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gift 03 / 2011
9 Notes on the Making of a Political Cycle by Yosi Wanunu/toxic dreams

The following notes serve as a road map to our current political cycle; but before you start reading the heady stuff, a quiz: Which of the Marxes is more of an anarchist? Karl, who said, „It is inevitable that the oppressed classes will rise up and throw off their chains.” Or Groucho, who said, „outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

So, if you look for some illuminating light in these notes, you follow the wrong dog.


Political theater is often described as an effect, a side effect, perhaps, of the thematic content of the drama. As though explicitly ‚ideological‘, tendentious thesis dramas were needed for an openly political theater. Yet, like the drama, theatrical performance already occupies an ideological field, a field often independent from the claims of the texts it brings to the stage. Modern political theater is distinctive only in the degree to which it is an openly rhetorical, interested production of the drama, working against the naturalized ‚objectivity‘ of theatrical realism. The politics of political theater emerge not only in the themes of the drama but more searchingly in the disclosure of the working of ideology in the making of meaning in the theater, in the formation of the audience's experience and so, in a manner of speaking, in the formation of the audience itself. Any theatrical rhetoric provides the terms and procedures that enable us to interpret the performance; stage rhetoric implicitly ‚qualifies‘ us, attributes qualities to us as spectators that we provisionally assume in order to undertake appropriate (‚qualified‘) participation in its entertainment. The theater frames our interpretive activity and so frames ‚who we are‘ as an audience. To redirect a well-known phrase of Louis Althusser, the material conditions of our attendance in the theater are refigured, represented in the ‚imaginary relationship‘ between actors, characters, and spectators. For this reason, modern political theater is only in part about innovations in dramatic style or about initiating action outside the theater. Political theater works to transform the field of theatrical relations, to dramatize the implications of actors and spectators in the social process of the theater and in the representation of the world it at once stages and reproduces.


What is ‚political theatre‘? Usually it means contemporary plays ranging from the journalistic through the ‚commitment‘ play (now not so fashionable) to the ultra-pseudo and obscure. Why are they always so awful? So jejune? Perhaps because it is hard to take seriously pronouncements from those who have never known war, violent death at close hand, extreme deprivation, or even life on the streets.
It can seem impertinent for the privileged to claim that they assert on behalf of those whom they neither know nor seek to know. There is something improper about the well-heeled seeking to represent the disadvantaged; it is an unacceptable invasion of territory. And to write of horrors within living memory, if you are not too sicken, you have to be a paid-up member. Your name must be Pasternak, Havel, Mandela, and Solzhenitsyn. Otherwise you are a scavenger. Fashionable faux-Marxism, the radical chic of the 1970s, was disgusting; of the trashing of the Comédie Françoise in 1968, the best one could feel was how fortunate the young were to be able to play at revolution and not know the vicious shock of the real thing.


There is a division in the Greeks between the social problems and the self-problems that we have to resolve. You can't have Orestes and Oedipus in the same play. You can't have Antigone and Medea in the same play. One also has to recognize that, although the Greeks created the first western democracy, it was a democracy founded on slavery. But while acknowledging the power of the Greek dramatists, what we have to do is find a way of integrating the individual dilemma with the social problem. Even Shakespeare, for all his greatness, can't always do that. You argue that Hamlet's private dilemma is related to his political status as an usurped heir to the throne. But Shakespeare can only solve that by treating Hamlet as a sacrificial victim and bringing on Fortinbras. When Shakespeare wrote his great historical plays, he chucked everything in: nonsense about witchcraft, battle scenes, father – son stuff, pageants, and philosophical introspection. History, the record of facts, was a release for the great heap of images inside him – not a clamp on his imagination. There seems to be a certain prejudice against the pure political writing as if it is narrowing the scope of human experience. The traditional argument against political drama is that it is both reductive and limiting. Surely, any serious dramatist will want to assert proudly: "I don't write about politics, I write about people.“ Behind this lie an assumption that people reveal themselves most profoundly in private, because the things we do at home are the most intense but also the most universal of human experiences, as opposed to the quickly dated particularities of politics. Perhaps the problem is the very term ‚political‘: most often it is used to mean theatre with a left-wing axe to grind. The political artist is suspected of having an agenda and when you try to push your ideas to the viewer’s mind you have no interest in exploration of life true forces And the human-soul. Added to this, there is the fairly mainstream notion that ideas and political theory are limiting for artists, if not downright hostile to talent and the ‚real‘, and that truth springs from the individual, unencumbered by the blinkers of politicking. Only some superior ‚individual experience‘, the tiresome argument goes, can provide the artists with authentic organic matter from which to draw words and images. And yet the fact is that the individual and the cultural values and ideologies of his or her time are intimately and intricately linked. Think chicken and egg. Why should we divorce these elements from one another? Clearly, the facile opposition between the political and the poetic, as it were, makes no sense.


