiers. The theatre is neither a court of law nor a battlefield. We might, for all sorts of reasons, prefer the questions or demands of one play to those of another; my point is that, by moving away from thinking about the political play as informing us towards thinking about it as demanding certain kinds of attention or thought, we place different and perhaps less stringent demands on its creators. Playwrights may not deserve the authority to tell us about the world, but anyone can ask us to look or to think.

Notes 1 Churchill (2009). 2 ‘Seven Jewish Children’, the Guardian, 11 February, 2009; ‘The Stone and Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza’, Sunday Times, 15 February, 2009. 3 Piscator was, amongst other things, Brecht’s teacher and collaborator; his influence on the development of Brecht’s ideas is unparalleled. 4 Arendt (1958: 188); see also Kottman (2008: 23–5 and 116–7); Halpern (2011). Unrelated to Arendt’s remark, Bentley expresses a similar thought about the significance of dialogue: ‘Talking involves the whole man, and talk between persons involves the whole society.’ (1964: 73) 5 Wiles (1995: 90–1). 6 Curiously, this has done equally little to subdue political philosophers or to damage this conception of their purpose. 7 See Prentki and Preston (2009). 8 From ‘The Depressed Person’, Harpers Magazine, January 1998, p. 60. 9 Lennard and Luckhurst (2002: 104); Balme (2008: 180–1). 10 Quoted in Carlson (1993: 239). 11 Quoted in Bentley (2008: 253). 190 From the Stage to the World 12 This example was taken from Cartledge (1997), which contains many others related to tragedy. It’s clear that Greek comedy offered as much if not more direct social commentary. For a helpful analysis, see Henderson (1990). 13 Holland and Patterson (1995: 276). 14 See Plato’s Apology for Socrates’ description of his philosophical method; see Plato’s Meno for his conversation with Anytus. Socrates’ argument is that politicians, if they know how to act well, would be able to teach others to do so; and they would undoubtedly make a priority of teaching this valuable knowledge to their children; but the children of the best politicians are often foolish; so obviously politicians don’t know how to teach what it is that they’re so good at; so they don’t really know what they’re doing. 15 For Butler (1987), they were frequently highly critical of the king. See e.g. Butler (1987: 24, 44). 16 Cartledge (1997: 24). 17 This example is taken from Ziolkowski’s account of the 1889 premiere of Hauptmann’s Vor Sonnenaufgang, which depicted peasants living in squalor at a time when Socialist meetings were banned by law. See Ziolkowski (2009: 38–48). In Ziolkowski’s view, Hauptmann did present something of the reality of peasant life and ultimately had an effect on government policy. 18 Winkler (1990: 22); Halpern (2011: 545)…

Tom Stern. «Philosophy and Theatre»

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