Theatre and Democracy (a meditation)

I wrote this for another blog and another personality, but since I’ve begun talking about theatre (my other love) on this blog now, I thought I’d edit it a bit and post it here.  

Theatre and democracy were invented in the same place and in the same decade. When two actors on stage talk to each other, at that moment a different emotion is demanded from the audience. It’s the emotion of empathy. The same emotion that is required for theatre to work is the emotion that is required for democracy to work — the idea we need to care about each other’s experience.

Oskar Eustis

The Public Theater

I took that quotation from Wrestling with Angels, a documentary on Tony Kushner, the author of the critically-acclaimed play Angels in America, which Oskar Eustis directed for the Eureka Theatre Company, San Francisco. Kushner’s work is brilliant, and it critiques in every line the ideas that societies take for granted.

Angels in America

Now the thing I like about the USA (there’s plenty I dislike too, so pay attention) is that democracy works, for the most part, there. Or perhaps it would be more accurate is that democracy is given room to work — many American citizens seem to miss the point of their freedom, and spend plenty of time and money trying either to curb other people’s (such as in the banning and burning of books from schools, the banning of public prayer and the like, or — most sinister — the making of legal exceptions against rights to privacy and speedy justice and the like for people who are not American citizens). Be that as it may, democracy can thrive in the US if people want it enough. And Tony Kushner wants it.

His epic play (it’s a single play, split into two movements) examines a whole sweep of things, and for me to try and say what it’s about would be futile. Suffice to say, though, that it examines the deaths from AIDS of two gay men. One of them’s Prior Walter, an everyday, ordinary gay guy, who begins the play happily when he gets his diagnosis, living pretty monogamously with his lover, who’s out and living with his homosexuality in New York, where there’s room for it. The other the closeted, hatemongering Republican lawyer Roy Cohn, who is also dying alone from AIDS. The two men move towards death through a series of visions/hallucinations/visits from otherwordly beings — Prior Walter by the Angel of the title, along with a series of his ancestors, all of them also bearing the name Prior Walter (it’s an ancient family name), and Roy Cohn by Ethel Rosenberg, whose death he was responsible for.

But enough about that; if you’re interested in the play, you can check out the HBO Miniseries version of it and see it for yourself. My point is what Eustis had to say about theatre and democracy.

Both, he says, are inventions of the ancient Greeks and both were invented in the same decade. Leaving aside the ethnocentrism of that idea for the moment, the fact that one group of people formalized both around the same time is remarkable; it’s possible to suggest that there’s a connection between the two. The Wikipedia article to which I linked (and I always tell my students not to rely on Wikipedia articles, because they aren’t guaranteed to be either accurate or unbiased, but never mind) points out a far deeper origin to theatre, one which I would be inclined to accept. The point is, though, that the kind of Western theatre tradition that we in the Caribbean have half-adopted as our own is one that’s all about characters — people — in crucial positions. To succeed, that kind of theatre does indeed depend on empathy. And Eustis is claiming that empathy is fundamental to the practice of democracy as well.

I think I agree. That should come as no surprise to anybody, considering that I’m a playwright and a theatre enthusiast, but I do believe that there is something both powerful and transformative about being in the same space with people who are telling big and epic stories. Theatre is similar to, but different from film, in that the very democratic nature of theatre requires the actors to tell their stories again and again, fresh every time, to different sets of people, without a mediator, whereas film is ultimately the creation of a director. The democratic difference should be evident there. When the director retires from the production the play is set in motion, and it is owned from there on by the performers and technicians, by the whole team that brings it all together, all the time, all at the same time as the audience. But the director (and, of course, the producers) never retires from the film. When the film is finished, it is the director’s — not the writer’s or the actors’, though the actors can make a big impression — it’s the director’s because the director picks what parts of the actor he wants to show.

Lorca, too, appeared to have a similar feeling about theatre. He wrote the following about the place of theatre in the creation of nations:

A nation that does not support and encourage its theatre is — if not dead — dying; just as a theatre that does not capture with laughter and tears the social and historical pulse, the drama of its people, the genuine color of the spiritual and natural landscape, has no right to call itself theatre; but only a place for amusement.



3 thoughts on “Theatre and Democracy (a meditation)

  1. very interesting article, lucidly written. I felt as if I’m sitting next to you and you are sharing
    your feelings and thoughts with me-a democratic situation indeed! Theatre is a mode of participatory democracy, true. But of late the street censorship- (the hoologans in fact-)
    has endangered the very existence of theatre in Maharashtra (India) that I belong to and where I do theatre. Besides, what about the Dictator directors in theatre? And what about the contracters of plays who work on the principle of Demand and supply and in a way stifle the theatre? –Any way admittedly such thoughts are the outcome of your article! I would like to have interaction with you. Thanks!-Madhav Vaze, Pune, India.

  2. very interetin article, lucidly written i felt as if I was sitting next to you and you shared your thoughts and feelings onthis subject; a democratic situation indeed. However what about the Dictator Directrs? and the Street censorship? Of late in Pune city,(Maharashtra-India) where I do theatre, the street ciensorship(hooligans) seems to stifle theatre, under the name of Democracy.I would like to interact with you on theatre, which is yor first love.Thanks!-Madhav Vaze, Pune City, India

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