„All theater is political if it engages you“, Edward Albee said in a 2005 speech. „If more people took theater seriously ... we'd have different election results.“
But that's the problem. Most people don't take theater seriously. Even those who regularly attend do so more for kicks than because they're looking for a kick in the ass. Despite theater companies' good intentions, how much of the work produced this year (or, indeed, any year) can hope to make an impact beyond merely showing audience members a good time? All too often, theater fundamentally fails to engage audiences because it plays up to — rather than challenges — their expectations. Every now and again, someone will ask why the theater, given the largely liberal audiences the art form tends to attract, doesn't produce more right-wing plays as a means to shake people up and engender debate. But playing devil's advocate isn't the answer. When recently asked this by a Daily Telegraph journalist, Lisa Goldman, the artistic director of Soho Theatre in London, answered: „What would a right-wing play have to offer? Anti-democracy, misogyny, bigotry, nostalgia of all kinds? ... That the slave trade had a civilizing influence? That women should stay in the home? How can you produce innovative art if you basically believe that the past was a better place? In my view, what theatre needs is not more right-wing plays, but better left-wing ones.“
Goldman is absolutely right. Many theater artists understand the need to provoke audiences. But in attempting to challenge expectations, these artists frequently forget that they're supposed to be producing works of art rather than pieces of didactic rhetoric.


It is almost impossible to do the political cycle without dealing with Brecht, perhaps the writer that is most associated with the question of how to combine politics and theatre. Our intention, however, is not to stage a Brecht play, but to create a show that deals with his ideas, theory and influence.
Brecht's originality lies in his varied and systematic interrogation of the rhetoric of realism, of the theoretical possibility of the materials of stage production and how they might be retrained in the work they perform. Recognizing that the „bourgeois theatre emphasized the timelessness of its objects,“ and that its „representation of people is bound by the alleged ‚eternally human‘,“ Brecht sought everywhere to suspend the identification between theatrical behavior and the universal, the natural, and the human qualities it claimed to represent. As a result, Brecht's stage theory earnestly unravels the body of identifications characteristic of realistic performance. Brecht's „radical separation of the elements“ unbinds the „realistic“ relationship between actor and character, stage and setting, individual and spectator, and so calls into question the transparency of realistic production, the objective interpretation it enables, and the unconstructed freedom of the audience. In Brecht's theater, „What the audience sees in fact is a battle between theatre and play.“ Dialecticizing theatrical activity and dramatic action, Brecht fashions the absent, voyeuristic spectator of the realistic theater as an agent of the production. In terms of acting, this battle pits the demonstrative aspect of performance against realistic empathy, or Stanislavskian „emotion memory,“ as justifying the relation between the character, the actor's performance, and the spectator's attention. This model of acting also alters the relationship between stage and audience, similarly transforming the audience's activity into a kind of guest: an apparently private or individual behavior shown in its public determinants and consequences.
But it is the question of the private versus the public that is of special interest to us, how is this privacy the effect of public activity, the product of theater and society?
To carve a place for political theater has required the most delicate negotiation of Brecht, because the private freedom of the spectator is the political theater's principal point of attack. In practice, the rhetoric of political theater has worked to stage the spectator's performance as part of the point of the spectacle. If Stanislavski urges actors to work towards a feeling of „I am“ in performance, Brecht's actor asserts a vigorous „I am not.“ If you make the same analogy to the audience role, then Stanislavski asks the audience to pretend that „they are not“ in a theatre, they are not spectators; while Brecht asks them to acknowledge, “We are" in the theatre and we are active participants in the show. Brecht requires a public performance from his audience, one that responds both to the fictive life of the dramatic character and to the material reality of the actor's performance. In a way, Brecht's politicization of the audience performance in the theatre is, finally, in transforming the field of theatrical relations in realistic theatre by asking the theatre to subject its own rhetoric to scrutiny.
As Roland Barthes suggests, „in order to ‚humanize“ Brecht, the theoretical part of his work is discredited or at least minimized: the plays are great despite Brecht's systematic views on epic theater, the actor, alienation, etc.: here we encounter one of the basic theorems of petit-bourgeois culture, the romantic contrast between heart and head, between intuition and reflection, between the ineffable and the rational – an opposition which ultimately masks a magical conception of art.“ Indeed, while the Brechtian mode provides the style of choice for many recent playwrights – bare stage, episodic structure, and rapid shifts in tonality, de-emphasis on naturalistic psychology – its rhetorical implications have met with the kind of resistance that Barthes outlines. The political theater's open designs on the spectator move directly against the realistic theater's fiction of a disinterested, free subject, the empowered privacy of the consuming audience. As Edward Bond argues, „Political subjects in themselves do not make political theatre . . . you can have a play dealing with racism, or sexism, or fascism, and if that subject is dealt with in, let's say, an Ibsen-like way, then the audience is left with nothing to do in working on the problem; you might just as well read about the subject in a newspaper. That is not political theatre.“


