Theater is political, say Brecht, Aristotle, and Augusto Boal. Shakespeare’s plays, even those that aren’t histories with war and treachery involved have a larger theme relating to society. I would even say that all theater is about the society as it presents itself, and the way an audience empathizes with the performances and walk away with their own impressions of the narrative as it is presented is inherently political. How do relationships with loved ones manifest themselves within the society which has built itself? That may be a more Brechtian interpretation of humanity - as beings shaped more by their environment than by their inner soul. Recently I’ve had a couple of conversations about human beings and the way they are shaped by hormones rushing through their body and by the electrical impulses in their mind. If those electrical impulses are shut off in any way, ones senses disappear just the same as if the hand, ear, or eye were removed on its own. If hormones are changed, ones emotional state does as well. I always prefer to think of myself as an individual with freedom and choices pertaining to how I interact with the world. But there are restrictions: debts to be paid, rent owed, jobs to demand attention, and pandemics which limit the engagement that people can have with each other. It is always easier to change ones behavior and opinions to suit the dominant culture. “Don’t rock the boat,” as the idiom goes. I am someone who can find it difficult to do so myself. The person who behaves in that manner is never the protagonist that Thespis created millennia ago, or the detailed antagonist that came about far later. Concerning dramatic narrative Aristotle has some interesting thoughts as to how situations are viewed by people when occurring to a good or bad person.
“We assume that, for the finest form of Tragedy, the Plot must be not simple but complex; and further, that is must imitate actions arousing fear and pity, since that is the distinctive function of this kind of imitation. It follows, therefore, that there are three forms of Plot to be avoided. (1) A good man must not be seen passing from happiness to misery, or (2) a bad man from misery to happiness. The first situation is not fear-inspiring or piteous, but simply odious to us. The second is the most untragic that can be… it does not appeal either to the human feeling in us, or to our pity, or to our fears. Nor, on the other hand, should (3) an extremely bad man be seen falling from happiness into misery. Such a story may arouse the human feeling in us, but it will not move us to either pity or fear; pity is occasioned by undeserved misfortune, and fear by that of one like ourselves; so that there will be nothing either piteous or fear-inspiring in the situation. There remains, then, the intermediate kind of personage, a man not pre-eminently virtuous and just, whose misfortune, however is brought upon him not by vice and depravity but by some error of judgement, of the number of those in the enjoyment of great reputation and prosperity…” (Poetics, Aristotle, chapter 13)
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to be brought by a charming, intelligent, and radical lady to a Theater of the Oppressed workshop. I often look back on it for a variety of reasons. Sometimes I think about the influence art has on society, and sometimes I ponder the methods it used in performance. I found that many of those styles lend themselves to a means of addressing social issues more peacefully, but now I wonder if that was in actuality a side effect. The whole purpose may have been to awaken the spectators of the world to the impact they can have on it themselves, if they dare to participate. Many have participated in a variety of ways over the last few years.
I believe most of our media consumption is crafted to influence the behavior of the populace who watches it. Is it possible that these wealthy individuals have a goal with what is put out for consumption in the world? Noam Chomsky seemed to believe that we were not free in our opinions but instead that Manufactured Consent was the norm, and the CIA seemed to confirm it with the declassified Project Mockingbird. Of course, the question is whether they can still do it today with the wide variety of means to sit back and spectate either online or with the standard television - from YouTube to Netflix to Hulu to CNN to FOX (if I were to only name a handful of video platforms).
“[Empathy’s] mechanism (sometimes insidious) consists in the juxtaposition of two people (one fictitious and another real), two universes, making one of those two people (the real one, the spectator) surrender to the other (the fictitious, the character) his power of making decisions. The man relinquishes his power of decision to the image.” (Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal, pg 113)
In Augusto Boal’s book he traces the history of theater as it grows from the chorus to a protagonist to the medieval passion plays to more concrete characters to audience interaction. He further notes a change from a drive of catharsis as the Greeks wanted to a Brechtian Epic form which leaves the social issues unresolved. This in turn asks the audience what they can do about the environment they have found themselves in. Augusto Boal goes a step further with his invisible theater and his simultaneous dramaturgy. Both engage the public in the performance more directly, and ask what they would do to change the situation presented.
“The poetics of the oppressed is essentially the poetics of liberation: the spectator no longer delegates power to the characters either to think or act in his place. The spectator frees himself; he thinks and acts for himself! Theater is action!” (Theatre of the Oppressed, Boal, pg 155)
Sometimes people act before considering the consequences, just thinking that the world itself isn’t the utopia that it could be. Utopia may not be possible. After all, human beings are fallible, and full of selfish desires. I find that it is through engagement with ones community that one can make ones life better. When one reaches outside of that to shape the world, it seems to be in a violent manner. I’m thinking now of political interventions in Latin America and the Middle East. “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” as Carl von Clauswitz has said. I would rather continue the exploration of policy by compromise within a community.