Friday, August 04, 2006

Heat Exhaustion and Agitprop

Well, the electricity has gone out in my hotter-than-all-hell apartment building for the second night in a row (just when it's time to go to sleep), so I'm in a crankier mood than usual right now. I was going to write something about the concept of theatre as junk food, but I'm afraid that, due to a lack of any decent sleep (seriously, folks, I live in a freakin' oven), I forgot my notes on the subject, so it'll have to wait until Monday.

For now, I'll point you in the direction of an excellent article by John Heilpern in The New York Observer that Matt Freeman has brought to his readers' attention on effective versus ineffective political theatre, a subject that I had griped about a couple years back (due to the glut of leftist agitprop theatre taking place in the Off-off world a couple years back).

Mr. Heilpern sums up my thoughts on the subject quite nicely when he writes:

"Who today remembers Tim Robbins' anti-war docudrama, Embedded? But then, who remembered it two minutes after the curtain came mercifully down? Mr. Robbins' smug sanctimony was enough to turn a liberal Democrat into a right-wing Republican [Emphasis mine] ...Remember, no Lysistrata ever stopped a war. No play or work of art ever changed the world. They change the way we perceive the world."

The line I boldfaced sums up my big problem with this kind of theatre. It not only preaches to the choir, it turns off and alienates said choir.

(Yes, I've seen a few leftist political plays pre-2004, which only succeeded in making me want to re-elect Dubya just to piss off the people who made the show. I'm not sure if this speaks to how ineffective this kind of theatre is or how much of a jerk I am, but I just figured I'd bring it up.)

Although it can be (and is) argued that all theatre is political, when I hear a play described as being "political," to my ears, I hear "agitprop," "didactic" or "activist," which I'm not a fan of. Considering that this type of theatre's primary goal is to change the voting habits of the audience, it rarely, if ever, works (Vaclav Havel notwithstanding).

(Lighting designer and fellow theatre blogger Lucas Krech has written about this in his blog. In his entry entitled "Risk and Failure," he succinctly writes:

"It is not enough to look at where we are. It is not enough to explore the status quo. And in a way this is why a lot of overtly political art fails (in a bad way) for me. It leaves no room for further exploration. There is no question. Didacticism is rarely interesting. Brecht is not interesting because he proved that Capitalism is bad. He is interesting because in each of his works there is a question."

I heartily agree.)

Anyway, give Mr. Heilpern's article a read. It's not all negative; he does point out how and where political drama has succeeded and can succeed.

I do hope the electricity in my place is back and running by the time I get home tonight, although I'm not exactly holding my breath. I guess I'll just be staying in air-conditioned bars all weekend. Join me?

Advocating getting my electricity back,

James "Provocateur" Comtois


Anonymous sgridley said...

Is your power still out? You should come on over to my place! We have AC!

I'm not sure if you know, but I used to be Mormon. Anyway, I have a point... My mother is an artist and she was in a group once that tried to answer the question, "Why arn't there any good mormon artists?" The reason they came up with was the same that you quoted. Because Mormons think they have all the answers. Their art doesn't ask any questions. It answers them and the answers seem awfully insufficient. I feel exactly the same about political theatre most of the time.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Jamespeak said...

Yes, fortunately, my power is back on. Apparently ConEd showed up sometime during the workday on Friday and replaced the fuses. But thanks, Steve! I'm sure I'll still be coming by at some point to enjoy some AC that doesn't make the lights in the kitchen dim.

I did in fact know that (you had mentioned it to me during the run of "Still-Life (With Runner)"). You had also mentioned (after seeing "What the Thunder Said") the weird fact that Mormons not only don't like plays that challenge their views, but don't particuarly like plays that cater to or flatter their views (i.e., there's no "Mormon Theatre").

I agree, that seems to be the main problem with political theatre; there's no interest in setting up a "debate." The opposing viewpoint is set up as a Straw-Man and not taken seriously.

(Obviously, the scene in Nervous Boy where the hero goes to the highbrow cocktail party and expresses his dismay at the santimonious liberals mirrored my ambivalence towards the theatremakers I've known who believe that they're going to "change the world" as soon as their audiences stop being so stupid and start fully-capitulating to their arrogant worldviews.)

I'm more on the liberal side myself, but like the Mormons, I don't have much interest in seeing something that flatters my worldview or congratulates me on having the right opinion. Unlike the Mormons, I don't (by any stretch of the imagination) think I have all the answers.

12:26 PM  

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