The resurgence of the theatre of facts is perhaps suggestive of a deeper problem for writers, namely that modern life in its unimaginable complexity seems to defy invention itself. The convention-bound play, assembling representative characters in symbolic spaces to rehearse the concerns of the hour, looks as capable of capturing the zeitgeist as a fishing net is of landing a blue whale. So where does this leave writers committed to the truth of fiction?
The theatre of facts offers a necessary challenge to writers to embrace contemporary life, and proves the stage is one of the few public places where complex stories may be told. However, the writer's imagination should be chastened, but not defeated, by actuality; in a world flooded with information, its task remains to reveal the facts behind the facts.


Documentation, at least in the theatre, is by its nature a strictly verbal affair.
The docu-theatre forgoes image and scene, its narratives unfold in indeterminate space and time; it chooses to tell rather than show. It is about ‚telling true stories‘ on a stage and the fact that the audience knows that those stories are ‘true’ is essential to the process of viewing. In that sense documentary theater is not that far from realistic theatre in its need to create a so called ‚like life’ feeling in the viewers mind. But while the realistic theatre asks the audience to forget the fact that they are audience, documentary theatre asks them to view the proceedings with a detached objectivity.
In much the same way that a documentary film weaves together fragments of cinematic evidence to create a non-fiction story, the documentary play locates its dramatic text in language recorded from real life. Interview and court trial transcripts, print media articles and broadcast transcripts, recordings of live speeches and public hearings – all these sources of the contemporary spoken word can be used to create a script about actual rather than imaginary, events. The problem being asking the audience to accept the objectivity of the materials ignore the facts that those who make documentary theatre interrogate specific events, systems of belief, and political affiliations precisely through the creation of their own versions of events, beliefs and politics by exploiting technology that enables replication; video, film, tape recorders, radio, copy machines, etc. So is the actual real or just a collection of found text made imaginary? Even when the theatre uses ‚real people‘ using their own text in a non-theatrical setting, the objectivity factor is far from clear.
The act of reproduction, putting ‚real‘ text or real events into a play, will always be an act of violation. It will always be about putting things out of context, choosing parts of text, speech, and documents and putting them together to serve this or that ideology/point of view. It is a brutal act even when the intentions behind it are innocent or for the common good. Avoiding it is impossible, one can never rise above this brutal act of appropriation, it is ingrained in thought and language, and in the operation of theatre. For us it is important to call attention to this subjective and manipulative act in order to make the passive and silent spectator aware of his/her complicity with the act of violation, to implicate him/her in an exploitative and voyeuristic act. Too often the audience get away too easy, partly because political theatre has a tendency to preach to the converted, it is always them that are at fault; the them, by the way, is all the people that are not in the theatre that evening.
One has to make it increasingly difficult for the viewer to retain a critical objectivity. Right now it is too easy to watch a show about child labor in the third world and at the same time buy all the new gadgets manufactured by those same children, the viewer does not make the personal connection, he /she remains outside the documented events. So if documentary theatre is only about passing the information what is the difference to journalism, besides the fact that theatre can make the documents sound a bit sexier and less dry than the newspapers.


There are many who would claim that performance is ‚inherently‘ political; I disagree with the unequivocal nature of this claim. But I believe that much of performance art engages ethical judgments that can be appropriated for a political purpose by its audience. On the one hand, anything can be politicized. On the other hand, one has to make a distinction as to what, at any moment, is worth being politicized and what is not, and for whom. That, finally, is determined not by political theorizing but by moral judgments. Despite Foucault’s concentration on „micropolitics,“ which fits nicely with so many monological varieties of theatricalized gestures of resistance, to describe something as politically efficacious in critical or positive terms necessarily refers to systems of laws and policies to be made or unmade, or, within civil society, ethical norms to be debated.
My argument may seem to focus more on the performance of politics than the politics of performance, but without an understanding of one, the practice of the other will be more likely to fail in its aims. For people who have lived in totalitarian regimes the phrase „the personal is the political“ has no liberating overtones: it means quite the opposite.
The antirealist avant-garde is not going to reach a broad audience if it fixates on deconstructing performative forms as the primary political act. What is more, if it could reach a broad audience its own integrity would be questioned. The antirealist avant-garde conceives of itself as the cutting edge of political life. But democratic political change cannot take place without the support of a broad audience. Therefore, the antirealist avant-garde, in order to make any real political impact, and not remain in a perpetual self-reifying marginal status, must have some impact upon a mediating form that will translate some of the political impact of the avant-garde’s questionings to a larger constituency. And that form tends to be what it invidiously labels ‚realist.‘
What we honorifically call ‚the political‘ can and does have a broad meaning. Just as with the person who acts out of pure rage for injustice to be acknowledged, without thought of how it is to be redressed, or how she is to gain control over her life except through this momentary expression of rage, so too the monological theatricalized effects of strategic action are going to have impact, but it will be of no use unless they can at some point be transformed into dialogical communicative action, and speak beyond the rhetorical boundaries of their own performers and acolytes.


We live in an infantilized world for much of the time – cushioned by prosperity, only occasionally awakened, as recently by Iraq, into the difficult choices of maturity. Which is not to say that there is never time for direct political drama. In times of incitement, on the edge of violent civic change, there is a demand for the shout. Even here, direct action is usually more relevant than play-acting, however well intentioned. Still, voices are insistent to be heard when despotic regimes crack, when political drama can be more than the preaching to the converted of middle-class theatre.
But politics belong on the platform, in the committee room, on the march. If you believe in it, do it. Contribute, directly, as a citizen. Support and improve structure directly if you're serious. And leave drama to the really dangerous world – the world of the imagination.
There is such a necessity for the expansion of imagination. Perhaps the most political act one can think about nowadays. So, why is so much modern ‚serious‘ drama/text so impoverished, facile, inauthentic and out of touch with the lives of most people? Is it paucity of input – people being exposed to the same stimuli, looking at and listening to machinery instead of one another? Surely the theatre has something to contribute, as antidote if nothing else. So why does the work disappoint? Why do so many ‚full-length‘ plays run short, or lack a second act? Many offer us two sequential one-act plays – the goods laid out on the stall, intentions signaled – and that's it.

Drama is not, as we are often reminded, in the business of offering solutions. But we have, after doing our own day's work, traveled to the theatre and paid to be presented with the puzzle, and we rarely get it. Is this due to commercialism? We certainly don't live in idealistic times, all over careerism rules. Dramatists, in order to be heard, must court and placate directors, who hold the power – and who, being human, have their own scenarios and careers to nurture. These are the days of the business-artist. There is the compulsion to achieve high-profile success – now. It is pagan, anti-art and destructive.
So what should we be doing? Where does the educated, privileged artist put himself or herself in relation to the political? After all, we live in a post imperialist world, at least in the west. We live by the law of contract, and it is an equitable notion. Money talks. The hallowed world of finance was invaded by young, Porsche-driving spies in the 1980s because they could do business. If there is to be political theatre, how should it be? Ibsenesque – the uncovering of social scandal? That belongs to direct action. Possibly, just possibly, there could be a place for the artistic imagination. Sane suggestions. Dreams of possibility embodied in drama. Invitations. Ways to go.

But here we have it. Drama begins where politics and the civic and direct involvement leave off. It inhabits a different territory. And we live in a desert…

Yosi Wanunu: Regisseur und Mitbegründer des Wiener Performancelabels toxic dreams
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